[Excerpt] Ghost Pirate Gambit

Ghost Pirate Gambit is almost here!

In celebration, I’m posting an excerpt; it occurs a few chapters in, but it’s one of my favorite scenes in the first part of the book, where Raj and Lasadi first officially meet. You can also download the first four chapters for free — no need to sign up for any email lists. 🙂

And don’t forget that through May 30th I’m offering a BOGO (buy one, gift one) deal!

Email me with proof of purchase, and the name and email address of a friend you think would enjoy Ghost Pirate Gambit. I’ll send them a copy for free.

Pick up your copy of Ghost Pirate Gambit today!


Excerpt from Ghost Pirate Gambit

The woman with the blond braid has dropped the service industry facade, but she doesn’t seem worried at being caught red-handed in theft. There’s a sort of feral grace in the way she tensed at his voice; she holds herself like a fighter. Something tells him she’ll struggle almost to the death before accepting captivity — and that she’s done it before.

Her gaze rakes down his body, evaluating; the calculating glint in her smoky brown eyes tells Raj she’s no stranger to getting herself out of a tricky situation.

Oh. And that she’ll write him off as collateral damage in a heartbeat.

She definitely isn’t a member of the catering team. Raj likes being right more when it doesn’t mean a major kink in his plans.

“Stay back,” she hisses. Her fingertips are on the plinth’s control panel, her hand clad in one of those shimmering silver antimicrobial gloves all the catering staff are wearing. “You’ll get us both killed.”

Raj freezes.

“Lasers,” the woman says in explanation. She waves her free hand at the base of the plinth. “They’ll kneecap us both if I screw this up.”

“I knew you weren’t a caterer,” Raj says.

“And I knew you weren’t an investor,” she answers. The bioscanner under her fingertips shifts from threatening red to a soothing green, pulses green a second time, then stays that way. A faint click sounds from the control panel and the forcefield around the obsidian totem dissolves with a sigh. The woman’s shoulders loosen imperceptibly. “But you didn’t turn me in to Sumilang.”

“It wouldn’t have been polite.”

“Polite? It’d fit perfect with the asshole Arquellian act.” She tilts her chin to study him. “Unless it’s not an act.”

And at that he places her accent: Corusca.

Ah. Could be another problem.

Indira’s moon is the newest member of the Indiran Alliance, which includes Arquelle. Only Arquelle is a founding member — and perhaps a touch aggressive when it comes to bringing new countries into the fold. Corusca’s citizens had been split on joining, and Arquelle had pushed, coercing an unpopular decision through the Senate. Frustrations in Corusca led to an Alliance occupation, which led to a viciously effective insurgency, which led to a retaliatory “peace” effort. Which led to Raj’s first command post.

Tensions had spread on both sides, until the deaths of seven hundred and twelve souls aboard a neutral New Manilan medical transport poured fuel on the flames. The resulting Battle of Tannis had been disastrous for everyone involved — but far, far worse for Coruscans.

“Let’s talk this through,” Raj says.

“Nothing to talk about,” the Coruscan woman says. “You walk back out of this room and I won’t tell Sumilang about your grift. We both get what we want.”

“One problem,” says Raj. He may feel bad about the war, but he’s got a job to do. He lifts his chin to the obsidian totem behind her. “I’m here for that.”

She blinks in surprise, but her hesitation doesn’t last long. A flash of decision in her eyes; he tries to move before she does, but she’s too quick. She ducks his arm, snatching the totem as she pivots, an elbow to his ribs as she whirls past.

Raj muffles a groan at the burst of pain in his side, bites back a curse as he lunges after her, acutely aware of the slightest sounds of their scuffle. The party outside the museum hall is loud, but not loud enough.

He catches her arm and spins her off her footing; she nearly drops the totem, but as he lunges for it, she tightens her grip once more and swings it at his head. He ducks, just in time. The breeze it makes passing over his head sets his hair on end.

She wasn’t expecting to miss, and she put a touch too much force into the swing. Just enough that Raj can use her momentum to push her off her footing. She pivots at the last second to avoid hitting another golden plinth — this one topped with a saint’s altar — and Raj tackles her before she can take off running again.

They roll to the floor, barely missing the tray of puff pastries she’d left on the table against the wall, Raj cushioning their fall to keep from making too much noise. She’s wiry, but he’s stronger, and he’s gaining the upper hand. He catches her wrist above her head when she tries to swing the totem at him again, frees the electric barb from his belt with his other hand, and jams it against her temple.

She goes still, chest heaving with breath. Every muscle in her body is tense; he can feel her taut strength pressed against his own. She smells like vetiver, with heady undertones of sweet caramel and brush fire.

Focus, Raj.

“I think I win,” Raj says.

In response, the woman ghosts him a smile and glances down. When he tries to follow her gaze, the cold point of a blade pricks below his chin. The corner of her mouth curls up.

“Try it,” she says.

The electric barb won’t kill her, but if he discharges it into her temple it could do some gnarly things to her wiring. Course, he won’t get far at all if she bites that blade into his jugular. He’s not interested in leaving any bodies behind on this job, but he’s pretty sure she doesn’t have that same hang-up — especially about an Arquellian like him. Either way, she’s faster than him. Even if he was willing to pull the trigger, she could slit his throat before the jolt knocked her cold.

She’s watching him make his decision, a hint of amusement on her lips. Like she’s already solved this particular puzzle and she’s waiting for him to catch on.

Her lips part as though she’s about to speak, then she glances up, eyelashes sweeping wide.

He hears it, too: voices heading towards them.

Raj acts before he can second-guess himself, rolling them both out of sight under the hem of the tablecloth. He keeps his grip on her wrist, the electric barb against her temple. He can still feel the edge of her blade against his throat — only now their positions are reversed and she’s straddling his chest.

The woman gives a startled laugh, then presses her lips shut tight and holds as still as he, waiting for the scuffing heels and muttered complaints of the caterers to pass by. Her professional mask has melted into something more playful, and he revises her age downwards. She can’t be any older than him, despite the experienced way she carries herself.

“What’s your name?” Raj whispers when the caterers have passed. One of the woman’s eyebrows lift, but she doesn’t move the knife from his throat. “I’m Raj.”

“Hi, Raj. I know you’re not going to pull that trigger.”

“And you’re not going to slit my throat.”

“I’m not?”

“You’ve got a buyer for this thing?”

“None of your business.”

“Mine pays top dollar. Tell you what. We work together to get out of this and I’ll make sure you get your share. Fifty-fifty.”

“I kill you, I get one hundred percent.”

“You don’t know how good my buyer’s rates can be. What’s your name?”

The woman snorts a laugh and moves without warning, rolling off him and out from under the table, disappearing in a rustle of tablecloth.

Raj hisses out a curse and scrambles out after her, but the woman’s halfway across the hall by the time he gets to his feet. And — how the hell? — she stole his electric barb.

