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The Moment of Gratuitous Coolness

When I was a teenager, I inhaled the works of Alexander Dumas, one of which was  MARGUERITE DE VALOIS.  The story centers around King Henry of Navarre, a protestant, and his unwilling wife, Marguerite.  Henry rules Navarre, a large province, and is technically a king in his own right, but he owes his allegiance to France.  Unfortunately he is trapped at the French court at the time of St. Valentine’s day massacre, during which Catholics mass-murdered French protestants.

Henry’s wife, Marguerite, is a part of a large Catholic family that rules France.  She is the daughter of Catherine de Medici and sister to Charles, the monarch of France.  Catherine de Medici deeply hates Henry, both because he is a Protestant and because of some past business with his mother and she is continuously scheming to murder him somehow, in such a way as to not cause a war with the powerful province of Navarre.  Catherine de Medici is a deeply evil character.  She poisons, she schemes, she uses her children as pawns.  She is this unstoppable malevolent force and she stalks the palace like a panther waiting to pounce.

In the novel, Henry and Marguerite are married against their wishes.  They do not consummate the marriage, but out of sheer self-defense, they form a secret political alliance with each other.  Henry is seduced by Madame de Sauve, one of Catherine’s maids of honor.  He makes nightly pilgrimages to her bedroom.  One night, Marguerite sends him a note asking him to come to her bedroom instead of that of his mistress.  Henry arrives in her bedchamber, where they discuss strategy, but before they can get anywhere, they receive word that Catherine de Medici has left her rooms and is heading to Marguerite’s chamber.  Quickly Henry strips and dives into the bed, behind the curtains.  Marguerite cuts the laces of her gown, rips off her hair dress, and jumps into her bed next to her husband.

Catherine de Medici enters this bedchamber.  Marguerite springs out of her bed, terribly surprised, kisses her hand and bats her eye lashes.  Catherine sits down and proceeds to make her case for Henry’s demise.  She is trying to blatantly manipulate Marguerite in helping her destroy Henry, arguing that he is obviously not suited to be the husband of the Princess of France.  Why, everyone knows that Henry and Marguerite haven’t slept together and what’s more, Henry is clearly slapping Marguerite in the face with this terrible affair with his mistress.  Catherine is simply heartsick over seeing her daughter so badly treated by that boorish ruffian.  At this point Marguerite raises her hand and says, “Shh, mother, please not so loud.” Catherine de Medici asks why she should be quiet.    Marguerite rises, pulls back the bed curtains and says, “Because you’ll wake my husband.”

Catherine looks inside and there is Henry, half dressed, his hair tousled, asleep on the bed.

Oh snap!

Catherine stands there, stares at Henry for a long minute, as if she’d seen Gorgon Medusa’s head with snakes instead of hair, and marches out of the chamber, seething.

It is a moment of pure gratuitous coolness. There were other scenes in the novel, heartbreaking, poignant, tragic, romantic, but years later this is the scene I remember best.  It is a magic instance of complete surprise, half ingenuity, half coincidence, with the stars aligning just right so the protagonists could for a moment triumph against an overpowering foe in a battle they had no chance of winning.

I love these moments.  They are my absolute favorite part of reading.  Such moments give you a little thrill and you tend to remember them forever. It’s the moment of Jessica Trent shooting Sebastian Ballister in LORD OF SCOUNDRELS.  It’s the moment that makes you go, “Ha!” and “Oh my God!”

I’d like to read about your favorite moment of gratuitous coolness.  It can be from books or movies, from any genre.  Comment on this post and one of the comment authors will get a set of signed books from our Edge Series: ON THE EDGE and BAYOU MOON.


Ilona Andrews is the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team. “Ilona is a native-born Russian and Gordon is a former communications sergeant in the U.S. Army. Contrary to popular belief, Gordon was never an intelligence officer with a license to kill, and Ilona was never the mysterious Russian spy who seduced him. They met in college, in English Composition 101, where Ilona got a better grade. (Gordon is still sore about that.)

Gordon and Ilona currently reside in Oregon with their two children, three dogs and a cat. They have co-authored two series, the bestselling urban fantasy of Kate Daniels and romantic urban fantasy of The Edge.

The Generosity of Strangers

Growing up, I wanted to draw comics.  If you’d gotten ahold of my notebooks from middle school on, you’d have found the margins (and sometimes whole pages) filled with pen drawings of superheroes and other such byproducts of a life spent between the covers of DC and Marvel.

My high school art teacher encouraged me to choose art as a college major, and thinking I would blossom into an illustrator, I went for it.

