Archive for the ‘The Word Cauldron’ Category

Manybooks Interview!

Thanks to the folks at Manybooks for this opportunity. If you’re interested, a number of my answers go into how I came to write The Witch Awakening and also some news about upcoming releases. Click here for the interview

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How Winter Came to Eden

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Karen Nilsen: Romance, Adventures, and Magic

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How Winter Came to Eden–Excerpt

If you haven’t read The Phoenix Realm series yet, be forewarned this is a spoiler.  It’s from Chapter One of How Winter Came to Eden, the last book in The Phoenix Realm.  I recently had a furlough from one of my day jobs and spent the time writing like a fiend–50,000 words to be exact, which brings the overall total to almost 150,000.  Given the word counts of the last three books, I’ve set myself a goal of finishing the rough draft of this one by May, with the final version coming out sometime in July.  The number 7 is particularly important in this story–one of the major plot points revolves around the number 7, and there are 7 point of view characters.  Since we are now in the year 2017, I would be very sad if I missed the opportunity to publish this book on 7/7/2017, 7/17/2017, or 7/27/2017.  🙂  A little silly I know, but not to the Wylan part of my personality.   He takes numbers very seriously.

All right, here’s the first section of Chapter One, from Avreal’s POV:

I walked on sky here, through pillars of cloud, and my feet felt so light that my heart should have had wings and I should have danced all day and all night.  Instead my heart beat heavily, a listless rhythm to match the quiet patter of my tears, the silent lament of my thoughts.  For endless hours I cried as I stared into Saranay’s mirror, the beautiful chill of her wintry hall freezing me in place.  I prayed silently, exhorted all the deities of all the realms, for just one glimpse of my family, one glimpse of Elkanah.

Then all at once they were there:  Elk, Mother, Father, Grandfather, all of them peering through the portal in the waterfall cave—I recognized the pattern of stones behind them.  Grandfather?  So he wasn’t lost for good after all.  His spirit had somehow found its way back home.  The brief warmth of joy, like the sun breaking through snow clouds, sparked through me.  Then it was gone as I met Elk’s eyes, night flames to smolder across the vast eternity between us.  Our babe kicked under my hand, sensing her father’s longing for our return.  Then I noticed Mother had been crying, noticed how Father kept his arm tight around her shoulder, his face the grim mask of a gray hawk . . . The patina of vast distance silvered their edges, rendered them hazy and unreal, figures in a portrait from long ago and far away.  Yet, like the figures in a portrait, I could touch their likeness if not their actuality.  I tried to grasp Elk’s fingers, a futile gesture, silently telling him how sorry I was, hearing his answer clear across the realms.  *You did such to rescue Dominic—do not be sorry.  I understand, sweet bird.  We will find a way to get you back . . .

Then they vanished, and I might have collapsed in a fit of weeping, might have flailed at the mirror with ineffectual fists, if not for the worry it would scare my babe.  Unborn she might be, but unaware she was not.  She moved just as much as the twins had, responded to things just as the twins had, her spirit communing with mine in these months before her birth.  I wanted to protect her as much as I could, as long as I could.  When I considered her, I bitterly regretted what I had done.  But then Dominic would have ended up here—for keeps.  It had been such an impossible choice . . .

“It is because your grandfather opened the door to that realm briefly when he reentered it.  That is how you were able to see through,” Saranay said behind me, and my shoulders jerked.

For the first time in what seemed like days, I turned away from the mirror.  “How long have you been there, spying?  And how long . . .”  Then I trailed off, gaping at her, grabbing my throat as I realized what had just happened.

Her creepy eyes, silvery-purple as winter twilight, widened.  “Avreal, you just spoke.”

I nodded and tried to say I know—now use the spell to show me my family again, you wicked, evil, no-good battleaxe.  But all that emerged from my throat was a wordless wail that faded to a pitiful peep and then to nothing.  D*** it.  My voice seemed forever lost.  Of course, aside from the obvious frustration of not being able to fully communicate, the loss of it here might not be such a bad thing.  If Saranay wanted me to utter spells, for instance.

She sighed.  “And now it is gone again.  You vex me, stubborn child.”

I shrugged and raised my brows to show how little her vexation bothered me.

“Watch it, Avreal.  I can put you to sleep until you hatch the chick.”

