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Terminal Alliance: Interview with Jim C. Hines

It’s Terminal Alliance day! What that means is that you should scurry to your nearest independent bookseller (or preferred online bookseller) and snag a copy of Jim C. Hines latest novel. Terminal Alliance is the sci-fi epic about space janitors that you never knew you wanted (except for y’all in the back of the class who enjoyed Viscera Cleanup Detail, yeah, I see you). It’s also the post-zombie-apocalypse/space opera novel you scoffed would never work – or you would have, anyway, if it’d occurred to you.

Well, it does work, you do want it, and it’s pretty great. I’ll tell you why in my review later this week. For now, though, enjoy this brief interview I had the pleasure of conducting with Jim a couple of weeks ago – it’ll either whet your appetite for Terminal Alliance or give you some knowing grins if you’ve already read it:

GeekDame: What was your approach to imagining alien species? (You did an amazing job: not a humanoid in the bunch. I love seeing sci-fi that moves beyond human-centric imaginings, especially since novel writers aren’t constrained by a costuming or CGI budget.)

Jim C. Hines: Thanks! Most of my aliens are very loosely based on the more unusual or bizarre life forms we have on Earth. With the Nusurans, for example, I began with tardigrades—microscopic water-dwellers that are practically indestructible. Then I made them several meters long with a ridiculously voracious sex drive. I wanted aliens that weren’t just modified humans, but that human readers would still be able to relate to. My favorite might be the Merrabans. They were a last-minute addition in the final draft, but I love them. They’re so laid-back and chill. “Oh, you blew up my restaurant? No worries. Want some soup?”

GD: So, clearly the aliens are worried about humans reverting to their zombie state if they’re encouraged to eat things orally. Apart from the moments of flavor levity (Willy Wonka in SPAAAACE!), why did you have the Krakau bring back gum?

JCH: The Krakau try to monitor humans pretty closely. The feeding tubes mean they know exactly what humans are eating, and it’s easier for them to keep their humans healthy. Gum is a way for humans to satisfy that oral craving without actually ingesting anything that might mess up the nutritional balance. That and the fear that humans eating “naturally” might trigger a reversion to the feral state. (I suspect the Krakau exaggerate that fear to keep the humans frightened and on their feeding tube regiment.)

Beyond that, I mostly included it for the fun, and to give Monroe a little bit of mystery. How does that man always have a cube of gum, even when he’s been thoroughly searched again and again?

GD: We need to know – who voices Doc in your head? (Or, y’know, for real. I’m sure the Krakau had access to enough data to create a voice they deduce was soothing to humans. I’m betting Morgan Freeman.)

JCH: I didn’t really have a voice in mind as I was writing Doc, but I like the idea of Morgan Freeman living on as the voice of a futuristic AI encoded in a janitor’s monocle. Realistically though, since the Krakau basically created a new Human language for us, they probably synthesized the AI voices on their own. They think of humans as simple creatures, so they’d keep the voices as basic and easy-to-understand as possible. More of a Mister Rogers vibe, by default. Only in Doc’s case, it’s a sarcastic Mister Rogers.

GD: What was your process for selecting each Krakau’s Human name? And is there a mixtape?

JCH: I knew I wanted the Krakau to select human names based on our music, which is closer to the Krakau languages than any human tongues. Since the book takes place long after the end of our world, that meant the Krakau would have to retrieve and restore old recordings. A lot of our history, including music, was probably lost. So I started with lists of more popular songs that were more likely to have been preserved in some form.

I also wanted to make sure the songs I chose were representative of more than just one or two cultures. So you get Scheherazade, from the 19th century Russian opera, or Under the Orange Tree, from a Nigerian children’s song. But you also have a Krakau technician named Final Countdown.

GD: In the All-Purpose Apocalypse*, who would you rather have at your back: Jig the Goblin; Danielle, Snow, and Talia; the Porters; or Mops and her crew? And why, of course!

* Just assume everything that can go bad has gone bad from zombies to Ragnarok to plague to Killer Pastel Ponies with Glitter Death Hooves, and so on.

JCH: The princesses, without a doubt. Jig is fun, but being a goblin, he’d happily stab me in the back and leave me to keep the killer ponies distracted while he ran away. And while Mops and her team do a pretty good job dealing with things, they’re not trained to fight the end of the world.

Whereas the whole point of the Princess series was to bring together three fairy tale princesses and turn them into kick-ass crime-fighters. Given the choice of goblins, space janitors, or a trio made up of Snow White (a witch with mirror magic), Talia (aka Sleeping Beauty, who’s essentially a fairy-gifted ninja), and Danielle (aka Cinderella, with an enchanted glass sword and the ability to talk to animals)? There’s no question.

Thanks for joining us, folks! Come back for my Terminal Alliance review this Thursday, November 9!

Disclosure: purchasing books via affiliate links above will give GeekDame a small kickback.

