A review of James Alan Gardner’s Ascending (Open Road Media)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Ascending is James Alan Gardner’s discourse on boredom wrapped up in science fiction. Gardner’s narrator Oar is from a genetically modified species that at the age of 50 literally just becomes bored with the world and lays down to sleep for eternity…. and Oar has just reached the age of 54. They refer to it as having a “tired mind”. In order to keep going, she needs to stay stimulated and keep her mind active. She already has moments when her mind is tired and she loses minutes and hours as she spaces out. She finds herself losing time and becoming disconnected to the world around her even as she sets out on a galactic adventure full of action-packed excitement and new challenges.
Oar was first introduced in Gardner’s Expendable, when Explorer Festina Ramos was dropped off on her planet and changed the world that Oar had known. Now, Oar has sought out Festina again and the two are plunged into a galaxy of conspiracies, advanced paranoid aliens, and secret discoveries.
Although Oar is 50 and that is normally the end of her species time awake and active, Ascending is a coming of age story for Oar as she faces the reality of the universe around her, challenges her pre-existing ideas, and grows up. Growing up is never easy and Oar’s coming of age is one that involves painful awakenings.
Through the lens of Oar, Gardner presents an examination of the social meaning of boredom and writes a discourse about ennui through an exciting sci fi adventure.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell folks a little bit about yourself?
Amanda Leduc: Absolutely! I am A Canadian writer currently based in Hamilton Ontario. I’ve been an avid reader of spec fic for most of my life, and have a BFA in Creative Writing and Philosophy from the University of Victoria and a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the university of St. Andrews. I’m disabled, and have cerebral palsy. And I work for the Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, ON.
Spec Can: I am really interested in your use of fairy tales in your fiction. I think they are so powerful and convey so much. What got you interested in incorporating fairy tales into your work?
Amanda: I’ve always been a huge fairy tale fan—I’ve always loved them. But it took a long time for me to be comfortable with using them in my own work—partly because I felt like I needed to write realist fiction in order to be taken seriously in the literary landscape.
My first novel is not about fairy tales, but uses fabulist elements under the guise of spiritual discussion—again because o felt like that was the only way to “seriously” sneak magical elements into “lit”, whatever that means.
But after MIRACLES (my 2013 novel with ECW), I really found myself drawn to stories that were strange and had all kinds of strange things happen in them.
Spec Can: I love that idea of sneaking in the magical elements.
Amanda: I was working on a short story collection in 2015 and just let myself go into the strangeness of that world—it was very liberating. And then in 2018 I was working on The Centaur’s Wife and was away at a writing retreat, and walking through a forest, and I started ruminating on the connections between fairy tales in particular and disability.
Understanding that I could then write my OWN fairy tales was very liberating. The omniscient narrative style of many fairy tales—plus the understanding that anything goes with magic!—really made me feel like I had license to write about whatever I wanted.
Spec Can: I love that image of the freeing power of writing your own fairy tales. What was freeing about writing your own tales?
Amanda: Just that anything could happen in them—anything at all! I could make a mountain talk. I could make an octopus into a character. I could make a woman give birth to centaur triplets without worrying (too much) about the scientific impossibilities of it.
Spec Can: Can you tell me a little bit about the need to write realist fiction as part of the literary landscape?
Amanda: I don’t think there’s as much of a stigma now, if at all—and in fact I think that spec fic is very much having a moment. But when I was in school, back in 2003-2006, there was definitely a kind of snobbery around fantasy and spec fic in particular vs. so-called “literary” fiction.
And I internalized so much of that! I remember writing a story that became the basis for THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN in 2005–it REALLY went over well with my class.
So even back then, people were receptive to my weird stories—but *I* was also being a snob.
*I* was afraid of putting them out in the world, of not being seen as a “literary” writer.
Spec Can: It’s fascinating how much we absorb and internalize some of that literary snobbery even when we, ourselves, enjoy reading spec fic and imagining fantastic possibilities. What helped you to start to recognize the potential of the speculative and fantastical?
Amanda: Oh, writers like Karen Russell and Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Carmen Maria Machado, etc. Karen Russell in particular was like…a knight in shining armour!
I also really loved how non-fiction writers like Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso were doing speculative things, if you will, with non-fiction—blowing the form wide open, re-imagining what it could be.
But the seeds were there in my younger years. In a 2003 workshop class with the writer John Gould, he once told our class, “You can do ANYTHING YOU WANT in a short story, so long as you do it well.” It took me a long time to really embrace that.
But also—I just loved, and continue to love, reading literature of the fantastic. It gives me a very particular kind of reading joy…and writing it does the same for me. So eventually I was like…why not give in to joy? WHY NOT?
Spec Can: In Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, you examine the role of disability in fairy tales and the ways that we disabled people are often either erased from the fantastic entirely or portrayed as villains, but while doing so, you also examine the subversive power of fairy tales and I really noticed that subversive power in the fairy tales you wove into The Centaur’s Wife. What gives fairy tales that subversive power?
Amanda: I think part of it is that when it’s a fairy tale, we allow anything to happen. We allow for magic, we allow for a world to change. And for me, that gets my subconscious going and asking: why do we allow the world to change in fiction, but don’t stretch our imaginations to meet that change in real life?
Spec Can: Well said! I love that.
Amanda: In the TCW fairy tales, I was particularly interested in how we use fairy tales in two ways: to inspire possibility (the tales that Tasha’s parents tell her), but then also as cautionary tales (the tales Heather’s father tells to her).
So they are tales that at once hearken to possibility but also strive to keep the world as it is to help everyone stay “safe”, such as it is.