Now I narrowed my eyes and fisted my hands, daring her to try it.  I knew she wouldn’t, no matter how much she threatened.  I knew she wouldn’t because she had tried her sleeping spell on me when I had first arrived, and it hadn’t worked then.  Then she had tried some other enchantment, spoken in a strange tongue, and that had failed too.   Hidden in the pocket of my clasped fingers, I ran my thumb over the slight ridge of my parents’ troth ring.  It traveled with me always, even when I shifted between bird and woman, and it had traveled with me here.  I suspected its power protected me from Saranay’s spells, a power that seemed to have increased in this realm.  After all, Elk, as Saranay’s emissary, had cast spells on me in our realm, and they had worked—to a slight degree.  However, even in our realm, there had always been chinks in the successful spells cast by proxy, places where the ring’s power had shone through.  I had woken up early from her sleeping spell, for instance, the night Elk had kidnapped us.  When Elk had made me particularly angry, I had managed to shoot sparks at him.  It surprised me that Saranay hadn’t guessed at the ring’s circle of protection.  But then she had never understood nor would understand the power of the love that ring symbolized.

Saranay touched my arm then, and I jerked back with a shiver.  Her touch was cold, cold as a winter corpse.  She showed no response to my aversion, just regarded me steadily with those twilight eyes.  “Come, you need rest.  You have been here for hours.”

Only hours? I mouthed in disbelief.  I thought it had been days, weeks even I had stood before the mirror, sifting through the endless play of images for a glimpse of my family.

Saranay smiled, a patient she-wolf humoring her prey.  “I am sure it felt longer to  you—you are still thinking in mortal hours, mortal days.  Indeed, a mortal fortnight has passed in your realm since you departed it.  Time passes there like a raging cataract, a tumult of mortal energy—they must fit so much into their brief, busy lives.  Here time passes much more slowly, one drop for every hundred there.”

My mouth dropped open and stayed that way, dumb shock freezing me in place.  Dear God.  What if I was here for a year?  Would that be a century in my realm?  Nic-Nic, Kelene, Eden—all of them would be long gone.  And Muriel and Jukar would be fully grown.  I would miss their entire childhood.

Saranay seemed to sense my dismay and its cause.  “See?  It is pointless for you to even consider escape.  By the time you might discover the spell to reenter your realm, most of those you love will no longer be there.”

Except my parents, Elkanah, Venessa, the twins—of course she didn’t mention them.  I almost rolled my eyes at her thoughtless, ham-fisted cruelty, at how she seemed to think she could manipulate me like I was a child still.  Like I was Nisroch.  She should have known better by now, but clever as she was, she was blind in one important respect:  she possessed little understanding of the subtlety of adult emotions.  To her, with her distant, long-range vision of the centuries in many realms, us humans must have seemed to glow all primary colors, red passion, yellow fear, blue melancholy.  She had likely never gotten close enough to us to detect the full spectrum of tints and shades in between the basic hues, not even close enough to Nisroch’s father.  From her perspective, he had only been here for the briefest of spans in her endless existence, a tool soon discarded when his usefulness abated with age.

My babe (Tahira, though Elk still hadn’t settled on that name even if I had) kicked me then, and I grabbed my taut belly, feeling her movements under my skin.  That was one benefit—the slow passage of hours here might buy my family more time to discover a way to get me home before her birth.  If what Saranay had said was true about several weeks passing in the mortal realm, I would have been seven months along there by now.  However, here I was still only six months into my pregnancy and would remain that way for awhile—at least from my realm’s perspective.

Saranay misinterpreted the reason for my hand rubbing my belly, rubbing it like one might rub a lamp, hoping for a genie to emerge.  “You are thinking of your children, of Muriel and Jukar?” she inquired.  Well, she wasn’t wrong about that—even when the twins weren’t in the forefront of my mind, they were always in the background, had been since before their birth and would be forevermore.

So I nodded, waiting for what rotten manipulation she might utter next.  Even though I mentally prepared myself, though, it was impossible to shield my heart from her offer.

“We could bring them here, if you miss them so much.  It would ease your sorrow, perhaps, to have them here with you?”

Oh, what sly nastiness.  Of course it would ease my sorrow.  My heart and arms yearned for my children, a constant ache and worry for their well-being.  But Saranay had miscalculated yet again.  A child would have demanded her babies immediately.  But I was not a child, hadn’t been for a long time when it came to the twins, even though I had only been sixteen when they were born.  Even then, I would have realized the folly wrapped up and hidden in her pretty words.  Much as I wanted Muriel and Jukar with me, I would be d****d before I gave her permission to bring them here.  I loved them far too much to let them anywhere near this icy sorceress, at least willingly.  God knew what Saranay would do with them.

