Friday, June 28, 2019

Fantasy or Sci-Fi? What is Steampunk REALLY?

Hey'a, everyone! So, first of all: in case you haven't seen already, signups are open for both the Golden Braids blog tour and ARC copies of the Golden Braids books, including Mechanical Heart. If you want to help promote any of these books, please do sign up! We've got plenty of spots still open!

One unexpected question I've had to deal with in the process of publishing Mechanical Heart is what exactly steampunk is. I don't just mean in the sense of "what are the characteristics of the genre?" (though I have gotten that question a few more times than I expected). The question I'm referring to is whether steampunk is considered fantasy or science fiction. Opinions vary depending on who you ask, so I thought I'd weigh in with my view on the subject. Essentially, I'm going to evaluate five common elements or tropes of the genre, decide if they fall more in line with sci-fi or fantasy, and decide based on that. So, let's go!

 Fantasy or Sci-Fi? What is Steampunk REALLY?

  1. Element: A Victorian or Victorian-esque Setting. The core of steampunk is that it's a sort of alternate version of the Victorian Era (that is, the years from 1837 to 1901). This alternate may be set on Earth and simply have different technology and different history, like we find in The Invisible Library. It might also be set in a different world that simply shares much of the culture, social issues, social classes, and general aesthetics of the Victorian Era, as is the case in The Aeronaut's Windlass. This alternate usually reflects either England or America during those years, though it doesn't have to — you could very well have steampunk in China, India, or anywhere else.
    Verdict: Inconclusive. If you stay on Earth, both sci-fi and fantasy have alternate history subgenres (of which steampunk could be a further subgenre). If you go to another world, that would seem to indicate fantasy . . . but you could make the argument that these other worlds are simply other planets or dimensions, which would be characteristic of sci-fi. 
  2. Element: Focus on Improbable Science, Technology, and Gadgets. Steampunk may resemble the Victorian Era in many ways, but its technology is usually advanced in ways that the real Victorians only dreamed about. The degree depends on the story, but you shouldn't be surprised to find anything from a horseless carriage to airships to whole floating cities in a steampunk novel. And, of course, a lot of steampunk involves gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. Sometimes the science behind this tech is a major focus of the story; sometimes it's not — but the tech itself is almost always significant.
    Verdict: Sci-fi. The focus on technology is one of the main elements that I would say separates steampunk from gaslamp fantasy — a similar genre that's solidly in the fantasy side of the family due to its focus on magic over technology. (H.L. Burke's Spellsmith & Carver is a good example of this genre; though steampunk-esque tech is present and even plays a fairly significant role in the second book, the story is really interested in the magic of the world.) And I'd almost say that steampunk's love of tech is enough to put it solidly in sci-fi, except for one caveat . . .
  3. Element: Alternative Power Sources. And I don't mean solar powered! Traditionally, the technology of steampunk is powered by steam, as the name suggests, along with a fair bit of clockwork. But, here's the thing: many steampunk authors are not particularly mechanically minded, and they like their technology in their stories to run a little smaller than steam power requires. So, they invent other types of power. Often, this alternate source is aether or another fictional element or compound. But sometimes, it's just straight-up magic used in a very scientific way.
    Verdict: Mostly sci-fi. Look, the steam power falls under the purview of sci-fi. Even aether and such can qualify as sci-fi; even if it's improbable that we wouldn't have discovered such an element or compound by now if it existed. But one cannot ignore the number of times that magic pops up in sci-fi books — and the fact that it's treated scientifically doesn't change the fact that fantasy is a solidly fantasy element.
  4. Element: Scientists and Statesmen (Character Types). Just like any other genre, steampunk has its common character types. Obviously, you'll find a fair number of scientists and inventors — someone has to make all those gadgets we were just talking about. You have politicians, nobles, and other high-society folk, along with the requisite spies and assassins they employ against one another. And you've got street scoundrels, thieves, and occasional airship pirates to round things out and keep everything interesting (as if the assassins don't do that well enough on their own). Obviously, not every character in a steampunk novel will fit one of these types — but most do.
    Verdict: Inconclusive overall, though with slight sci-fi leanings. Many of these character types are common in both fantasy and sci-fi: you're as likely to find a spy, assassin, or thief in fantasy as you are in sci-fi these days, and nobles and high-society folk are more common in fantasy than they are in most science fiction (though there are some differences between fantasy nobles and steampunk nobles). Scientists and inventors, of course, are more sci-fi — in fantasy, the learned people tend to be more focused on history and literature. And airship pirates have cousins in both fantasy and sci-fi, but the sci-fi side of the family is definitely bigger.
  5. Element: Localized Plots. As a general, steampunk plots aren't interested in world-domination plots or attempts to destroy the universe. There are exceptions, of course — The Invisible Library, for instance — but in general, steampunk stories focus on one person, one family, one city, or one country at most.
    Verdict: Inconclusive. Granted, fantasy is best known for epic, world-spanning quests — but there's a whole subgenre, low fantasy, that has localized plots as a major characteristic. And, really, many of the most famous sci-fi stories deal with plots as large and epic as you'd find in any fantasy novel. So, once again, steampunk resembles both of its possible parent genres.
So, where does steampunk fit? In some ways, it's best to take it on a case-by-case basis. Check what powers the world's technology, see what character types the story focuses on, and go from there. But if I had to characterize the genre as a whole, I'd put it under the crossover genre of science fantasy: a little too tech-focused to be straight-up fantasy; a little too fantastical to be hard-core sci-fi. And, y'know, that's not a bad thing. In many ways, science fantasy is the best of both worlds, a place where heroes carry both swords and cell phones and where magic and science exist side-by-side and even in cooperation with each other. It's a place where realism and wonder come together and make something beautiful.