She glances back to gauge her lead, and that’s why she doesn’t notice him: the burly wall of a security guard stepping around the corner. She runs smack into the guard’s chest and the big man’s hands close around her shoulders like vise grips.

And there’s that animal desperation flashing over her face once more — the wild fear of the trap, the feral instinct to fight her way out even if it kills her.


Download the rest of the sample here, or buy your copy of Ghost Pirate Gambit today!

Ghost Pirate Gambit Sample: Click here to download

Meet the Crew of the Nanshe

I love a good “hiring the crew” montage. 

The uneasy gathering in the warehouse in Ronin. Viola Davis approaching the wives of her husband’s dead crew in Widows. Danny Ocean recruiting his accomplices in Ocean’s Eleven.

As I started writing the Nanshe Chronicles, I lived through my own crew-hiring montage. I already knew Raj and Lasadi, Starla’s parents — but I had no real ideas about who the rest of the characters would be. 

They had to be fun, flawed characters that I wanted to spend an entire series with. They had to have chemistry with each other. They had to have depth and mystery, and — most of all — they had to feel like real people whose dialogue and actions I was just recording.

I went for long walks. I jotted down ideas. I watched movies. And I just kept scratching until the magic started to happen and, one by one, the members of Raj and Lasadi’s little crew started to show up and talk to me.

The first book of the series is coming out in a little over a week, so I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at who you’ll be spending time with in the Nanshe Chronicles… using the tried and true heist writer trope of a most wanted list, of course. 🙂  

The art is from my cousin Nico Longoria, a talented freelance comic artist. Check out their Instagram and website for more amazing art!

Bounty board

Woman with dark blond hair in a braid, and pale skin, wearing a headset.

Lasadi Cazinho (Captain)

  • Birthplace: Corusca 
  • Last seen: Battle of Tannis (Corusca; presumed alive) 
  • Distinguishing features: Pragmatic and level-headed, ace pilot and capable commander. Fanatically attached to the cause of a free Corusca. 
  • Wanted for: Captain in Corusca Liberation Army terrorist organization 

Man with shoulder-length black hair and light brown skin.

Raj Demitriou (Grifter)

  • Birthplace: Arquelle 
  • Last seen: Battle of Tannis (Corusca) 
  • Distinguishing features: Quick thinker and charismatic leader with a penchant for lost causes. Captain in Arquellian navy, dishonorable discharge. 
  • Wanted for: Desertion 
  • Special handling: Family political connections require extremely delicate care in case of capture 

Man with black hair and pale skin, winking. Wearing a pair of goggles pushed up on forehead.

Jay Kamiya (Mechanic)

  • Birthplace: Corusca 
  • Last seen: Battle of Tannis (Corusca; presumed alive) 
  • Distinguishing features: Mechanic with a miracle touch, tendency to hotheadedness; full tattoo sleeves. Known associate of Lasadi Cazinho. 
  • Wanted for: Member of Corusca Liberation Army terrorist organization 

Woman with long, curly black hair, dark skin with freckles, red jacket.

Ruby Quiñones (Hacker)

  • Birthplace: Unknown 
  • Last seen: Ironfall (Dima) 
  • Distinguishing features: Tech genius with a promising future that went south (reasons classified); red leather jacket, freckles, golden tattoos on collarbones 
  • Wanted for: Intellectual property theft 
  • Special handling: If captured immediately deliver to Huancaya Corp 

Young man with a coif of curly black hair, freckles, dark skin. Holding up a peace sign.

Alexander Quiñones (Thief)

  • Birthplace: Unknown 
  • Last seen: Artemis City (Artemis) 
  • Distinguishing features: Fast talker with even quicker fingers; teenage brother of Ruby Quiñones, ward of Aymaya Apostles.  
  • Wanted for: Stealing anything that’s not nailed to the ground 
  • Special handling: Minor; requires maximum security if detained 

More murdercopters, but this time they’re French

I’m fascinated by early helicopters — and the people whose brains created them.

I get planes. It’s pretty easy to look at a soaring bird and extrapolate that if you made a contraption with the right kind of wing, a human could use it to glide like a hawk.

But the whirligig motion required to make rotorcraft fly isn’t as obvious. Whose brain thought, “If I attach propeller blades to a blender and hold it above my head, I’ll probably fly and also maybe not die?”

Ridiculous and terrifying murdercopters are my favorite genre of aircraft.

Longtime newsletter subscribers may remember the little buddy that sparked my interest: Lewis C. McCarty Jr’s Aerocycle.

You can see those pics here.

You might also remember that the aerocycle made an appearance in Heat Death (Bulari Saga 4). I polled you all, and the result was that you wanted to see one of my characters ride a similar deathtrap. You sadists.

Well, I have a whole batch of wild rides for you today.

Jessie stands next to a human-sized astronaut made entirely of LEGO bricks.
Jessie stands next to an astronaut made of LEGOs

My husband and I have spent the last week in Paris. We’ve seen all the usual hits: the cheese shops, the Eiffel Tower, the wine bars, Notre Dame, the bakeries, and, of course, the National Air and Space Museum of France.

If you’re interested at all in early flight, I highly recommend this museum.

The French were pioneers of flight — starting with hot air balloons in the 1800s and progressing to dirigibles, then some very fanciful personal glider contraptions.

Many of the original prototypes are on display at the museum, giving you a fascinating look into how humanity took its first baby steps into the air — and into orbit and beyond.

(I like this one that’s inspired by bat wings.)

A human-sized pair of bat wings made out of wood and canvas.
This seems legitimately fun to fly.

There’s a fantastic rotocraft display, as well as an entire hall dedicated to modern prototypes.

It was in the helicopter hall that I first learned about Raúl Pateras Pescara de Castelluccio, an inventor from Argentina who created this nonsense:

An open-cockpit helicopter with two sets of rotating blades — except the blades are double-decker and made of canvas.
So many blades! So close to your head!

This experimental Pescara helicopter was built in France in 1925, This is his model 2F, which the plaque explains climbed to 2.5m, flew for more than 10 minutes, and covered 1,160m in a closed circuit.

That’s over a kilometer, slightly faster than you could walk it — but with a much bigger adrenaline rush.

I mean, look at that thing. Can you believe it flew?

I can’t — but there’s actual video! This is a slightly different model than the one in the French Air and Space Museum, but it’s wild.

As always, I find inspiration for my science fiction in my travels — and that definitely includes the visits to air and space museums. Blood River Blues (Nanshe Chronicles 2) took inspiration from an exhibit on Alaskan bush planes at the Boeing Air Museum in Seattle.

So don’t worry — I’ll try to figure out a way to include a Pescara murdercopter in a future book. 😉

(For more French murdercopter photos check out my post on Instagram.)

I’m off to eat some more cheese and continue butchering the French language beyond recognition!

(French people have been very polite and helpful about both of those pastimes so far.)