So I shook my head, a decisive, swift cut of air, and Saranay sighed again, apparently disgusted with my waywardness in her languid way.

“Why did I even bother asking?” she queried.  “I do not need your permission, but I considered it courtesy to ask.  My courtesy is wasted upon you, it seems.”

I nodded, then glared at her back as she turned away.  Empty threats—even if I had wanted Muriel and Jukar here, she couldn’t touch them.  First, she would have had to convince Nisroch or some other emissary to seize the twins on her behalf.  Then that hypothetical emissary would have a devil of time breaching the heightened protection Elk and my parents had surely cast around the twins in the wake of my disappearance.  So there, Saranay!  I thought in her direction with the force of a punch.  She faltered in her perfect glide, just a little stumble, so small I would have missed it if I’d blinked.  But still a stumble.  I paused, suddenly unable to catch my breath—shock had stolen the very air from my lungs.  Had I really just done what I thought I’d done?

As if to confirm my wild suspicious, Saranay glanced over her shoulder at me.  Her gaze seemed thoughtful, though the last thing I should do was fall in the trap of assumption where this tricksy sorceress was concerned.

“You felt your power, yes?” she asked, and assumption became certainty.

I nodded, and she smiled, a thin icicle of a smile.

“That is but a taste of the power you could have here.  You could kill me with a thought if you wanted.”

She had my attention.  I stared at her and realized then how often I was tempted to blink or look away from her chilly, inhuman beauty.  Much as I might long to, I didn’t dare glance away now.

She continued, “You can claim this power at any time.”  Then she paused, drawing it out so long I almost bounded forward to shake it out of her.  Immortal I might be, but like my father, I suffered from the insane itch of mortal impatience.

There had to be a catch—what was the catch?  I lifted my hands finally in a gesture of What?

“Without claiming this power, there is no way you can return home or go to any other realm from here.”  Then she paused again, clearly relishing my eagerness for an answer.


“The only way you can claim it is to lower your defenses.  The circle of protection you have somehow cast around yourself may seem a shield to you now, but it is really a self-imposed prison.  As long as you shield yourself, you block your own ability to perform what you would call magic here.”  She twirled, graceful as a swirl of falling snowflakes, and walked along a corridor of white pillars so high they seemed to join together in the hazy distance far overhead, a trick of perspective, as Sewell or Mother the artists would say.  I wondered suddenly what Wylan would make of the architecture, the mathematics of such a place.  Then I choked over these thoughts of my family and hurried along after Saranay, trying to remain stoic.  I couldn’t reveal to her how much it tempted me to heed her and remove my parents’ troth ring if it would give me a chance to strike at her.  If it would give me a chance to return home.  I couldn’t succumb to that temptation.  That was just what she wanted me to do.

I followed her, not because I wanted to or had to—after all, she hadn’t forced me, just said that I needed rest, a point I wouldn’t argue with.  Exhaustion and sorrow deadened my limbs, each footstep so heavy it seemed like I had walked across an eternity to travel here.  But I didn’t dare rest, not yet.  I feared what might happen to me if I let down my guard.

No, I followed her because I knew I should—I needed to learn everything I could about this place, to see for myself if what she said about my power here was the truth, and if it was, figure out how to escape without leaving myself and Tahira vulnerable to her.

The corridor opened to a giant hall, as vast in length and breadth as the corridor had been in height.  Dizziness briefly overtook me, and I stopped, sagging against a pillar as I closed my eyes against the physical impossibility of this place.  It mirrored the infinity of eternity in a way that my home did not, and it overwhelmed me.

When I finally opened my eyes at a faint rustling, I almost shut them again.  Tall, slender shapes surrounded me like a hundred willow branches.  A hundred supple branches, swaying in a slight spring breeze.

“The source of the power I sensed,” murmured one of the willow-wand forms, resolving herself from the others when she drifted forward.  She stood slightly taller than Saranay with the same silky catkin-colored tresses flowing around her shoulders, the same silvery-violet eyes, the same amber-hued skin.  Her face radiated curiosity and interest—and kindness, too, though of a detached quality, a distance that left me baffled even as she reached out and stroked my cheek.  “So much mortal vigor, yet she is as immortal as we are,” she marveled.