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Madeleines & Maledictions and the Group Interview

Madeleines & Maledictions is more than a great title – it’s a promising graphic novel project by Lela Gwenn and Valentine Barker brimming with clever mischievousness and steeped in its Southern setting. It also reflects the world as it is in all its colorful glory with a woman of color protagonist, an assistant with a physical disability, and another assistant who’s a handyhuman-slash-makeup artist. It looks just as amazing as it sounds.

Plus, there might be evil cupcakes.

Lela and Valentine – along with Frank Cvetkovic (letterer) and El Anderson (editor) – are running a Kickstarter right now to fund 4 issues of Madeleines & Maledictions. Here’s the official description of the story:

Madeleine Wright is your prototypical debutante-next-door…except the part where she lied to her parents about going to the fancy private college and instead went to pastry school and now she’s on her way to New Orleans to open a bakery. OOPS. But Madeleine isn’t the only one with secrets. Momma Wright never told her about her grandmother, a powerful curse breaker with a supernatural ability that skips a generation. Can Madeleine juggle a brand new business, keep her mother at bay and find and destroy objects of pure evil? Not without help.

Sound good? I know! That’s why I reached out to Lela and asked to interview the whole team. Happily for us, they agreed! Check out the group interview below.

Geek Dame: First off, where (or with who) did Madeleines & Maledictions originate? Did the story come first or the characters?

Lela: I had a kind of vague idea that I wanted to do a “fish out of water” type story where a kind of prissy, debutante type got thrown into a grittier, more supernatural world. There was a lot of back and forth with Valentine– bouncing ideas off of him and then it all just came together. It couldn’t be the story it is without his feedback.

Valentine: Lela approached me with a pretty fleshed out idea, truth be told. There was quite a bit of back and forth as I asked questions to get a better sense of who the characters are, but it seems to help her shape the story.

Geek Dame: We’ve got the elevator pitch for who Madeleine is to start – what about Scoot and Janus? As an aside, I love Janus’ name here – and is there a conversation to be had about the names we choose and the names we’re given? (Riffing here on the idea that Scoot and Janus aren’t necessarily going by their birth/”legal” names.)

Lela: Scoot was named “Shantideva” by her spiritual tourist parents. When they moved on from their “Indian guru” phase they tried out Earth magic and that’s how Scoot ended up with Madeleine’s grandmother. Her parents got bored and moved on, she chose to stay with Valdetta. I grew up in a (very white) Tibetan Buddhist household and spent a chunk of my life as Metok Nyima, so I totally relate to the struggle of inherited appropriation.

 

Janus probably picked their own name. They’ll never tell. But sharing a name with the god of transition, time and duality seems appropriate for a Handyhuman/makeup artist, no?

Geek Dame: Do you extensively storyboard for your scripts, Lela, or is it a more equitable division of labor between you and Valentine on how the script is broken down into panels?

Lela: I script in panels using the Dark Horse method because that was the first thing I found when I googled it, lo those many years ago when I started this journey. As far as art goes, I mostly leave it to Valentine. Why wouldn’t I? He’s a super-genius! I basically like for the whole team to have their own say in their respective areas. If there is confusion, El ( the editor) can hash it out. Every once in a while Valentine claims that he doesn’t understand something I wrote. I think this is mainly to force me to draw sad little stick figures to explain myself.

Valentine: I do full layouts based on the script that Lela delivers — they’re terrible small scribbles that can’t make sense to anyone but me. Sometimes I decide to add panels, sometimes I take them out. It just depends on what I think will serve the story and my sense of humor. And yeah, sometimes I ask Lela for clarification. Her drawings make me smile.

Geek Dame: How do you try to capture the flow of movement from panel to panel, Valentine? (I love that Hat & Knife guy’s flailing results in his torso breaking free of the panel and extending into the framing below.)

Valentine: There’s no real rhyme or reason to it ahead of time… it’s more of an art than a science. Sometimes something sticks out to me as an important piece of story in the script so I’ll try to call it out with a different treatment, but really I kinda feel I’m making it up as I go along. There’s still a lot of back and forth between me and Lela at this point before I even show anything final to the editor. I try to get as many eyes on the pages in progress as I can — if I can get an excited response from Lela I know I’m on the right track.

Geek Dame: What are your guiding principles on speech bubble shape and font choice in lettering on Madeleines & Maledictions, Frank?

Frank: First and foremost, my job as letterer is to marry the script and the art, to make sure that the reading order is clear, and lead the eye through the page without being intrusive or getting in the way of the art. Since Valentine’s characters have a unique curviness to them, I wanted to match that essence in the lettering with big round beautiful balloons. And I chose Blambot’s Mighty Zeo 2.0 to letter the comic with because it has these wonderful little flourishes to the Js and Gs and Ys that almost make you feel like you’re reading Lela’s dialogue with a Creole accent.

Geek Dame: Are there any specific pop culture inspirations or major influences you can point to for Madeleines & Maledictions?

