Fantastic History #29: Dasa Mahavidya–The Ten Great Wisdoms by Rati Mehrotra

I’m often asked about the inspiration behind my books Markswoman and Mahimata. The answer varies, because there are so many things that come to mind: the science fantasies I read as a teen; Star Trek, which aired weekly on our lone television channel and which the entire family watched, along with assorted friends and neighbors; the comics I borrowed from the local bookstore (they had a lending scheme, much more affordable than buying books.)

But the bedrock of my world building for the Asiana duology was Hindu mythology. I grew up listening to stories from the epics and the Puranas. And the stories that most fascinated me were those of the Mother Goddess in all her terrible, beautiful forms, ranging from the fearsome warrior Kali to the lovely Tripura Sundari. So today, I want to tell you about the Dasa Mahavidya, or the Ten Great Wisdoms: ten forms of Adishakti, as manifested by Sati, the wife of God Shiva.

The story goes that Shiva wanted to prevent Sati from attending a ritual sacrifice conducted by her father Daksha, the world-king and son of God Brahma. Daksha had invited all the gods and goddesses except them; in fact, his whole purpose was to insult Shiva, because he hated Shiva, and Sati had married him against his wishes. Shiva knew that nothing good would come of Sati going to her father’s palace. In fact, being Trikaldarshi (knowing all three aspects of time), Shiva knew exactly what would happen, but it appears that knowing fate does not allow even Gods to change what lies ahead.

When Shiva forbade Sati from going, she became enraged. She manifested ten forms of the Mother Goddess, one for each cardinal direction (N, S, W, E, NE, SE, SW, NW, skyward and downward). They surrounded Shiva, preventing him from escaping. These ten forms are known as the Dasa Mahavidya. Eventually, Shiva had to agree to let Sati go to her father’s ritual – with rather terrible consequences, I might add. Daksha insulted Sati and she immolated herself, bringing the wrath of Shiva down on Daksha and his army. In his grief and rage, Shiva invoked his Veerbhadra avatar who decapitated Daksha. But that’s a story for another day.

Each Mahavidya has her own unique name, appearance, mantras, and powers. Here are the first five of them.

Kali, The Supreme Reality

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma – Public Domain

Kali is the first among the Mahavidyas, because she comes before time, and before light itself. Black-skinned and four-armed, she wears a garland of fifty-two skulls, representing the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, and also the mortality of her human children. In one of her hands she holds the sword of enlightenment, and from another hand dangles a severed human head, representing the ego.

My favorite story of Goddess Kali is how she destroyed the demon Raktabija. He had a boon that every drop of his blood that fell to the ground would duplicate his entire form. Kali lopped off his head and stretched her long tongue to drink all his blood before it could fall. After vanquishing the demons, Kali began a wild victory dance. The gods begged Shiva to stop her before she destroyed the world. Shiva lay down on her path, and she stepped on him by mistake. When she noticed her husband below her feet, she calmed down. That is why she is often depicted like this, with her foot on Shiva.

Tara, The Compassionate


Similar in appearance to Kali, Tara is the maternal, peaceful aspect of the Goddess, who helps her devotees cross the turbulent seas of deceit to the shore of enlightenment. She is sometimes depicted as breastfeeding Shiva, and the reason for that is a very interesting episode from the Puranas called Samudra Manthan, or the churning of the ocean. The gods formed an alliance with the asuras (demons, for lack of a better word, but they are practically cousins to the gods and there is often little to choose between the two) to churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality which they would then share amongst themselves (the gods were lying – they had no intention of sharing). The churning released a number of things from the ocean, including a terrible poison that could destroy all three worlds. Shiva drank the poison to save all of creation, but fell unconscious from its effects. Goddess Tara appeared, put him in her lap, and suckled him. The healing power of her milk brought him back to life.

Tripura Sundari, The Beautiful


The third Mahavidya is named Tripura Sundari. Tri means three, pura can refer to city or citadel or world, and Sundari means beautiful. So her name literally means she who is beautiful in all three worlds: the material, the astral, and the causal. A less literal, but more meaningful interpretation is that she represents the beauty of pure perception, the supreme consciousness above everything else. She is most often represented as seated on Shiva who is lying on a throne. The legs of the throne are formed by the gods Brahma, Vishnu and various forms of Shiva. This shows her supremacy to all the other gods. Her origin story is fairly complicated; suffice it to say that it involves the killing of a powerful demon, the meddling of various gods, the death of Kamadeva, the god of love, by an angered Shiva, and his subsequent reincarnation.

Bhuvaneshvari, The World Mother


Bhuvana means universe and isvari means sovereign. The fourth Mahividya is the ruler of the entire cosmos. The universe begins and ends in her. Just as Kali represents Time, so Bhuvaneshvari represents Space. These two Mahavidya thus represent the two main aspects of the Mother Goddess: the infinite, and the eternal. Bhuvaneshvari also represents maya, or illusion, which veils ultimate reality. My favorite story about her goes like this: once, the Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were arguing over who among them was most important and powerful in the universe. The Goddess Bhuvaneshvari intervened and enlightened them that she was the creator of the universe, and also of themselves. Then she gave them her shakti, or energy, in the form of the Goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati to help them create, preserve and manage the world – until its ultimate destruction, when the cycle will start anew.

Bhairavi The Fierce


Bhairavi is the fierce manifestation of the Goddess, quite close to Kali herself. She hates and punishes evil-doers. Her consort is Bhairava, the equally fierce manifestation of God Shiva.

One of Bhairavi’s forms is Chandi, a ferocious goddess who helps Kali destroy the demon Raktabija, he of the boon regarding spilled blood. Chandi is also famous for destroying the demons Chanda and Munda. She is fearless, and inspires fearlessness in her devotees as well.