“A phoenix, you say?”  This voice thrummed on a lower register—a man’s voice, I thought, though the designations of male and female didn’t seem to fit these . . . beings.  One felt the enormity of all the mortal years they had existed, an enormity of time that ironed out the differences between them, even the difference of gender.  It didn’t seem to matter so much when one had been around for a hundred thousand lives of humans and witnessed the rise and fall of many civilizations.

I glanced up—and up some more—to behold a narrow, ageless face peering down at me.  He reminded me a bit of Lord Rankin without the beard or the wrinkles.  He shook his head, a slow, vaguely disgruntled movement.

“You should not have taken her from her realm, Saranay,” he said, looking toward my captor.  “To bring another immortal here, especially one so young, one with child no less–such an action defies our law.  And how did you break the warding around her realm to bring her here?”

Saranay shrugged.  “She is one of those rare immortals who lost her mortality at such a young age, months before her birth, that her spirit is most pliable, and the normal chains that bind immortals to their respective realms do not bind her.  She slips around the hard steel boundaries between the realms like water, flowing as a mortal soul does after death through all fences.  I know I should not have done it, but since I lost Nisroch’s father, I have longed for the ring of mortal laughter, the sting of mortal tears, the life of mortal feeling waking up this arid place.  She possesses all the charm of mortality without the sorrow of mortal death.  Such a pet is a rare find, do you not agree?”

They nodded, all of them, even the one who I thought might be my champion, the one who reminded me of Lord Rankin.  Worst of all, the woman who had touched my cheek said, a subtle miasma of greed and envy souring her high, perfect voice, “What will you do with her child when it is born?  I still have that spell you wanted many eons ago, and we perhaps could reach some agreement for the young one.  I still miss my Helene—it has only been twenty mortal years since she passed to heaven, and her absence has left a terrible hole in my halls.  A baby phoenix, especially one of such vitality and power as this one, would do much to ease my sorrow.”

I jerked back, clutching my belly where Tahira rested, and gaped at them all.  An inky black thunderhead of horror rose inside, blotting out all other thoughts in my mind.  I wanted to scream, but I had no voice, my mouth open in a soundless wail.  Then I wanted to yell and curse at them, but I still had no words.  They burst like bubbles on the edge of my tongue, my throat full of unuttered frustration that leaked out my eyes in the form of hot, angry tears.  Phoenix tears that steamed up into cedar-scented smoke as they trickled down my face.  How dare they treat me this way, haggling over my baby like she was a prize kitten?

They stared back, apparently fascinated by my tears.  “Such a tight bond already between mother and child,” murmured the one who wanted my baby.  “She looks ready to kill for her chick.  Of course, I care for my offspring, but these mortals . . . all the realms, I can feel the energy.  It crackles off her like lightning.  Can you believe it?  She acts as if she understands us.”

“That is because she does.”

“Really?”  The woman’s eyes darkened with seeming unease.  “Why does she not speak then?”

“Something has happened to her voice, and I am not sure how to fix it.  Nor will I yet.  Thank the realms she cannot shift into her bird form so far along in her pregnancy.  She has not accepted her fate, and I do not want to unleash the power of her phoenix voice here until I know what it will do.  And until I am certain she will not use it to retaliate.”

I glared at her.  D*** the day I didn’t use my voice to fry her into oblivion—when it worked again, that was.  But what if she manages to put me under some kind of spell before then?  Sensible Avreal whispered.  My defiance was a good start, but it didn’t mean much if she breached the protection around me.

“You should have stopped me.  Or warned me before you brought her within earshot,” remarked the Eldest woman who wanted my baby as a pet.

“Warned you about what, Titania?”

Titania held up one hand, graceful as a lily swaying in the breeze.  “I did not realize she could understand me.  The mortals usually do not understand, at least at first, and I assumed she would be the same.  I would never have offered to exchange my spell for her baby in front of her if I had known.  It seems to have upset her.”  Titania stroked my cheek with her petal-smooth, cool hand again, and I cringed.  A faint sadness seemed to darken her eyes even more until they gleamed like amethysts.  I had never sensed such compassion from Saranay.  “It is all right.  I am sorry to have upset you,” she said in a low voice, low enough that perhaps she meant only me to hear.  “I wish both you and your baby could come live with me, sing in my forest glade, but it is against our laws.  You belong to Saranay—she saw you first.  Never fear, she will take good care of you.”

