From Unseen Fire

Today it's my pleasure to introduce Cass Morris, whose historical fantasy, From Unseen Fire, is a magical take on ancient Rome.

Cass wanted to write a fantasy that took place somewhere other than the now-standard Western Europe setting, and her long grounding in Latin made the ancient world a natural fit.


From Unseen Fire takes place in Aven, an alternate version of ancient Rome where elemental magic has shaped society as much as law and war. In the wake of a brutal dictatorship, two factions compete to rebuild the Republic in the shape they desire. One side is protectionist and isolationist, seeking to preserve conventional morals and keep their nation small enough to easily control; the other side is expansionist and more permissive, looking to embrace the opportunities that allies and immigrants can provide. By law, the use of magic to influence politics is forbidden, but both sides skirt the rules where they can — and some are willing to step dangerously far over the line.

Cass, tell us some more about your book. Who's your favorite character?

CM: Vitellia Latona is the character closest to my heart. She’s a powerful mage of Spirit and Fire, but she’s never made the most of it, partly for lack of training and partly due to discouragement from various sources out of spite, jealousy, or just plain misogyny. In From Unseen Fire, she’s in the process of breaking free of all those restrictions and repressions, learning to own herself and take up the space in the world that she deserves.

As you know, I love historical fiction, and the interplay of imagination and historical record. Are your characters drawn from history?

CM: They’re mostly from my imagination, though they have some historical inspiration. Julius Caesar, Tiberius Gracchus, Germanicus and his wife Agrippina, Mark Antony, Fulvia, and many other Romans have not direct analogs, but correlations in my characters.

What kind of research did you do for From Unseen Fire?

CM: A lot of my research was reviving things I had studied in high school and college and then delving deeper. I had to get a lot more into the social history of ancient Rome than just the political overview and the “great men” narrative. Alberto Angela’s Day in the Life of Ancient Rome was supremely helpful, as were the works of Philip Matyczak. I’ve a full list of recommended resources on my website ( The most fun research, though, was taking a trip to Rome and spending a few days wandering around the Seven Hills!

Cass, tell us a little bit about yourself.

CM: I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life, and most of my work has been as an educator. I spent seven years at the American Shakespeare Center, where I wrote 22 guides to help teachers make plays exciting for their students. My parents and sister live in our hometown, so I revisit my old stomping grounds fairly regularly. I live in the mountains with two cats, a nineteen-year-old calico and a seven-year-old Abyssinian.

And what's next for you?

CM: Book Two of the Aven Cycle, as well as drafting a space opera with a rakish heroine loosely based on Julie d’Aubigny.

You can find From Unseen Fire at any of these fine merchants:

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Literally Kind

The post first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

In 1939, Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina, founder of the St. Petersburg puppet theater and wife of a composer, traveled to a Russian village northeast of Moscow. Her young daughter had died seven years earlier, and the Soviet Union was at the time gripped by the government-sponsored purges. At home, gunshots would awaken her in the morning, and many of her friends and neighbors were arrested.


But, in the village, she found a sort of peace. The town was known for its icon painting, and she took heart in the small creative gestures the artists were able to indulge in when not churning out soulless painted boxes.

At the end of her trip, Shaporina sat in a restaurant having lunch, and watched three men at a nearby table. They downed multiple liters of vodka and bottles of beer as they chattered on in their jargon. They were “economic planners,” she noticed — some sort of “bosses.”

They drank and reveled in their authority. She couldn’t escape the reality of the state terror consuming her country.

In her diary later, she despaired.

“It’s terribly hard to build, but oh, so easy to destroy.”

Shaporina was right, I think. We demolish, smash, and tear down at a whim; we cut one another’s feelings to the bone with a word; we end decades-long relationships with a burst of anger.

But that’s not all we do.

Humans also create, build, and inspire. Literature and art are a testament to that impulse, and Shaporina’s own puppet theater was her greatest solace during years of agony.

Even during our darkest moments, people are escorting the injured from buildings, transporting homeless dogs hundreds of miles to find them new families, putting sweat and tears into restoring old churches so others can delight in them. People doing good are always building; sometimes, we need to be reminded of their efforts.

My heart is built of words and books, so my optimism naturally runs in those same channels. I’ll be writing this column to celebrate the kindness that people bring to one another using books and writing — even when the world is difficult, even when it seems like all anyone wants to do is destroy.

Because it might be easier to destroy, but humans are better than that.

