The Conclave of Shadow Sticky Post

Preorders and reviews are an author’s best friends!


The Conclave of Shadow

The Conclave of Shadow, by Alyc Helms
Published: July 2016
Publisher: Angry Robot
ISBN: 9780857665188

The line between enemy and ally is thinner than a shadow’s edge.

Ever since she saved the spirit guardians of China by selling out to her worst enemy, Missy Masters — a.k.a. the pulp hero Mr. Mystic — has been laying low. But when knights serving the Conclave of Shadow steal secret technology from a museum exhibit on the Argent Aces, everyone looks to Mr. Mystic for help. If Missy doesn’t want her masquerade blown, she’d better track down the thieves, and fast.

But stolen tech turns out to be the least of her problems. Recent events have upset the balance of power in the Shadow Realms, removing the barriers that once held the ravenous Voidlands in check. Their spread threatens destruction in the mortal realm as well… and only the Conclave stands ready to push them back.

In a world of shadow, telling friends from enemies is easier said than done. But if she wants to save San Francisco, Missy will have to decide who to trust. Including her own instincts, which tell her that something is stalking her with murder in mind…


The Conclave of Shadow, out July 5, 2016
Available for pre-order in print and ebook
Angry Robot | Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Amazon UK | Waterstones | Goodreads

The Dragons of Heaven, out now!
Available in print, ebook, and audibook
Angry Robot | Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Amazon UK | Waterstones | Goodreads


Level Unlock – Big Damn Trilogy Sale!!

Last summer, I started working on a collaborative project with Marie Brennan that ended up being more or less NaNoWriMo for four months straight. We finished the 220k word behemoth in October, tossed it back and forth between beta readers, our agents, and each other, and sent it out to editors this past spring.

This week, we accepted a deal from Orbit Books to publish it as the first book of the Rook and Rose trilogy! It will be coming under the joint pen name M.A. Carrick (there’s a story there, but that’s for later).

I’m still working on my elevator pitch for the series, but here’s the general gist:

Alta Renata Viraudax is actually Arenza Lenskaya, a con artist who has infiltrated the nobility in an attempt to set herself up with a cushy life… only to run afoul of The Rook, a Dread-Pirate-Roberts-style vigilante whose mission is to oppose the nobility — including the increasingly visible Alta Renata. Capers, banter, double-crossing, and identity hijinks ensue. Think The Scarlet Pimpernel meets Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora series.

This was the most fun writing that I’ve ever had, and I think it shows on every page. Marie and I bring out the best in each other, and because we’re both anthropology worldbuilding geeks, we were able to create an incredibly rich, dense setting for us to play in. We’ve got multiple, inter-locking magic systems — Marie developed a whole divinatory card system that will definitely be Kickstarted so we can create an actual deck, and I got to get my ritual magic on by creating another system based on sacred geometry. There’s politics and economics, swashbuckling and derring-do, queerness and genderplay galore (because hell yeah there is), and so many fun characters that it hurts sometimes to do terrible things to them.

More news to come as this moves from editing into production! A little over a year ago, all we had was an idea. Now we have a book deal. Soon we’ll have a book! These things move faster than you think. I hope you’ll all come along with us for the ride.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with what has sort of become our unofficial theme song:

My Worldcon Dublin Schedule

Worldcon Dublin is coming! I’m heading off a few days early so I can ride a bike along the Great Western Greenway and around Inishmore, but after that I’ll be in Dublin with a few thousand other SFF geeks. Here’s where you can find me:

Making the transition from player to Games Master
Format: Workshop
16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:00 – 10:50, Wicklow Room-1 (CCD)

It can be difficult to understand exactly how to make the change from being a player in roleplaying games to running games for friends or convention attendees. Come along to this panel to get some advice from experienced GMs on how to make this switch, and what would be helpful to know in the beginning.

