Today, please help me welcome author J. Kathleen Cheney to Preternatura. Kathleen has stopped by today to talk about the challenge of weaving fantastical creatures into writing. Kathleen’s novel, The Golden City, a historical fantasy, will be released on Nov. 5 by Penguin (Roc Trade). [And it sounds ah-mazing!)
J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. The Golden City is her debut novel. You can learn more about Kathleen by visiting her website
or by following her on twitter
ABOUT THE GOLDEN CITY: For two years, Oriana Paredes has been a spy among the social elite of the Golden City, reporting back to her people, the sereia, sea folk banned from the city’s shores….When her employer and only confidante decides to elope, Oriana agrees to accompany her to Paris. But before they can depart, the two women are abducted and left to drown. Trapped beneath the waves, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive while she is forced to watch her only friend die. Vowing vengeance, Oriana crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira—a police consultant who has been investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the city’s wealthiest homes. Duilio also has a secret: He is a seer and his gifts have led him to Oriana. Bound by their secrets, not trusting each other completely yet having no choice but to work together, Oriana and Duilio must expose a twisted plot of magic so dark that it could cause the very fabric of history to come undone….
And now, let’s hear from Kathleen, and hear about twisting some of fantasy’s tropes, which, if you’ve read this blog for long, you know is one of my favorite subjects (and favorite things to do in my own novels…hello? Cajun shapeshifting mermen in Louisiana, anyone?).
When I Mess with Your Tropes…
J. Kathleen Cheney
My debut novel is The Golden City, a historical fantasy set in 1902 Portugal. If you recall (from your high school geography class) what their map looks like, the country is mostly coastline, so in my work the Portuguese have been dealing with various sea folk for centuries: sereia, selkies, and otterfolk.
It’s always a challenge to write a fantastical creature. Each author has his or her own level of comfort with magic. When I started to consider what made my sereia (that’s simply Portuguese for “siren”) different than humans, I thought of them in terms of evolution. They have aspects that make them suited for life in the water: they have gills, webbing between their fingers that allows them to sense movement in the water, and large flat feet and large hands.
But they don’t have a fish tails. Instead, I chose to treat the fish tail aspect as a sailors’ myth. It’s actually protective coloration. A sereia’s skin has a scale patterning that allows them to mimic a large predatory fish. In the case of my heroine, her people’s scale patterns mimic a blackfin tuna. That translates into a black dorsal stripe with blue edging and a silver body. (I never did understand why a mermaid would have a greentail.) On the whole, I was happy with how well my evolutionary concept of the sereia worked out.
Then I started working on the selkies. Now selkies are creatures who live much of their lives in the guise of seals. When they remove their pelts, however, they take on human form. There are many stories of a man stealing a selkie’s pelt and marrying her.
When I thought of selkies in terms of evolution, I looked at the structure of seal harems. Male seals often have large harems of females, sometimes as many as fifty. So when I cast my selkies, I had their social structure imitate real life. The selkies live in a harem with one male, although he’s more subject to his harem than their ruler.
One thing I wasn’t able to explain, though, was the shape-shifting aspect of the selkies. Now, I’ve written shapeshifters before. In my novella “Iron Shoes” I introduce pucas, who essentially convert themselves to energy and then back to mass in a different form. In some of my other fiction, I have shape-shifters who change their outer appearance only, like our real world’s fabulous biological shape-shifters, the cuttlefish.
But I still haven’t figured out a way to explain those selkies. They take off their pelts and they’re human. How exactly that works, I don’t know.
Yes, I’m probably not supposed to admit that. As the author, I should probably have a technical explanation for how everything in my universe happens. But this time I’m taking it on faith. It’s magic.
And I’m sure that someone will read about my selkies or my sereia and not like the decisions I made. I understand completely. Some people have ways they like things done. But I hope you will give them a chance…
What or who are some of your favorite mythical characters in books? Do you expect the author to explain exactly how they work or are you more willing to accept them for the fun of the story? Leave a comment to be entered for your chance to win a copy of The Golden City!