Spec Can: As a fellow disabled person and fairy tale enthusiast, it meant so much to see your writing about disability and fairy tales and then to see a disabled protagonist in The Centaur’s Wife. So often, we, as disabled people, are often encouraged to write disability in a way that is laden with tropes or to ONLY tell autobiographic stories. What inspired you to bring disability into the fantastic and to write a complex disabled character who didn’t fit into easy tropes or categories?
Amanda: Well—to start with, Heather was not disabled when I began writing the book. I only realized that she was disabled about 2-3 years into writing it. The novel came out of a short story written in 2014, and I started writing it as a novel in earnest in 2016. And I also started working for the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity) in 2016, and really started to explore my own identity as a disabled writer during that period. So the centaurs, which initially were meant to be a metaphor for desire, morphed into a metaphor for disability in the early stages of writing the book. And then in and around early 2018 I realized that Heather was also disabled—that she HAD to be for the story to do what it needed to do.
Which is—it’s a story about grief, and also still about desire, and about how the way that we survive trauma and grief is through community. But how do you do that when community is broken—when it keeps people out? How do you learn to adapt in the face of world-altering sadness? This is something that disabled people are VERY familiar with.
I do feel like I needed to come into my own as a disabled woman in order to full write this story the way that it was meant to be.
Syrus Marcus Ware quoted Octavia Butler in a panel I was in with him last year—I don’t remember the quote exactly but the idea is that it’s actually disabled people who fully understand what it means to create a world that is radically different—and that spec and sci-fi in particular are genres that have a responsibility to make this happen through words and narrative.
So as I came into the fullness of writing TCW I think I was also reckoning with the radical responsibility of writing dystopian fiction from a disabled perspective as well. It is too easy to assume that disabled people are left behind when the world collapses. We need to imagine different futures.
Spec Can: I feel like we are at a critical moment in the potential to develop a disabled fantastica (a delving into the possibilities of writing speculative fiction from our perspectives as disabled people) and possibly shifting the way that disability is represented. What are some things that you think we can do to develop a disabled fantastica? What are some things that you feel are important to the genre?
Amanda: Well, for starters I think it’s important to include disabled characters in all elements of storytelling. Both narratives where disability is at the centre, but also narratives where disability just IS.
I also think it’s important to include wide-ranging representation. I have no problems at all with disabled villains if I can also be given insight into their motivations and understand WHY they do what they do.
Heather for example—she’s not a villain, but she’s also not perfect! She is not Tiny Tim! Her disability HAS made her bitter and makes her put up walls that hamper her happiness. But this/these are tools she’s using to survive.
I think it’s important that we showcase a huge range of disability representation so that audiences understand that disabled people, just like their non-disabled counterparts, should be allowed to have messy lives and make questionable decisions.
Just as they should also be allowed to triumph. So many narratives don’t let disabled people do either.
Spec Can: I absolutely adore Heather in The Centaur’s Wife because she isn’t the Tiny Tim ‘Good Cripple’ figure. She is complex, often engaging in problematic behaviour, and isn’t particularly nice. I think this makes her such a wonderful character. She is fundamentally human and not a trope.
Amanda: Yes! I love her so much. She’s so prickly, but I think that she’s also very loyal.
And HURT. And ANGRY.
Spec Can: I think it’s so important that we showcase characters like her who are complex. They aren’t a villain just because they are disabled and they aren’t a hero because they are disabled either. They are morally complex as so many of us are.
Amanda: Yes! Exactly.
Spec Can: Did you find any resistance to writing about disability in this way? So many people in our community have tried to create manuscripts with complex disabled characters only to be told by publishers that the character didn’t reflect their image of disability or that the character’s narrative wasn’t about disability enough.
Amanda: I was lucky to not encounter resistance…but then also lucky, har har, in that I had signed for the book before it was written. So PRH gave me the go-ahead for a book and then I snuck disability in while I was writing it, heh heh.
My editor was REALLY lovely and absolutely adored the disability angle, especially the way that Heather’s relationship with her father is so fraught.
Spec Can: I think that was the most devastating and also incredibly significant part of The Centaur’s Wife – when you reveal that her father brought her up onto the mountain to try to ‘cure’ her of her disability. So often, the cure is represented in fiction about disability as the goal of every disabled person and the ‘solution’ to their disability and I thought it was so powerful that you presented a character who was devastated not by not getting a cure, but instead by her father’s insinuation that she NEEDS a cure.
Amanda: I actually wish this was talked about more in interviews. You’re the first publication to really ask about it! (Not surprising, I guess.)
Spec Can: For me, I always find it so problematic to see cure narratives and again see the way that abled people believe that we are incomplete until cured. Can you talk a little bit about your feelings about the cure narrative?
Amanda: Yes, the cure narrative is so complicated! I think the issue in many ways comes back, again, to limited disability rep in the world. Look—most people who see “A Marriage Story” don’t leave it saying, “I am NEVER GETTING MARRIED because that looks awful!” because we have been exposed to millions of different kinds of marriage representation on our screens and in our books.
People understand that there are so many ways to have a marriage because we SEE so many ways to have a marriage.
But we only see a few dominant narratives about disability, and these all too often fall into the villain/Tiny Tom tropes. So people who don’t have experience of disability see the same narrative about quadriplegics through movies like My Left Foot and Me Before You and think that’s it, that’s all there is to the disability experience—why WOULDN’T anyone want a cure. But if we saw more widely varied representation—and understood that there are ways to support disabled lives that mean they don’t necessarily NEED to be cured in order to gain the things they want—love, acceptance, freedoms, autonomy etc—then the understanding shifts.
I also want to leave space for the realty that some disabled people DO want cures. I think it’s so complex. Do I want to be cured of my CP? No. Do I want a cure for my chronic pain? Yes, absolutely.
In order to showcase this complexity, the stories we tell must also necessarily be complex.