I hope you’re having a lovely week, and not strapping a mini helicopter to your back.

A mannequin in a flight suit, wearing a "jet pack" made of mini helicopter rotor blades.
At least he’s wearing a helmet.

Or, do.

I’m not gonna stop you.

But please do send me video.

Introducing my new series: The Nanshe Chronicles

I’m about to head on my first international trip since before the pandemic, and I’m beginning to immerse myself in the process of exploring a new city and culture.

I used to dream of being constantly on the move — road trips with the wind in my hair and the open highway stretching out in front of me, backpacking adventures stumbling into small towns and new sights, life a constant stream of new and fascinating experiences.

Like most people, my travel plans in 2020 were shunted down the road by the pandemic — but that didn’t stop me from exploring.

Because near the end of 2020, I began writing the Nanshe Chronicles.

I’d spent the previous three-ish years working on the Bulari Saga, which takes place almost entirely in the city of Bulari. I enjoyed immersing myself in the world, but I was itching to hop on a ship and start exploring the rest of the Durga System.

As a writer, my world building process is basically to make things up as needed to serve the story, rather than creating a world from scratch and layering story over it. I’d mentioned dozens of places, but didn’t know much about them. I knew a few facts, but I didn’t know how these places felt.

When I started working on the Nanshe Chronicles, I knew I wanted to do the exact opposite of the Bulari Saga, when it came to location. Instead of diving deep through the layers of a single city for five books, I wanted each book of the Nanshe Chronicles to take the reader — and me — to fantastic new locations.

Like any science fiction writer, I draw on what I know in order to write what I don’t know. I thought it would be fun to share some of the real-life travel inspirations behind locations in the first three books of the Nanshe Chronicles.

Let me take you on a tour.

Nanshe Chronicles 1: Lost in the labyrinth at San Jose, CA

A plucky space ship soars towards a menacing space station on the cover of Ghost Pirate Gambit.

In book one, Ghost Pirate Gambit, the newly-minted crew of the Nanshe are still learning to trust each other. I needed to send them out on a job — and into a physical location — that would put them under enough pressure that their deeply-locked secrets would break out. A place designed to test them physically and psychologically.

What better inspiration than the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA?

My Grandma Kwak instilled in me a longstanding fascination with ghost towns, houses with turrets, and the Winchester Mystery House — so when I got a chance to go during WorldCon one year, I jumped at the chance. Instantly, I knew how I was going to use the visit in the novel I’d just begun starting to plan.

(I wrote a longer post about my visit over on Patreon.)

The house, if you’re not familiar, was built by Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms magnate William Winchester. As the story goes, after the death of her husband and newborn in 1881, a medium told her that she should leave her home in New Haven and travel west to construct a home for herself and the spirits of people who had been killed by Winchester rifles.

Supposedly the medium told Sarah that the way to placate the spirits was for the home to be under construction continuously — for the hammers to never stop ringing.

She moved to California hired workers, and from 1884 until her death in 1922, her mansion was continuously under construction.

In Ghost Pirate Gambit, Auburn Station is the fever dream of a long-dead space pirate who thought if she constantly kept her station under construction it would keep her safe: airlocks that open to nowhere, halls that corkscrew dizzily, corridors that dead-end without warning.

And plenty of boobytraps to keep out unwanted visitors. 😉

Nanshe Chronicles 2: From Canaima, Venezuela to Aguas Calientes, Peru

A plucky space ship hovers over a verdant planet on the cover of Blood River Blues.

Just after college, I spent six months living in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela, working as a carpenter and volunteer coordinator for a small local NGO.

Santa Elena is on the edge of Canaima National Park, which is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen in my life. You can stand at the edge of a cliff and look over the brilliant emerald canopy of the Amazon rainforest as far as the eye can see. You can climb the tabletop mountains (tepuis), hike rivers made of pure jasper, and see the tallest waterfall in the world.

And while the tourists gawk, the locals are doing their best to scrape by in a place so remote that — unless you’re incredibly wealthy — the nearest airport is an eight hour bus ride away.

I drew on my time in Santa Elena de Uairén for Nanshe Chronicles 2, Blood River Blues. In it, the crew touches down in New Manila for a job that has them facing down old ghosts as they con their way into racing the famous Liluri Star Run.

Part of the race takes place deeper in the mountains of New Manila — and anyone who’s been to Machu Picchu will probably recognize where I took inspiration for the town of Moie. Aguas Calientes is the spot most tourists overnight in before trekking or bussing up to Machu Picchu: it’s a lovely village set into the cliffs of a deep mountain ravine, with a river tumbling through the middle. I tapped into the visuals of the town as much as the frenetic tourist energy it exuded when writing about Moie.

Nanshe Chronicles 3: Scarred hearts and scattered bones in Alba de Tormes

A plucky space ship floats by a hot pink gas giant on the cover of Cursed Saint Caper.

The locations in Nanshe Chronicles 3, Cursed Saint Caper were inspired less by a physical place I’ve been than a single line I wrote down on a Post-it:

“Dendera, temple of dreamers.”

I don’t remember why I wrote that down, or where I heard about Dendera. I didn’t research it at all — I didn’t want to. Something about the idea of a dreaming temple sparked my imagination, and I didn’t want to tie it down with reality.

In doing some quick googling now, I find that Dendera was an Egyptian temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor, and supplicants who visited the temple could stay in special quarters where they could commune with the goddess in their dreams.

Coming from a Christian background myself, the idea of a dreaming temple brought to mind Christian mystics like Sta. Teresa de Ávila and St. Julian of Norwich. I’d seen Sta. Teresa’s heart at the convent of Alba de Tormes, carefully preserved in an ornate reliquary; I remember studying it, searching for the scar where she’d been pierced by the arrow of Christ’s love.

Did I find the scar? Hard to tell. Was Sta. Teresa’s experience real? It was to her, and in my mind that’s the important bit.

I’ve stood in sacred places like Alba de Tormes and read the writings of people who truly believe they’re channeling the divine. But I’ve also come across plenty of con artists and self help gurus who are only trying to channel other people’s money.

No matter your religious or philosophical tradition, people will try to use faith to make a quick dime on people who just want to trust.

It was that dichotomy of holy and scam, divine and con artist, true faith and shell games that inspired me in this book. The crew of the Nanshe will need to unravel truth from fiction in their own dreams as they tackle a con artist. This job takes them from the glitz and glamour of Artemis City to the mystic, unsettling quiet of the distant gas giant Bixia Yuanjin.

Introducing the Nanshe Chronicles

When I wrote the very first book set in the Durga System, Starfall, I had no idea the adventure I was about to set out on.

I didn’t know how much readers were going to resonate with the main character, Starla — and I had no idea how much I would eventually become intrigued by the story of her parents, the notorious Raj and Lasadi. 

I was worried when I began writing the Nanshe Chronicles. I’d spent years living with the characters and stories in the Bulari Saga, and meeting the crew of the Nanshe was odd at first. 