She is often depicted seated on her loyal donkey, her mouth stained with demon blood, another hand holding a blood-stained sword. But she is not only a warrior goddess. Bhairavi is also the Goddess of Speech, with the potential to destroy all opposition to spiritual growth. She is thus the remover of all obstacles, physical and mental, on the path of spiritual evolution.

The remaining Mahavidya are Chhinnamasta, who decapitated herself to feed her disciples, Dhumavati the widow, who swallowed her own husband Shiva, Bagalamukhi, who has great supernatural power over her enemies, Matangi, Goddess of all outcastes, who represents the divine self which is left over when all else perishes, and lastly the graceful Kamala, none other than Laxmi herself, Goddess of wealth, and wife of Vishnu.

The names and forms of the Goddess are many, yet the ultimate truth is one, which is a basic tenet of many traditions of Hinduism. I didn’t see it that way when I was a child, of course. Then, stories were just stories. But the most powerful stories are those that stay with us, that we think more about as we get older, that have layers we can peel one by one, discovering something new each time. This is how Indian mythology feels like to me – a vast, rich treasure house of stories with multiple versions that never fail to delight, entertain, and illuminate.


Rati Mehrotra lives in Toronto, Canada. Her first book Markswoman was published in January, 2018 and the sequel Mahimata in March, 2019. She also enjoys reading and writing short stories.

Fantastic History #28: Because I Live in a Small Town by Catherine Schaff-Stump

A project I began about 10 years ago, currently on the back burner is the story of three teenage trolls who live in Decorah, Iowa, the premiere vanguard of Norwegian immigrants in the state. As a small town Iowan myself, I can extrapolate what life might be like living in Decorah, but for the details I needed, I needed field work. One thing I admire about really good urban fantasy is the setting becomes a character in the story, and in this novel I am striving for this. Decorah is a unique place where I could interpret traditional Norwegian folklore in a new setting. In order to make sure the story had the feel I wanted, I needed to know more about this place. Happily, I only live a couple of hours from Decorah, and I could get a feel for the town by visiting often.

Here are some things I did which helped me get a sense of the setting.

1. Websites: The websites I visited seem pretty pedestrian on the surface, but I learned about interestingly mundane details such as what schools were in the area, neighborhoods, town policies, and attractions. Municipal websites will highlight historical sites and attractions, like the Vesterheim museum, or Norwegian Ship, Decorah’s version of UPS. While not a substitute for visiting the town, nevertheless the local color and details can be found, which help add a sense of character to the town.

2. Visit the town: Proximity helps here. For the novel, I did also visit Norway to get a sense of where the trolls came from, and I had to make that trip count, because it was likely to be one trip. Going to Decorah, however, was something I could do periodically when I needed more details. I visited the Vesterheim, parks and landmarks I wanted to use in the novel, local places I wanted to have my characters frequent, and sites for places I would make up. I also know a writer in Decorah. He and his wife went to college there, and have lived there for many years, so they could give me insider knowledge. I have visited Decorah maybe around 10 times, and I’m due to go back before I finish this project.

3. Stay for longer than a visit: Another way to get a sense of the local is to live there. I stayed at a B&B so I could be in the town at night. I went to the small theater, toured the college, just ran around, ate at the co-op, lots of things you can do if you don’t have a visiting agenda. With the exception of lodging, I’ve gone to Decorah to stay for a few overnight trips with no agenda to get the experience of living in the town.

4. Attend the town festival: One of the most awesome things about Decorah’s Norwegian heritage is that each year they have a great festival. Lots of people come from far and wide to see the town and tour historical sites. Norwegians visit as a way to come to a friendly spot in the US. My favorite part of the festival is the chance to try Norwegian food, available on every street corner and in church basements, or to watch traditional dances mixed with a very Iowa small town parade. This is the unique blend of old world and new world at its best.

While I am far from an expert regarding Decorah, I feel like I know it well enough now to characterize it. By the time I get back to this project, though, my information may be a little out of date. I can set the novel in the time I visited, or I can update myself. Either way, I’ve got to get back there and eat some more rommegrot.

April, 2016

How could I have guessed that putting out three books in rapid sequence would have left me drained creatively?

Honestly, I think I could have guessed, having completed large, long term projects before. This, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps the biggest reason I could never be a personal author mill. With my day job, I can usually put out a book a year. Last year, I drafted two, but it was a good year. This is a gentle reminder to write on your own terms, and to not hold yourself to someone else’s standards. If I wrote all day, it could be different. I don’t, and I like my job. So there you go.

Lest you think that is a prelude for a conversation about not completing work, you will be disappointed. I have begun The Wisdom of Thoth. I have joined a horror writing group and I’m sending them drips and drops. There are words happening, albeit at my pace.

What interesting things have I been doing with my time? Well…I guess traveling, going to author shows, hanging out with friends and getting more and more fit. I enjoyed the Northern Iowa Book Bash in Clear Lake immensely. I had heard good things, but this was an exceptional show with an eager clientele. If I am invited back, I will return.

I think I will show you a picture of the most interesting thing going on at my house right now, with the caveat that the only way in which I am involved with this will be the wearing of it. This recreation is the work entirely of my very talented spouse, who clearly has not squandered his winter.

Onto May, then. School will be over mid-month, and Wiscon is on the horizon. I have a lot of gaming to plot and plan as well. See you then.

Fantastic History #27: Cultural Sensitivity Beyond the Novel Itself–The Devil is in the Details by K. Bird Lincoln

A plethora of good definitions for cultural appropriation, primers for those wanting an understandable framework, a time when a big author pulled a project due to sensitivity issues, and lists of ways to avoid cultural appropriation in the context of fantasy and science fiction can be found with a quick Google.