Heather as a character both accepts her body and also rails against its limitations.
Spec Can: I think that’s why she speaks to me as a disabled reader.
Amanda: I don’t think it’s realistic (ironically) to have characters who DON’T hold both of these things at the same time.
Spec Can: When I have been recommending The Centaur’s Wife to people, I’ve been calling it Mythopocalyptic because you blend the mythical so beautifully with the apocalyptic. There have been so many different apocalyptic narratives in recent years, but I think you take a really interesting route with the narrative by weaving the mythical and magical through the apocalypse. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to tell an apocalyptic narrative and also why you decided to go with a mythical reclaiming of the world?
Amanda: Well, the apocalyptic narrative came first, and it was only after I’d written Disfigured that I understood where the fairy tales fit in the narrative.
But also, the element of storytelling was very much a part of the story from the beginning—i just had to figure out why.
It’s a novel about survival, and the way that we survive is by telling ourselves stories.
Spec Can: I think it’s so significant that your book came out in the middle of a pandemic because so many of us have been surviving by telling ourselves stories or reading the stories of others.
And of course, you know I am excited to ask about the centaurs. What inspired you to use these amazing creatures in your narrative?
Amanda: Well the centaurs were initially a metaphor for desire. I was interested in writing about forbidden love—what it looks like when you love someone you can’t have.
And that does continue through the book, with Heather and Estajfan, but when I wrote the centaurs’ origin story and saw what happened to them at birth, the disability metaphor was immediately apparent.
I also knew fairly early in that they weren’t “traditional” centaurs as we know from Greco-Roman myth. They needed their own origin story, partly because I didn’t want to be beholden to the established myths in place.
Spec Can: To wrap up our interview, is there anything else you would like to mention or any new projects you can tell us a bit about?
Amanda: I want to just mention that The Centaur’s Wife is available in all accessible formats.
I am working (very slowly, much slower than I’d like) on a few new projects: a novel about a pair of sentient hyenas, a book of collected fairy tales, and a memoir/exploration of grief and friendship using the cosmos as a guide. Small potatoes.
Spec Can: That is fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview and for your incredible and brilliant insights. I hope we get a chance to do another interview soon!!
Amanda: Oh thank YOU, Derek! I’m excited to see the interview up and this was so lovely. Thank you so much for this space.
Amanda Leduc is a writer and disability rights advocate. She is the author of THE CENTAUR’S WIFE (Random House Canada, 2021), DISFIGURED: ON FAIRY TALES, DISABILITY, AND MAKING SPACE (Coach House Books, 2020), and THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN (ECW Press, 2013). Her essays and stories have appeared across Canada, the US, and the UK, and she has spoken across North America on accessibility, inclusion, and disability in storytelling. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she serves as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.
Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)
A Review of James Alan Gardner’s Hunted (HarperCollins, 2000).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Edward is a man with an intellectual disability who grew up being treated as a child by his sister and as an embarrassment by his father. He was taken under the claws of the queen of the Mandasars, a race of strictly hierarchical lobster-like aliens until their planet went to war. He was then made part of the Explorers, who are better known as Expendables because they are sent into risky situations that no one else is sent into. The Expendables are all made up of people with disabilities and “disfigurements”, people who didn’t fit into their society’s ideas of beauty, and it is because of these disabilities that the Explorers are treated as expendable people. James Alan Gardner’s Hunted begins with Edward being taken to a new planet but when the entire crew of his spaceship except for him dies as they cross into open space, he is placed at the centre of several conspiracies with galactic consequences and implications for what it means to be human. As Edward’s body and mind begin to change, he comes face to face with his own identity and questions what it is to be himself and who he is as his selfhood becomes unfamiliar.
Hunted, much like Gardner’s Expendable is an exploration of disability and what it means to be disabled. Few authors examine disability in future settings, erasing the idea of a future for disabled people. Most science fiction authors treat the future as a period in time when all disabilities are “cured” and erased. This has implications for the disabled community because this negates the important role we play in our current society and even the possibility of us having a role in our future. Much of Sci Fi’s treatment of disability is eugenicist in nature, treating disabled bodies as ‘mistakes’ that are meant to be rectified out of existence. For disabled readers, this has implications about our identities and reinforces ableist practices and ideologies in our current cultural circumstances.
Although there are some challenges to the way that Gardner constructs disability in Hunted, he powerfully presents disability as an essential part of Edward’s identity and illustrates Edward’s fear of becoming something different and losing his disability. Gardner also recognizes the way that disabled people tend to form our own communities and Edward is placed in the context of other disabled Explorers Festina Ramos (who has a reddish mark on part of her face) and Kaisho (who is a wheelchair user and has a symbiotic relationship with sentient glowing moss). Characters have complicated relationships with their disabilities just as disabled people do, but both Edward and Festina embrace their disabilities are part of their identities, not wanting to change them.
Hunted in addition to its disability narrative, and perhaps because of this narrative, is a discourse on identity and what makes a person an individual. Gardner questions ideas of individuality and the idea of a stable personality and personhood and instead illustrates that personhood is intensely malleable and changeable and that people are not nearly as independent as we think. In addition to Edward’s identity crisis about who he would be without his disability, Edward also discovers that he has alien DNA, questioning the barriers of his humanity and whether he can consider himself the same person he has always been. His identity is shaken by changes in his body that make him question himself. Kaisho is similarly presented as a question in individualism and identity as someone who is human, but whose body and mind are symbiotically connected to sentient moss that is considered a more advanced and more intelligent life form. Gardner invites the reader to question where one being ends and the other begins. In addition, Gardner brings attention to questions of identity and individuality by presenting us with the Mandasars, a race of beings that have an insect-like relationship to authority and hierarchy. Their entire society is controlled by their queen through pheromones that immediately overpower most of their sense of will, and, additionally, each of the Mandasar social/biological subsets needs to be in contact with the other two subsets or they will change their personalities – for example, workers kept amongst workers will become so complacent that they become slavish and warriors kept among warriors will become more war-like and violent, and gentles will become sociopathic individuals who privilege science over anything else.
