Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice

Last month, I was asked to contribute to Tor.com’s ‘Best of 2017 (So Far)‘ list! Here’s the list; you’ll find my picks a little way down the page.

Contributors were asked to limit our choices to just three. Which would you have chosen?

Interview with A.F.E. Smith


Author Photo: AFE Smith (Darkhaven)A.F.E (aka. ‘Afe’) is celebrating the recent release of her third Darkhaven novel, Windsinger. Published by Harper-Voyager on 23 February 2017, Windsinger continues the tale of dark magic and darker political conflict that began in Afe’s previous novels: Darkhaven, and Goldenfire.

She writes for Fantasy-Faction; she’s just published her third full-length novel; she’s a part-time robin and a full-time editor; and she’s currently also rearing two children. How does she do it? Why does she do it? I tracked down this elusive author (who, by the way, assures me that the initials ‘A.F.E.’ hide a dangerous secret that can never be revealed) and settled down for a chat with the beautiful mind behind Darkhaven.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

(LMH): Thanks for joining me, Afe, and congratulations on the recent release of Windsinger! (Which, as you know, I absolutely LOVED.)

How does it feel to have not one, not two, but THREE of your own books released into the wild?

(AFE): In all honesty, I don’t know quite how I feel about it. It’s a lot like having children, I suppose: a mixture of the very good (pride, amazement, satisfaction at having created a fully formed being independent of yourself) and the very bad (terror, stress, constant guilt that their imperfections are your fault, a helpless frustrated misery every time someone doesn’t like them).

That’s not a very upbeat answer, is it? Let’s go with … great. It’s great!

Your Goodreads bio ever-so-casually states that you ‘happen to be a robin some of the time.’ I have to ask: why only *some* of the time? And why a robin? It’s too small to be your Changer form. Is it your spirit animal? Your animagus form?AFE Smith: robin

I can’t be a robin all the time because they’re not very good at typing and they don’t like chocolate. So I mostly stick to being a robin online and leave the real world to my human form.

I think it’s probably more of a daemon than an Animagus. Which probably means I’m a witch, because bird-daemons tend to belong to witches. Yeah. A witch who blushes a lot, so has the most embarrassed-looking bird possible as a daemon. Makes sense.

(Can you tell I’m super excited about the recent announcement of Philip Pullman’s new book?)

I would never have guessed. 😉laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Robins are always busy doing something. Flitting around, building nests, eating snacks, looking colourful… How do you manage to balance your writing career with a full-time day job AND two small, dependent humans?

With immense difficulty. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing too many things to be good at any of them. The writing gets done in lunch breaks and after the children have gone to bed, so it’s very patchy. I’m usually short on sleep and my house is a mess.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Half the time I don’t even enjoy it. But you know how it is: if you’re a writer, you write. You write on the backs of receipts. You write in the shower. You write inside your own head. You just do.

I have to admit I’ve never written in the shower. But yes, I know how it is. Also, my house is a mess… and I don’t even have kids!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

You work as an editor in your day job, right? Do you feel like this helps (or hinders) your own writing process?

Yes, I’m an editor. I think my job hinders my reading more than my writing. I’m so used to reading words slowly and carefully at work that I find it hard to sit back and get swept away by them when I’m reading for pleasure. Not like when I was a teen and inhaled books through my eyeballs. And if there are typos, my work brain kicks in straight away and the moment is lost. That’s when I find myself mentally editing the book instead of reading it, which isn’t what anyone wants.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Half the time I don’t even enjoy it. But you know how it is: if you’re a writer, you write. You write on the backs of receipts. You write in the shower. You write inside your own head. You just do.

When I’m writing, though, being an editor is both good and bad. Good because I’m pretty sure the manuscripts I turn in are as clean as they can be. Also good because I understand the editorial process, so I don’t get precious about making changes. But bad because my instinct is to word everything perfectly in the first draft. I have to force myself to go with the flow and not trawl back over every line to make sure it’s correct.

Sounds to me like you’re an editor’s dream!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Can you give us a brief insight into how you came to be traditionally published? Was it, as they say, a matter of luck? Or was it pure talent? Hard work? Magic?

It’s magic, isn’t it?