Lela: [The UnbreakableKimmy Schmidt and Friday the 13th: the Series. Valentine says I should say Supernatural, because that sounds cooler…but I’m a nerd y’all.

Valentine: Heh. I’m a nerd, too, but I pitched the story to a few friends as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt meets Friday the 13th: The Series and most people seemed to get lost with that reference. I just think Supernatural is a little more hip and with it — not that I have any idea what’s hip or with it.

Geek Dame: Will there be a complete story told in the four issues you’re funding? How many pages do you expect each issue to be?

Lela: The four issue series is a complete arc. There’s a lot more to tell, but isn’t there always in comics? Each issue should be 23 pages.

Geek Dame: Valentine, can you talk a bit about how you developed the palette and shapes for these characters?

Valentine: That’s a big question! I started drawing cute curvy girls a number of years ago and it’s kind of evolved into my whole schtick. I believe that representation matters and a lot of the women that I know were… disappointed… by the representation of women — especially in comics, so it seemed a natural fit. The other characters such as Janus and The Man (hat & knife guy) were a little more difficult to pin down. Where the women were a little more short and stout I decided to go the other way with the more masculine characters. It helped quite a bit that Lela included her fancast for some of the characters in her initial pitch.

As for the palette? Lela said she wanted the story to take place in New Orleans, and more specifically the Marigny neighborhood in New Orleans, which is bright and colorful. I looked at a lot of reference and had Lela’s voice in my head to make everything bolder and brighter, like Dorothy entering OZ, so it became just a matter of getting the characters to feel they belonged in that world. It became a fun use of color and saturation to distinguish locales and general character development.

Geek Dame: What’s your playlist like for working on Madeleines & Maledictions?

Lela: That’s a Valentine question. I work in quiet (as quiet as my dogs let my house be) or to the sounds of the cheesiest horror film I can find on Netflix.

Valentine: This is kind of embarrassing, but I tend to listen to one playlist that I put together almost ten years ago. It ranges from Cake and the Wallflowers to Rage Against the Machine and Outkast. The playlist is almost exactly three hours long so I know when I’ve heard a song twice it’s probably a good time to take a break. Most importantly it’s familiar background noise that I can mostly tune out.

Geek Dame: And – this is of utmost importance – will there actually BE cursed cupcakes?

Lela: Trust no baked good.

Valentine: Knowing Lela she’s got a few tricks up her sleeve. And, when we reach goal, I plan on getting the cursed cupcake tattooed on my arm, so, yes?

The Madeleines & Malediction Kickstarter runs through Saturday, November 4th. Click through to explore their great backer levels – you could become a character in the graphic novel! – and back this project.

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I’m a big fan of phoenixes. What can I say? Birds that burst into flame and emerge renewed are sort of my aesthetic. I also dig knights who also happen to be ladies, fights against nearly insurmountable odds, and platformers that remind me of playing Super Mario games on my NES back in the 80’s.

When I stumbled across Renaine on Kickstarter, I had to reach out to the dev team behind this game and chat with them about it. Phoenix Knight? Countless lives as part of the story? Bright graphics, fun mechanics, and a remarkable soundtrack? Renaine just might be my next jam! Lucky for me, head developer Squidly was feeling chatty! Check out the interview below.

(The following interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.)

Geek Dame: Tell me about where the game came from – I know it started out as Super Knight Quest. Where did the name Renaine come from, and the mythology of a Phoenix Knight?

Squidly: Super Knight Quest’s transition to Renaine is basically the story of mechanics and story getting married. Essentially the story is this mirror right back at what the player is actually doing – they have infinite lives, as many as they need, to do this impossible task of beating the game. Each time they don’t get stronger stats-wise but they do get better at the game. So I took that concept and made it into the story of Aine, the Phoenix Knight, who is doing just that – she has as many tries as she needs to defeat this Dragon, and yes, your failures are canonical – she won’t get it down the first time. As for the name? Well, knowing the main character’s name should solve half of that.

GD: What was your strategy to achieve a balanced game that appeals to both speedrunners and completionists?

S: So about half of that is happenstance and the other half is solidifying an opportunity. Did I see this coming from a mile away? Hell no. But what I did say is that I wanted an arcadey fun game (and indeed this game was originally made for a legit actual arcade machine,) which by default has to be fast, and has to be responsive. I am actually a huge speedrun fan (could never speedrun myself, though) and one of my first moves was to post this on the speedrun discord. That’s actually the origins of the Renaine Discord – we were told to buster off and take the discussion elsewhere (lol) and so we obliged ?

GD: While playing your demo, I was definitely getting waves of Super Mario Bros. 2 nostalgia – so much so that using a keyboard and not a NES controller was throwing me off! How much is that just part of this particular video game form, and how much is an intentional callback?