Hunted plays with ideas of identity and examines the barriers of individualism while illustrating that those barriers are not as firm as we like to believe.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision is a tale of found families across space. Esen is the past of her species, the final member of her Web. This could leave her isolated and alone in a massive universe, but, instead, she finds a human companion, Paul, who bridges the species divide and proves that friendships can be incredibly powerful.
Czerneda focuses her space opera on the ability of people to create family even out of the completely alien and challenges ideas of family that are limited to biological or legal relations. This is a friendship that not only survives the species divide, but survives war, intrigue, lies, and torture.
Changing Vision is a tale of diplomacy in the face of warring species that deny the sentience of each other, espionage, xenophobia, and space battle, but it’s quintessence is the power of cross-species friendships as ways to create family and a sense of home for an alien shapeshifter who at times feels like she has neither as the last member of her species.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s “Beholder’s Eye” (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In Beholder’s Eye, Julie Czerneda explores the possibilities of consciousness in varying shapes and forms. From pig-like creatures who communicate by clicking their hooves and by emoting smells to canid-like beings, to large cat-like beings, to a puddle of goo, Czerneda explores the diversity of bodily possibilities and envisions their impact on consciousness and culture. She examines the impact of herd mentalities on sentient life forms, and the pull of herd instinct along with conscious thought, and envisions possibilities for sensory differences and the intellectual possibilities that come from sensory diversity. As always, communication is key to Czerneda’s narratives and she explores cross-species interactions and cross-pollination of ideas within different environments.
Beholder’s Eye focusses on the narrative of Esen-alit-Quar, a member of an extremely rare shape-shifting species in a universe that doesn’t believe that there are shape-shifters. Esen can take on the form of any sentient being and Czerneda uses this ability of her character to bring the audience into multiple different possibilities for consciousness and it’s relationship to the body. Czerneda often has a fascination with ecosystems and the diversity of life, so a creature that shifts into multiple shapes allows for her to take the reader through an examination of what consciousness could mean as well as allowing us to imagine the way that different bodily forms and ecosystems could produce different cultures.
Esen-alit-Quar is not only the perfect figure for examining the relationship between body and culture because of her ability to shape-shift, but also because of her species imperative to preserve the memories of sentient beings and sample their cultures. She is the ultimate anthropologist, able to not just study a culture from the outside, but shift her body to examine it as an insider.
With Beholder’s Eye, Czerneda not only creates a fun galaxy-spanning science fiction story, she creates speculative anthropology, bringing her readers into an exploration of cultures, bodies, and potentialities.
A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow (Del Rey, 2020)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a discourse on the Hero’s Journey while it also serves to disrupt that cycle. Silvia Moreno-Garcia presents readers with a girl in a fairy tale circumstance, being used and abused by her family. But Cassiopeia doesn’t seek out a prince who will rescue her from household drudgery, instead she craves her own adventures. She keeps a little collection of magazine cut-outs showing aspects of the life she wants to live, but hides them from everyone, almost burying them from herself because she considers them so precious.
When she is left alone with her grandfather’s key, she opens up a world of new possibilities by awakening a Mayan god and binding him to her. She becomes part of a mythic narrative, conscribed to the role of the hero, a plaything of the gods. Here Cassiopeia also resists her role, not willing to just follow the edicts of the god that is tied to her but instead being a shaper of her own destiny and possibly a shaper of the destiny of the gods who are trapped in her orbit.
Heather and Tasha are both storytellers. Both weave tales for their own needs. When meteors fall and humanity is left starving and disoriented, Heather carries on her father’s tradition of telling fairy tales to create a more magical life while Tasha keeps telling others the bigger fairy tale – that they can all survive.
In The Centaur’s Wife, Amanda Leduc reveals the power of storytelling, necessary lies, and complicated truths. She reveals the human need to create stories and the transformative power of the tales we tell. Part apocalyptic fiction, part myth, and part collection of new fairy tales, The Centaur’s Wife demonstrates Leduc’s versatility and brilliance as a storyteller.
The Centaur’s Wife is a tale of the liminal, the between, and not just because centaurs are half human and half horse. Leduc tells a story about outsiders, edgy Others who belong neither completely to one world or another. Leduc reveals the power of not belonging, of existing outside the order imposed by those in power. Her characters question easy categories and simple social structures, revelling in complexities. They disrupt norms and it is through this disruption that they invite in new possibilities.
This week, I had the opportunity to interview game designer and monster writer Kate Bullock about her work. She gives us insights into the game industry, some of the issues in gaming, and some background on amazing and fascinating monsters.
Kate Bullock is a Canadian community and convention organizer with a passion for striving to create safer and more inclusive spaces within the TTRPG community. She’s one of the main organizers of Breakout Gaming Convention, the TTRPG Creative Co-op, and the previous president of the Indie Game Developer Network. She has previously worked in community organizing for the Gauntlet Podcast and Toronto Area Gamers.
You can find her blog, Bluestocking’s Organic Gaming, filled with in depth analyses of the gaming community and what we can do to make it better. Kate is a consultant for safety and inclusion in the RPG world, as well as a content and developmental editor for RPGs to ensure they meet industry standards around inclusion and safety.
When she’s being a game designer, you can find her game, Crossroads Carnival, at Magpie Games. You can also check out her work in The Veil: Cascade, Atlas Animalia, and Dust, Fog, and the Glowing Embers. Her itch and drivethru page have several games of her own creation, including Savior, recently nominated for Best Rules in the Indie Groundbreaker Awards. If you’re bored and want to get to know her, you can find her on Twitter as @bluestockingetc.