The man who had spoken in my defense cleared his throat as if he had his doubts about that.  “Why have you not ensorcelled her yet, Saranay?  Surely it is cruel not to cast the spell of forgetfulness over her?  She will only pine for her home, her family, until you do.  It is our rule with mortals so they do not suffer needlessly.”

“Do you not think I have tried, Orion?”  Saranay began to pace, long, deliberate strides.  “But my spells so far do not work on her.  It is most strange.”

“Then you should send her back,” he replied, just the slightest edge to his voice.  If this was the Eldest version of righteous anger, the Eldest version of fighting, then I was in trouble.  Father would have long since punched them all.  “Such a young phoenix—she looks well-loved.  No wonder she has such protection around her that your spells cannot breach.  She will be missed in her realm.  What of her mate, the one who sired the chick she carries?  It is cruel to separate them—do not phoenixes mate forever in their realm?”

“Nisroch is her mate,” Saranay said.

I shook my head violently, and her gaze flicked ice in my direction.

Orion caught our exchange.  “But you just brought her here—we felt her power enter our realm mere hours ago.  And she is several months into her pregnancy.  You could not have hidden her for so long without us sensing her presence.”

Saranay appeared to consider this carefully, and I wondered at her sudden hesitation.  So far she had had quick answers to their questions.  Perhaps she hadn’t expected any of them to demand that she return me to my realm.  Many of them hadn’t seemed to expect Orion’s demand, as they exchanged glances, a few dulcet whispers passing amongst them like wind through willow leaves.  These beings didn’t seem to have a king or queen in the way I understood leadership, but if I had to guess, I would have said that Orion possessed a certain authority with the rest of them.  Maybe he was the eldest of the Eldest.  There was a phrase to trip up one’s tongue, wasn’t it?

Finally Saranay answered, “It is my own fault.  I should never have succumbed to my desire for Nisroch’s father.”

“Perhaps not, but you are far from the only one among us to be tempted by a mortal, to lie with a mortal.  You are the only one, though, to conceive and bear a half mortal child.”

“Yes.”  Saranay hung her head in a show of shame—at least I knew it was a show.  If I could have spoken, I would scoffed at her poor acting.  However, her fellow Eldest seemed to swallow her act without suspicion.  They accepted her false humility with nods and murmurs of compassion.  Even Orion nodded.  My heart sank like an anchor to the unfathomable depths of a dark ocean, and more tears sizzled down my cheeks.  These d****d Eldest, so complacent, so detached, so civilized.  They had forgotten how to recognize evil in their midst, if they had ever known how in the first place.  Nisroch had confessed once that the mortals considered this place the Garden of Eden.  Well, so far I hadn’t seen any garden, but now I understood what he had meant.  Innocence, completely unspoiled—these beings had no concept of evil because they had never experienced it.  And their lack of experience made them stupid, for all their wisdom.  They were even more innocent than mortal children, who were often surprisingly clear-eyed when it came to sensing evil, sometimes more clear-eyed than the adults around them.  I wondered suddenly what had happened to Saranay to make her different from the other Eldest.  Had she been conceived power-hungry and rapacious, or had a serpent broken into this garden and bitten her, like in the old story?  Whichever it was, one thing was certain.  I was in trouble, and these beings couldn’t help me because they were blind to the threat.

© 2017 by Karen Nilsen

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Fledgling Witch (A Prequel to the Landers Saga) on sale

Dear readers:

If you are coming here for the first time and want to sample the Landers Saga, the novella Fledgling Witch is a good place to start.  The e-book version is currently on sale on some sites and free on others (see links below to the most common distributors.)

Kiss the flame . . . Love defies family, king, religion, even death itself in a skewed Renaissance world of witch burnings, sword fights, and court intrigue. Read how the Landers Saga begins in the prequel Fledgling Witch.

In the wake of her mother’s death, young Safire fights for her footing as an artist and a witch in a world that punishes those who step outside its rigid boundaries. Can she defy the family she loves and still find happiness?

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Sweet October Melancholy

Mom's final resting place

It’s been a particularly fine start to October here in the Appalachians.  I love October–autumn and spring are both seasons of transition, and I love the feeling of constant change in the air this time of year.  I find myself more reflective as a result, caught up in memories both joyful and sad, caught up in the ineffable mystery of time, how the past is now an illusion but once was as real as this moment.  None of us would be here without our pasts.