I would say a mixture of all of them. There’s no denying that luck plays a key part in any author’s career. You and I both know there are far more good books out there than slots on a publisher’s list, so a lot depends on the subjective opinion of whoever happens to read your manuscript. Having said that, most people can’t get far without at least some hard work and talent, either. They’re like the other two corners of the triangle.

(I find questions like this hard to answer, because I’m always afraid that in reality I’m pretty talentless. Somehow I believe every bad review and none of the good ones … er, except yours, of course. Impostor syndrome is real and living among us in the form of a robin.)

There’s no denying that luck plays a key part in any author’s career. You and I both know there are far more good books out there than slots on a publisher’s list, so a lot depends on the subjective opinion of whoever happens to read your manuscript. Having said that, most people can’t get far without at least some hard work and talent, either. They’re like the other two corners of the triangle.

The actual story is that Voyager were holding an open call for submissions, back in … 2012? And I submitted – that was the magic part, I guess, because I had a months-old baby at the time and something must have kept him asleep long enough for me to do it – and the rest is history.

That’s incredible! (Also, please let me assure you once again that you are the opposite of talentless.)laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

As co-judges in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, you and I are both aware of the ups and downs of self-publishing. With that in mind: what, for you, has been the biggest advantage of signing a *traditional* publishing deal?

Weeelll … semi-traditional. I’m digital first, which means some of the more obvious benefits of traditional publishing don’t apply to me. Having books in physical stores, for Darkhaven by Afe Smithinstance. Or marketing budget (though I believe not many authors see much of that, these days).

So the biggest advantage was really the validation it gave me. Which sounds a bit stupid; I know some of my self-published author friends would scoff at it. But I’m never convinced that anything I’ve written is good enough (see also: imposter syndrome). If I hadn’t been picked up by Voyager, I’d probably still be tinkering with Darkhaven, and Goldenfire and Windsinger wouldn’t exist.

(You might argue that Darkhaven could use a little extra tinkering. But there’s nothing to say it would have been the right sort of tinkering, if I’d kept on doing it myself, so on balance it probably worked out better this way.)

Definitely. Darkhaven is very, very good, but Goldenfire is bloody brilliant. For me, part of the enjoyment was in seeing you evolve as a writer throughout the series.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

For readers unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about it?

What is the one question every author has to be able to answer in a concise and compelling way that makes their book sound like the best thing in the world, ever? This one.

What is the one question I always find the hardest? … Yeah.

Yeah, sorry about that… Why *do* you think it’s so difficult?

I think it’s because each of the books is about one thing, and the series as a whole is about something slightly different. The books are kind of fantasy mysteries, I suppose. Darkhaven is your straightforward whodunit, except that the murder victim is the overlord of a small country and has the power to shapeshift into a large dragon. Goldenfire is about preventing an assassination plot. Windsinger focuses on the need to uncover a traitor before war breaks out. Each of those stories has a defined beginning and end within the confines of a single book, so in theory you could pick up any one of them without reading the others.The Darkhaven series by A.F.E. Smith

The series, on the other hand, is about the tension between tradition and progress; about the conflicting demands of loyalty – to yourself, your family, your country, your god; about technology versus magic; about revenge and justice and whether they can ever be the same thing; about love. It starts off small, but it gets bigger as it goes along. And I think the same can be said for the characters themselves, metaphorically speaking. Each book is set several years after the previous one, so there’s plenty of scope for growth.

Or for future books set in between, perhaps? 😉laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Many elements of Darkhaven – unusual magic, hidden identities, shady assassins, kickass characters – put me in mind of the excellent V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

Who would you say are your main influences? (And are there any authors whom you dream of being compared to?)

My influences are pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I think that’s true of all writers. We can’t help but pick up bits and pieces of the things we encounter and fit them together to form something new. Like decorator crabs.

Authors I love: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Ness, Juliet Marillier, Katherine Addison, Neil Gaiman …

But recently I read The Curse of Chalion (I know, late to the party), so now when I grow up I want to be Lois McMaster Bujold.