Outside of gaming, Kate is a massage therapist, doula, and trauma focused life coach and spiritual healer. She is a restorative justice facilitator and conflict mediator, with training in nonviolent communication and de-escalation. She lives on a big plot of land in the middle of nowhere with her guinea fowl.
Check out bluestockings.ca for Kate’s website and umg.rocks for the project website at Unicorn Motorcycle games
Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)
Earlier this year, I came across a kickstarter that I just had to support. In addition to my work on Speculating Canada, I teach writing classes, so I am always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to teach. I have a particular interest in teaching through games and play. So, when I saw the Kickstarter for The Story Engine by Peter Chiykowski I thought it would be a fun way of engaging my students in another method of storytelling. The Story Engine involves a set of cards that can be used for writing inspiration. They are divided into multiple different types of cards that are meant to be used together: agent cards, engine cards, anchor cards, conflict cards, and aspect cards. Together they make up fundamental parts of a story and allow for the development of writing prompts.
I bought The Story Engine itself as well as the many booster packs that come with it. These include: horror, fantasy, science fiction, eldritch horror, dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, mythology, cyberpunk, and steampunk. The booster packs can either be used separately for genre stories or mixed in with the main Story Engine to give different flavours to the original stories.
If you are more of a visual person, each card also comes with an image that can either enhance the language of the card or provide you with some visual inspiration. As someone who collects images for my stories, I thought this was a powerful starter for those who enjoy image-based story development.
I have spent most of the day playing with these various decks in The Story Engine and have found them incredibly fun and a great way to get creative ideas flowing. I think The Story Engine will be a powerful teaching tool, especially around genre fiction and will allow students to engage differently with aspects of the story. The different categories of cards such as agents and engine cards will help students to think about the various aspects of story like characters, motivations, drive, and conflict. The cards also seem like a powerful tool for getting through writer’s block and the playful aspect of it takes off some of the stress associated with being blocked.
I wanted to share some samples of writing prompts that I have created using The Story Engine to illustrate the adaptability and fun of the deck:
– An underworld God wants to save a loved one by using a hardwired cult, but they will likely lose their life.
– A corporate addict wants to gain the power of a gilded drop of blood, but they will lose part of their humanity.
– An arcane teacher wants to stop being haunted by a rave, but they will lose their closest friend.
– An oracle wants to save the world from a protective mecha but it will mean forever living a lie.
For these prompts, I mixed in the booster packs with the original deck and then just drew them at random. It felt like a fun way to develop some strange and unique stories.
She was dressed in street clothes, which was really unusual for Dr. Townsend’s practice. Generally her clients came dressed in their full regalia instead of as their secret identity.
“Hi, are you the shrink?”
“I’m Dr. Townsend, yes.”
“But you’re the one that works with people like us, right?”
“People like us?”
“You know, magical girls.”
“Oh, yes. It’s just that normally my clients come dressed in their full regalia. I’m known as the ‘magical girl counsellor’, so most people come in costume so that they don’t expose their secret identity. I wasn’t sure that you were here for me.”
“That’s sort of what I am here for… you see, I can’t transform any more. I can’t access my abilities…. like, at all. But that’s not all. I was still trying to fight villains without my powers and ended up getting… hurt…. and then when I was at the hospital, I told them about being a magical girl and they had me sent to psychiatric. They didn’t keep me there for long, but they let me out on the condition that I would see a shrink.”
Magical girls weren’t something unusual, so it seemed strange to Dr. Townsend that someone would disbelieve this client. Superheroes sometimes lost their powers and for some magical girls, their powers disappeared at adulthood. So, this isn’t something completely strange or unbelievable and certainly not a reason to send her to the psychiatric ward.
“That’s strange. Everyone knows that magical girls exist. We’re pretty well known. It’s strange that they wouldn’t believe you.”
“That’s right. You were one of us, right? A magical girl?”
It was a tough topic. Dr. Townsend was still struggling with her identity and whether she made the right decision to become a counsellor for magical girls. She knew it was important. Magical girls go through so much trauma and there aren’t adequate supports available. Besides, how could someone with no experience of the kind of trauma magical girls went through be able to help them?
“Yes, I was Athene. I decided that I wanted to help other magical girls with their trauma, so I became a counsellor.”
The client fiddled with the collar of her shirt, looking uncomfortable. “So… there’s a reason why they didn’t believe me and you might not believe me either. You know how the holidays are coming up?”
“Well, my powers are sort of related to the holidays.”
“Okay” Dr. Townsend was letting the pauses work for her. She had learned that one of the best ways to get clients to talk was to be quietly supportive and let the client fill in the silence.
“Ugh, this is so embarrassing. My superhero name is Holly Jolly.” The client looked at Dr. Townsend, waiting for the inevitable response and decided to fill in the blanks first, “I know, you’ve never heard of me. No one has. It’s part of the magic that makes me a magical girl. So, my powers are connected to the holidays, particularly to Christmas… well, really to Yule, but it’s sort of melded into Christmas. So, the same magic that makes you not believe in Santa… also means you can’t believe in me. Anyone adult finds out about me forgets it after a day or so. It’s like adult brains can’t hold the belief that sustains my magical powers.”
Dr. Townsend leaned forward, curious. She hadn’t heard about powers manifesting in this way. Normally there was a bit of a separation between the secret civilian identity and the magical girl personal, but for people to actually forget about the magical girl persona entirely was a bit strange. Plus, Holly Jolly looked like she was at least in her mid 20s. So, how did the magic work for her?
And wait a minute… did she say that Santa Claus is real?