Let me be transparent about my bias before we get started. I’m a white, middle-class woman from the USA who has spent significant time on the West Coast and in Japan.

I’m also a writer who often uses Japanese and Chinese myths and culture in her historical and urban fantasy. I like to think I mostly portray myths and legends with complex characters who do not perpetuate stereotypes and present East Asian cultural motifs within an atmosphere of respect.

It’s an ongoing struggle not to fall into the trap of willy-nilly plucking katana, ninja, or hari-kari from Japanese culture as if it were a buffet and it didn’t matter what I shoved into my story. Not that I’m at risk for white savior faux pas like shoehorning Tom Cruise into a samurai movie, but all those cute kitsune in manga and anime sometimes tempt me towards the dark side of stereotypes.

Fantasy writers have a license to be imaginative and creative, but need to temper creativity with sensitivity when writing the fantastic based on real life cultures that are not our own voice. Whether that borrowing be obvious roots to Edo period Japan in Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor or the fantastical parade of Chinese mythical creatures in M.H. Boroson’s Girl with the Ghost Eyes, or the subtle changes in WWII history resulting in Japanese supremacy in Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth—the trick is to twist it far enough for the fantastic without losing nuance.

Writing whole books provides a large canvas on which to present nuanced and sensitive portrayals. Recently a couple of potential issues related to other author activities—especially indie published authors—have come to my attention.

I am in an author Facebook group where a long discussion about a cover for a historical fantasy set in Hong Kong revolved around the model’s face: too white. There is a lack of good stock photography of a variety of types of East Asian and mixed East Asian ancestry to use on book covers. My cover for Dream Eater, where the heroine is bicultural Japanese-Caucasian, had this problem. Use a Caucasian model and risk white-washing her? Use a full on East Asian looking model that doesn’t signal to the reader the complicated truth of the cultural area my heroine occupies? This gets harder when going for historical models. No wonder so many fantasy authors spring for original artwork, like JC Kang’s Master of Deception or Nicolette Andrews’ Dragon Saga. Where are the resources?

The second issue is author names. I’ll admit, I approach books like Jade City by Fonda Lee differently than I approach Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein. Both books base themselves in thoroughly researched East Asian history. But what if, as a yet unpublished author I came across recently, someone decides to use a pseudonym that confuses the reader’s ability to judge whether this is an #ownvoice or not? The author in question used a pseudonym with a Japanese-sounding first name and an English-sounding last name. His argument was that not only was this first name a nickname he’d used for most of his adult life because he lived in Japan, but that he felt strongly it shouldn’t matter if readers picked up his book without knowing first what background he came from. Those arguments unsettled my stomach—not because I think only Asians can write Asian fantasy, but because as a rabid reader myself, I want authors to be up front about the lens through which they view the world. I have the right to consume stories based on true knowledge of the author’s background. Taking the stance that it’s okay to present yourself as possibly Asian when you’re not seems oddly stubborn. Authors and readers should be able to trust each other.
Finally, we come to yet another touchy issue: reviews. Last year I read and reviewed 115 books. Whether authors should review other authors is a whole basket of thorny issues for another time. Let’s say, though, that you’re reading along in a historical fantasy and suddenly you come across descriptions of the alpha hero where his skin color is compared to a food item. There is an acknowledged understanding out there that not only is this cliché, but can also be fetishizing. But it’s historical! And it’s fantasy! As a reviewer, do you call out the author on her World War II Hong Kong heroine gazing at her own almond eyes in the mirror if that was an oft-used phrase from that time period? What if it’s in an alternate fantasy world? How do you balance warning other readers about problematic themes without crossing the line into politically correct police territory?

Outside the actual book itself, writing the other can bring up a lot of other issues. Staying sensitive to other points of view and presenting your own self in as transparent a way possible might keep authors from massive blunders—but it still doesn’t fix the dearth of good stock photo models!

Someone could make good money from that niche.


The stunning conclusion to K. Bird Lincoln’s Urban Fantasy Portland Hafu trilogy drops March 19th! Check out the first in her series, Dream Eater or pre-order the conclusion, Last Dream of Her Mortal Soul. K. Bird Lincoln is an ESL professional and writer living on the windswept Minnesota Prairie with family and a huge addiction to frou-frou coffee. Also dark chocolate– without which, the world is a howling void. Originally from Cleveland, she has spent more years living on the edges of the Pacific Ocean than in the Midwest. Her medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily, is available from Amazon. She also writes tasty speculative fiction reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Check her out on Facebook, join her newsletter for chocolate and free stories, or stalk her online.

Fantastic History #26: Grounding–Finding the Floor of Your Historical Details by Jeff Reynolds

It took me twenty years, but I finally got a short story published. As I’ve told anyone who would listen to me (and plenty who’d rather I’d stop going on about it), I consider my first professional payment to be the ground floor of my ambitions. Now if someone would please direct me to the elevator that leads to the floor labeled “Fiction Writing Career,” that would be very helpful. We can skip the floors for sporting goods and lingerie.

In terms of novels, I came to the conclusion that high fantasy wasn’t what I wanted to write, at least not yet. Nor low fantasy. Anything where I had to plan the intricacies of a secondary world, from races with detailed histories, to continents and complex ecosystems, didn’t appeal to me. There are plenty of great writers doing that, and doing it brilliantly. But I’d read a ton of science fiction alternate history, and I started wondering if there was a place for historical fantasy. That, along with a role-playing game group I participated in with a distinct 1930’s noir flair, led to my first novel. Shadow of a Doubt is set in a Baltimore of 1938, featuring trolls who work as mechanics, witches as detectives, and elves with fascist views.