Lasadi doesn’t trust that easily. Jay doesn’t give up many secrets. Raj and Ruby seem like open books on the surface, but then you find out they’re only showing you select pages. And Alex is still figuring himself out — let alone learning how to share himself with others. 

Slowly, though, I began to find my way into this first book. Then the second. Then the third. Eventually, the crew started to open up to me, and I started to realize they were something special.

As I write this, I’ve finished the first three books in the series, along with a prequel novella, and I feel like I know this crew pretty damn well. 

I’m having a blast writing these books, and there are plenty more adventures to come in this series!

Stay tuned for more sneak previews and goodies as we get closer to the launch date. I can’t wait to share this new adventure with you!

If you haven’t already, go pick up Artemis City Shuffle for free and start on the adventure!


How to get your hands on Ghost Pirate Gambit

Right now you can pre-order Ghost Pirate Gambit in print, ebook, and audio directly from me. I’ll be launching this book into Kindle Unlimited on May 24th, but if you’re not a KU reader, don’t worry. If you’ve pre-ordered from me, you’ll get to read the book before it goes into Kindle jail. 🙂

Don’t forget to add Ghost Pirate Gambit to your Goodreads list!

A look back, a look ahead

I’ve been thinking a lot about work these past few months.

It’s in the zeitgeist, as we collectively as a society realize we can’t keep hustling at 125% day in and day out while the world goes up in flames around us and we pretend everything’s fine.

It’s on the minds of several of my ghostwriting clients, who are coaching their own clients through burnout and trying to find meaning in their lives.

And it’s been on my mind as I juggle writing thoughtful posts about burnout for said clients — while kickstarting From Big Idea to Book, racing up against deadlines for Nanshe Chronicles books, and launching a productivity course in January.

Oh, all while pretending to be on vacation in Arizona, where I’ve been working in the mornings and spending time with family and “relaxing” in the afternoons.

I’m cheerfully telling people how excited I am for the new year, how I’m going to put creativity first in 2022 — and yet.

I’m torn in a half-dozen directions, as usual, with no finish line in sight. 

As usual.

I’m lucky. Most of this chaos is of my own making: client work I’ve said yes to, books I’m excited to write, projects I initiated. I have what Charlie Gilkey calls “Shiny Object Syndrome,” gleefully jumping at new opportunities and filling my plate to bursting without stopping to think how I’ll manage it all.

That said, I can feel myself circling burnout, and I know I need to start working smarter.

I need to take real time off. To close the computer after dinner. To go on walks with my neighbor in the afternoon without stressing that I need to rush back to my desk.

I have no idea how to do that. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

What’s coming in 2022

All that said, let’s take a look at what I’ve got in the works for you in 2022!

Nanshe Chronicles

I know! I’ve been talking about these books for ages, and you’ve yet to see more than my short story in CROOKED V.1. 😉

My original goal had been to launch the first Nanshe Chronicles book, Ghost Pirate Gambit, in March. But a few weeks back I learned that the official launch date of my new nonfiction book (see below) will be March 8.

So in order to not divide my metal capacity and marketing-shouting goodwill, I’m pushing back the launch of the Nanshe Chronicles to May. I’ll be putting out all three of the first books one after another in May, June, and July.

I know, I know. It’s a bit of a wait. But my lucky Patreon subscribers will be getting their copies up to a month earlier than that!

Nanshe Chronicles Audio!

I’ll be working with J.S. Arquin (who narrated the Bulari Saga audiobooks) to produce the first three Nanshe Chronicles books — so if you’re an audio listener, you’re in luck! Those will be coming out at the same time as the print and ebooks.

CROOKED

There will indeed be a CROOKED V.2, as I continue on my quest to make sci-fi crime a Thing. I’ll be putting up a call for submissions in January-ish — if you know of anyone who I should ask to contribute, let me know.

I’m also currently working on a couple of stories for sci-fi crime anthologies other people are editing — one about noir detectives, one about the future of crime.

(I’m revisiting the Bulari Saga for the noir one, giving Detective Timo Cho a chance to do what he does best — ask too many questions.)

And then…?

Stretch goals?

(Is this the root of my overwhelm problem?)

I’ve got a book with Starla, Mona, and Luc kicking around in my brain. It would take place after the final Bulari Saga book, but act as an entry point into a new series following those crazy kids on their own series of adventures. (If you read the Epilogue you probably guessed I was laying seeds for this)

I also have a fantasy series I’ve been working on off and on for years. It’s been sitting in the metaphorical trunk for years, partly because I was working on other things, partly because it was missing… something.

But a few weeks back I realized what it was missing was a large dash of Killing Eve, and now I’m on fire to write it. Not to mention I’m coming back from a trip to Arizona, which is the landscape that I modeled this fantasy world off of.

Nonfiction

As I mentioned above, From Big Idea to Book, my latest nonfiction book, will be out in March. It’s published through Microcosm Publishing, and I’m super excited for it.

It’s currently Kickstarting here.

I’m also working on another book for Microcosm, a fast and dirty guide to freelancing. Basically, dumping ~10 years of freelance writing knowledge into book form.

From time to time, I have the conversation with friends about whether they should start freelance writing.

My goal with this book is to give readers enough information that they’ll either be dissuaded from trying to freelance, or they’ll be so sparked to do it that they’ll be off and running.

How about you?

If you’ve made it to the end of this rather long post, tell me: What are you up to in 2022? Do you also have too many creative goals?

If so, maybe you want to join me for the Most Creative Year course, which is launching January 1st.

We’re in this together, friend.

Happy New Year!

Gifts for Readers: 2021 Edition

Oh, hello! Welcome to my gift guide for readers for 2021. Got a reader on your shopping list? Are their reading tastes weird like mine? You’re in the right place.

These aren’t the “Best books of 2021.” Nor is this a comprehensive list of books I think are worth gifting.

Rather, this is a list of books I personally read in the last year or so that I wholeheartedly recommend. Books I’ve been dying to shout about. Books that, were we standing next to each other right now, I would put directly in your hands and insist you purchase.

There are sci-fi and fantasy books, of course, along with a couple fun YA/middle grade and some suspense/thrillers to round out the mix. I’ve also included a few of my favorite non-fiction books from this year.

I thought about copying over the product descriptions so you could actually know what the books are about. Instead I opted to write my own blurbs while drinking a bottle of wine. You’re welcome.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

(Quick note: Some of these links are affiliate links — which means I get a few pennies when you make a purchase. But believe me. I’d be shouting about all of these things for free. I also chose to include Bookshop.org for the print links, because they donate to local bookstores! You could also order through your own local bookstore if you like.)


Technology

Oh, wait! Before we dive in to the books, do you have a reader in your life, but you’re not sure what their favorite genre is, or what they have or haven’t read? Give them the gift of lots of books at their fingertips!