“I know what you are thinking. This can’t be true. Especially given how old I am – how do I remember my secret identity? Well, it’s the same thing that happens with Santa Claus. He’s able to hold onto his memories of who he is too.”
“I have to admit…. I’m having a hard time getting my mind around all of this.”
“You mean that you’re having a hard time believing it. Trust me, if it didn’t happen to me, I don’t know whether I’d believe it myself. But the thing is, I have seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen Santa. I’ve seen myself transform. I have to believe it because it’s literally happened to me. It’s part of the whole Yule magic thing. Santa used to be called the Yule Lord in old pagan cultures. He presided over the winter solstice and was in charge of fighting off the monstrosities that would appear on the solstice and making sure the sun rose. Remember, the winter solstice is the longest night of the year and most cultures have invested it with ideas of fear – ghost stories, monsters like Grylla and Krampus…. It’s been sanitized in North America into a capitalist celebration of presents and so many of you have forgotten the holiday’s roots. Along with Santa, there has always been a little snow maiden, a magical girl invested with powers of light to fight off the darkness and protect young people from the things that go bump in the longest night.”
Dr. Townsend always nodded when clients were talking. It was a way to encourage them to continue talking, but she was having trouble actually processing what Holly Jolly was saying. It just seemed so unbelievable. But it was clear that her client believed in all of this and that she was convinced she was telling the truth… and maybe it was truth to her. Dr. Townsend believed that a counsellor should be able to support everyone, but she admitted to herself that this felt way over what she could support her client with. She hadn’t worked with clients with delusions like this before.
“I know, I know, it doesn’t seem believable, does it?”
“To be honest, I am having a lot of trouble believing it, you’re right. But that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you believe it and that it is something important to you.”
“Which is a really polite way of saying ‘all of this is beyond my paygrade and I am trying hard to appease you because I think you’re dangerously nuts.'”
“No. I don’t think I would put it like that. I do admit that I am a little out of my element, but I want to be here to support you and I’m not afraid of you. I don’t think you have any interest in harming me and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want support. So, I’m here to listen to you and support you and I will try to put my inner judger aside so I can listen cleanly to what you have to say.”
“Thank you. I really wish I could demonstrate my power to you, but that’s sort of the reason I’m here. Yes, I’m here because the hospital wanted me to get counselling, but I’m also here because I am hoping you will help me get my powers back. Something is blocking them and I can’t seem to access them.” Dr. Townsend opened her mouth to speak, but once again Holly Jolly anticipated what she was going to say “And no, I don’t think that my inability to access my powers is because my powers are a delusion. I think it’s because I’ve become a cynical adult. I got my powers when I was around 10 and I had so much belief in Santa Claus. I stayed up all night waiting for him and he suddenly appeared. He told me that I was a true believer and that I had the light of belief that could bring light into the world and fight off the darkness around the holidays. He brought out a snowglobe that showed me all of the horrors of the world and also showed him fighting off those horrors flying in his sled filled with reindeer.”
“I’m going to ask a question to help myself understand and I don’t want to seem like I’m dismissing your story because I know it’s important to you… but how does Santa deliver all of the presents to the whole world in one night? Especially since I know that my sister and her partner buy all of the presents for their kids and there are no surprise presents or ones they can’t account for… and what about poverty. Is Santa so cruel that he doesn’t give presents to poor children?”
Holly Jolly laughed, a high, piercing tinkle of a laugh that felt perfect for the persona she expressed. “Oh, no. Santa doesn’t bring presents. That’s another of those changes to the story to make him more appealing to capitalist North America. No. He’s an embodiment of the spirit of joy, which is why he became associated with presents – something that brings joy. But really, he harnesses all of that joy in order to fight off the creatures of darkness that I talked about. He’s not a present-bringer, but I suppose he does inspire people to buy presents for each other as a way of celebrating joy and family and all of the things that keep them safe from the darkness all around them. He’s really just a magical creature that uses light to fight monsters.”
Dr. Townsend didn’t know what to say. She had asked for an explanation and that explanation seemed to work for Holly Jolly, so she wanted to acknowledge that. “Thank you for sharing that and opening up about your experience. You had mentioned that Santa came to you when you were 10 and showed you the monsters of the world in his snowglobe… could you tell me a little bit more about your experience?”
“Sure. Of course. Once I saw the monsters, I told him that I wanted to do something about them but I wasn’t strong enough. I told him that I was just a little girl and how could someone like me make any changes. He told me that little girls had incredible powers for fighting off monsters – that we did it in our sleep when we fought nightmares and that our belief together helped to hold off all of the monsters. ‘You have been fighting monsters your whole life and you didn’t even know it’ he said. He told me that all I had to do was access that power of belief in myself and the collective belief of all of the other children out there and I could show the power that was already inside me and take the battle out on the streets to protect children. He passed me a candy cane and told me… actually, Dr., do you have a candy cane. I may as well check here.”
“To see if the magic came back.”
“Oh. Yes, I have a few here. I love the holiday season and I adore the taste of peppermint.” Dr. Townsend ruffled through a drawer and pulled out a miniature candy cane “Is this one okay? It’s a little small.”
“Yes, that’s perfect. I’m assuming that like most of us, you have a magical object that you use to transform with?”
Dr. Townsend nodded. She was uncomfortable with being asked about the life she left behind, but really that life was the reason she became a counsellor. She was just still struggling with her decision and whether she could justify no longer protecting the world as Athene in order to do her current work.
“So, candy canes are my magical object. Any candy cane, really. I suspect the magical girls that worked with the Yule Lord before me used to have some other object to transform, but Santa never told me what it was. He never really gave me any details about previous magical girls that worked for him and now I think that I could have really benefitted from that information – it could explain what is going on now. Maybe this just happens to the girls who work with him.” She shook her head, “Sorry, let me get back to it. He told me to spin around, holding the candy cane out in front of me like this” She began spinning, “And then to say” she raised her voice to a yell “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.”