I know I’ve posted this poem a few times here, but felt the need to re-post.  I scattered Mom’s ashes this time of year, and things keep reminding of her and Dad this year, more so than in some Octobers past.  So here goes . . .


Crossing the Styx

*a reflection on scattering Mom’s ashes at Paradise Beach on Lake Superior

We picked your urn
Not so much for the outside, an elegant cloisonné midnight
But for the inside, the warm turquoise of a robin’s egg
I imagined you surrounded by this blue, the blue of the best summer days, and felt comforted
But like a bird in the egg
Grief changes and grows
Until it needs to hatch
Escape its confines and scatter
Fly away on the wind and explore infinity
We kept you in the egg too long
Our hearts yearning to trap you just as they remembered you
Stopping growth
Stopping grief
Stopping time
Stopping change
A human futility, to imagine we have the power to stop ourselves
The power to stop our surroundings
To stay in the chrysalis
To stay in the womb
To stay in the egg
To stay in the warm safe dark
Long after we have outgrown it
Change happens when we aren’t looking
Infinity steals into our dreams at night, into the cozy darkness of our mortal eggshell
Whispering surrender to the inevitable
Dreams of water and spirit
Water flows everywhere, undermining all barriers to its course
Countless individual drops joining to form a mighty whole
Water is change
Your last dream was of water
The day before you died
You said you sat on the rocky verge, staring across a calm lake
The constant ripples comforting you
With the ever-shifting eternity of their pattern
Your urn was heavier than I expected
A huge egg of grief I carried like a baby
As I trudged along the shore
The pebbles of Paradise Beach ringing in my ears
I woke to life on this beach
My earliest memories of this place
Yours too
You wiled away many joys along Lake Superior
Sketching its infinite moods
Bathing in the rare northern sun
Building stone homes for the spirit people
Now I bring your ashes here to rest
The ashes of the body that once carried mine
Carried the first spark of me
My first mortal home
I now carry
I cry as I look out at the lake
My tears blurring the edge of the silver water from the gray-white sky
Until there is no horizon for my grief
I try to think of a prayer as I open your urn
But the shushing murmur and lap of the waves conversing with the shore
Seems prayer enough
So I remain silent
Struck by the sacred wild of this place
You scatter easily over the water and rocks
Glad to finally hatch
Glad to finally become one with the lake you dreamt of so long ago
You soar out free over the silver ripples
Until your soul rises from your ash and finds its fledgling wings
A single gull’s cry in your endless wake
As you chase the horizon of forever

~Karen Nilsen

copyright 2014

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The In-Between Place everywhere else

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The In-Between Place on Amazon

The In-Between Place loaded faster on Amazon than I expected.  Yay!  I will post more links later as it becomes available on other sites, but for now, here’s the Amazon link:

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The In-Between Place

Only a couple weeks left before I hit the publish button for The In-Between Place . . . here’s the revised cover art . . .

The Ultimate One to Use

And a book description (which I forgot when I posted this the first time) . . .

The Landers have so far foiled the sorceress Saranay’s attempts to lure their beloved bird-girl Avreal to the Eldest Realm.  Desperate and thwarted, Saranay sinks to new lows to gain power over her prey.

Meanwhile, the conniving Spider King, newly apprised of  his granddaughters’ ability to become hawks, threatens to reveal secrets that could plunge Cormalen into civil war if the Landers refuse his demands.

Faced with battle on two fronts, the Landers fight back with all the weapons in their arsenal, both mundane and magical.  However, despite the help of old and new allies, Avreal, Dominic, and their loved ones soon find themselves confronting a terrible sacrifice.

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Mere Mothers

Not quite posted in time for Mother’s Day, unfortunately, due to a slow internet connection.  However, I still want to post this to celebrate all you mothers out there and the hard work you do every day in service to the next generation . . .

When I was a 21-year-old undergraduate, I had the opportunity to research women’s lives in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia with one of my professors, Dr. Debra O’Neal.  Dr. O’Neal and I traveled to Philadelphia and spent a week poring over primary source materials such as journals and letters, all written by women who had been dead for at least 200, sometimes 300 years.  It was an amazing experience to capture hints of personalities, longings, thoughts, and feelings of lives long since lived and seemingly buried by the accumulation of many years, only to be unearthed briefly by me.