S: I wasn’t really thinking of Super Mario Bros 2 necessarily but I was thinking of Super Mario World as well as the original Super Mario Bros. Both games have a very strong sense of “flow.” If you watch speedrunners of those games, you’ll find they almost never stop. That’s one of my objectives with Renaine, actually – if you do know what you’re doing, you should find that you rarely ever stop. All the platforms and all the enemies are on local timers that start when they’re on screen, so you have time to react. This takes the guess work away from the level moving while you’re not interacting with it and puts it firmly in control of the player, which I’m 100% always for.

In addition, the difficulty curve is very Mario-like – it’s not impossible but it’s definitely not easy. I find it much harder to design games with Mario difficulty than the recent ultra-difficulty craze because of how hard it is to keep that ‘flow’ going, where the player can know what they failed at and see noticeable improvement over time. It’s funny, a lot of the difficulty of Renaine comes from the one-life mechanic – you’ll find that in the old Mario games, before the save feature, that’s how you did it – all in one go. Of course you had multiple lives but Aine doesn’t die to one hit by a walking turtle either, it takes at least 6.

GD: Roguelikes are typically characterized in part by permanent character death. Why did you decide to throw that out and go with resurrections (i.e. that phoenix feature)?

S: IMO, there’s two dominant ways of telling a story in a roguelike, either it’s persistent or it always resets. The issue is that when it always resets, you find that you can’t really focus on characters since they’re all erased. But if it’s persistent, you often have to say “well, it’s a new knight that looks just like her.” I didn’t want that. I wanted characters that remembered who you were, and I wanted a clear identifiable player character. It’s funny, the original plot of Renaine had Aine stuck in a time loop – whenever she failed, she would retain her memories but time would reset! I decided against that as soon as towns got involved and I wanted more meaningful progress.

GD: Who are the hearts and minds behind Renaine?

S: Squidly (that’s me!) is the programmer, designer, storywriter, primary animator, and overall main guy. Mason Lieberman is the musician, who’s been with me since about two or three months in to the project and has done an incredible job with the music. Carrion is the newest addition and is the tile artist as well as overall art director, he’s the reason why Renaine doesn’t look as… amateur as it used to be. We’ve had TONS of help along the way, though, and Renaine wouldn’t be anything without all the smaller hands chipping in. SinclaireStrange helped a lot with art/music before Carrion and Mason stepped in. Our poster art was done by the incredibly talented Ayaka. And finally, BM13 helped me a ton with the world building details (to which the whole concept of Renaine would’ve been a LOT weaker) as well as a ton of the concepts of characters in the game’s “high rez” images along with the original symbol for the logo!

GD: The art is truly exquisite and remarkable for such simple graphics. And the bluebirds are my absolute favorite – they convey such birdiness. How did you choose this art style?

S: It was a lot of things coming together at once. Stylistically, I’m inspired by my years playing Maplestory that has permanently and irreversibly cute-ified my art, hence the creatures all looking adorable. The idea of single colored sprites actually came from another game I was doing before as a tech demo that emulated the style of Hero Core – a game entirely done in two colors (white and black.) I adopted this as my dominant spriting style after having a lot of fun with it, and when it came time to do this game I had the idea of coloring in the sprites different colors as a direct contrast to another project I was doing (Authentic Octopus Game) that had hard single colored black sprites for all “living” things and 4 color Gameboy-style backgrounds. So this is the evolution of both of these things getting locked in an abandoned Crayola factory together.

GD: Your music is something else and as vibrant as everything else about Renaine. You mention branching paths keeping the music fresh on your Kickstarter page – do you mean the music evolves as you play and replay?

S: The music doesn’t evolve across runs (though that is a neat idea, actually) but it does evolve across your playthrough of a level. What you’re hearing in Shellwood Forest is actually five tracks overlayed, each an individual instrument, separated into several branches. These then get messed around with depending on where you are in the level and how things are going. When I got Mason on board, I told him specifically to not do chiptune and give me something that sounded like nothing else. Needless to say, sax in the medieval forest isn’t exactly the standard approach to that theme but it works surprisingly well.

GD: How does Mr. Octopus leg it around the forest so well? I love octopi so I ain’t complaining, but there doesn’t seem to be an ocean for miles!

S: The one known as “Mr. Octopus” is actually one of several octopi that make their homes around Lineria. They have different approaches to things, but they all share a common tendency to sell convenient items to wealthy adventurers in extremely dangerous areas. The Shellwood Forest isn’t a place you can just walk right into, let alone haul tons of items. How do they do it? Who knows…

GD: How many levels do you have in mind for Renaine?

S: Five. Well, five in the main quest, as in, if you’re gonna go lay the smack down to the Dragon as quick as possible you need to do five. But these five have alternate paths, levels, and maybe a few secrets (though as a certain mouse said, there are no secrets in this game!). What’s the final tally for levels in the game? You’ll just have to wait and see.

GD: What’s in the pipeline for your team after Renaine? What do you noodle at when you’re taking a break and dreaming of the future?