Writing historical fantasy is both easier and harder. It’s easier because “It’s Earth! Mostly! Well, kind of?“ It appealed to me to root fantasy in our existing world. The world is the world, and aspects of our real world can exist in historical fantasy (I’d suggest should, but that’s a personal decision best left to each author and their readers). All we’re doing is rearranging some things, modifying or creating a bit of history, populating it with strange beings, adding a dash of magic, maybe a sprinkle of eerie, a pinch of strange.

But, for me, good historical fiction of any sort doesn’t work unless its grounded in truth, historic details sprinkled through the work in unassuming and unexpected ways. Properly leavened, the work will rise like a loaf of bread and become far better tasting than the sum of its parts. And who doesn’t like a fresh-baked loaf of warm bread? Delicious!

History is the easiest type of grounding to work with. There are numerous works of historical non-fiction. Countless websites give broad views of wide time periods, or deep dives into narrow topics. With so much information readily available, it becomes easy to twist. The Battle of the Somme becomes a civil war between trolls and humans. There is no Nazi party, but Canada was settled by isolationist elves whose ideology mirrors the German Reich of the 1930’s. The west of America—much of the plains and all the Rockies—was never colonized and remains in the hands of indigenous people.

Grounding historical fantasy has to go deeper than using history to flavor your recipe, though. I spent a great deal of time researching Baltimore of the 1930’s. One of the resources I found most useful were photo archives. Granted, if your novel is set more than 150 years ago, photos are going to be non-existent, although paintings and tapestries might provide a useful alternative. But for anything post-industrial period, particularly where a modern city is involved, you should be able to find plenty of reference material.

I started with Getty Photos. Getty contains over two thousand images of Baltimore alone. But sites like Getty focus on modern stock photos that can be used copyright free or via paid licenses, and that wasn’t my goal. Pinterest had far more of what I needed: lots of images of Baltimore from the 1930’s. I used those to paint a picture of a time and place. What did people wear? What did transportation look like? Were the streets squalid or clean? Did a certain building existing in the time period in question?

I learned that, indeed, a building I wanted to include as a critical location in my story did exist, well before 1938. An important sign on top of it with a glowing red eye didn’t exist until 2008 or 2009, though (oops). However, I opted to include it in the story anyway. While any Baltimore resident or historian might note the discrepancy, it’s important to remember we’re not writing a true history. We are modifying history to suit our fantasy setting. So, the Natty Boh beer sign (a picture of which accompanies this article) is a critical item in my narrative (and really, who doesn’t love a great big beautiful beer sign hovering over your city). It brings a touch of “I know this place” to the novel, and for any Baltimore native or visitor, it creates a thrill of memory that roots them firmly in location.

Streets were another touch I thought about long and hard. For example, there wouldn’t be a Martin Luther King boulevard in 1938. Learning the former layout and names of streets that the protagonist would encounter turned out to be one of the hardest parts of my research. Google searches proved fruitless in finding maps from the 1930’s, though I did find one from the late 19th century. But Baltimore grew enormously between 1890 and 1938, so it was interesting but not useful.

I finally found what I needed on a website called Digital Maryland. The site is a collaboration with the Enoch Pratt library system in Baltimore to digitize historic content. Not every state or city will have such resources, but visiting local libraries and/or state archives when possible will provide you the same types of data. A 1930 Cram map of Baltimore provided a close-enough proxy for what I needed. Now I knew that parts of MLK Boulevard follow a line along what was Freemont Street, before curving north and cutting through what would have been blocks of buildings that were replaced in the sixties and seventies by government housing projects.

What radio stations existed in 1938? What were the cars like? Did some people still use horses and carts? Does your history include airplanes, airships, other details? What hair styles were popular? Every detail you include—but only where its relevant, where it slips in unobtrusively—contributes to a picture that you and the reader build together. Every detail you change and adapt modifies that picture. It ties the reader to a sense of “I know this place,” while creating a disconnect with their “known” reality. And that is exactly what we as historical fantasists strive for. The real connects to the fantastic, deepening a reader’s immersion.
And while I’m speaking of building a picture, did you examine architecture? New buildings in 1938 were influenced by the art deco movement, incorporating the neoclassical Greek and Roman influences of previous years while adding touches of chrome and steel streamlining and decorative trim. Having my protagonist enter a building gives myself the opportunity to comment on the physical details of the entry and further sets time and place.

Grounding your story in historical detail doesn’t have to be done with a heavy hand. It’s the little touches you include that create the bigger picture. Something as simple as the style of comb a young woman uses to brush her hair gives important details to your audience without resorting to long swaths of information dumps. I love spotting tiny details, like the style of phone resting on the desk in the lobby of a building a protagonist entered. Or the man who stands next in the elevator in his green suit, a stiff, black cap on his head, waiting for you to tell him which floor.

I just hope he hands me a warm loaf of bread and lets me off where they sell those fiction writing careers.

Natty Boh sign on old Baltimore Brewery by Elliott Plack is used by permission under CC BY 2.0.


Born and raised in central Maine, Jeff Reynolds currently resides in Maryland, where he and his incredible, supportive, and uber-geek-tastic wife, Jennifer, have a lovely view of the mountains. He enjoys reading and hiking, a good cold beer every now and again, and anything to do with anyplace that’s warm (and absolutely hates the cold). His lifelong dream is to quit work and write full time, if he can ever get his kids to move out and start being adults.

Jeff works for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, home of New Horizons and other amazing space probes. His story, The “Fairy Folk”, appeared in Andromeda Spaceways magazine (issue #73, December, 2018).

March, 2019

What I have learned in January and February part 2

1. You can never proofread too much, even when you have an editor. Always look over every copy of your book.
2. ALWAYS get a proof of your book and read that.
3. Send your editors and publicists flowers. For realz. Or food, or coffee, or whatever they might like. Those people are doing a lot of work on your behalf.