Then, in the final semester of my second year of art school, I took a night class in Creative Writing. (Is there somewhere a class called “Noncreative Writing”?)   I can no longer remember the name of the woman who led this class, but she quickly managed to shake up my little art major’s snow globe of a brain.  I began writing short stories.  They were all derivative, ideas and plots stolen from Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and anyone else whose sf, fantasy, and horror fiction had graced the pages of Playboy magazine. To this day nobody believes me when I say I kept a collection of Playboy going back to about 1964, for the fiction.

Some threshold got crossed in that semester, though.  In my third year as an art major, I could not maintain my interest in it.  I missed afternoon studios.  It’s extremely difficult to fail art classes in drawing and painting, but I was giving it a shot.

When finally my off-campus apartment was gutted by a fire, destroying six semesters-worth of paintings and drawings (oil on canvas makes an excellent combustible) while by some bizarre fluke leaving a story I was working on intact, it really was divine-intervention overkill.

Most authors I know were sure they wanted to be writers from the time they were six. Some claim they were composing poetry in the womb.  My addiction began late.

A year passed during which I tried twice to write a novel.  The first one was 68 pages long.  Yeah, I knew what I was doing all right.

The second one was at least more or less the right length at 250 manuscript pages.  I had by then read a couple of books by David Gerrold about his experiences writing for Star Trek, and knowing nothing about proper etiquette, I sent him a fan letter in which I explained (apparently rationally) that I’d written a fantasy novel and did not know what to do with it now that I had.  Knowing no more than that, David Gerrold sent me a letter of introduction to Lin Carter, the editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  I attached this gracious letter to my manuscript, boxed it and sent it to New York.  It was rejected.  But–and perhaps because of David’s kindness–Lin Carter sent with the rejection a line by line analysis of the first ten pages of the book.  While ten pages was probably all anyone could have endured without falling into a state of gibbering madness, Mr. Carter had also done me an incredible kindness.

Soon after that, I was accepted at the University of Iowa, where I met and was taught by the likes of T.C. Boyle and Joe Haldeman.  T. Boyle introduced me to Joe–another kindness.  And Joe encouraged me to submit two stories along with an application to the Clarion workshop at MSU. I’d never heard of it.

At Clarion in short order I found myself in a one-on-one conference with Samuel R. Delany.  This was like sitting before God while he gently exposed your inadequacies.  And they were formidable inadequacies.  Delany did not for a second let me off the hook.  It hurt. It was supposed to.

I could say that all of these mentors were just doing the job they were paid to, but I don’t think so–certainly not David Gerrold or Lin Carter.

I think that on some level I must have expressed the excitement that writing kindled in me; and they, recognizing the nascent addict before them, went further than they had to–what’s nowadays referred to as “paying it forward.”

I heard Joe Haldeman not long ago tell an audience that a writer needs three things: Talent (and you don’t need much), perseverance (a heap of that), and luck.  The luck, he said, is the thing that’s out of your control.  Which may be true, but sometimes your luck is made through the generosity of strangers.  As a teacher of writing I’ve tried to remember what these people did for me and when confronted by a young addict, to serve an occasional helping of that myself.  Remember, kid, the first one’s always free.


GREGORY FROST is a writer of best-selling fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers.  He has been a finalist for every major sf and fantasy award. His latest work is the duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet. Voted one of the best fantasy novels of the year by the American Library Association, it was also a finalist for the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2009 and received starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. His previous novel, the historical thriller, Fitcher’s Brides, was a finalist for both the World Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards for Best Novel. His latest short story, “The Dingus” leads off in Ellen Datlow’s anthology Supernatural Noir, out in June.   He also directs the fiction workshop at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA.

In Praise of Fantasy

For many long years readers of fantasy have happily ignored the way the larger world sneers at their genre. Even writers within the genre of speculative fiction have been critical of the subgenre, fantasy. In his iRoSF article ‘Peter Jackson and the Denial of the Hero,’ M. Garcia quotes China Mieville on epic fantasy:

‘Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quo’s, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. …. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader (Miéville, PanMacmillan).’

But not everything Mieville has to say about Tolkien is derogatory. In his Socialist Review article, ‘Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Middle England’, he says:

‘Tolkien’s most important contribution by far, and what is at the heart of the real revolution he effected in literature, was his construction of a systematic secondary world. There had been plenty of invented worlds in fantasy before, but they were vague and ad hoc, defined moment to moment by the needs of the story. Tolkien reversed that. He started with the world, plotted it obsessively, delineating its history, geography and mythology before writing the stories. He introduced an extraordinary element of rigour to the genre.’

It was this depth of world building that made readers buy into Middle Earth and it was the promise of adventure based on wondrous myths that kept them reading. In a post for the Australian Literature Review on Fantasy: Why is the genre so popular? I argue that:

‘Whether these (fantasy) stories are set in our world or a secondary world where magical creatures and/or people exist, they all share a common theme: the exploration of the human condition. Even the much maligned medieval/quest fantasies offer their readers the chance to vicariously explore a wondrous world, battle evil and restore justice. Even a lowly Hobbit can change the course of the world by destroying the Ring.