S: I’ve promised Carrion to work on his Project OvO in some manner after this game, but other than that I’m assuming we’ll go our separate ways. I absolutely love working with both Carrion and Mason, but at heart I’m a drifter who likes to constantly find new people to work with; it keeps things fresh and the art of game design interesting. Anyhow, Authentic Octopus Game needs to be finished in some manner, likely going to be rewritten from the ground up, and other than that I’ve been shooting some ideas with my friend SinclairStrange so you might be seeing a collab then if our schedules align and we find ourselves free to try something.

Renaine is now on Kickstarter – back them before their campaign closes on October 23! You’ll find links for a downloadable demo of Renaine on their Kickstarter page, or you can play it over on Newgrounds

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When I cracked open Molly Ringle’s The Goblins of Bellwater and started reading, I learned one thing very quickly: these are not your Goblin King’s goblins.

You know what I mean – or, well, presumably you do if you grew up in the 1980’s and/or love fairies (good and bad), goblins and Gelflings, not to mention Skeksis and all things Froudian. There is one Goblin King, and Sarah’s not the only one who was transported by his hip-waggling struts of rock’n’roll seduction.

THE PREMISE

Er, but back to Bellwater and it’s terrifying assortment of goblin thieves and all their sticky, sticky fingers. Basically, Bellwater is a town under siege and only one poor fool with a family curse even knows about it:

Most people have no idea goblins live in the woods around the small town of Bellwater, Washington. But some are about to find out. Skye, a young barista and artist, falls victim to a goblin curse in the forest one winter night, rendering her depressed and silenced, unable to speak of what happened. Her older sister, Livy, is at wit’s end trying to understand what’s wrong with her. Local mechanic Kit would know, but he doesn’t talk of such things: he’s the human liaison for the goblin tribe, a job he keeps secret and never wanted, thrust on him by an ancient family contract.Then Kit starts dating Livy, and Skye draws Kit’s cousin Grady into the spell through an enchanted kiss in the woods. Skye and Grady are doomed to become goblins and disappear from humankind forever, unless Livy, the only one untainted by enchantment, can unravel the spell by walking a dangerous magical path of her own.

A woman fighting for her sister? Coffee shops and sketchbooks? Goblins and woods and secret curses and magical bureaucracy? Sign me up! Which Michelle Halket of Central Avenue Publishing kindly did, by sending me the novel for review.

LET’S MEET OUR MAIN CHARACTERS

Kit Sylvain is your typical small town sexy mechanic chainsaw artist with a penchant for carving mythical creatures from illegally collected driftwood. He doesn’t have a lot of personal relationships on account of a goblin curse – if I had a nickel for every time a dude told me that the morning after, I’d… have no nickels. Kit’s a good guy who hates stealing anything that’s not driftwood, but he’s sometimes slow on the uptake.

Skye Darwen is a fantastic artist and professional barista who loves the woods and is ready to make her mark on the world – at least until that old story unfolds: girl meets goblins, goblins force-feed girl a gross pastry, girl wastes away in the world of mortal men. She’s no damsel, though – she fights her curse with thought and choice.

Grady Sylvain loafs about Bellwater as an itinerant chef and grease monkey, putting him in prime position to get caught up in everyone else’s curses while just trying to get a sweet restaurant job in the big city. He’ll be playing the role of damsel in this narrative.

Livy Darwen is a no-nonsense Forest Service employee who swears at litter on the daily; she’s also as fierce a protector of her local environment as she is of her sister. She fights firmly in the rational world, until her world is knocked askew by thieving goblin bastards and the mysterious locals… and Kit, who tumbles her in more ways than one.

A detail from one of Arthur Rackham's "Goblin Market" illustrations.

THEN THERE ARE THE GOBLINS

These goblins are straight out of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” which is ideal since that poem inspired Molly’s novel. They’re misshapen, hooting things filled with violent, larcenous hearts – and they love a good, simple contract with all its opportunities for exploitative mischief. They murder, they assault, they bespell – they inspire lurking unease and inscribe the word goblin once again with genuine fear. Molly’s achievement here is not to be underplayed.

Each goblin is named for the first thing they stole, from Redring their ruler to Flowerwatch their whipping goblin. I kept waiting for Fidget Spinner or iPhone to turn up, but they stayed determinedly off-screen. That’s not really a joke – in considering our modern shiny things, you just know there are younger goblins with those names! (Okay, maybe not the iPod one – I bet Apple’s lawyers can find even a magically shielded goblin in order to defend their trademark.)

BOTTOM LINE

I’m a sucker for stories of family in small towns fighting for each other. Throw in solid Fair Folk mythology, a paranormal romance element that manages to be sexy while playing against mainstream tropes, and a big magical quest being undertaken by a badass lady and you have my attention.

This is also a story about the things we can’t tell each other and how we can love our families but still miss important things. Molly’s descriptions of Skye’s attempts to communicate via her artwork are stunningly visual, and she does a spot-on job of leaving you feeling conflicted but engaged by certain story elements.