I have learned a lot about the process of putting out a book, and I have learned that there are many ways I can save myself a lot of grief in the future. Like, I should really read my book out loud, always. I should really print out my book and read it, always. Do as much editing as I can.

And…I have also learned that human error will happen. I have been as careful with my three new books as I know how to be, and so now I need to forgive myself for any problems we find in the ARC drafts. I will work harder to make the ARC drafts easier on readers in the future.


All that said, THANK GOD that phase of this year is OVER. While I will be doing lots of author support in the upcoming months, my main goal is to WRITE ALL THE THINGS. This is my current slate for the year:

1. The Wisdom of Thoth (Klaereon Scroll #3)
2. As yet untitled Carlo Borgia novella which explains what he’s up to during The Wisdom of Thoth
3. The first two installments of my serial The Poet and the Navigator
4. The rewrite of Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science

Yeah, that’s a lot, especially for someone with a full time job. The two serial installments are meant to go out this year, but the rest? Well, it is my plan to publish The Wisdom of Thoth next year, as well as Abby Rath 1 and 2. The Borgia novella is flexible, as it occurs independently of the Klaereon Scroll, so it could go out this year or next.

There are many things for me to look forward to writing at the moment, so I will just get on with it. 😀


Last things to note:

On March 19th, I officially release The Pawn of Isis. On March 9th and March 30th, I will be involved in two online parties which feature writers from the Fantastic History part of this blog, talking about their new books. Information on the home page.

April 6th will find me in Clear Lake, Iowa at the Northern Iowa Book Bash, so feel free to stop by if you are in the area. I will remind you of this one.

I hope the weather begins to improve. It’s been a long, cold winter in Iowa. We are ready for a change.

Fantastic History #25: Digging Deeper by Stephanie Burgis

One of my biggest pleasures in any fantasy series – whether I’m reading or writing it! – is getting to explore more and more of the fantasy setting as the series moves on – which also means peeling away layer after layer from its surface appearance to figure out more of what’s really happening underneath.

For instance, in the first Harry Potter book, Harry’s dazzled by the beautiful, inexplicable magic of the feasts at the Hogwarts banquets, which seem to come out of thin air. In the second book, he discovers that those feasts are actually being prepared by house elves who aren’t even being paid for their work. As the books go on, he starts to realize that the smug attitudes of most wizards towards those unpaid and disdained house elves are actually indicative of a LOT of serious problems hidden beneath the sparkling surface of that fabulous wizarding world.

But digging deeper doesn’t always expose darkness. Sometimes, it just gives even more interesting layers of complexity. In Effie Calvin’s The Queen of Ieflaria, the two heroines (princesses who’ve been betrothed for political necessity but – of course! – fall in love over arguments and baby dragons and more) argue over how religious they should each really be, and how much the gods’ desires should matter to them. The second (standalone) book in that series, Daughter of the Sun, leaps to an all-new pair heroines in a different part of the same world – but this time, one of the heroines is a literal (chaos) goddess, so we get to see that world and its religions from her very different point of view.

In my own novella Snowspelled, Volume I of The Harwood Spellbook, Cassandra Harwood rails against the social rules of her alternate-history 19th-century Angland, which is ruled by a Boudiccate of hard-headed, practical women while leaving all of the emotional, irrational magic to the gentlemen. Cassandra herself has fought hard to become the first recognized woman magician in Angland – the one and only exception to those rules – but for the sake of all the other frustrated magical girls in her nation, she finally decides to found Angland’s first-ever college of magic for women as a triumphant conclusion to that first story.

But that isn’t the end of her story. In Thornbound, Volume II (published February 25th!), Cassandra has finally opened Thornfell College of Magic – but she’s facing massive opposition from multiple sources, all of whom are determined to shut her school down. To her, it’s a simple issue of justice that magically-talented women be allowed to study magic – but to many successful women politicians, as well as to many successful male magicians, her new school presents a dangerous challenge that could topple all of their gender-based hierarchies and take away all of their own gender’s comfort and security.

Although I am personally on Cassandra’s side in this debate (for many of the same reasons as her politician sister-in-law, who wants justice for all, not comfort and security for some), it was really fun as a writer to get to explore all of the bigger implications of change in this second volume of The Harwood Spellbook – including the real fears and understandable dangers as well as the chances for improvement and real progress for everyone, no matter what their gender might be.

Similarly, it was so much fun to explore a different geographical part of Cassandra’s world. In Snowspelled, she was snowbound in a house party up north (in the equivalent of Yorkshire), where Angland shares an uneasy peace with an elven kingdom. Cassandra herself comes from the south of Angland, though, and Thornfell, on her family estate, backs onto a gorgeous, mysterious bluebell wood very much like the ones I’ve explored with my own kids on the borders of England and Wales. There are no elves in the south of Angland, but there are many varieties of fey, and their own relations with Angland and its citizens are complex and individual and full of their own tensions and possibilities.

As both a reader and a writer, I love getting to explore new angles on familiar, beloved worlds in every new book in a series. I hope you guys will enjoy exploring more of Angland in Thornbound! (And if you haven’t read Snowspelled yet, the ebook edition is on sale until the end of February for just 99c/99p – so you can scoop up some frothy feminist romantic fantasy set in Angland right now and see if you do want any more. (ed note: which you do.))


Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She writes wildly romantic adult historical fantasies, including Snowspelled, Spellswept, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets, as well as fun MG fantasy adventures, including The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, The Girl with the Dragon Heart, and the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy. She has also published nearly forty short stories for adults and teens in various magazines and anthologies. You can find out more and read excerpts from her books at her website.