That's my view, anyway. What about you? What do you think steampunk is? Please tell me in the comments! And don't forget to sign up for the blog tour!
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade)

Friday, June 21, 2019

Summer 2019 Reads!

Hello, everyone! It's summer! Admittedly, it's felt like summer here for quite a while now . . . but this means I finally get to yell about all the new books coming out, and we all know that's the highlight of this season. It's the highlight of almost every season, really. That and NaNoWriMo. (Yet another reason why winter is actually horrible: it's the only season with no NaNoWriMo event. But I digress.) And this summer has a particularly awesome lineup, so let's get started!

Summer 2019 Reads!

1. Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson (June 4). Aaaahhhhh the author of An Enchantment of Ravens (aka that book that I yelled about a lot two winters ago) released another book! And it's about a librarian! And living books that turn into monsters! And enemies-to-lovers romance! And a sorcerer who sounds like he's going to be GOLD to read about! I need this book now! And I probably won't stop yelling about it for a month after I read it!

2. Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon by Mary Fan (June 4). Ok, so I have a few reservations about this one, but on the other hand? Steampunk Asian fantasy? Featuring, apparently, epic journeys and worldbuilding? I'll give it a shot. I just hope the author doesn't make the mistake of letting the inevitable romance overwhelm the plot.

3. Wicked Fox by Kat Cho (June 25). This is another one where I have reservations, but it's more Asian fantasy (urban fantasy this time!) and I need more urban fantasy in my life, so how can I really refuse? The main characters are probably going to spend a ton of time angsting and being illogical, but I'm hoping that the urban fantasy setting and Korean lore and the actual plot will make up for it.

4. Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim (July 9). Is this the summer of Asian fantasy or something? I feel like I should be releasing a sequel to Blood in the Snow to keep the theme going. But anyway — storms YES to this book. Just from the synopsis's description of the protagonist, I'm getting vibes of Creel (from Dragon Slippers; she's a rather underrated heroine who I didn't appreciate enough when I originally met her). And I absolutely love the whole "make a dress from the stars/sun/moon/other improbable light source" trope, and I'm excited to see how it plays out here. And yeah. I'm excited.

5. Before I Disappear by Danielle Stinson (July 23). Oh, look! Contemporary fantasy! Which will probably be really angsty, but it's a genre I don't read enough of, and it's about siblings, and I can't not give it a chance, ok? Anyway, I can live with angst. And the book sounds like it has the potential to be truly and properly terrifying in a good way, so it's got that going for it. (Fun fact: I don't like straight-up horror, but I do like books in other genres that'll give me a good scare before reminding me that evil never triumphs.)

6. Hair We Go Again by Kendra E. Ardnek (August 5). The first of the Golden Braids collection! I've already preordered this one — I mean, technically I've also already read it, or most of it, but y'know. Bookania just keeps getting better, even if I get super frustrated with certain characters in this one. On the upside, I can tell you now that Maryanne is adorable, and Kendra's take on Rapunzel is pretty fabulous. And, again, we need more books that take place after Ever After.

7. Molly Storm by Annie Twitchell (August 6). Another Golden Braids book! This one is basically Rapunzel in a lighthouse, and I am HERE FOR IT. And it's told from the perspective of the witch, which should be pretty cool. It's technically a short story instead of a full-on book, but y'know, I'm ok with that.