There are a few missteps in this novel – the early to mid-novel is plagued by repetitious thoughts from the characters which can quickly become annoying. The mysterious locals and their magical quest don’t feel earned – this story’s so steeped in Old World fairy tale lore that there’s no real room made for the new to breathe and hold its own.

All that said, I enjoyed The Goblins of Bellwater and it’s a quick read: at $3.82 on Kindle, it’s an uncursed treat you shouldn’t deny yourself. I give this novel 4 out of 5 goblin fruits! 

Don’t miss out on Molly Ringle’s guest post here on GeekDame: To Taste Magical Fruit, complete with plum torte recipe!

Notes: The publisher provided me with an Advance Review Copy of this novel; in turn, I provided an honest review. Also, if you click on my affiliate links in this post and make a purchase on Amazon, GeekDame will receive a small kickback.

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To Taste Magical Fruit: Molly Ringle Guest Post

Goblins rule the fruit black market. Don’t believe me? Just ask Christina Rossetti. Goblins have their fingers on forbidden fruit, and the means to put it in your mouth. It’s their collective business. Longing to taste the fruit of the Lotus Tree or a dirigible plum? What would you give to taste the pomegranates from Persephone’s own garden? Come buy, the goblins cry.

It’s funny how they don’t mention what you’ll be paying for the privilege.

Molly Ringle decided to find out, and the result of her imaginative wanderings is The Goblins of Bellwater, a beguiling book due out October 1st from Central Avenue Publishing. I’ll have a review for you later in the week; today, I’m delighted to share with you a guest post from Molly herself! I asked her about magical fruit; she gave me her thoughts and threw in dessert. Enjoy!

To Taste Magical Fruit:
A Guest Post from Molly Ringle

It amuses me to realize I’ve written about magical fruit for four books in a row now. The first three were volumes of one trilogy (Persephone’s Orchard and its sequels), so maybe that only counts as one. But since the series is about Persephone and Hades, naturally I had to include Underworld pomegranates. I also introduced the “golden apple” of immortality, which was actually an orange with magical properties. (“Golden apple” apparently was the phrase often used for oranges in older forms of Greek and other languages.)

However, apparently I wasn’t done with magical fruit, because after I’d finished the trilogy, I chose Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” as the inspiration for my next book, The Goblins of Bellwater. And wow, does that poem ever have a lot of fruit in it. The goblins’ luring call sounds like a lyrical, insane grocery list:

Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South

When a young woman ventures over in curiosity, she ends up in an orgy of tasting, sucking juices from one enchanted fruit after another. As you can guess, she isn’t quite herself anymore once she returns home from that. Accordingly, in my version, I made it a fruit pastry (a blackberry tart) that tempts one of my unlucky protagonists into falling under a spell: the kind of treat we see in the pastry case and just can’t resist when we’re buying a coffee. (I figured sugar was more the vice of the modern day instead of fresh fruit, though naturally I had to involve fruit somehow, as an homage to Rossetti!)

It isn’t just me with a magic-fruit interest, though. Food or drink with magical qualities is a common staple of fairy tales and myths, right up there with magic swords and magic jewelry. After all, people have to eat, which makes us vulnerable. Perhaps because of that vulnerability, and because of the many ways the wrong substances can poison us, humankind’s legends often involve the cardinal rule “Do not eat anything in the otherworld.”

In Greek mythology, Persephone became irrevocably tied to the Underworld when she ate its pomegranate seeds. (You’d think a goddess would know that rule, which makes me think she WANTED to stay with Hades, but that’s a different story…) In fae folklore it’s much the same: if you are ever brave enough to venture into the world of faeries, you are not supposed to accept any of their food or drink, or chances are you’ll never come back to the human realm again. Or if you do return, you’ll be under some spell, which will be no simple matter to shake off.

It goes against our instincts as pack animals: we like to share meals, and indeed sitting down together for meals is, in nearly all cultures, a sign of truce, at least for the length of the meal. If your host poisons you or puts you under a foodborne spell, everyone agrees that’s a pretty low down and dirty move. Nevertheless, when it comes to the fae, the prime thing to remember is that they do not operate under the same cultural rules as we humans.

So indeed, no matter how tempting that blackberry tart looks when some goblin offers it to you in the woods at night, you really shouldn’t bite into it. The residents of Bellwater learn that rule, all too belatedly.

RECIPE

This recipe is not mine; it’s the plum torte recipe run regularly in The New York Times. However, the great thing about it is that it’s not only easy (even for people like me who aren’t very ambitious bakers), but you can adapt it to nearly any fruit. I’ve made it with apples, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries and pears as well as the recommended plums. (I’m starting to sound like Rossetti’s goblins with that list.) You can also play with spices to suit your tastes, though the cinnamon goes with almost everything.