Snowspelled is on sale for 99c/99p until the end of February at Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords.

Thornbound comes out on February 25th and is available at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks and Smashwords.

Fantastic History #24: Galactic Conquistadors by Abby Goldsmith

In today’s world, few uncontacted tribes continue to survive in remote rainforests. To their members, the developed world is an ominous mystery. Likewise, even in the Information Age, many people across the world speculate on what mysterious wisdom or ancient rituals those reclusive tribes might be hiding.

Multiply those questions by a factor of millions, and you can begin to imagine the scale of the collision between Old World and New. The Age of Discovery was a period of invasive exploration unlike any other in human history, in terms of magnitude. It was a time when entire civilizations were labeled as savage and alien. While Leonardo Da Vinci painted for royal patrons, and while Protestants challenged the Pope in Rome, across an ocean, illiterate sailors and mercenaries battled illiterate farmers and shepherds by the millions. The Spaniards and the Portuguese, versus the Aztecs and the Incas. They were arguably the most populous and powerful civilizations on Earth at the time. Each considered the other to be horrifically alien.

I write science fiction fantasy.Some might call it galactic empire fiction, one of the branches of space opera. My series has nothing to do with our real world, or with real world history … but it is about alien conquerors bent on enslavement on a massive scale. The Torth wield weapons superior to anything which humans or other alien civilizations can fend off. They outclass everyone with their instantaneous communication; their ability to cooperate and think collectively. And although the Torth resemble humans, and share a
common ancestry with humans, their fundamental values are vastly alien to any culture which has ever existed on Earth. They seem mysterious. And they are terrifyingly good at conquest.

The parallels are undeniable. When I read about conquistadors and the uncontacted lands they explored, as well as the mysteries they presented—I see shades of what I’m writing about. A frenzy of reckless enslavement. Translators forced to tread carefully. Shameful, or shameless, curiosity about outlandish prisoners of war. Dangerous quests spurred by half-baked myths and legends. God-emperors who demand sacrificial victims. Pirate strongholds in hidden caves. Swift changes in technology that necessitate new, never-before-seen battle tactics. Insane risks undertaken for the sake of glory. Kindness as a rare commodity.

From the perspective of history, recorded by the conquerors, the Age of Discovery is rife with descriptions of indigenous people as being primitive, savage, or barbarous. Some of this can be attributed to customs which many Europeans found shocking, such as human sacrifice and skull reshaping. But it is also, in part, because the conquistadors operated under a strict theocracy, promulgated by the Spanish Inquisition. Anyone who refused to convert to Catholicism was, by definition, unworthy of owning property or anything else.

More to the point, the conquistadors needed a legal excuse in order to pillage. The faraway Pope and monarchs would not condone invading and destroying faithful Christians. So when a conquistador invaded an indigenous village, his men did not translate the call to convert. They simply read it in Spanish, as their legal duty warranted. Then they would proceed to conquer the unrepentant pagans, gaining new land, treasures, and slaves. When the conquistador—often of peasant origins—sent a percentage of this newfound wealth across the ocean as a gift to the Crown, he gained a noble title, plus the right to own an estate; riches he could never obtain in Spain.

In other words, the conquistadors had strong incentives to enslave and exploit natives, rather than to trade peacefully. To learn anything nuanced about their enemies, such as indigenous languages, would only take time away from their goals. Many conquistadors were illiterate and uninterested in anthropology. They also needed to retain the loyalty of their soldiers, who were burdened by cumbersome armor, harquebuses, and warhorses. If they dared show any interest in pagan cultures, that would gain them the wrong sort of attention. The conquistadors were legally obligated to bring along Catholic priests, who had to be outwardly sympathetic to the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes a conquistador would find it necessary to question a hostage, but in almost all instances, he relied on an indigenous translator who had been enslaved long enough to learn Spanish.

Like the 16th century conquistadors, the alien Torth of my series are under intense pressure to disassociate from their targets of conquest. The Torth don’t speak out loud, since their minds are permanently networked together in a souped-up internet. They don’t speak to slaves or “savages.” They never communicate with slaves, except to give commands. And as far as they’re concerned, humans are their primitive cousins, like chimpanzees.

On the other side of the clash…the Torth seem frighteningly mysterious to people who cannot plug into the galaxy-spanning mental
network. Slaves cannot easily hide secrets from their telepathic masters, which makes escape nearly impossible. The Torth are capable
of anticipating, and punishing, physical attacks, and they send slaves to die in battle for them. On the rare occasion when a slave succeeds in killing a Torth, the dying Torth will broadcast what happened to the whole Torth network, replaying a visualization of who attacked them, and ensuring that the rebel will be hunted and killed. And the Torth have soaked up knowledge from everyone they’ve ever conquered, which ensures that their technology is always cutting edge.

Technology, of course, was one of the key factors that allowed a few hundred Spaniards to conquer the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire, both of which had armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Smallpox and other plagues could be considered a form of unintentional biowarfare, exported from a population with built-up immunities to a population without those immunities. And there was gunpowder. Horses. Armor. Sailing ships. Written language, conveyed on paper.

The most successful rebellions against the Spaniards, such as the rebel kingdom led by Manco Inca, involved treachery and intellectual theft. Manco Inca was a god-emperor, raised among Spaniards, educated in fencing and other Spanish pursuits, and pampered as a teenage puppet ruler. When he escaped and set up an indigenous kingdom-in-exile, his retreat included Spanish roof tiles. His army learned about gunpowder from Spanish prisoners who were pumped for information, and his kingdom remained free and independent for more than thirty years, even after his death.