That is the appeal of the tolkienesque fantasy. In our modern world where politicians prove corrupt, large corporations rip off consumers and terrorists kill ordinary people going about their daily lives, the traditional quest fantasy provides an antidote to cynicism. Fantasy, deriving from the word fantastic, exercises our sense of wonder.’

Could there be a back-swing seeking to recognise the power of fantasy? Recently Louise Schwartzkoff wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘A sucker for a fantastic story’. She brings up the conundrum many fantasy readers come across when they do a BA in Literature. Some of the books they read are fantasy or science fiction, but the authors brand themselves as literature. She says:

‘Margaret Atwood’s perturbing The Year of the Flood was sold in Australia with a black cover choked with thorny vines. Atwood says the book is not science fiction at all, preferring the more reputable label ‘speculative fiction’. Looking at the storyline – a genetically engineered virus all but wipes out humanity – it is hard to see this as anything but an attempt to protect the book from ‘literary snobbery.’

Similarly, in his article, ‘The fantastic appeal of fantasy’, on the subject of literary snobbism Mark Chadbourn quotes Jo Fletcher, editorial director of fantasy publisher Victor Gollancz.

“For years I have been asking why one of the greatest satirists who ever lived – in this country or any other – is consistently ignored by those who ought to be lionising him. I’m talking about Terry Pratchett, who may have the financial rewards commensurate with his talent – but where are the Booker prizes, or the Whitbreads ? Where are the literary accolades? Whenever he’s interviewed, it’s usually with a faint air of surprise that someone who writes fantasy can be so erudite and funny.”’

Chadbourn goes on to say:

‘Publishers love the genre because it reaches all people – highbrow readers attracted to the skilful writing of M. John Harrison, say, or those simply wanting a well-told adventure story by the best-selling Robert Jordan, men and women in equal measure, young and old.

Received knowledge among non-readers suggests fantasy is simply a case of swords and sorcery or elves and dwarfs. Yes, there is that by the shelf. But the genre really is as broad as the imagination. It contains events on this world and any other world, on this side of life and beyond it. ‘

Four times World Fantasy Award winner, Margo Lanagan brings up the same point in her post The Appeal of Fantasy – Sparklies and  Magic’. She says: ‘I don’t think fantasy stories are any less truthful or complex than naturalistic fiction, or even some forms of non-fiction. What you believe about the world will insist on bubbling up through your confections.’

You can explore discrimination and persecution within the fantasy genre because it frees readers from preconceived prejudices by removing loaded nouns such as Black and Jew, and substituting created nouns for created races.

In her Film Reference article on ‘Fantasy films – Theory and Ideology’ Katherine A Fowkes says.

‘By raising questions about reality and by revealing repressed dreams or wishes, fantasy makes explicit what society rejects or refuses to acknowledge. Indeed, to the extent that it includes the surreal and experimental, fantasy is often explicitly subversive. ‘

The fantasy genre is freeing. Sure it can deliver a rollicking read, which is what I set out to do with the King Rolen’s Kin trilogy. But I was also exploring discrimination and narrow mindedness. In his post ‘Counting Down My 11 Favourite Books of 2010’ Rob

Will Review discusses the trilogy these themes in the trilogy. He says:

‘ …  people came to think that men who love men were indistinguishable from the conspiracy of men hellbent on overthrowing the king. The hatred of gay people and people with Affinity became similarly conflated.

Daniells uses this ingenious conceit to demonstrate how easily people can shift from one hatred to another, collapsing all perceived enemies into a hazily defined external or internal threat.  In another thematically related subplot, Rolen decides to attack one of the Utland territories, even though he doesn’t know precisely which one attacked his kingdom.  One is as good as any other.  This seems to be a reference to George W. Bush’s successful bid to satisfy an American desire for revenge against Afghanistan by attacking Iraq, as well as to the general concept of a scapegoat.  Meanwhile, the concept of people with Affinity and/or homosexual desire needing to hide the truth in order to keep fighting for their king or protecting their country and/or loved ones acts as a fascinating parallel to America’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which unfortunately continues to be in effect.’

So there you have it. The fantasy genre can work on several levels. It can deliver a rollicking read. It can deliver that sense of awe and wonder and it can also be quite subversive and in the work of the wonderful Terry Pratchett.

So that is why I write fantasy, because of the versatility of this wonderful genre.



davitt-award  aurealis-award   logo-curtin-university

Peacemaker - Aurealis Award
Best Science Fiction Novel 2014

Curtin University Distinguished Alumni Award 2014

Transformation Space - Aurealis Award
 Best Science Fiction Novel 2010

Sharp Shooter - Davitt Award
Best Crime Novel 2009 (Sisters in Crime Australia) 





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