However, the most important lesson I learned from this experience didn’t happen in Philadelphia but weeks later, when Dr. O’Neal gave me her critique of the first draft of my research paper.  The subject of my paper was women’s changing attitudes toward housework over the course of the Enlightenment, and I had a sentence in the first draft that started with something like “Wanting to be more than mere wives and mothers, women in the past . . .”  In her quiet, kind way, Dr. O’Neal patiently explained the word “mere” was an insult to all the work women put into being wives and especially being mothers.  Talk about someone feeling small!  I couldn’t believe I had put such a sentence in my paper and immediately deleted it.

I’ve thought about that conversation quite a bit over the years.  The word “mere” had been an unconscious error on my part, the kind of thing writers do all the time when they get on a roll.  Unconscious, however, doesn’t make the error any less telling.  Perhaps more telling, in fact, like a Freudian slip.

See, I had cleaned and cooked all through my adolescence–my parents were self-employed artists, and so my household contributions helped free up their time to make pottery and sculptures to sell, go to art shows, and manage all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into owning your own business.  Also, Dad generally held a full-time job as a finish carpenter while all of this was going on.  We were an incredibly busy family, and my parents and I valued the work that I did to support this, even if it was only “housework.”  However much my family valued my contributions, though, the outside culture did not/does not.  Such work is not honored in the larger culture–it’s not part of our nine-to-five schema, not part of being an ambitious go-getter, not part of being a good feminist widget in the grind of our corporate machinery.  Neither is parenthood.

Much like many corporations have short-sighted goals, always focused on this quarter’s bottom line rather than looking ahead five years, our society seems to have become thoughtless of the long-term impact of our decisions, addicted to the quick fix, addicted to the fleeting pleasures of the here and now.  So many are mesmerized by the soon-forgotten 30-second adrenaline rush of a city blowing up in a movie while bored by the hour and a half of thoughtful story development that came before.   The catchy soundbite has enthralled us with its siren call, and we’re drowning in a shallow sea.

Such as the catchy soundbite of the “kick-ass strong female character.”  If I read one more review mentioning “kick-ass” to describe the heroine of a film or novel, I think I might just poke my eyes out with a spork.  What I believe “kick-ass” means in these reviews is that a woman is able to fight just like or better than her male counterparts.  Now I have no problem with women who are also warriors.  I come from a long line of tough women.  When there was a fire in the flue and everyone else in the family was running and screaming, my ornery Norwegian great-grandmother said serenely, “Just let it burn–it’s the best way to clean the chimney.”  One of my favorite characters in Lord of the Rings is Eowyn.  I like it when women fight.  I like it in stories when women do permanent damage to child abusers and other bad sorts.  I’m a bit Old Testament that way.  I like tough-minded people, whether they be women or men.

However, the phrases “kick-ass” and “strong female character” are tiresome.  As author Sophia McDougall states in her excellent article , these phrases are used to put female characters in a box while other characters are allowed all the agency to bound about and do as they please.  Strength meaning someone who never sheds tears, strength meaning someone who employs physical violence more effectively than everyone else around her, strength meaning someone who has no heart, strength meaning someone who never makes decisions based on emotion because she’s secretly a robot, strength meaning someone who never makes mistakes because she’s not human.  That’s not strength to me.  And such a character isn’t someone I’d want to be friends with, certainly not someone I’d want to spend a whole book reading about or a whole movie watching.

Because of the context of many of these reviews, the phrase “strong female character” implies to me that women aren’t tough enough on their own merits.  That they have to be just like men, ideally men with big boobs in brass brassieres, in order to be considered worthy.  Not only is it ridiculous, but it’s an insult to our mothers, just like I insulted all those mothers in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia by calling them “mere.”  At some point, every single one of us was borne by a woman.  Our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers . . . all risked death so we could be here today, arguing on the internet.  If that’s not real strength, I don’t know what is.

I bet if there were some way to calculate it, just as many women died in childbirth in the Middle Ages as men died in battle during the same time period. Although I’m no longer Catholic, one thing I always appreciated (and still appreciate) about the Catholic Church is its veneration of Mary, the most famous unwed mother on the planet.  On average, women are just as strong in body as men are–we have to be, to give birth. The uterus is a muscle.

Instead of more battle scenes, I want more birth scenes in books. Giving birth is a battle, just of a different sort than what people are used to reading about nowadays, the sort of battle that has the potential to bring life into the world, rather than take it out.


Copyright 2016

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