My series is about rebellion against the galaxy-spanning Torth Empire, and one of the main drivers of this rebellion is a figure like Manco Inca. Thomas is the unwanted hybrid child of a human slave and a failed conqueror. Since he is neither fully human nor fully Torth, everyone underestimates him, uncaring that he straddles both sides of the galactic conflict. Not only can Thomas decipher Torth glyphs and operate Torth data tablets, but he spent time as a pampered Torth, absorbing their life experiences. So he knows why Torth don’t laugh or cry. He understands that the average Torth suffers immense pressure to please their peers, to avoid rousing a deadly mob. Armed with intimate knowledge of Torth values and intelligence, Thomas commits himself to aiding his enslaved friends in overthrowing their ever-greedy conquerors.

On Earth, the Age of Discovery was characterized by fatal misunderstandings and miscommunications. Indigenous populations in
the Americas did not understand Europeans. They had no frame of reference for contracts and land deeds, for instance. Gold, to the
Incas and to the Aztecs, was for ornaments. Gold lost its significance when boiled down to seemingly useless little bricks. It
looked like pure madness, to work miners to death in order to gain gold ore or gold dust. And gunpowder? Horses? These were instruments out of legends. Even before the conquistadors showed up in large numbers, plagues of smallpox and influenza decimated teeming cities, like portents of an apocalypse. The gods must be angry. And so the indigenous populations focused on appeasing their gods with human sacrifice victims, and with new chiefs, chosen out of brutal combat—unaware that these measures further weakened them for their enemy invaders.

Likewise, Europeans were horrified by deformed skulls; heads flattened or elongated by binding methods in infancy. Rituals involving mass human sacrifice shocked even the callous conquistadors. If any Spaniards harbored secret thoughts of befriending the natives, they backed off at rumors of jungle priests who ripped still-beating hearts from the chests of virgin warriors. Anyhow, nuanced intercultural congress took a very low priority, by necessity, next to plunder. Tithes needed to be sent to the Church and the Crown.

I’m fascinated by the depths of misunderstanding between each of these proud civilizations. Despite the shared commonality of being human, their value systems were pitted against each other in direct conflict. Science fiction allows me to kick it up a few notches. In my series, the slaves are familiar to us as being human, no matter what sapient alien species they happen to be. The slaves and conquered peoples are a mix of humans, ummins, nussians, govki, and more, but they are all capable of telling jokes, and mourning deceased loved ones. They have children and parents. They can make art and music, and they can tell stories.

In contrast, the Torth make no art. They steal it. Torth have no families. They mass-reproduce using biotechnology. The Torth have
outlawed sex as something disgusting and bestial. Torth never laugh or cry, since they consider intense emotions to be savage; something only fit for primitives such as humans. They wear brainwave-altering headbands in order to suppress their emotions. As far as they’re concerned, logic is vital, but love is a bestial weakness. Any Torth who makes the most persuasive rational arguments will rise in status and gain influence over other Torth.

So the humanoid Torth act alien, just as the Spaniards seemed to the Aztecs, and vice versa. The Torth resemble humans, but they’re more alien than the ummins, who look like mummified birds, or the nussians, who are as heavy as tanks, with tough hides like rhinoceroses.

An odd Torth here or there might show kindness. A few Torth harbor secret sympathies for their disposable slaves. But if their sympathy grows too strong—especially if they dare help slaves—then there are countless ambitious Torth who will report their misconduct to the rest of the Torth Majority. Their peers will shoot them dead with blaster gloves, in order to claim the glory of destroying a nuisance or a criminal.

The only way to rise in the Torth society is to curry favor with the luxury-loving, gluttonous, socially-savvy celebrities at the top. Defy them, or displease them, and you are courting death. And unlike the 16th century conquistadors, Torth cannot accidentally get lost, or shipwrecked, stranded among enemies. The Torth are always tracked by their mental network. The only way for a Torth to “go native” is to voluntarily sever their mental connection to the galactic network; an illegal act from which there is no return. Needless to say, renegade Torth are exceedingly rare. They generally only survive for a few days. A renegade Torth will be hunted by their nearly omniscient brethren—and if caught, they face death by torture.

The conquistadors had it only slightly easier. If they integrated with a native society well enough to gain tattoos or ear piercings,
they could expect mistrust and suspicion from Spanish priests. Few European women dared to live in the machismo frontier towns of the New World, but if a conquistador married a non-royal indigenous woman and had children with her, his family would be rejected by his peers, unable to inherit wealth or property.

Nevertheless, the conquistadors had such a spirit of adventure, a few rarities did join the indigenous Americans. A shipwrecked conquistador named Gonzalo Guerrero, for instance, became a Mayan warlord and raised Mayan children, leading attacks against his Spanish brethren. And some of the indigenous population, by dint of royal blood and political maneuvering, avoided enslavement—such as Doña Isabel Moctezuma, the Aztec princess who secured a European dukedom for her descendants.

That sort of audacity informs my larger-than-life characters.Throughout my series, the character of Thomas is, by turns, a helpless human, an authoritative Torth, a much-feared renegade hunted by the most powerful people in the galaxy, a prisoner of pirates, a top
advisor to the rebel warlord, and ultimately, the instrument of change, as he empowers former slaves to enslave their former Torth
masters. Thomas becomes the most widely feared and despised person in the known universe, as well as a symbol of hope.

Like the most memorable characters of the Age of Discovery, Thomas is surrounded by a colorful cast from every quadrant of the Torth-ruled galaxy. Ariock, the rebel warlord of mixed heritage, could be Moctezuma II or Atahualpa, if either of those god-emperors had gained enough foreign intelligence to drive the conquistadors back across the Atlantic Ocean. Kessa, the pragmatic runaway slave, has elements of the pragmatic Malintzin; the translator who gained power as Hernán Cortés grew reliant upon her. There are shades of the backstabbing Pizarro brothers, and entitled Almagristas, amongst the upper echelons of Torth society, where ambition and winning popular support are all that matter. And the Upward Governess, a canny Torth tactician with illegal secrets, has elements of Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler who recorded insights into Magellan’s violent encounters with indigenous islanders.