(Note to self: read The Curse of Chalion. It’s been sitting on my shelf for years. Save me some breadsticks at the party, okay?)laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Back to Darkhaven: which character in the series do you feel you identify with the most? And was he/she your favourite character to write? Why?

I don’t know that I identify fully with any of my characters. I think there’s a danger that if you create a character too much like yourself, you’ll end up wanting to give them all the best lines and never dream of killing them off. No-one likes a character who’s basically an author insert.

Having said that, there are bits of me in all the characters. Of course there are. Ayla got my stubbornness. Tomas, my apparently contradictory traits of paranoia and a desire to believe the best of people. Ree is the part of me who thirsts to prove herself, and Penn got my social awkwardness (poor Penn). (LH: I love Penn!)

My influences are pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I think that’s true of all writers. We can’t help but pick up bits and pieces of the things we encounter and fit them together to form something new. Like decorator crabs.

The most fun character to write is always Naeve Sorrow, who is the most unlike me: capable of anything, takes no shit, and doesn’t need to prove herself to anyone because she knows she’s awesome. I guess that’s why it’s fun. She also happens to be the character who everyone seems to like best, which confirms my melancholy suspicion that my imagination is way more interesting than I am.

Or that Naeve Sorrow is your superhero alter-ego lurking deep down inside…laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

It occurred to me quite recently that the premise of book one, Darkhaven, has similarities to the tale of Rapunzel. In particular, Ayla Nightshade bears every sign of embodying the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. The books are otherwise quite progressive in terms of themes and characters; why did you choose to portray her in this way?

There are two possible answers to that. I think both are true.

The first is that when I wrote Darkhaven, I hadn’t really found my voice as a writer yet. I’d been absorbing all these tropes without realizing it (I’m not sure I even knew tropes were a thing), so it was natural that some of them would find their way into my writing. I think we all go through that stage. Tropes are tropes because they appear regularly in the media we consume, and if you’re not aware of that, you simply internalize them. It wasn’t until after I wrote Darkhaven that I really started thinking about this kind of thing. (You could say, in a meta kind of way, that this is another example of the tension between tradition and progress that the series tries to grapple with. But maybe that would be pretentious.)

Tropes are tropes because they appear regularly in the media we consume, and if you’re not aware of that, you simply internalize them. It wasn’t until after I wrote Darkhaven that I really started thinking about this kind of thing.

The second, which is perhaps fairer to myself, is that I think it would have been unrealistic for Ayla to be any other way, given her upbringing. At the start of Darkhaven, she’s basically been trapped in one place her entire life. She’s grown up with a father who shows her no affection at all and forbids her to do much except prepare to be a future mother ofGoldenfire (Darkhaven #2) by A.F.E. Smith Nightshade heirs, and a brother who she loves but who she’s going to be forced to marry against her will (yeah, the Nightshades aren’t the most functional family). And maybe her mother would have been a counteractive influence to all that, but her mother is dead. So although she’s angry and determined, she’s emotionally stunted and lacks the skills to get much done, on a practical level. Perhaps it’s unfair to call her altogether a damsel in distress. She wants to fight, and she does keep fighting. She’s just not very good at it.

I guess all this goes to show that you can have a good reason for the presence of a problematic trope. Whether it’s sufficiently good is up to the individual reader. Still, I hope it’s clear that I don’t think ‘all women’ are damsels in distress. I have my wise-cracking, kick-ass female characters too (hello, Naeve Sorrow). And Ayla herself changes a lot over the course of the series, as she grows into herself and her abilities and leaves her father’s legacy behind.

Absolutely, which is another reason I’d encourage readers to proceed with the series.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

In Goldenfire (book two) you introduce Ree (one of my favourite characters). You could argue that the ‘woman overcomes odds to prove she can fight like a man’ trope has been used many a time before. What makes Ree’s story different?