  • E-reader — I have both a Kobo Clara and a Kindle Paperwhite, and love them both equally. I know, I know. The smell of paper, etc., but the ability to pack all 27 books you’re certain you’ll read on vacation without taking up any more suitcase space than a poetry chapbook is pretty great. Plus, when you’re reading Fonda Lee’s doorstopping Green Bone saga way too late in bed and you nod off and the book hits you in the face, it doesn’t hurt as bad if it’s an e-reader.
  • Oh, they already have an e-reader? Do have one of these lovely e-reader covers by Fintie? I have a galaxy print for my Kobo and a marble print for my Kindle — I also got one of their hardshell cases for my laptop. Seriously, I always assume if something has fun patterns and colors it’s not as well-made — but these Fintie cases are great. (And apparently only available on Amazon, sorry.)
  • Audible subscription — One of my favorite wedding gifts was an Audible subscription. My husband and I were headed on an extended trip to Peru after our wedding, and we spent a ton of time listening to audiobooks together. (And, hey — you can get the Bulari Saga books on Audible now!
  • Libro.fm subscription — a new kid of the audio block, Libro.fm is a great option if you want to listen to audiobooks, but also support your local bookstore. Their app is super intuitive — I’ve really been loving it.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

I wish I’d had a chance to read a fraction of the amazing sci-fi and fantasy books published this year! Here were some of the faves I read this year.

Persephone-station

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Thank you to my cousin Faith for recommending this book to me! She said it reminded her of my Bulari Saga, and damn if she wasn’t right. Seedy underworld alliances, found family who have each other’s back, and lots and lots of explosions. You’re gonna love it.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Black-Sun

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

I don’t read a ton of fantasy these days, but I LOVE Rebecca Roanhorse (keep reading this gift guide, you’ll see). So when she released her first epic fantasy based around Pre-Columbian cultures, I picked it up — and devoured it in a few days. Lush, lovely, and a real page-turner. I cannot wait for the next book in this series!

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Trail-of-Lightning

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Since I’ve brought up Roanhorse, I’m just gonna go ahead and put this one here, too. Post-apocalyptic monster-hunting adventures set on the Navajo Nation after a flood cuts it off from the rest of the world and tears the fabric of the world between gods and humans once more. Love love love both this book and its sequel!

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Torn

Torn by Rowenna Miller

Did I say I didn’t read much fantasy these days? Sure, but when Rowenna Miller tweeted a 1-star review complaining that Torn had “not enough magic and too much rebellion” I one-clicked it and was not disappointed. Do you like fashion, sewing, and revolutionary politics? Like a lot of fashion, sewing, and revolutionary politics? This will be right up your alley.

Also, LOOK AT THAT COVER! I can’t get over how fantastic it is with the needles and the blood and the whole thing. I am clearly the target market. Maybe someone on your list is, too.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Deal-with-the-devil

Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha

Hey, speaking of rebellion? I am loving this new series by Kit Rocha. Communist mercenary librarian badasses do crime for good with rakishly broodily handsome supersoldiers. A little steamy, but not nearly as much as Kit Rocha’s Beyond series — which I also enjoyed, but gotta say I’m digging this new series more.

Pick it up for the person on your list who you’d most like to have on your team during the apocalypse.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Jade-City

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Have I raved at you about Fonda Lee’s Green Bone saga yet? No? Well let me rave at you now. Gorgeously written, full of complicated characters you love to root for, and all those tense, complicated crime family negotiations that I just eat up. The final book in the trilogy just came out a few weeks back and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so if you spoil it for me I’ll cut you. Don’t even try.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Luna

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Since we’re talking intensely epic crime family drama, please go read the Luna trilogy. Fashion! Dinner parties! Lavish descriptions of both intricate interpersonal politics and delicious-sounding cocktails. GORGEOUS and DEADLY and SO MUCH FUN.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Widdershins

Whyborne and Griffin series by Jordan L. Hawk

I picked up Widdershins because I met Jordan at a writer’s conference and we instantly bonded over our deep appreciation of good IPAs. Bonus, his books sounded fun! A bookish wizard solves cosmic horror crimes with his dashing ex-Pinkerton detective boyfriend and best friend the headstrong lady archaeologist? Let’s check it out, I figured.

Friends — these books got me through the pandemic. Whenever I needed a good pick-me-up, I grabbed the next book in the series and sank into a world full of people I’m secretly starting to think of as friends. (Oh — heads up, there are steamy times ahead.)

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)


Want more recommendations? Check out my “hopeful science fiction” post for some more great reads.


Suspense and Thriller

Don’t tell anybody, but even though I write science fiction I primarily read thrillers. I binge them like candy with no regrets — and I’ve read some amazing ones this year.

Jane-Doe

Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone

I picked up Jane Doe on recommendation a month ago, and absolutely tore through it. The minute I finished, I texted this to a couple of fellow true crime podcast listening friends:

Hey murder ladies book club — I just read Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone on recommendation from a new friend and I fucking loved it. A functioning sociopath who loves her cat sets out to ruin the life of a manipulative asshole dude. I would now kill for Jane but she would probably get there for me first.

I could rave more about it, but you should probably just pick it up for your weirdo true crime podcast loving friend. (I see you girl, email me.)

Ebook [AMAZON ONLY]

Print (Bookshop.org)

Killshot

Killshot by Elmore Leonard

Not gonna lie, I’ve been wanting to read some Elmore Leonard for a while, but 100% picked this particular book because it shares a title with Bulari Saga 5. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the first paragraphs vividly describing the cracks in the hitman’s hotel room ceiling I was totally hooked.

(Seriously — almost a year after reading it, so many scenes of Killshot are etched in my mind. Leonard is a master of detail.)

I also gotta say I was expecting a bit more stereotypical relationship between the husband and wife, but a lot of the book is from her point of view and — guys. Leonard clearly interviewed some exasperated women as research for writing Carmen Colson. Just let Carmen take care of business, Wayne. She’s got this. Step back and don’t worry your pretty little head. Just go fishing or whatever you do, Wayne, Carmen’s got a plan.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

When-the-stars-go-dark

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

This one was a bit of a tough read due to subject matter (missing girls, sexual assault, the loss of a child), but it was an excellent book. I read it soon after we’d spent a weekend in Humboldt County, CA, so the setting of the book felt gorgeously familiar. And the prose was really, really lovely. Like, Tana French lovely.

It’s perfect for that true crime fanatic in your life.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

The-Secret-Place

The Secret Place by Tana French

Hey, speaking of Ms. French, have I shared with you lately the good word that is the Dublin Murder Squad series? I’ve been rereading Tana French’s books this year because her prose is a masterclass in writing conversations where one level of information is being relayed in the words, and a total other level is happening in the body language. Hashtag writer goals.