Take Kelly Hopkins, for example. Hopkins is a creative-writing teacher and librarian and, in 2017, she began to wonder why so many writing contests were only for adults. She posed the question on Twitter and began chatting with Michael Mammay, a fellow writer and contest mentor.

Together, they came up with TeenPit, a contest for high school students that matches teens with experienced writers. Together, mentors and teens revise the first chapter of the students’ novel manuscripts (with 25,000 words or more). Last year’s inaugural contest matched 25 teens with mentors.

Five of the finalists, as top prizes, sailed directly into the final round of one of the online writing world’s most competitive contests, Pitch Wars. And one TeenPit contestant signed with an agent after completing the contest.

“I'm so proud of all of our students and how much they have grown through the process,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins and Mammay put a lot of time into rounding up mentors, soliciting and evaluating contestants, and working with teens. All so that young writers around the world feel more empowered to pursue their dreams.

“I think teens who write need to know there is more out there for them. This gives them an opportunity to connect with a professional writer — someone who knows the ups and downs of the professional writing life — and to engage with that life for a couple of weeks,” Hopkins said.

That effort seems to have paid off. One TeenPit alum, Bethany, told me that the contest opened her eyes.

“Meeting other teen writers and working with published authors encouraged me in my own writing. Working with a mentor on my opening chapters gave me a new perspective on editing and reading my own work that still helps me with my current writing."

I’m heartened by people like Hopkins and Mammay who devote their scarce time to helping young strangers become better writers. In that way, we build a stronger world. One bound by kindness and respect, with an awe of art.

In the coming months, I hope to share other stories about how books and writers brighten days. It won’t be maudlin because we won’t lose sight of the world’s cruelty. We won’t pretend that darkness doesn’t exist.

But we will remember how ordinary people build in order to hold the destruction at bay.

This is the first installment of a new column, Literally Kind. Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina’s diary entries can be found in Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen.

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I got to know Clarissa Goenawan in last year's Pitch Wars, and as we exchanged swoon messages about some shared submissions, I knew we had similar taste in literary fiction. Then when I saw what her debut novel was about, I was sold -- literally. I pre-ordered right away. I'm so excited to celebrate the publication of Rainbirds. Intertwining elements of suspense and magical realism, this award-winning literary debut opens with a murder and shines a spotlight on life in fictional small-town Japan.


Rainbirds takes place in Japan, which makes the premise even more exciting, since it's the setting for a number of books beloved to me -- 1Q84The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetA Silence Once Begun, An Artist of the Floating WorldThe Master of Go, and others. This novel is a story of a young man who is trying to come to terms with his older sister’s death by finding out the truth behind her murder, but in doing so, he ends up confronting his own dark secret.

Let's let Rainbirds speak for itself:

When the car had stopped at the traffic junction, a soft light had fallen onto her pale skin, highlighting her delicate features. My hand was on hers, but she didn’t say a word, nor did she look at me. She didn’t even flinch. Her body was there, but her mind wasn’t.
That night, the two of us were lonely, isolated under Tokyo’s dazzling lights.

And here's another cool thing -- it is part of a series of interrelated novels. So keep an eye on the side characters, because they might be the main characters for the next book.

As for Rainbirds, Clarissa was kind enough to share some extra details on her novel.

What inspired Rainbirds?

CG: One afternoon, I was just wondering, “What if someone I cared about suddenly passed away, and then, I realized too late that I never actually got to know them?” At first, I wanted to write a short story about a young man who had just lost his older brother, which later on, morphed to an older sister. And then, I realized there were so many things I wanted to explore in their relationship, and that this story has to be a novel.

Who's your favorite character?

CG: Rio Nakajima, also known as ‘Seven Stars.’ She’s a seventeen-year-old girl who is bright and bold, unafraid to voice her opinion and relentlessly goes after what she wants. She doesn’t care about conforming to public’s expectation, and I really admire her for that.

Clarissa, you live in Singapore, but Rainbirds is set in Japan. What kind of research did you do?

CG: I grew up reading copious amounts of manga (Japanese comic books), and I learnt Japanese language since high school, so that gave me a good starting point. I also consulted a huge number of books, essays, and articles, and asked some friends who’re familiar with Japan to be my beta readers.

Brag a little. Tell us some of the best praise you've received for Rainbirds so far.