I think the interesting thing about Ree’s story is that it forces her to confront her own prejudices as much as other people’s. Often, implicit in a ‘woman proves she’s as good as a man’ narrative is the belief that it’s better to be like a man, to be strong in traditionally masculine ways. Being ‘feminine’ (or rather, possessing what have typically been considered feminine traits) is seen as a weakness. And that’s exactly what Ree believes, to start with. The flip side of her desire to prove herself in a man’s world is her belief that only a man’s world is worth being in. So when she encounters a girl who giggles and dresses in lace and uses her sexuality as a tool, she automatically despises her. But, of course, that makes Ree just as guilty as the boys whose mockery she’s fighting against: first, because being pretty and flirtatious isn’t mutually exclusive with being a warrior, and second, because choosing to forge a path that typically isn’t taken by your gender doesn’t make you somehow superior to someone who chooses a more traditional path. Equality isn’t about replacing one set of constraints with another.

Well said!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Afe, there’s a strong emphasis on identity in your novels. In particular, Goldenfire uses romantic relationships in order to foreground issues of sexual and personal identity (to the chagrin of some of your readers).

Furthermore, your books feature several gay protagonists – which is still (sadly) somewhat revolutionary in a series that appears to target Young Adult readers – while Windsinger also introduces an asexual character, who suffers shaming and abuse from his father for his ‘abnormality’.

Were any of these aspects a result of conscious decisions on your part, or did they arise as a natural part of the characters’ development?

Oh, certainly a conscious decision. I think writers have a responsibility to make a conscious decision about the gender, race, sexuality, etc. of their characters. Because if you don’t make a conscious decision, you make an unconscious one. You default to whatever you’ve learned to think of as the ‘norm’.

I think writers have a responsibility to make a conscious decision about the gender, race, sexuality, etc. of their characters. Because if you don’t make a conscious decision, you make an unconscious one. You default to whatever you’ve learned to think of as the ‘norm’.

The odd thing about sexuality, in particular, is that portraying people of different sexualities is often seen as somehow a political decision, whereas making everyone heterosexual isn’t. And I think that’s because of the default position I just mentioned – if you’re not making a conscious decision, you don’t realize it’s political. But the truth is, not questioning the default is as political a position as anything else, because it’s only those of us who conform to the ‘norm’ who can afford not to question it.

The other aspect of this, though, is that I didn’t want sexuality to be the focus of the series. Books about what it’s like to be LGBT+ in a society that isn’t fully accepting of that are valuable and important, but I think it’s also valuable and important to have books that present diverse sexualities as an accepted and unremarked fact. Because if you can offer a world where straight isn’t the ‘norm’ but just one way of being – as intrinsic and irrelevant to a person’s character as eye colour – then maybe we can start to question our own norms. I think both kinds of book are needed.

The odd thing about sexuality, in particular, is that portraying people of different sexualities is often seen as somehow a political decision, whereas making everyone heterosexual isn’t.

Having said that, you correctly point out that Lewis’s asexuality results in shaming and abuse. But that’s a result of the family he comes from and the expectations he’s under. Most ordinary people in Mirrorvale would have just as little reaction to asexuality as they do to any other kind of sexuality, but among wealthy families who expect their children to marry and procreate for the good of their bloodline … well, again, it’s that tension between tradition and progress.

Exactly, and it’s pretty clear to the reader that Lewis’s father’s behaviour is not only unjust but also illogical.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Your novels are wonderfully diverse. One of my favourite aspects of both Goldenfire and Windsinger is the way you empower sexual and racial minorities by ensuring that they’re represented with nuance and compassion.

Reading Windsinger, I felt particularly strongly about Zander, the immigrant who finds himself isolated and displaced when his adopted country descends into war with his country of birth. Why did you choose to explore this theme?

Again, there are two answers to this. (I’m terribly indecisive, can you tell?) (LH: Never! :p)

Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) by A.F.E. SmithThe first answer is that I wrote Windsinger at a time when I was struggling with myself and with the world. I was sinking in and out of depression, trying to keep my head above water even though half the time it didn’t really seem worth it. (Depression is great at making everything seem pointless.) And, you know, there was a lot going on in the world that contributed to that. Still is. It feels as though in many countries, people have descended into the mindset required for war: the one that labels whole groups of human beings as other. And I think one of the frightening things about that – and this is something Zander experiences – is how close to the surface that mindset turns out to be. We do it with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions. Different genders and sexualities. We’re perfectly capable of labelling every single person who doesn’t support our own political party as stupid, unworthy, lesser. We mistrust anyone who isn’t like us – when if you cut the categories fine enough, we all end up in a category of one. Anyway, it preyed on my mind enough that it found its way into the book.