It’s hard to pick a favorite of her books, but I do really love The Secret Place. Don’t be scared off that it’s book 5 in the series — you can pick them up in any order. If you’re looking for a standalone, her most recent book, The Searcher, was also really fantastic.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Stillhouse-Lake

Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine

Also in the category of books that got me through the pandemic? At one point when I totally lost motivation for anything, I picked up Stillhouse Lake and binged it — and the next three books in the series — over the course of a week.

They’re just so page-turnery, with characters you want to root for, and some seriously cliff-hanger writing. I’ll shout out a content warning for violence against women, stalking/harassment, and on-page serial killer horribleness. Caine handles that all very skillfully and thoughtfully, in my opinion, but I don’t want to throw you in a pond you aren’t interested in swimming in.

(That’s a thing people say, isn’t it?)

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)


Young Adult/Middle Grade

My niblings are getting to reading age, and the eldest (she’s almost 11) takes after her auntie with her nose always buried in a book. The following suggestions are books I’ve bought for her recently, and also read (and loved) myself.

Be-prepared

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Quick humblebrag, but Eisner and Caldecott award winning Vera Brosgol is my neighbor! Like, “hey Vera can you grab that package off my porch we’re out of town” neighbor. Like, “hey Jessie do you want half a loaf of this sourdough I just made” neighbor (she’s an excellent baker!).

But you don’t care about that. You care that Vera is a phenomenal storyteller and illustrator, and Be Prepared is incredible. I bought it for my niece and my sister says she read it through twice the same day it showed up in the mail.

Hey, me too, kid. Highly recommend.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Race-to-the-Sun

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Yes, this post has become a shameless Rebecca Roanhorse stan account. Here’s the thing, friends. I grew up on the Yakama reservation, surrounded by people like the characters in Roanhorse’s books — people I so rarely see in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. So that’s one of the reasons I love her work.

But more than that, her writing is just ridiculously fun! I bought this book for my niece for Christmas, but I read it first myself and it was fantastic! (Don’t tell my niece and spoil the surprise — I don’t think she’s old enough to have found my blog).

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Clockbreakers

Clockbreakers: Asterion’s Curse by Kate Ristau

This is another series I bought for my niece this summer. I loved mythology at her age, so I figured we’d both dig reading this series together. I was totally right — they’re really fun! Plucky BFFs learning how to fend for themselves, quirky minotaur mentors, and a truly cunning villain.

Full disclosure, Kate’s a friend — but that’s not the only reason I was able to score a signed set for my niece. Head to her website and I bet she’ll sign some for you, too.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)


Nonfiction

The-Big-Leap

The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks

Bear with me on the self help recommendation here, but I have been thinking about The Big Leap constantly since I read it a few months ago. Gay Hendricks has a very “so I was talking to my buddy the CEO on the golf course the other day” vibe, but he teases out the ways that we hold ourselves back from love and happiness in a truly brilliant way. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy for yourself, and for a friend.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Killers-of-the-Flower-Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

I debated putting this one in here. Not because it wasn’t absolutely the best book I read in 2021, but because it’s … not “gifty”? Not happy? I read this for a book club, and I kept texting the friend who recommended it “OMG this is getting so horrible” and she would text back “Oof just wait.”

It’s a true crime book about a series of murders of members of the Osage tribe in the early 20th century, and the way Grann lays out the story and surrounding history is masterful. Like, I’m still reeling in awe of his storytelling skills. (Is it too much of a spoiler to say that white colonizers weren’t a good thing for the original inhabitants of this continent?)

Killers of the Flower Moon is being made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese, which should be coming out next year. And maybe this isn’t a classic holiday gift, but this book is Extremely Recommended Reading. You won’t regret it. Give it to a friend. Read it yourself. Then email me and let’s talk, I have a lot of Thoughts.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

IN-the-Dream-House

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

I can’t even remember the last time I read a memoir, but when Mark Teppo showed me this memoir about an emotionally abusive relationship where every chapter is written as a different genre — “The Dream House as Noir,” “The Dream House as Bildungsroman,” etc. — I was fascinated. It’s gorgeously written, and way more of a page-turner than I expected.

Wait — is this not a good gift guide book either? Like, if you give a memoir about an emotionally abusive relationship to a friend, what message will they be thinking you’re trying to send? I’m starting to worry I’m failing at this gift guide thing.

But read this book, it’s awesome. I couldn’t put it down even though — and I can’t stress this enough — it’s a literary memoir. Those usually bore the shit out of me.

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

7-necessary-sins

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

Okay we’re back on track here, I promise. Do you have a badass feminist on your holiday shopping list? Get them this book. Mona Eltahawy is a NPR correspondent and generally rad person, and I am totally loving her collection of empowering feminist essays about the traits women are generally expected to have, and what we should embrace instead.

Get angry, murder ladies! Whether you’re navigating the seedy underworld of Luna (or Jade City or Persephone Station), sewing up a rebellion, librarianing mercinarilly, taking down way more than your fair share of serial killers, or just making up for your husband Wayne’s lack of awareness (I SEE YOU CARMEN COLSON, YOU GODDESS), Mona Eltahawy outlines the seven skills you need to dismantle the patriarchy.

Learn them. Internalize them. We ride at midnight.

(Oh hey, men, you’re more than welcome to ride with us! The patriarchy sucks for you, too.)

Ebook links

Print (Bookshop.org)

Photo by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash

Dispatches From Anarres, or Don’t Disappoint Denzel Washington

I’m convinced Denzel Washington just wants you to live your best life.

In The Equalizer, he walks into the bad guy’s office with a simple offer: Take some money, make things right, and turn over a new leaf.

The offer’s too simple, though. Denzel’s character is too unassuming — and so the bad guys laugh him out of the office.

Denzel walks to the door and sighs sadly at what’s about to happen.

Then he locks the door, checks his watch, and proceeds to demolish every last bad guy with intense precision.

Guys.

Don’t disappoint Denzel.

I love the trope of an underestimated badass. Maybe it’s the old man who’s secretly a martial arts master. Maybe it’s the little girl who’s actually a psychic grenade. Maybe it’s the shy kid who’s actually whip smart, or the outclassed kid with a secret talent.

Maybe it’s brother and sister shoemakers who are secretly fighting back against the conquerers who are occupying their town…

The Navu officer in his shop is admiring a pair of boots, though frowning at the underslung heel. “Doesn’t that make it difficult to walk?”

“It’s the northern style. Riders prefer them.” Desh turns on his own underslung heel, executing an abbreviated dance step in the tiny space of his shop, his back-step cut short before a display case. “Dancers, too.”

The Navu officer laughs. All the Navu seem to find Cazhitlani fashion and showmanship amusing. Jilli smiles at his back, appreciating his underestimation of her brother.

“I need them for a ball. Don’t you have anything less — ” The officer waves a hand foppishly.

“Bold?” Desh is used to this question from Navus. “For you, of course. I can make something special.”

A few weekends ago, I had the honor of sitting with a handful of other authors on a panel for the Portland Book Festival about Ursula Le Guin, and how her work had inspired our own. The panel was in celebration of a new anthology, Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin.