The New York Times’ Original Plum Torte (with Molly’s notes)

INGREDIENTS

  • ¾ to 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened (Molly’s note: I like to substitute coconut oil for a couple of tablespoons of this)
  • 1 cup unbleached flour, sifted (Molly’s note: you can substitute rolled oats for 1/3 or so of the flour, and/or can use gluten-free flour)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt 
  • 2 eggs
  • 24 halves pitted purple plums (or other sliced fruits, however many it takes to cover the top)
  •  Sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon, for topping

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
  3. Spoon the batter into a springform pan of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.
  4. Bake 1 hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired. Or cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream. (To serve a torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat it briefly at 300 degrees.)

Molly Ringle’s The Goblins of Bellwater will be released on October 1st; pre-order it now

All mouth-watering tart photographs by Molly Ringle, and all Pavlovian complaints should be directed to her desk. GeekDame is not responsible for any drastic increase in daily caloric intake resulting from this post. 

“Goblin Market” illustration above by Arthur Rackham.

Disclosure: purchasing books via affiliate links above will give GeekDame a small kickback.

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You can’t deny that the Old West, Wild West, whatever you want to call it is an iconic and powerful space in the collective imagination – especially when you add “weird” to the descriptor, unleashing magic or steampunk or weirder into the setting. From Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series to Michael Chrichton’s Westworld to Firefly to Back to the Future III to Red Dead Redemption (and on!), creators have mined the Old West archetype for all its worth, and found rewarding stories.

So when John Heffernan and his friends decided to develop a custom RPG ruleset built from the ground up to accommodate firearms and using a 52-card deck of standard playing cards, it felt only natural that their setting blossomed into a fantasy world defined by the Weird West. Westbound was born. He’s Kickstarting it now, and it looks phenomenal – I can’t wait to get my roleplaying crew together and give it a go. (Which I can easily do, since the full basic game is available for free on their website!)

I spoke with John recently to find out more about Westbound, his crew of collaborators, and his company Isle of Bees. Read on to check out our conversation!

(The following interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.)

GeekDame: What captured your imagination about the Wild West and inspired you to build a new RPG setting around that concept?

John Heffernan: When we started Westbound, it was originally titled “Dust and Dragons,” because that’s what we knew would be in it. Our mission statement from the beginning was to make a high-fantasy RPG that used firearms in an organic way, without needing to buff melee weapons or nerf firearms.

Once the system was developed, that’s when we had to decide what the theme would be. There was some discussion about setting it in modern times or in a French Musketeers scenario, but we decided on the Wild West setting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it went perfectly with the system we developed, which used cards instead of dice. Drawing a hand had a poker feel, which instantly brought our minds to the old west. We quickly named the first two Sorts “The Gambler” and “The Cowboy,” and from there the setting was entrenched.

Secondly, when it comes to modern firearms, the Wild West was the first age of heroes. A time where one person could make all the difference. Its so robust for storytelling, which is evident in all the film adaptions to the setting.

GD: Introduce us to the Island of Bees. Who are the brains and hearts behind Westbound?

JH: The Island of Bees is a small team with a lot of heart. Westbound is my brainchild. I did all the designing, as well as the logistics, resource management, and recently the marketing.

The other members are largely volunteers, members of what was my D&D group at the time, although now we exclusively play Westbound. (Their request, not mine.) You’ll see them in the videos and they do a lot of editing and proofreading, not to mention being a sounding board for all my ideas.

Lastly, there are the artists, but there are too many to name all of them. Liam Maher does some of my favorite work. He’s fantastic at taking an idea and running with it.

GD: What’s your favorite part of the Westbound setting?

JH: Westbound‘s setting is largely told through the context, especially during character creation. When you make an elf, you’ll see that there is a divide between the City and Country folk and that, in a cruel industrial society, some elves will be child laborers on assembly lines for decades.

The Cael universe has a ton of details, but names, dates, and locations do little to inform a player about a world. Focusing on how the world relates to the player character will create a better feel for the world, as well as being more memorable.

As for favorite part of the setting, I would say its the goblin birthing pools. Its so weird, and disgusting, and informative.

GD: Does each player need only one standard deck of playing cards to play? How about for GMs? And do you plan to offer the custom decks you’ve debuted in the Kickstarter via your website in the future?

JH: The players and GM all have their own deck, although the GM’s use theirs a little differently. As you might imagine, playing a single character is a lot different than playing the entire world!

The custom decks and the book will hit stores as soon as every single item has been delivered to our backers. They’re our prime concern, and we’re in love with each and every one of them. If you’re looking to buy anything from the Island of Bees after the kickstarter, you would want to check in around December.

GD: Several people have mentioned Westbound‘s apparent similarity to Deadlands. Were you inspired by Deadlands in your game creation? Any broad game mechanics you want to mention that set Westbound apart from Deadlands?

JH: We constantly get messages from people relating Westbound to Deadlands. It gets irritating because the games are so vastly different.

As I’ve mentioned before, we created our system and then gave it a Western theme. We had played Deadlands before, but it never came up at all while we were designing Westbound because it was so clearly different to us. Where Deadlands is a Weird West game set in a zombie-filled USA, Westbound is a Fantasy Western set in an industrialized fantasy world.