It feels as though in many countries, people have descended into the mindset required for war: the one that labels whole groups of human beings as other. And I think one of the frightening things about that – and this is something Zander experiences – is how close to the surface that mindset turns out to be. We do it with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions. Different genders and sexualities. We’re perfectly capable of labelling every single person who doesn’t support our own political party as stupid, unworthy, lesser. We mistrust anyone who isn’t like us – when if you cut the categories fine enough, we all end up in a category of one.

The second answer is that a lot of what happens in Windsinger is a natural result of what happened in the previous two books. War has always been on the horizon for Mirrorvale. And the seed of people’s attitudes towards Zander was there in Goldenfire. So it’s the logical next step for the character and the plot. I think exploring themes only works if they come out organically.

I agree, and I think Windsinger is a must-read in today’s climate – it’s eye-opening, for sure.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

I admire and respect the fact that you explore social issues in a way that highlights the problematic aspects – the barriers, as it were – as well as the ultimate ideal. (You touched on one example earlier when you talked about Ree fighting against the sexist, misogynistic attitudes of her male competitors, yet unconsciously inflicting that same scorn and prejudice on her fellow women.)

Going forward, are there any other issues that you intend to tackle in a similar manner?

The thing is, I don’t really set out to tackle issues. They just emerge from the plot. I think if you set out to write issue-based fiction it can become kind of preachy. It’s the difference between “I’m going to write a book about prejudice!” and “I’m going to write a book about war, murder, kidnap, airships and flying unicorns that also happens to touch on what it’s like to be discriminated against because of where you were born.” I hope very much that I fall on the right side of that line.

So the answer to your question, I guess, is that I don’t intend to tackle any issues. But I fully expect them to emerge, because characters are people, and people are messy and interesting.

Agreed, and I for one look forward to seeing what emerges in future!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

If there was a single message you’d like readers to take away from the first three books – what would it be?

Hmm. That’s a tricky one. Do my books have messages? I guess there are one or two buried in there. The importance of trying to understand other people, maybe. Of approaching them as individuals, rather than categorizing them by the ways they are different from you. Of continuing to have faith in people, generally, no matter how misplaced that faith may feel when the world seems to be going to hell …

To paraphrase, I guess Tomas Caraway has it right: “Anyone can hate. It’s love that requires courage.”

Spoken like a true hero!laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Now for one or two lighter questions before we wrap things up…

First – I’ll admit I was surprised at the minor role Ayla’s shapechanging ability plays (in the first two books, at least). What made you want to write about shapechangers and not, say, dragons?

I tend to write my magic small. By which I mean, I’m not really interested in spectacle so much as people. What’s interesting about shapeshifters is that they’re basically humans who have an extra ability. A superpower, if you like. But the thing about being a human with a superpower is that your powers are only as strong as you are. So, for instance, it makes sense to me that in the first book, Ayla – who has barely been allowed to use her power due to her father’s dislike of the form it takes – wouldn’t automatically think to wield it, even in a dangerous situation. Her natural instincts have been suppressed. But you see as the series continues that over the years, she becomes more and more comfortable in her own skin, and therefore more and more able to wield that power effectively and listen to herself. You can read that as an analogy to whatever you like. She’s every person who’s ever had part of themselves suppressed by a disapproving upbringing.

I tend to write my magic small. By which I mean, I’m not really interested in spectacle so much as people. What’s interesting about shapeshifters is that they’re basically humans who have an extra ability. A superpower, if you like. But the thing about being a human with a superpower is that your powers are only as strong as you are.

But the point is, if I’d written about dragons, they’d be dragons. Powerful and alien and not at all subject to human frailty. Which is of course excellent, in its own way, but not what I was interested in writing about.

While we’re at it, then: what’s the significance of Ayla’s Changer form?

Within the books, it represents a break from tradition. The discovery that an impure/hybrid form might actually be more powerful than the handful of pure forms historically preferred by the Nightshade line. (You can read that as a comment on the importance of opening yourself up to new influences and new ideas, if you like. I think it’s clear by now which side I tend to favour in the battle between tradition and progress, though I wouldn’t come down fully on either side.)