"Luminous, sinister, and page-turning all at once. I loved it." 
—Kate Hamer, internationally bestselling author of The Girl in the Red Coat and The Doll Funeral 

"A beautiful mystery setup with a complex, magical love story." 
—Eka Kurniawan, award-winning author of Beauty Is a Wound and Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

So, if you're looking to check out Rainbirds more closely, here you go!


Barnes & Nobles:



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The Romanov Luxury

The children are beautiful, young, and royal. Their family was close and loving. They all died terrible, tragic deaths. It's hard not to fall in love with the Romanovs.

Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov. From  here .

Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov. From here.

I'm writing a novel that takes place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, so although the Romanovs do not figure in my story, their presence (and absence) overhangs society.

One of the magical things about writing is how the world seems to offer you connections and clues, even when you're not looking for them. Last spring, my husband and I traveled to Georgia (the country). We took a weekend trip to a spa town in southern Georgia, and there found a museum focusing on the local Romanov hunting retreat.

The museum had a floor filled with Romanov hunting trophies and furniture from their lodge (above), in addition to gorgeous displays of the fine china used in this "rustic" retreat (below).

It's so easy to imagine charming young women sitting on a sunny patio, drinking cold juice poured from that gorgeous pitcher and eating fruit from that fluted bowl.

Yet Borjomi is ... 2684 kilometers from St. Petersburg, or 1963 km from Moscow, according to Google maps. It's hard to imagine the Romanovs made it through the multiple mountain ranges of Russia and Georgia to retreat to this hunting lodge that often. (And if they did, who was running the country?)

Last month, I visited the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. They have an exhibit on Fabrege and the Russian Craft Tradition, which of course brought me back to the Romanovs.

The enamelware and metalwork on display was stunning. Like this presentation box with the monogram of Tsar Nicolas II. It's made of nephrite, diamonds, gold ...

Or this art nouveau-inspired kvosh, which Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III, gave as a gift to a Dutch doctor:

The exhibit included two eggs made in the workshop of the famous jeweler/crafter Fabrege. One egg contains inside a miniature rendition of one of the large Romanov palaces, all crafted in gold down to minute detail. Including streetlamps smaller than your pinky nail. The other egg has dozens of diamonds, and was given by one Romanov emperor to his wife on the occasion of the birth of their son.

The items are stunning in their beauty and their luxury.

But not everyone in Russia was living in opulence. The Russian economy was growing rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century, but land ownership was concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, and urban workers worked long hours for limited pay. According to one 1904 survey, an average of 16 people shared each apartment in Petrograd, with 6 people per room. Then World War I hit, and conditions deteriorated.

It gets a little easier to understand why the Marxist revolutionaries yearned for a better, more equitable life. They didn't end up delivering it, but the scheming students of the early 1900s didn't know yet that their dreams were hollow. They just knew that the rich could sashay through the glittering showroom of Fabrege, while the poor sometimes struggled to find enough to eat.

The Flophouse, 1889. V. Makovskii. Istoriia russkogo iskusstva, ed. E. Grabar (Moscow, 1964), vol. 9. pt. 1, 341. Source  here .

The Flophouse, 1889. V. Makovskii. Istoriia russkogo
iskusstva, ed. E. Grabar (Moscow, 1964), vol. 9. pt. 1, 341. Source here.

That's the funny thing about history. We sympathize with the stories, with the humans whose names we know and whose narratives we can follow. We forget the lived passions and agonies of the nameless ones.

I'm not justifying the terrible way the Bolsheviks killed the Romanovs, nor the disaster that was the Soviet Union. But I think it's important for history lovers to try to take in the whole panorama of society, as much as possible. That's where the stories come in. We know the stories of the Romanovs. Now lets learn -- or imagine -- some stories from other people of that time. That's the magic of historical fiction.

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Next Year in Havana

I love historical fiction and I adore stories about Latin America, so it's my special pleasure to bring Chanel Cleeton to you today. 

Next Year in Havana.jpg

This is Chanel's first historical fiction project (she's previously published some delicious romance novels), and it's an intensely personal one. Chanel grew up in Florida, nourished by stories of her family's exodus from Cuba in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. This novel was inspired by her family's experiences.

Here's the book summary:

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity--and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution...

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba's high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country's growing political unrest--until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary...

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa's last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth. 

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba's tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she'll need the lessons of her grandmother's past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.


Intrigued? Check out more on Amazon or IndieBound or Goodreads. And Chanel is giving away a Kindle Fire -- the perfect way to read Next Year in Havana. Enter here:

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