Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alyx Dellamonica: The Nature of a Pirate

Alyx Dellamonica joined us to talk about her book, The Nature of a Pirate, which came out last December. It's the third book of her Stormwrack portal fantasy trilogy. Part of it takes place in San Francisco, and part in the world of Stormwrack. The main characters are trying to find out whether Stormwrack is an alternate Earth, a future Earth, or another dimension. They believe there will be a scientific explanation, though the character Bran will have to study to find out more. Alyx told us she sometimes pitches the series as "Narnia for environmentalists." The moon of Stormwrack seems identical to ours, but so much land is missing from Earth (most of Asia, for example!). The main character, Sophie, can't figure out where the Himalayas have gone. Alyx told us there is a faint thread of plausibility in the Stormwrack scenario that you can learn by reading the trilogy...

In Stormwrack, curiosity is considered a cultural flaw or defect. Alyx says we forget that the scientific method isn't a "cultural gimme." Some cultures believe that if God gave you something, it's impudent to ask questions about it. Stormwrack has 250 island nations, each with proprietary spells suited to its particular climate, trade, and war. You don't pry, so you don't question others' practices. Interestingly, and problematically within the story world, "others' practices" includes chattel slavery.

A world with 250 nations seems very large and potentially very involving in terms of worldbuilding! Alyx explained that she figured out before writing the books which nations would be featured in each book. She also explored using shorter stories, such as "Losing Heart Among the Tall," which features Gale and Garland parrish, and appeared at She either uses research to construct the nations and their cultures or imaginative explanation from her own personal experience. She says she based the Verdanii on her own experience of the prairie, and grain farmers, growing up. The nation of Erinth is medieval Florentine, with a volcano much like Vesuvius that is contained by magic. Alyx estimates that about 30 nations are mentioned, and seven or eight get play in the books. She says she was disappointed not to be able to go to Verdanii in the books.

She says, "I love worldbuilding." [No wonder I loved having her on the show!]

Alyx told us that she has spent time in San Francisco with a little locus of family, and she has also taken tours to Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, which helped with her research for those regions.

We spoke a bit about language use in Stormwrack. She says the main idea is that the people of Stormwrack speak many languages, but all share "Fleet Standard" which ends up being used in translation in the books. The main character, Sophie, gets magically taught how to speak Fleet, but she must then learn to read and write. She's often a better speaker of Fleet than the locals, for whom Fleet is a second language (since their first is the main language of their island nation). People in Stormwrack "weaponize" their speaking of their native tongues for the purposes of keeping secrets.

The language of Sylvanna had a big influence of Fleet. There's an Italian-like language, and a Russian-like language. The pirate nations draw a bit from French. Alyx says she was very glad to have a bilingual copy-editor for a previous book. We remarked that dictionaries are the last places where you would expect to find official notice of ongoing language change, and are naturally very conservative.

The ships of Stormwrack are biological - one very intriguing aspect of the world! I asked about the magic system, and Alyx told us that magic takes ingredients from local microclimates. People write spells on parchment, turtle shell, or other localized items. The spells are like works of art and must be perfectly worded and lettered, with ink, quills, or other tools. Each unique magical artifact is like a contract with reality. The letters will glow and magic will happen. For example, in Erinth, there is a statue made of volcanic rock with a spell written on it, and it is that artifact which holds back the volcano. The physical destruction of the magical artifact will break the spell.

People in Stormwrack preserve the environment around them to maximize spell opportunities. There are some jurisdiction questions between islands. Invasive species can also be a problem.

Sophie is a diver and videographer in our world, but she is the only scuba diver on Stormwrack, and she is very bothered by this because you are not supposed to dive alone.

We wound back again to the question of the ships. The idea of unique magical spell artifacts is relevant here because the vessels are magical, and have biological characteristics. The Verdanii use whale-based ships, which are mammal on the bottom and forest on top. There is also a type of immolator ship which is designed to burn other ships. Temperance is the name of a big battle ship, which has a spell that allows it to sink any ship if they know its true name. Generic things can't be enchanted; they must be unique.

We spoke briefly about magic systems. Although they generally need restrictions, Alyx told us that she can't stand restrictions on magic that seem artificial. That's why in Indigo Springs she wrote about magic that was almost limitless, but would destroy Earth if used to its full extent.

In Stormwrack, names are very important. It is possible for people to secretly change names.

Alyx told us that there is no political correctness in Stormwrack. There is lots of racism, and no respect for disability culture. Mermaids will woo people in wheelchairs to become mermaids because they believe the person would better off as a mermaid.

The magic of Stormwrack does alter people. If you have an ability created by magic, but you are not visibly altered by it, you are "enhanced." If you have become a mermaid or have any of a particular set of visual and functional alterations, you are a "transform." If you have undergone extreme changes in appearance, you are considered an "oddity."

At the beginning of The Nature of a Pirate, a creature is used to sink a ship. I asked about this. The creature is something of a doppelganger, called a "fright." The skill of fright-making was banned on Stormwrack. Usually the frights are human-like, but sometimes they are animal. The people of Stormwrack thought they had burned all the spells and materials that would allow fright-making, but someone has resumed doing it. Frights are less like transforms or even oddities, and are more like automatons or zombies.

We spoke a bit about racial distinctions on Stormwrack. Alyx told us that skin colors, epicanthic folds and other physical features we associate with racial distinctions are mixed up so that they don't fit our own models. Verdanii have copper skin, straight dark hair, and dark eyes. Her idea was that they had an aboriginal population which was colonized. Stormwrack has a history of constant raiding, so there has been a lot of genetic mixing.

Morgan asked Alyx to give us more details on spells. The spells need to be very controlled rather than natural. Alyx described them as "artisanal." People who do magic are those who are meticulous and have beautiful handwriting. Alyx told us about a quilt she inherited which had perfect stitching (and then got ripped by her kittens, aigh!). Spells in Stormwrack can also be recycled. Because Sophie was enchanted to speak Fleet, her tongue could later be used as a translator. If someone has teeth enchanted to create light, their skull could be used as a lantern. In some sense, this creates a black market for enchanted body parts.

Alyx told us that Fleet, the language, was created to combat pirates. Stormwrack has had 100 years of peace, but it is breaking down due to piracy, population growth and resource pressures.

This is a fascinating world worth exploring. The novels in the series are:

1. Child of a Hidden Sea
2. A Daughter of No Nation
3. The Nature of a Pirate

Thank you so much for joining us, Alyx! Next week, April 19th at 10am Pacific, we'll be discussing Working Animals, and the following week, April 26th at 10am Pacific, guest author Megan O'Keefe will join us to talk about her Scorched Continent trilogy. I hope you can all attend.