Outside the books … the significance is pretty much golden winged unicorns are awesome.

‘Golden winged unicorns are awesome’ is also an excellent message for people to take away from the books.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

You’ve said about the robin… Changers, however, are HUGE. What would your changer form be, and why?

OK, so the five pure Changer forms are Firedrake, Unicorn, Hydra, Phoenix and Griffin. And there are hundreds of hybrid forms as well, many of which don’t have names (see: Nightshade desire for purity). I’m kind of shy and grumpy, so I’d probably be a Unicorn/Hydra hybrid. Which I imagine as one of those horses you get in heraldry where it has front legs but then the body turns into a snake. What’s that called? *Googles* Apparently, a hippocampus. A hippocampus with a unicorn horn.

(After I wrote that, I had the urge to create a cheesy ‘What’s your Changer form?’ quiz. And since it’s always advisable to listen to one’s urges, I went ahead and did it. So if you’d like to find out what your Changer form would be, you can do it here. Turns out, according to my own quiz, I’m a Feathered Serpent. So there you go.)

Hieracosphinx

Move over, hippocampus lady – I’m a hieracosphinx!

And finally… what can readers expect to see next from A.F.E. Smith? Do you have plans for more Darkhaven goodness? Or something entirely different?

I have plans for four more Darkhaven books. However, whether or not those plans ever come to fruition depends entirely on whether the first three sell enough to make it worthwhile for my publisher to contract me for more. Publishing is a business, after all.

Authors I love: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Ness, Juliet Marillier, Katherine Addison, Neil Gaiman …

But recently I read The Curse of Chalion (I know, late to the party), so now when I grow up I want to be Lois McMaster Bujold.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on another project, a young adult fantasy series, the first of which is being considered by an agent right now. (One of the downsides of my route to publication was that I bypassed finding an agent, which I wouldn’t recommend if you’re at all interested in getting into – and staying in – traditional publishing. So I’m trying to rectify that.) The new series is quite a complex beast, so I hope it will find a home.

Well, I wish you the best of luck in both endeavours. Whatever happens, I look forward to seeing more of your stuff. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat . . . and congratulations once again on the new book!

laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

Windsinger is the third book in A.F.E. Smith’s exciting Darkhaven series, and you can order it NOW.afe smith robin

‘Darkhaven’, ‘Goldenfire’ & ‘Windsinger’ by A.F.E. Smith


You could be forgiven for assuming A.F.E. Smith’s debut is a tame, fluffy tale about a magical unicorn. I assumed the same. But trust me when I say that there’s *nothing* tame or fluffy about Darkhaven.The Darkhaven series by A.F.E. Smith

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: that’s not actually a unicorn. It’s an alicorn; a hybrid of the ‘pure’ Changer (shapeshifting) forms of griffin and unicorn. Why does it matter? Because the Nighshade family pride themselves on the purity of their unique bloodline.
According to its current patriarch – who follows the Targaryen-esque approach of, um, ‘keeping it in the family’ – his daughter’s alicorn form is as shameful as her rebelliousness is unacceptable. (He himself takes the ‘pure’ form of a mighty firedrake, because ‘nothing keeps Darkhaven by Afe Smithpeople honest like the fear of a fire-breathing lizard turning up on their doorstep.’)

And so Darkhaven kicks off with a prison break. Ayla Nightshade, assisted by her brother Myrren, escapes from the citadel – on the same night as their father is brutally murdered by a Changer. Obviously, this looks bad for Ayla, who spends the rest of the book trying to survive long enough to clear her name. But the search for answers turns up some uncomfortable truths about Ayla’s ancestors… and a few dark secrets about the goings-on within Darkhaven’s walls.

Ayla is dynamic and determined; a bit of a ‘damsel in distress’ type, but the writer makes it clear that this is situational – a product of her isolated upbringing rather than any fault in her character. But while Ayla is a likeable enough protagonist, the true stars of the story are Tomas Caraway (a disgraced former Helmsman and struggling alcoholic) and Naeve Sorrow (a mercenary).

In fact, Sorrow is (for me) a highlight of the entire Darkhaven series.