8. House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig (August 6). Wait, this isn't a Golden Braids book . . . but hello, new Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling! I haven't read a new 12DP retelling in a while, not since The City Beyond the Glass. And this author seems to understand quite well that if your 12DP retelling isn't at least a tiny bit creepy, you're doing it wrong. Actually, her story sounds like it'll be more than a tiny bit creepy — which suits me fine as long as it doesn't go full-on horror. Like I said a few books ago, I enjoy a good scare as long as good wins in the end.

9. Mechanical Heart by Sarah Pennington (August 7). Oh, hey, this looks familiar. Yeah, my new book is coming out this summer with the Golden Braids collection! If you like steampunk and politics and friendship and siblings (and more than a bit of deaf representation), you'll hopefully like this. I don't know; I'm just super excited to share it with y'all!

10. Rebekah's Refuge by Meredith Leigh Burton (August 8). More Golden Braids! Apparently this is Western fantasy, so that's cool. And it sounds like a beautiful story and maybe a bit of found family? Though we'll see how Meredith plays the tale out . . .

11. The Dragon's Flower by Wyn Estelle Owens (August 9). One last Asian fantasy and one last Golden Braid! I've read snippets of this story in the Arista's Challenge Facebook group, and I am super excited to get the full story. Her samurai character, Shichiro, sounds like a wonderful mess who I look forward to spending time with, and her Rapunzel sounds pretty cool too.

12. The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais (August 13). Ok, so it's contemporary and I almost never read contemporary, but it's also about a deaf girl going to a hearing school, and I want to know how the author is handling the deaf perspective and sign language, so, yeah. I'm reading it. It does sound interesting, if likely to involve angst.

What books are you looking forward to this summer? Please tell me in the comments! I can always use more additions to my TBR list! (That's actually true; I have given up on actually conquering it and instead just want to get as many awesome options on there as possible.)
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Who Wants to See Mechanical Heart's Cover?

Hey'a, everyone! Last night, over on Facebook, we had the cover reveal for the Golden Braids group release, this year's Arista Challenge group release. It was a great time, but since I know not everyone could make it out there, I'm sharing the shinies here too.

And, yes, if you were wondering, this means that I am officially publishing Mechanical Heart with the Arista Challenge this summer. I mean, I was going to publish it sometime soon no matter what happened; I've put in too much work not to. But I'm excited to be joining Kendra's group again. The group release will run from August 5th to August 9th, and Mechanical Heart specifically releases on August 7th.

Ok, enough of me trying to increase the suspense. Let's see the shiny!

Can you save someone who doesn’t know if she’s alive?

Breen lives locked away, separated from the world by the walls of her clock tower and the machine of gems, gears, and magic that replaces her heart. That is, until an unexpected visitor appears in her tower, offering a dangerous gift: freedom. His promises awaken hope for a life unbound by the tower walls — but she knows that if he learns about her heart, it’s only a matter of time before he turns on her.

Josiah is powerless. Though he’s the crown prince of the mighty Chanian empire, he feels stifled by his inability to protect his people from the schemes of corrupt nobles. When he discovers a girl trapped in a locked clock tower, he thinks he’s finally found a problem he can solve . . . but more than just walls keep her captive.

From the royal palace to the streets of Rivenford to the tops of clock towers, secrets hide around every corner in this steampunk retelling of Rapunzel. Breen and Josiah hold the keys to each other's struggles — if they can break down the barriers that divide them.

As those of you who've been reading my blog for a while might know, this is a story that's been in the works for a while. I mean, obviously I've been rewriting and editing like mad over the course of the last year, trying to weave all the plot threads and characters and details into their proper form. But I first drafted this back in summer of 2016 — and I came up with the earliest version of the story all the way back in 2014! It's not the earliest story that I eventually want to share, but it's definitely a good bit older than Blood in the Snow. And now I finally get to share it with you. I'm so excited!

Oh, and while I have you here, can I just say how much I love my cover? Savannah Jezowski of Dragonpen Press/Dragonpen Designs created it for me, and I think she did an amazing job. No lie; she emailed me the very first iteration and I did a legit happy dance. I was that excited — and it just got better from there. If you're also looking for a cover, I absolutely recommend her services. She's a storming magician, and I say this as someone who knows how to use Photoshop fairly well herself.
Ok, I'm done. Go preorder Mechanical Heart, if you don't mind. Or at least add it to your Goodreads shelves. Thanks muchly. And while you're at it, go check out the other Golden Braids books: Hair We Go Again, Rebekah's Refuge, Molly Storm, and The Dragon's Flower.
Have a lovely day!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade)

Friday, June 14, 2019

What Makes a Villain? (Favorite Villain Tropes!)