(The above excerpt is from my story in the anthology, “Black as Thread.”)

On the panel, we were asked what about Le Guin’s work inspired our own, and I picked the way her stories don’t center on the biggest, baddest warriors around.

Le Guin’s characters don’t always seem powerful on the outside; in fact, their power is in the way people to underestimate them.

The dart game scene in Ted Lasso is a fantastic example of this. I mean — who doesn’t love watching an arrogant bastard get taken down a notch by his own shortsightedness?

In my story, “Black as Thread,” a brother and sister who own a shoe shop begin crafting cursed shoes for the occupying forces. Their shoes grow in popularity among the upper ranks of the occupying forces, who never would guess where their string of bad luck is coming from.

You see it in the exchange I excerpted — the Navu officer finds the dancing shoemaker with his passion for color theory to be harmless. Laughable.

Le Guin has a lovely essay called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which you can read for free in the Anarchist Library. In it, she talks about whose work — and stories — have traditionally been considered important.

When you see traditionally feminine crafts and hobbies — like shoes and fashion — as unimportant, you’re going to judge them as harmless.

You’re not going to be curious about them. You’re not going to ask questions like:

“What signal am I sending in your culture when I wear green shoos with red buttons?”

“What are those songs your sister is singing in the corner?”

“Why does the thread she’s sewing with turn black under her fingertips?”

You won’t expect danger to come at you in a shoe store.

You can find “Black as Thread” along with an amazing collection of other stories inspired by the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin in Dispatches From Anarres.

(Oh, and I’m thrilled to tell you my short story was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for literary works published by a small press! I’ve never been nominated for a prestigious literary prize, so I’m a bit floored.)

Meet Dispatches From Anarres:

Dispatches

Named for the anarchist utopia in Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction classic The Dispossessed, Dispatches from Anarres embodies the anarchic spirit of Le Guin’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, while paying tribute to her enduring vision.

In stories that range from fantasy to sci fi to realism, some of Portland’s most vital voices have come together to celebrate Le Guin’s lasting legacy and influence on that most subversive of human faculties: the imagination.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Who gets to be a villain?

As a child, I loved the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty — but probably not for the reason I was supposed to.

I suffered through Aurora’s sappy yearning for love. I yawned at the Prince (. . . um, Erik?) and his earnest escapades.

I loved the Flora, Fauna, and Merriwether of course — who doesn’t appreciate a gaggle of adorable witchy aunties who are just doing their best at adulting?

But I watched Sleeping Beauty for my idol.

Maleficent.

She had power. She commanded minions. She was fierce and strong. She did whatever the hell she wanted.

Yes, cursing a baby to die is pretty terrible — especially when her beef was actually with the parents. But as a child I remember feeling awed by her strength, confidence, and casual assumption of power.

She was a boss bitch, and she was amazing. I’d rather be her than boring, sappy Aurora crying on her bed any day.

As a girl, I felt like I was offered two choices in Sleeping Beauty: sit around waiting to be saved, or turn into a literal dragon and set some shit on fire.

I wanted to be the dragon.

Cue Sirens…

A few weeks back, I mentioned Sirens Con, the feminist SFF convention I recently attended.

The theme of the conference was villains: Who gets cast as villains in our media? How are straight, cis male villains treated compared to female, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ villains? What does a villain need to do to have a redemption arc? What does it mean to be morally gray?

Nearly every panel and talk touched somewhat on the theme. As a writer of sci-fi crime stories about space gangsters and pirates, you can bet I have a LOT of thoughts on how these topics relate to my own work.

My attempt to sit and write a quick recap of Sirens for you turned into a multi-part series of essays.

This specific blog post won’t have any spoilers for my books, but I did dig deeper into my world and characters in other essays — so I’m only send those to readers who are actually curious. (Read on for details.)

But first!

Maleficent didn’t become a villain by accident.

(And, no, I’m not talking about her character backstory, or the recent retelling with Angelina Jolie.)

Her character design in the animated film was deliberate, influenced by a Prohibition-era set of rules called the Hays Code — which we learned about at Sirens in a fascinating keynote talk given by Sarah Gailey.

The Hays Code was provided in 1927 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America — it listed things that should not be included in movies, such as profanity and nudity, but also things like relationships between people of different races, scenes of childbirth, and the positive portrayal of sexual depravity.

The idea is based on something I completely agree with: stories expand our experiences and help us empathize with other perspectives. Stories teach us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What the Hays Code said, though, was that we should only be teaching audiences to empathize with certain people.

As Sarah Gailey pointed out in their talk, the Hays Code wanted audiences to empathize with “model citizens.” White, Christian, straight, and hard-working.

Anyone who didn’t fit that box could only be portrayed in a negative light. They got to be villains.

No one empathizes with the villains, right?

Well, no one except for us misfits.

You’ll notice sexual depravity on the Hays Code no-no list, of course. Loose women and women who are confident in their sexuality obviously fall into this category — hence the trope of the femme fatale, or the voluptuous vixen who gets a humiliating downfall.

And, of course, the gays. Start listing off old movie villains in your head, and just notice how many are butch women and effeminate men.

Sticking with Disney villains for a moment, take take Ursula the sea witch, another of my Disney favorites. Sarah Gailey pointed out that Ursula’s character design, expressions, and movements were literally based off the famous drag queen Divine.

The Hays Code was generally abandoned by the 60s for the rating code we use today (at least in the US), but the reverberations linger.

Imagine it.

  • Think of the gay kids who are only ever allowed to glimpse themselves in Scar or Ursula or Javier Bardem’s depraved Bond villain.
  • Think of the Muslim kids who are only ever allowed to see themselves as terrorists.
  • Think of ambitious girls who are only allowed to see themselves as psychotic, power-hungry madwomen.

As a girl, I wanted to be the dragon.

In real life I’ve actually become the witchy auntie who’s doing her best at adulting — but Maleficent still inspires me.

I have a figurine of her on my desk, a gift from my sister. Every time I catch a glimpse of it, I remember that it’s okay for a woman to be a bit monstrous if it means advocating for herself and fully coming into her power.

And it reminds me to pay attention to the worlds I’m writing, and the implicit lessons I’m sharing about who can and cannot be a hero.

How about you – do you have a favorite villain?

Let me know in the comments!

Want to read the rest of this essay series?

Oh — and as I said, Sarah Gailey’s talk at Sirens was one of many many presentations that sparked a lot of thoughts for me.

Specifically, I want to dive more into Fonda Lee’s discussion about morally gray characters, and into the idea of villain redemption arcs which was discussed by multiple presenters.

However, I drew a lot off my own work, and I didn’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t read all the Bulari Saga yet.

If you have read it — or don’t mind a few spoilers — I have another few emails I’d love to send your way. Click here to get a series of three more emails over the next three days:

  • Navigating the morally gray world of the Bulari Saga
  • What makes a good villain (and can you redeem them?)
  • And a super secret surprise 😉

Want a deeper dive on Disney villains?