‘I come in peace,’ Sorrow drawled, offering him the knife hilt-first. ‘This was just in case I met anyone I didn’t like on the way.”

Essentially a murder-mystery in a fantasy setting, Darkhaven is a solid debut; not quite great, but certainly very, very good. Goldenfire, on the other hand, is brilliant. Characters who were sketched out in Darkhaven are filled in and brought to life in Goldenfire, as is the steampunkish city of Arkannen. Furthermore, the entire world feels much more three-dimensional, as Goldenfire’s plot is inextricably interwoven with its politics and economicsGoldenfire (Darkhaven #2) by A.F.E. Smith (as well as its characters, of course).

Set three years after the events of Darkhaven, Smith’s second novel explores the idea of an inherent conflict between tradition and science when Ayla Nightshade’s position of absolute power is challenged by an assassination threat from the neighbouring country of Sol Kardis – whose number one export just happens to be firearms. Darkhaven’s struggle to reconcile the inevitable technological advances of an industrial revolution with the need for gun control is a really fascinating underlying aspect of the story. (It’s particularly thought-provoking when political dissenters apply words like ‘tyrant’ and ‘monster’ to our very own Ayla Nightshade.)

Goldenfire is, in many ways, a self-aware deconstruction of judicial and societal issues. It’s also a well-written (and bloody exciting) mystery novel that uses its killer plot and engaging characters to unravel these issues in a succinct, honest and wry – if cynical – manner. I really admire the skill with which Smith carefully picks out narrative details to highlight problematic issues – such as feminism – without ever sounding preachy.

Ree flinched as a dozen heads turned her way. She could see how they expected this to go. Either she and the other girl would become great friends and form their own exclusive little circle separate from the rest, or they’d be bitter rivals who constantly vied to beat each other in training. Those were the only two narratives open to her. That was what happened when you were part of a minority: to everyone else, your identity was intimately bound up with the group you belonged to.

The extract above is taken from one of Goldenfire’s early chapters. In it, Ree Quinn – a noble-born girl from the provinces – is disgruntled to learn that she’s not the only person vying for the distinction of becoming Darkhaven’s first female Helmsman. In her desperation to separate herself from other women and escape the sort of sexist abuse she anticipates receiving from the male hopefuls, she herself unwittingly inflicts that same misogynistic attitude on her female peer. Ree’s hypocrisy isn’t immediately obvious, and just as she learns the error of her ways, so too does Smith ensure her readers emerge a little bit more enlightened than before.

Suspenseful and cleverly crafted, Goldenfire is a massive step up from Darkhaven (and is actually my favourite book of the series so far). From start to finish, every page is pure adventure, and the new characters – Ree, Zander, Penn, Miles – are a welcome and dynamic addition to the existing cast. (The return of Naeve Sorrow is also a HUGE selling point, obviously.) Furthermore, while it builds on the events of Darkhaven whilst also Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) by A.F.E. Smithsubtly setting the stage for Windsinger, the plot of Goldenfire is wonderfully self-contained and its resolution wholly satisfying. It also left me with a big, goofy smile and a desperate urge to read more.

Luckily, Netgalley obliged with an e-ARC of book three, Windsinger – the awesomeness of which I’ve been shamelessly touting on social media for the last couple of weeks. Because even though I thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced story and light-hearted tone of Goldenfire, there’s no arguing that Windsinger is a better, more fulfilling book.

Chillingly relevant to today’s social and political climate – which, I think we can all agree, is a particularly ripe breeding ground for contention – Windsinger is darker and more serious than its predecessors. The stakes are higher – for Ayla, for her citizens, and for Mirrorvale itself – and issues which had hitherto been present in the background now take centre stage.

‘People are far better at noticing how they’re different than how they’re the same. I see it year after year when I’m training new recruits. And war only brings it out more strongly. It turns everyone into patriots.’ One corner of his mouth turned up. ‘Not that I object to people being proud of their country, obviously. But there’s a difference between that and hating everyone else’s.’