Villains. You can't have a story without one . . . Well, not if you're writing fantasy or speculative fiction, anyway. I talked a long time ago about my favorite villains (though I'm not linking the post; my opinions have changed somewhat since then). Today, however, I'm talking about the things that make me like a villain — in the as a villain sense; not in the 2012-Loki-fangirls sense. In short, I'm discussing my favorite villain tropes. (Many thanks to my sister for requesting the topic!)

Links go to the appropriate page on the TV Tropes site, though some of the tropes here are actually combinations of multiple tropes. Be warned, it's a bit of a black hole over there.

 Favorite Villain Tropes

  1. The Gentleman Villain. Ok, so this actually encompasses multiple tropes, but the point is: this is a villain with class. He has a charismatic personality, impeccable manners, excellent taste, and an excellent education— or, at the very least, a well-trained mind. However, he also has a mind so devious he can outthink anyone and anything, a healthy dose of common sense, and the nerve to take on enormous challenges and go toe to toe with the hero when the situation demands it. He’s also completely unapologetic about his villainy. Sometimes that’s because he really believes that his goal is just and good— and, in those cases, he often does have a good point, just a poor execution. But in other cases— the ones I enjoy more— he genuinely enjoys his villainy, and he does it with such style and nerve that you can’t help but enjoy him as a character, and even, in some odd way, respect him despite his lack of morals.
  2. The Faux Affably Evil Villain. This is connected to the Gentleman Villain, but slightly different. Basically, this is the villain who greets the hero cheerfully and politely while attempting to kill him, who insists that the captured hero join him for dinner (before said hero is to be interrogated, tortured, and/or killed), and who is quite likely to give the hero advice while they're fighting. The niceness is an act, and both hero and villain know it — but, done right, it can make the villain so much fun to read, especially when they're doing it out of a sense of strange personal morals or because they find it more satisfying or interesting than just acting straight-up villainous. It shows they've thought about their identity and their villainous image (which I appreciate; building your brand and sticking with it is important, even if you're evil). Plus, a faux affably evil villain is rarely angsty, and angsty villains are often the worst unless the angst is setting them up for a heel-face turn.
  3. The villain complimenting the hero and the hero being offended. This kind of goes with the previous trope, but a villain who compliments the hero while in combat (whether physical, verbal, or other)? Delightful. If it's genuine, it builds up the idea that the villain is highly competent, since he doesn't feel the need to attack the hero's self-confidence. If it's sarcastic, it can be either a wonderfully humorous exchange or a stunningly dramatic blow to the hero's internal state that will trigger new steps in the hero's character arc. Basically, no matter how you do it, as long as you do it well, this trope is a winner.
  4. Evil has standards and the hero-enemy teamup. Preferably when the latter results from the former (though the latter doesn't have to involve an outright villain all the time; it can just be a rival of the hero). When you have this situation, it means two things. First, you have a villain with standards, which is typically more interesting than a villain with no morals at all. Second, it means that there's a bigger, badder villain in the book who's powerful and maniacal enough to force the hero and the villain to call a temporary truce and work together in some fashion. Bonus points if the temporary team-up leads to a reasonable heel-face turn for the villain and the team-up becomes permanent . . . but even if it doesn't, watching the hero and villain try to interact and work together is sure to be gold.
  5. Genre-savvy villains. Again, not sure if this is actually a trope, but this is a villain who's read the Evil Overlord List (or who's intelligent enough to know what to avoid) and has made very conscious decisions about what to do and not to do. Bonus points if the villain uses his genre-savvy-ness to lure the heroes (and readers) into a trap — if he seems to be making all the classic blunders, but is instead using those "blunders" to make sure the heroes make exactly the choices he wants them to and play right into his hands. Then, when the time comes, he provides himself dazzlingly competent, which makes his defeat or the heroes' narrow escape (whichever one is appropriate) all the more amazing and thrilling.
What are your favorite villain tropes? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade)

P.S. Sorry about the missing post last week. We went to Hershey Park on Thursday, and then I spent all Friday catching up on the stuff I intended to do in the car but didn't get done. Thanks for understanding!