Photo by Norbert Buduczki on Unsplash

CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight — Mark Niemann-Ross

This week we’re celebrating the launch of CROOKED V.1 with author interviews!

Mark Niemann-Ross is an author, educator, and chicken wrangler living in Portland, Oregon. He teaches “R” — a programming language, and “Raspberry Pi” — a small computer used for the Internet of Things. Both topics influence his writing, which fits solidly in the genre of “Hard Science Fiction.”

Mark co-authored his first story in 2005 with Richard A. Lovett in Analog, Science Fiction and Fact. Since then, he has published additional stories in Analog and Stupefying Stories, has self-published two collections, and collaborated on a children’s book. Most recently, Mark published Stupid Machine, a science fiction murder mystery solved by a refrigerator.

Mark’s website: niemannross.com

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Tell us a bit about your story (and the story world, if applicable).
Araci Belo lives in our world, only slightly further downstream in the cosmic timeline. It’s entirely possible he’s already been born – or will be soon. Unlike you and I, he’s going to live through the Portland earthquake and see Portland rebuilt as a modernized city.

The technology he uses isn’t mind-boggling. It’s just a linear extrapolation of what we have today. You and I will recognize his world in the same way our parents recognize our world. Devices have a familiar form, but there’s always a sense of something impossible about them.

I write hard science fiction where the laws of physics still rule. In Hot Meal, I spent a lot of time researching how an oven would explode. If the FBI chooses to audit my search history, they will find incriminating questions such as “Do propane tanks explode?” … or “How much propane does it take to blow up a kitchen?” … or “air fuel mixture requirement for propane vs hydrogen”. You may see the problem I will face.

Both “Stupid Machine” and “Hot Meal” revolve around events in a kitchen. I think it’s a terrifying place: sharp knives, explosives, burning oil. Just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it’s safe. Coupled with the emerging (emerging is a euphemism for unknown) addition of artificial intelligence to these weapons of destruction… I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I’ve been careful to write my artificial intelligence as different than the “human in a box.” Machines have different motivations and behaviors than humans. Persistence, for one. Machines continue to do a task long after humans get bored and move on to the next shiny object. Look up “persistence hunting,” then watch “It Follows.” Now are you worried?

What was the inspiration behind this story?
I seem to be exploring chaos at the edge of technology. Quality assurance engineers are employed to find these problems – and we continue to invent new ways to keep them busy. Anywhere two technologies touch, there is potential for unexpected behavior. Like genetic mutations, most are benign. Like genetic mutations, some are deadly. Who would have guessed light bulbs would provide hackers with entry points to the internet?

I’m also fascinated by the commercialization of basic human needs. Food and water have always been a source of commerce. Health and social interaction are the current darling of capitalism. Our nature is to control these assets – I perceive this drive to control as a rich ground for misbehavior.

If you could travel to any science fictional world, where would you go and what would you do?
I’m living in it! Michael Crichton would find inspiration for “Andromeda Strain” in today’s world of COVID-19. What would I do? Get vaccinated, wear a mask, cry like a baby and try to become acidotic.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?
My guilty pleasure is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Lensmen.” It doesn’t age well – but it’s a roller coaster. Read it before you see Star Wars.

What authors have inspired your writing?
Daniel H. Wilson. I’m inspired by his take on robots and their motivations. I remember him discussing “Terminator” and how the robots would throw their opponents across the room. He asserted robots killer robots would instead try to get as close as possible to dismember opponents. I recommend “Robopocalypse” for insight into how true killer robots would behave.

What are you working on next?
I’m haunted by two other short stories that insist on being written. One has to do with the difficulty of maintaining a relationship when partners don’t share the same circadian rhythm. The other has to do with dissociative memory. They barged into the queue ahead of Stupid Machine Two, which is probably a science fiction murder mystery CAUSED by a refrigerator.

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CROOKED V.1

Get it here.

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CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight: Benjamin Gorman

We’re celebrating the launch of CROOKED V.1 by spotlighting the authors who have contributed stories!

Benjamin Gorman is an award-winning high school English teacher, political activist, author, poet, and co-publisher at Not a Pipe Publishing. He lives in Independence, Oregon with bibliophile and guillotine aficionado Chrystal, his favorite son, Noah, and his dog, E.V. (External Validation). 

His novels are The Sum of Our Gods, Corporate High School, The Digital Storm: A Science Fiction Reimagining of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Don’t Read This Book. His first book of poetry, When She Leaves Me, was published in November of 2020, and his second, This Uneven Universe, will be released in November of 2021. He believes in his students and the future they’ll create if given the chance.

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Tell us a bit about your story and the story world.
I’ve been reading some great novels about aliens and the ways alien intelligences might view our universe very differently from the way we perceive things. I wanted to play with the idea that a confession of a murder could be complicated by inter-species cross-cultural misunderstanding.

What was the inspiration behind this story?
I started a story about a character trapped on a spaceship during a pandemic, and it turned into a murder mystery. I haven’t finished that novel, but when you asked me to write a sci-fi mystery, I already had the character of my consulting detective in mind. So I skipped ahead and imagined him taking on this case later in his career.

If you could travel to any science fictional world, where would you go and what would you do?
For comfort’s sake, I’d love to live in the utopia of Star Trek. I’d see if I could get a gig traveling around with Starfleet or maybe hanging out on a space station like DS9, collecting the stories of fellow travelers and then fictionalizing them into novels that could be beamed around the galaxy and read by people looking for entertainment during their long interstellar journeys.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?
I’m a big Star Wars fan (not a universe I’d want to live in, but one I love to visit), and both Solo (heist story) and much of The Mandalorian (bounty hunter in a space Western) are crime stories that fill me with joy.

What authors have inspired your writing?
This particular story was most inspired by Anne Lecke’s Imperial Radch series, specifically the character of Dlique, translator for the alien Presger in the second book, Ancillary Sword, and Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, specifically the alien Rocky. These alien characters forced me to wrap my head around new ways aliens could comprehend our species from the outside. Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, the second book in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, made me think about the ways species that are far more or less advanced than one another might interact. And Jessi Kwak’s Bulari Saga and Durga System series showed how well a complex and enthralling crime drama could thrive in a sci-fi universe. You really should check them all out. Excellent.

What are you working on next?
I have a book of poetry coming out in November titled This Uneven Universe, and I’m still hard at work on the second book of my The Convention of Fiends paranormal trilogy that started with Don’t Read This Book. When I finish that, I’m excited about trying my hand at an epic high fantasy novel, but this story was so fun to write, maybe I’ll go back to that half-written murder-mystery-on-a-colony-ship-during-a-pandemic. Hopefully we’ll be a bit further from our own pandemic by then, and people will be interested in a story like that one without it feeling quite so close to home!

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