Dr. Townsend could swear she briefly saw some kind of glitter or sparkle around the candy cane when Holly Jolly recite her magical girl transformation phrase. Yes, it was just the lyrics of the song Jingle Bells, but something about the way she said it made it feel…. more than that. It felt like it wasn’t just lyrics, but a transformation spell.
Holly Jolly stopped spinning. She looked down as though she hoped that she had lifted off the ground. Dr. Townsend knew the look. It was the same one she did when she transformed into Athene and began floating as part of her transformation. Holly Jolly looked at her nails as though expecting them to glitter and then looked down as though expecting her magical girl costume to appear. She looked disappointed, but not surprised.
“I’m so sorry” Dr. Townsend said.
“Me too” She sighed, “I really didn’t expect it to work, but I really hoped, you know?”
“I definitely understand.”
Dr. Townsend struggled with whether she should tell HollyJolly about the glitter. Was it even real or was it just a shared delusion? Or perhaps just the way that the light caught on the wrapper of the candy cane?
“Well, anyway, when I recited the words – and yes, I know that they are a common song, but there is a different way of saying them – I suddenly smelled ginger bread cookies and eggnog and peppermint and I floated off the ground and there was a whirl of green and red glitter and the candy cane became a large magic staff and my pajamas became a red and green puffy dress (i know, so femme… and honestly it looked like an ugly Christmas sweater pattern of Christmas trees, but I loved it. It felt perfect for me). Santa told me that each outfit comes from the snow maiden’s imagination and served as armour no matter how it looked. Mine looked like it was knitted from wool, but was stronger than steel. Santa took me out that night and we immediately began fighting monsters – no training. I just somehow knew how to move, how to access my candy cane staff’s powers, how to call up helper elves from the otherworld. All of the knowledge just appeared in my head. It was important that it did because Santa was busy fighting the whole night and wouldn’t have had time to teach me. I was blasting shadows and demons away like a pro without even having picked up a textbook or gone to a workout. It was exhilarating. I just knew this was what I was meant to do.”
Dr. Townsend could see that look in Holly Jolly’s eyes – that look of having been touched by magic, of having seen things that others couldn’t understand… and that look of trauma and pain that came with having to grow up too fast and become a warrior.
“It sounds like your job meant a lot to you.”
“It really did. It was my everything. Unlike Santa, I kept my powers throughout the year instead of just being invested with them on one night, so I continued to take my candy cane and become Holly Jolly and fight back the monsters that attacked children… and, of course, I got no credit for it. Kids weren’t believed when they saw me. Adults couldn’t see me. I couldn’t be captured on film. When adults did see me, something would click in their heads so that they couldn’t remember it. I wonder if that is finally what happened to me. I still have the power of belief. I have to have the power of belief because I’ve seen it, but I’ve lost something. There’s something vital that is missing. I don’t know how I held onto whatever it was into my 20s, but it’s faded now.”
“What was it like to lose your abilities?”
“Well, I lost them a few months ago. Like, in the middle of summer, so nowhere near the holidays. I just got off of my shift at the coffee shop and I pulled out a candy cane and said my magical words and did the same gestures as always… and nothing… I just stood there in my barista outfit. I figured it was just a fluke. I was probably just too tired. It had been a long day full of terrible customers demanding and complaining. So, I tried the next night… still nothing. And then the next and the next and…” she shrugged.
“Had anything changed on that first night? Anything new or unusual?”
“Not really. Customers are always dicks and I still always found a way to become Holly Jolly. There were a few nasty ones… and oh god, there was one lady that was complaining that the mall didn’t have any Christmas stuff available and she ‘had to get to buying presents’. It was just consumerism overload.”
“Now that’s interesting.”
“What do you mean?”
“What inspired you to bring up the story about that woman wanting to buy presents?”
“I don’t know. It just stuck out for me.”
“What do you think made it stick out?”
“Well, I just hate seeing how commercialized everything is. I hate seeing people put themselves into debt just to have better presents than the person next to them. I hate seeing all of the anger and the violence – especially around things like Black Friday – and I was just thinking to myself ‘oh fuck, it’s starting even earlier. It’s not even August and we have to deal with this already’.”
“Interesting. Your power is associated with Christmas… and your powers happened to stop working around a time when you saw rampant consumerism. Do you think there could be a connection?”
Holly Jolly sat back in her chair, looking up at the ceiling, her feet dangling off of the floor. Dr. Townsend hadn’t realized how short she was until this moment.
“Ya, just… wow. It seems pretty obvious now. I’ve been thinking that my powers could be gone because of adult cynicism, but to now attach it to a specific moment… this is something.”
Dr. Townsend smiled. She really felt like she was on to something with Holly Jolly. If she really was a magical girl, and Dr. Townsend still had her doubts, maybe this would let her access her magical self.
“I have been thinking a lot about how commercialized the holidays are. I know, I sound like an old woman complaining about how things were so much better when I was young… but I feel like maybe they were. Or maybe I just didn’t notice how terrible things were and how terrible people were. I was probably so enthralled with the presents and treats that it all just seemed so joyful. But I guess I’ve been seeing the misery of the season more and more each year as I’ve grown up… and working in a coffee shop at the mall doesn’t help. Now all I see is the rampant consumerism and it just fills me with disgust. Do you know that I can’t even listen to Christmas music any more? It fills me with disgust. I used to love it. I used to love listening to Nat “King” Cole, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby… and after a few months of hearing it blare while people complained, I just developed this total distaste about it all.”
