Behind the Book: Winterglass

I like to do this kind of book notes sometimes, but I prefer to have a bit of distance between the book’s release and notes like this, since they’re a lot like peeking behind the curtain. Now there’s a bit of distance plus a sequel coming up (Mirrorstrike in December), so here we go!

Some notes on cultural references first.

  • Nuawa is Chinese, named after the goddess Nuwa from the epic Fengshen Yanyi. Her combat mentor, Ziya Jiang, is named after the Jiang Ziya (the setting of Winterglass normalizes first name then last name whereas in China it’s last name then first name) from the same epic, a sage who comes to serve as a king’s strategist (much as the one in Winterglass served, for some years, as Lussadh’s strategist). The Fengshen Yanyi character is known for being eccentric; his namesake in Winterglass leaves Lussadh’s service to raise dogs, goats, snakes, and sell guns. You might be amused to consider that Nuwa is the goddess who commands Daji, the fox demon, to destroy the Shang dynasty by seducing its king; Jiang Ziya is instrumental to defeating Daji.
  • Sirapirat is not a direct analogue of any specific Thai city but it is, nevertheless, Thai. You might be able to tell from descriptions of the architecture held in Sirapirat’s sky reflection, an image of the city as it used to be prior to the Winter Queen’s arrival (though that image is, like the real thing, also covered in snow). Ancillary to this, both of Nuawa’s mothers lived under assumed names. Neither ‘Tafari’ nor ‘Indrahi’ were their real names, and ‘Dasaret’ was not the surname either was born with. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a story about them but, in the case that I do, their real names were respectively Mandarin and Thai.
  • The Winter Queen is not white and neither is she written in the tradition of Celtic fairy queens (for one, she’s a lesbian). She’s Japanese, specifically a yuki-onna. This is stated in the text, with several characters calling her a ‘snow-woman’ (they don’t speak Japanese and use a literal translation). Her connection to consuming souls is also a yuki-onna trait. More on this (and more about her nature beyond the obvious) in Mirrorstrike.
  • Crow, a character from the prequel novelette ‘That Rough-Hewn Sun’, is also Japanese (for reasons that the story makes obvious).
an illustration of the Winter Queen by Mogamoka

On genres and tropes.

  • Originally, I planned to write Winterglass as a romance. As an actual category romance, not just as a fantasy book with a central sexual/romantic relationship. This didn’t pan out because Winterglass isn’t a setting where love succeeds as a healing force. Whatever Nuawa feels for Lussadh (and vice versa) cannot cure the generational trauma of imperialism, especially since Lussadh is one of that imperialism’s greatest living collaborators. A happy ending being impossible in the sense of restoration and reconciliation, I decided not to write this as a romance.
  • Subsequent to above, the general culture of the world is one that’s not just homonormative but poly-normative. Lussadh is in a relationship with two women. Neither of them are exclusively committed to Lussadh, though during the time of the books they appear to be because they’re too busy to pursue other partners. I don’t like love triangles and find them often reductive as well as taking up too much narrative space; ‘Who will she exclusively choose?’ is not a question that interests me. Lussadh chooses both.
  • Communicating that Winterglass isn’t a young adult book has been weirdly challenging. For some reason, the book description–that one protagonist is a seasoned gladiator and the other the foremost commander of an imperial military–doesn’t seem to get across that they’re probably not teenagers. This led to weird complaints that Lussadh and Nuawa are ‘not young at all’.
  • Nuawa and Lussadh have a ten-year age gap but, importantly, Nuawa is over thirty in Winterglass and has already established herself: her identity, her career, and so on. While Lussadh has more life experience and is much more powerful and wealthier, Nuawa comes from a background of sufficient class privilege that she’s not overwhelmed by Lussadh’s luxuries; she just regards those luxuries as a result of taxes taken from a subjugated population. These elements are a repudiation of various royalty/commoner or billionaire/normal person tropes where the ‘commoner’ or normal person is a young, inexperienced naive virgin (early twenties or even younger) while the royalty or billionaire is a suave cynic (ten or twenty years older). Nuawa is a fairly extreme opposite of characters like, say, Anastasia Steele. By the time she meets Lussadh, she’s also very much not a virgin.
  • A lot of back covers like to promise that the female protagonist is strong and ruthless and must make hard decisions and do difficult horrible things, and then… nothing. In the actual text, the protagonist in question is a wet blanket or, through authorial cowardice, never actually has to do anything morally ambiguous or unlikable; every person this protagonist kills is bad and deserved it. This annoys me. As a result (and this applies to my fiction generally), Nuawa and Lussadh are just what it says on the tin. Let women (and trans femme non-binary people) be hard and let them be cold. Let them do terrible things. People who complain that non-men are unlikable when they do the same things as beloved male characters are not worth your regard or consideration.
  • Tangential to that, in And Shall Machines Surrender I wrote two monstrous women who are trying to be a bit less monstrous. In Her Pitiless Command books, I wrote with ‘how far can Lussadh’s and Nuawa’s monstrosity go? LET’S FIND OUT!’ in mind. Don’t worry about Mirrorstrike. It’ll all be fine.
  • They are both self-made orphans. There’s a lot to bond over, I think.
  • A trope I deeply dislike in all media is when a female protagonist thinks fondly of and longs for her sainted father while the mother, if alive, is at best a footnote or, if dead, died in childbirth. For an example of this, take Fate/stay night’s Tohsaka Rin, who views her dead father as a hero/role model and never thinks about her mother. In the world of Winterglass, people with some money don’t generally carry pregnancy; Nuawa’s mothers (who were well-off) used an artificial womb to have her. So while one of her mothers–Tafari–did die, it wasn’t in childbirth and never could have been. Nuawa’s greatest influence in life is her living mother Indrahi: both her skill set (combat, formal education, familiarity with espionage techniques) and profession owe to this fact.
  • Nuawa hires a sex worker. I wanted to show that in her world, sex work is legal and normative: she has no particular hang-ups about seeing one, and has no desire to ‘rescue’ the sex worker out of her trade, just as you wouldn’t try to ‘rescue’ a bank teller out of their profession.
  • In ‘That Rough-Hewn Sun’, the queen’s ambassador Crow is a virgin when they sleep with Lussadh (who is, at that point in the chronology, in her early twenties) and I specifically wanted to write a first-time sex scene where consent is not only affirmative but continuous. There’s a lot of charged tropes surrounding ‘deflowering’ (ew) and I like none of them, especially as these tropes revolve around cishet-normative ideas. While Crow is inexperienced at this point, they know how to ask for what they want and are not helpless.
  • Though Crow is an instance of the queen, they are non-binary and use they/them. Her instances draw from her sense of identity, including gender, meaning the queen isn’t necessarily always a woman. She can share their perception and memories; they typically receive part of her memory but not all.