I began writing my series before I’d read much about the Age of Discovery. However, I find myself drawn to that period of history
more than any other, because it includes multiple well-chronicled accounts of alien encounters—or foreign encounters which seemed very alien at the time. It’s about the exploration of new cultures, values, ideas, and lands; exploration on a scale which is no longer possible in the contemporary era. It’s a shame that so few films and TV series are willing to tackle the brutal warfare and clashing values of this period, outside of light-hearted romps such as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and DreamWorks’s “The Road to El Dorado”.

My taste in non-fiction runs towards dynamic narratives with fiction-style flair, rather than textbook chronologies. Some of the
books I’ve most enjoyed about this era include Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, by Laurence Bergreen, The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, by Buddy Levy, and Night of Sorrows, a fictionalized account of the conquest of the Aztec Empire, by Frances Sherwood. I’ll welcome more non-fiction book recommendations.


Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Magazine, and several anthologies. A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she works full-time as video editor, and co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast. You can subscribe
to her newsletter here.

Abby’s novels, serialized online at Wattpad

On social media:
The Torth

February, 2019

I’d like to say I’d been burning rubber on my new Klaereon Scroll book, The Wisdom of Thoth. I’d like to say that.

Instead, what I will tell you is that self-publishing is not for people afraid of work. Most of my time the last two months has been spent promoting and editing. Those of you who have agents and editors, take a moment to send them a bouquet of flowers, or a movie pass, or something.

Let’s be honest. It’s work. I don’t dislike it, although I’d rather be writing. Writing is the piece of this journey that gives me the most joy, that takes me away, and really makes me happy. That said, there’s something cool about holding your destiny in your own hands, about making a beautiful book with someone who cares about your book. I have a good editor, cover designer, and graphic designer. I am learning, and feeling good about my new career.

In short, I’m doing okay, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have to finish editing The Pawn of Isis one more time. I’ve sketched my con year and my author events. The canvas is painted, and what remains is the showing up. I’ll probably have to plan one more giveaway, but that’s not happening until Pawn is done and released closer to March 19th.

What do I have coming up in February and March? Since the winter here in Iowa is literally keeping us inside one day a week right now (our college has never cancelled this much school), it’s good I have no plans to get out there and promote, because I suspect most of what I wanted to do would have been cancelled.

March, then, is the first event, and it is a Facebook party with some of the authors who have contributed to Fantastic History: J. Kathleen Cheney, Carol Anne Douglas, Pat Esden, Kate Heartfield, Christopher Kastensmidt, Kirsten Lincoln, Dan Stout, and Dawn Vogel. The first one is March 9th, and the second one is March 30th, which is really, technically, better announced in the next newsletter. I will remind you.

And if you didn’t notice we have a give away for the new version of The Vessel of Ra, get thee to the home page and enter if you need one! Than lasts until midnight on February 14th, or until the two books are gone.

I will be at a convention the last weekend of this month, doing nothing with books. I know, I know. Gamicon Nickel has asked me to judge their costume contest. What? I could never have imagined a life when I had to convince people I was a cosplay queen, but back in the day…Anyway, if you like games, and you’re in Cedar Rapids, come check them out. Wear a costume too, if you like. I won’t judge. Wait. I will judge. Exactly.

Next month, I hope to be deep in the (ecstatic!) throes of what life is handing Marcellus and Gregorius Klaereon, and Flavia Borgia. I wish you all awesome writing and good cheer.

Fantastic History #23: The Future was India–The First Women Doctors in the British Empire

I base a lot of my characters in books on gaming characters. I belong to a crack squad of people who have been role playing with me for nigh unto 25 years, and the characters they run are very interesting. However, sometimes I cannot adapt the characters wholesale, as gaming is an imperfect medium, partly improve, partly hubris. Believe me, no one wants to read about your cool game, no matter how cool it is to you. Further, sometimes characters must be juiced up in order for them to have the drama necessary to participate as a character in a story.

Recently, I wanted to shift one such character, an Indian magician, into a firmer historical background. The character as conceived has some ability in medicine, so I decided to look into the background of Indian women in the 19th century. What I discovered is one of those happy accidents that suddenly made this character not only viable, but cutting edge.

Interesting and unknown to me previously, I discovered that the first women to graduate from medical school in the British empire were two Bengali women: Kadambini Ganguly and Chandramuku Basu. Both women graduated in 1883 from medical school in Calcutta, India.
Ganguly was the daughter of a Brahmo reformer. She studied in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London before starting her own private practice. The mother of eight children, Ganguly was the ultimate example of a woman balancing professional and personal life. Basu ultimately earned an MA and became the first female administrator of a school in India. While Basu retired early due to ill health, Ganguly remained a stalwart figure for women’s rights in India.

Certainly, with these examples, my fictional character could find a toe hold in medicine at the time, following in Ganguly and Basu’s footsteps. And so Adah Kapoor, a new name for an old character, was well on her way to becoming a practicing doctor, as well as someone who followed in her family’s footsteps as a magician.

And the rest remains to be written. History, however, can be a wonderful, rich gift to the writer.

For more information on Ganguly, check out The Better India.


Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. She is the author of the Klaereon Scroll series, the most recent of which is The Pawn of Isis, coming in March, 2019. Cath lives and works in Iowa with her husband. During the day, she teaches English to non-native speakers at a local community college. Other recent fiction has been published by Paper Golem Press, Daydreams Dandelion Press, and in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Cath is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump,, and