When it comes to mechanics, its really hard to draw any similarities between Westbound to Deadlands besides the theme. Westbound‘s combat system, exhaustion system, magic system, sorts, breeds, archetypes, character creation, traits… It’s exhausting to mention all the differences, especially when our similarities come down to just Cowboys and Magic.

GD: You’re committed to offering the full game for free via your website, which is fantastic for players on a budget. Are you adding anything to the print version not available in the free rules set?

JH: The Island of Bees is all about Playing and not Paying, like the opposite of a mobile game. Westbound is a game first and a product second, which is why you can find all you need to play online. Our focus from the beginning was to make a cool game for people to play, and making money has never really been a goal, it’s just the side effect of a lot of hard work.

The full version of Westbound will include all the character creation options, visual aids, an expanded bestiary, and of course the gorgeous art. Most of all, you’ll be supporting us in making more Westbound content.

GD: Have you tucked any cameos into your setting? Who would you sneak in if you could?

JH: Westbound is filled with tons of inside jokes. We fit in a player character from our old D&D campaign which was just one of the players playing themselves inside the game. You may come across De Rock the Traveler, so I will give you a warning now about his fire-breathing elephant codpiece.

GD: Ha! Now, on to some just plain fun. What songs would pop up on your Westbound mixtape?

JH: During our Westbound games, the soundtrack of Bastion essentially plays on a loop. That being said, the song “I was the Sun, (Before it was Cool)” from the Starbound soundtrack is my go-to for rising action in any western adventure.

GD: What’s your favorite Western?

JH: Red Dead Redemption was amazing, especially in how it made you feel. I have a vivid memory of a stranger running into town and begging me for help. Aloud I yelled my horses name, “Epona!”, who showed up out of nowhere, picked me up without slowing down, and we rode off to save the poor pilgrim. It was amazing.

GD: Pooka armadillo vs. cactus dryad: who would win?

JH: When it comes to Desert Floramancy, I’m completely biased. I’ve seen what a Cactus Wizard can do first hand, and it involves the “Change Form” spell and a lot of prickly bear hugs.

Westbound has met is funding goals and several stretch goals already on Kickstarter! Head on over to back it yourself – there are 7 days left in the campaign, and tons of cool stuff still to come.

And if you’ve played the Westbound Quickstart game or a proper campaign of this game of Dust and Dragons – come back and tell me what you thought!

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Weekly Round-Up

A while back, I wrote something really personal about superheroes and pop culture and how representation matters – that piece was published last month on ISA Professional’s blog, and I hope you’ll all check it out: Superheroes Save Us from the World.

Read on for what else I’ve published in the last week!

Things that I wrote: 

Dying Your Hair: Before and After Care
Nail Art Inspiration 2017: Curate Your Claws!
Why You Should Brush Your Cat’s Teeth

Things that I listened to:

“Hey Alice” – Rachel Rose Mitchell. This random YouTube suggestion won’t stay out of my Alice in Wonderland-loving head.
“Bones” – MS MR. First discovered this song years ago via The Vampire Diaries; it’s been back in heavy rotation recently.
“Pretty Little Head” – Eliza Rickman. First discovered via Welcome to Night Vale, this is a solo version! Still haunting.

Things that I made: 

Whiteboard Weirdness!

I also made the above graphic design honoring Carrie Fisher and raising mental health awareness, which you can find on a variety of products!

Things that I’m excited about: 

 

 

 

 

 

Click the pics if you fancy purchasing any of the above! I get a modest kickback from Amazon if you do.

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Carrie Fisher was an amazing woman: complicated and brash, outspoken and compassionate. She spoke out about mental health, mental illness, and normalizing its treatment. She lived out loud and helped others be less afraid. Losing her in the world was a blow – not just because I value her acting, value Princess then General Leia in Star Wars – but for all that she was.

There was such an outpouring of love and grief at her death, and her eulogy was written in thousands of anecdotes and farewells and spreading of her best moments across the Internet – including quotes and arguments against sexism, for mental health, delivered with a barbed and humorous tongue.

From one of her many conversations about bipolar disorder, I came across the following: “Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.” I’d been wanting to honor her with my January design, and there it was – her words which I could render graphical – and honor her and raise awareness for mental health both.

This is that design.

The words are in the color combination of a certain brand name of fluoxetine, warped into a capsule shape. I have made a number of products featuring this design available to you at my Zazzle shop, What Duck?, and my Redbubble shop.

You can pick up this design on the following items:
A large refrigerator magnet.
A standard-sized button.
A really lovely tote bag or a different tote or a drawstring bag.
A profusion of shirt types and a hoodie.
A great throw pillow.
Both mugs and travel mugs.
A selection of notebooks.
A series of wall art.

If you’d like anything else, I take requests – so hit the comments.

P.S. If you were a member of my Patreon, you could have received a Limited Edition Postcard of this design as a perk!

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