“So, now that we’ve discovered that, how are we going to proceed?”
“I don’t know. You’re the shrink. What do you think I should do?”
“Well, it’s clear that you still want to be a magical girl… you still do, right?”
“Absolutely. Like I said, I was hospitalized trying to fight a ring of kidnappers without my powers. I still want to fight crime and make things better for kids…. I might even want that now more than ever since I’ve seen so many of the horrors that have happened to kids.”
“Can you tell me about how you have felt about that knowledge of all of the horrors out there for kids?”
“It just… it eats away at me every day. I look out at the people around me and all I see are people harming children. I know, I know, not all of them are harming children, but it’s just that I’ve seen so much of it. I’ve seen so many of them subjected to violence. Santa gave me my powers to fight monstrous things… but he didn’t teach me about how to deal with monstrous people. I’m not even sure I was supposed to start fighting them… but what’s the difference between a big fanged, ogre and an abusive parent. In fact, at least the kid can get away from an ogre potentially and be safe in their home… if they have an abusive parent how can they ever be safe? Home is totally taken away from them and they have to live in fear ever hour of every day.”
“I know how you feel. I’ve seen so many horrors in my time as Athene.”
“And the police do nothing. They don’t get involved. They tell people that a parent has the right to discipline their child or they say that there isn’t enough evidence… or they just don’t even bother showing up.”
“It sounds like this is very personal to you. I am going to ask you a question that may be triggering and you can feel free to not tell me right now… but are you an abuse survivor as well?”
Holly Jolly leaned back in her chair and spoke in a quiet voice. “Honestly, that’s what hurts the most about this. I always used my powers as a way of escaping from him, as a way of getting away from the violence. I knew I could do something to protect all of those other kids… but I couldn’t do anything to protect myself. I had the power to. I was able to fight so many abusers… but for some reason, with him… I couldn’t. I would just freeze. I would curl into a little ball and just allow him to hit me. It was like I was somewhere else while it happened… like I could leave my body. I honestly think that Santa chose me because of it… because of the abuse. I think he knew that fighting for children was important to me on a vital, personal level. And I loved the holidays because he was always away. He managed a resort and would have to work through the holidays, so I was always on my own with my magic and imagination. It was that holiday feeling that would keep me surviving throughout the year. I always retreated into my imagination when he beat me, always imagined myself at Santa’s workshop. And then I grew up. I left home when I was 17, got a job at a diner and had a tiny apartment.”
“I’m so sorry that you went through all of that. It sounds like your childhood self was a powerful person. What would you say to that childhood self if you could?”
“I- I don’t know” tears filled her eyes, “I think I would tell her that it gets better and that she doesn’t have to live with it forever. I think I would tell her that we eventually get away from him.”
“I can’t help but notice how powerful she was and how much work she did to help you survive.”
“It doesn’t always feel like that. I sometimes feel like I just kept screwing up and finally lucked out when I found a way out.”
“Notice what you said: when you found a way out. That was all you. You did it. You got out. You kept yourself alive. Isn’t that a huge accomplishment?”
“I suppose… Yes, you’re probably right. I guess I really was a survivor. I’m just so… I feel so ugh about the fact that I had to literally hide in myself to get through it all, you know?”
“Hey, it’s a survival technique. It helped you get through it. Your imagination helped you get through it.”
And maybe it still is Dr. Townsend couldn’t help but think.
“You’re right. It really did. I wouldn’t have been able to get through all of that without that imagination. Let me guess, next you’re going to tell me to get in touch with my inner child?”
“Does that feel like something that you would benefit from?”
“Probably. But I bet it takes a long time.”
“It does. But you’ve taken the first step. We can keep working together while you find out more about yourself.”
“That would be wonderful, but I’m hoping that this was enough for me to become my magical girl self again.”
“Therapy doesn’t happen like that. It takes time. And even if you are able to become your magical girl self, we still likely need to continue working on these changes. You’ve opened up a lot and opening up this kind of trauma without working through it can be harmful. We can keep working together. I work on a sliding scale, so I can adjust my fees to support you.”
“Ah, the problem is, like I said, when I become Holly Jolly, you will forget everything you know about me and my magical girl persona.”
Dr. Townsend looked down at her notes. There is no way that she would forget any of this. This was something she would need to process for a long time.
“Can you pass me that candy cane again?”
“Of course, but I really think you should consider waiting until we work through more of this.”
“I can’t. Children are in danger just like I was and I can only do something to protect them with my powers. I couldn’t do much without them other than get myself sent to the hospital. I need to be Holly Jolly.”
Dr. Townsend slid the candy cane across the table. Admittedly, she was curious about whether Holly Jolly’s story was true and whether she would transform. She found herself wanting the story to be true. There was definitely something of her own inner child wanting to believe that holiday miracles like this could happen. And, honestly, how different was this from all of the other transformations she’d seen. How was this any different from being bestowed with powers by a Greek God or being an alien princess who came to earth or developing the powers of a witch? Was this that far fetched?
Holly Jolly stood up and held the cane out far in front of her and began spinning “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way”.
The candy cane in her hands began to twirl and grow, the red and white stripes unravelled from it and twisted around her body, red and green glitter surrounded the young woman and there was a smell of baked goods in the air. She stopped spinning and there stood what looked like a Christmas elf right out of a mall Santa display.
Holly Jolly winked and it seemed like there was a star next to her eye.
Dr. Townsend sat back in her chair and slowly exhaled. When she inhaled, she could smell peppermint. She caught herself smiling.
There was a faint ringing of bells and she looked down at her notes. They were blank. She looked over at her phone and it read 5:30. It seemed her new client hadn’t shown up. Well, it was up to them to come in if they needed the support. She would ask her receptionist to follow up and see if they could schedule a new appointment time.