Racism lurks below the surface of Goldenfire; it’s the driving factor behind the Helm’s suspicion of Zander, who is an immigrant from Sol Kardis. In Windsinger, this prejudice is right there in front of us, devolving into discrimination and violence as soon as diplomatic relations between Mirrorvale and Sol Kardis collapse.

The day after Sol Kardis declared war on Mirrorvale, a woman walked right up to Zander in the streets of the fourth ring. ‘Kardise scum,’ she hissed at him. And spat in his face.

[…]

‘For the Mirrorvalese to turn on us that quickly, that violently … it makes me think, maybe they hated us all along. Why else would they be so unable to separate a country from its individual descendants? Maybe they never looked at me and saw a person. Maybe they always just saw a Kardise boy.’

Smith uses Zander’s chapters to foreground incidences of hate crimes in a way that the reader can’t ignore, and heavily emphasises the fear and loneliness that accompany life as a minority. She deliberately juxtaposes these chapters with those of other characters – who are utterly oblivious to the various sorts of bigotry taking place right in front of them.

Zander approached the street vendor. Easy to see, now, why the youths had picked on him. By the colour of his skin and the cast of his features, he could have been Zander’s older brother.

‘Are you all right?’ Zander asked.

The vendor’s gaze flicked up, then quickly back down again. ‘Sod off.’

‘I just wanted to … I mean, I’m Kardise too, so …’

The man’s head lifted again, a scowl touching his features. ‘I’m not Kardise. I’m Mirrorvalese.’

‘I’m sorry, I –’

‘Just stop talkin’ to me, will yer? Anyone sees us havin’ a chat, they’ll think we’re plottin’ a murder.’ He turned his back on Zander and began to walk away, flinging a glare over his shoulder. ‘A pox on you and your bloody country.’

If Smith has shown us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as good and evil; only shades of grey, shadows, and perspective. But sometimes, when you believe strongly in something, even the most hardened and morally-ambiguous person will see the necessity of taking one side to prevent the other from succeeding.

Sorrow propped her head on her hand and sighed. First he accuses me of trying to do the right thing, and now he tells me he trusts me. What am I, a fucking priestess?

Still, she was working against the kind of people who thought peace with an old enemy was a betrayal, rather than a genuine chance for change. The kind of people who would happily engineer a war, because they’d never have to fight in it. The kind of people who could use the phrase Kardise scourge to refer to ordinary citizens of Mirrorvale, getting on with their lives, who happened to have one or more foreign-born ancestors somewhere in their family tree.

Yes: if there was ever a right side, she was on it. That had to count for something.

Yes: even Naeve Sorrow – a notoriously unscrupulous mercenary – has a better sense of right and wrong than a huge percentage of Arkannen’s average population. Again, though, Smith doesn’t sermonise about morality; nor does she belabour the point. Amidst the frank conversations and philosophy are much wryer (yet equally discerning) observations about the dangers of judging people by their appearance or country of origin.

He looked sad. ‘It’s hard to believe of her. She always seemed such a sweet girl.’

Sorrow rolled her eyes. ‘Your problem, Tomas, is that your natural paranoia is in constant tension with an almost pathological desire to believe the best of people. Sweet tells you nothing. Fuck it, I could be sweet if the occasion demanded.’

They looked at each other. Caraway’s lips twitched. Sorrow glared at him for a moment before conceding. ‘Maybe not. But you take my point.’

Finally, characters like Sorrow and Caraway and Zander are full of hard-won wisdom, and Windsinger has important messages for all who’re willing to listen.

If one man in a hundred is a traitor, and I allow that knowledge to close my heart to the other ninety-nine, who is the winner then?

Insights and social commentary aside, Windsinger is a tense, exciting continuation of one of the most entertaining series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Smith’s writing is powerfully emotive (Windsinger had me shedding tears in more than once place) and her storytelling has rapidly evolved from good to great to WOW.

Though it does take a much more serious turn in book three, the Darkhaven series is nonetheless 100% fun. With a diverse range of sympathetic characters and a metric fucktonne of page-turning action, A.F.E. Smith’s Darkhaven novels will leave you breathless, with a grin on your face and your heart aching for more.

Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) is available now.lauramhughes-sig

This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 10 February 2017.
Darkhaven, Goldenfire, Windsinger by A.F.E. Smith