Last Tuesday night we went to hear Mary Robinette Kowal and Marie Brennan doing a reading at Murder By the Book. Both of them write in the fantasy genre and both are currently writing historical fantasy novels. Mary Robinette Kowal is nearing the conclusion of a five book series of Austenesque fantasy novels. The best way to describe them is if there was a bit of magic in Jane Austen’s books. Lest you think of wizards and wands and dragons…she said that when she got the idea of doing Jane Austen with magic, she thought about what kind of magic her protagonist would be doing. Since they are all upper class of good families, it could not be anything that was too practical because that would be considered “work” and people of their standing did not work. So the magic is of an artistic type. Nevertheless there is still some social friction because the male protagonist’s family doesn’t approve and our main viewpoint character, who is female, is often slighted because it is assumed that being female her talents are of a lesser sort. I’ve read a number of Austeneque books and none of them capture the feel of Austen the way the first book in the series, Shades of Milk and Honey, does. The second book picks up the story and is less Austeneque because they are caught up in Napoleon’s exploits on the continent, but the third book in the series unabashedly follows Austen’s plots of marriageable women and misunderstandings, combined with a very timely plot of unusually cold weather in England (based on history) and the rebellion of “coldmongers” (who ply a special sort of magic) which she based on the Luddite rebellion. The fourth book is just out and I’m looking forward to reading it. The final book in the series is scheduled to be published next April. (She said that five books seemed about right for this series. She is presently working on something else.) She read an excerpt (spoilers removed) from the final book. In addition to being a novelist and short story writer, she’s also a professional puppeteer. Oh, and she made the Regency dress she is wearing in the photos. Out of a tablecloth. I highly recommend not only her books and stories, but her blog and twitter feed. She’s a nice fun person and I really enjoyed meeting her. We had exchanged a few comments on Twitter, but it was good to have a real, albeit brief, conversation. I got to tell her that I discovered her from a Tor.com short story. The ebook was offered free some years back along with some others and I just went down the line buying anything free. The problem is that I didn’t stop to read the blurb. If I had I probably wouldn’t have gotten it because “First Flight” is a time travel story and though there are some time travel things I like (she and I share a love of Dr. Who), I have read or seen so many awful time travel things that I have a sort of instinctive aversion to them. I loved “First Flight”. It was absolutely perfect. I made note of her name then and was subsequently delighted when she joined the guys on the Writing Excuses podcast which I listen to religiously. (They have saved me from some mistakes, but unfortunately, not all. Listening to their podcast is like being in a really fun writing group with really excellent writers.)
I wasn’t familiar with Marie Brennan’s books prior to the reading, but after listening to her read an excerpt from Tropic of Serpents, the latest book in the series, I have put the first book of the series, A Natural History of Dragons, on my summer reading list. I know I’m going to like this series. (Want to know more? She did a terrific interview on the Adventures SciFi Publishing podcast.) The books are a memoir of a lady naturalist who studies dragons. The time period is purposely vague, but more or less Victorian. She got a professional to make her Victorian dress, which was a very striking design. Definitely not something to tackle making with a book tour looming and books to write and read! Both Mary and Marie are very busy. (Mary put out a call for beta readers with a short turn-around for a story that she was working on while on tour, right before the reading last Tuesday.)
Marie Brennan read first then did a show-and-tell with “dragon bones”.
Mary Robinette Kowal read next then did a shadow puppet show.
Afterward there was a Q & A. One funny moment that really stood out was when someone asked (since they both do a lot of research for their books) if they had run across the term “sea diamonds”, which the questioner had come across in another historical novel and was wondering about. Both Mary and Marie instantly took up an alert posture and simultaneously turned around and grabbed their phone or notebook and began saying (again simultaneously) that they didn’t know, but they would see what they could find out. The audience broke up laughing; both of them are such collectors of obscure facts that might be used in a book, such research hounds, that they could not have scripted their identical reactions any more perfectly.
There was a book signing after the reading and Mary gave away a sandalwood fan to anyone who bought a book at the store that night — it didn’t even have to be one of theirs — and asked fans to sign a little book she had brought for that purpose. A nice touch.
I had a wonderful time at the reading and the authors looked to be enjoying themselves, too. My two favorite of the pics below are the one of Mary smiling as she listens to Marie read (which I also posted on Twitter and Facebook) and the one (unfortunately blurred) of Marie Brennan caressing the dragon skull. I’ve now started following her on Twitter, as well.