Sirens and Selkies-and Modifying Myths–Meet J. Kathleen Cheney and Win a Book

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 websiteor 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…
Thanks, Kathleen. 

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!

29 thoughts on “Sirens and Selkies-and Modifying Myths–Meet J. Kathleen Cheney and Win a Book

  1. I like all kind of mythical creatures. And unless it’s an unusual trait like nanos in Lynsay Sands’ vampires which is important to the story I’m willing to just enjoy the myths as they fit into the story.

  2. Zombies!!!
    And I don’t need an explanation unless it’s important for the story or a classic monster is used, but the author changed very important things. I mean: a vampire walking around by day and sparkling for example: yeah: I want that explained.

  3. I just go with the flow with my mythical creatures. As long as the author doesn’t contradict her characters, it all works for me.

  4. thank you for the nice post, I really love the cover! So my fav mythical characters? I think I would say Faes, I’m always very curious about them. And about the work, it’s ok for me, as soon as I have a good story, I’m more than happy!

  5. as general rule i love mystical and mythical creatures^^ and if teh author manage to draw me in the story no i don’t need all teh technical aspect^^ magic suffice, a shimmering before transformation can work^^ after all we can imagien all the explantion possible as long as we don’t meet a real one we won’t know^^

  6. I love all paranormal & mythical characters because they all have something unique and special about them. The author can add their own special touch and it works. I don’t like a book to go into to much detail about how they work, but to give enough that I understand what the character is suppose to be and what the author envisioned so that I can picture their lives in my head. Thanks for sharing this great sounding book! Congrats Kathleen on your debut novel. vampireroyal at

  7. I love mermaids or any aquatic creatures. I ‘m still looking for a good mermaid book. I read a couple of YA mermaid story………but nothing was really interesting enough to continue !!!

  8. OoHh sea-folks! I enjoy reading about all mythical creatures/beings, but since The Golden City deals with sea-folks, a notable character I particular love is Hank, the Siren from Kelly Gay’s Charlie Madigan series.

    I don’t always need explanation, since I’m always looking for a good story and cast of characters.

  9. I have a soft spot for dragons, personally.
    To me, unless there is some particular twist to a mythos that makes it differ vastly from the standard mythology, I don’t really need an explanation.

  10. I like all the mythical and magical creatures, but I think dragons are my favorite. I also don’t need a detailed explanation because this is fiction. Your book looks intriguing. I will have to add it to my TBR mountain.

  11. I really like the fae (kind of broad, I know.) And I do like some explanation since every author’s world has different ‘rules,’ but I don’t like lengthy, detailed explanations or constantly needing to explain characteristics so that I can understand the story.

    • This is one of those things we rarely see in ficiton…generally people like to stay away from anything ‘unlimited’ because it implies infinite powers. I think that’s one reason we don’t often see it…

  12. I love all kinds of mythical and mystical beings. I generally just go with the flow of what the authors wants if it fits into the story.

  13. I love reading about all types of mythical creatures, especially vampires. I am fascinated by the creative world-building of many authors and I do not need a realistic explanation of how things work. I just enjoy the fantasy and magic!

  14. I love all kinds of mythical creatures. Some of my favorites are dragons, gryphons and witches.
    I don’t usually need an explanation unless its important to understand the world or story line.

  15. I love dragons! I pretty much love all mythical creatures except for zombies. Not really into them. 🙁 I don’t really need an explanation unless it is vital to the story. The Golden City sounds great. Congrats on your debut!

  16. I like to see proof of at least SOME technical forethought on the author’s end evidenced in the novel. It eases my mind when it’s clear that they’ve really thought through the creatures and their traits/behaviors and how that would influence the plot. It bothers me to no end when I read a book and it’s clear that the author just threw something in because it sounded cool. I don’t need a wikipedia entry IN the novel, I just want to know that the author’s thought about it.

  17. I love Seanan Mcguire’s October Daye series where she spotlights the fae and how they “live” in modern society. My fav character of her’s is the Luidaeg, the sea witch 🙂