Alyc Helms, Michael Cule, Ell Schulman, Andrew Barton

The bare bones of worldbuilding: archaeology in SFF
Format: Panel
18 Aug 2019, Sunday 10:00 – 10:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)

Whether it’s an actual archaeological dig looking for evidence of alien civilisations or fantasy characters camping in the ruins of their ancestors, archaeological evidence and research can be used to help develop a world beyond the here and now and add complex layers to a story without the need for exposition. The panel will discuss the ways in which archaeology has been used to deepen SFF worldbuilding and storytelling.

Ehud Maimon (M), Dr Katrin Kania, Alyc Helms, Marie Brennan

I’m also going to be hanging out at the Angry Robot booth to chat and sign things on Friday from 3:00 to 3:30pm, and on Saturday from 2:00 to 2:30pm.

My Favorite Trope — Time Travel, Pt. 1

We’ve all fallen down the bottomless pit that is TV Tropes (WARNING: Following this link will result in loss of time ranging from several minutes to several days or longer). Even if you don’t know what a trope is, you know what tropes are. For the purposes of this series, I’m not talking about the very broad literary definition of tropes that covers everything from irony and metaphor to plot elements and characters, but rather the narrower folkloric definition that refers to recurring motifs across stories. Done poorly, tropes can feel like the enemy of the original, merely warmed-over cliché. But done well? Yeah, I’m a sucker for a well-executed trope. I’m a folklorist. It comes with the territory.

It will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody who knows me that one of my favorite tropes is time travel. Due to a recent viewing of Avengers: Endgame, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I love about time travel stories and why. This ended up being a much longer exercise than I thought it would be because there is so much, so I’ve broken them down into five main story types, from easiest to hardest to execute (and, not coincidentally, my least to most liked): Time Tourism, Alternate Timelines, Open-System, Groundhog Day, Closed-Loop.

My original intent was to cover all of these in one post, but… it turns out I had a lot more to say than I realized, so I broke it down into six posts, one for each type listed above, and then a bonus deep dive post into Avengers: Endgame, the time travel story that inspired this post.

Note: For spoiler reasons, except for the Endgame post, I’m deliberately going to use examples from either really well-known properties (Back to the Future, Doctor Who, etc.) or else things that it’s very unlikely anyone will watch unless my discussion of them stirs their interest (i.e., mostly kdramas!)

Time Tourism, aka “The Past is Another Country” 

The past is another country; they do things differently there. But you can visit, hang with some famous locals, eat strange food, get involved in a history-defining event, and go on your merry way without having to worry about any damage you might leave behind. Time tourists don’t really worry about damaging the timeline because the stories they live in aren’t interested in the physics or limitations of time travel. They are pebbles that leave few-to-no ripples.

I like these stories for the tourist element rather than the way they handle time travel — I love a good fish-out-of-water story. It can be fun to watch people from our future fumble through an imagined past, using anachronistic terms or technology, imposing contemporary moral and ethical expectations on the people they meet. It’s similarly fun to watch someone from an imagined past interacting with contemporary technology that seems like magic, or encountering beliefs and behaviors that are shocking or emancipating (or both) for them.

The darker underbelly of time tourism is that it’s a safe sort of imaginative tourism in the same way that killing robot or zombie armies is safe – characters and audiences are rarely encouraged to consider the colonial or imperialistic assumptions underpinning these encounters. Time tourists aren’t held to the same standards of cultural sensitivity that spatial tourists might be, especially in this day and age. Time tourists going into the past are allowed to look down unquestioningly on other cultures they/we perceive as ‘less advanced’ (technologically-speaking) than ours. Stories about time tourists from the past to our present often dwell on a sort of uncomplicated nostalgia for a simpler past that never was – these stories often end up being a shallow and untethered critique of modernity.

Doctor Who is, with a few story arc exceptions, an example of time tourism that I enjoy. Because it is a long-running, open ended series with multiple writers, it has little choice but to take a ‘time travel physics HAH! What’s that?’ approach. The audience is almost always experiencing the past from the Companion’s perspective rather than the Doctor’s. This allows the show to sidestep a lot of potential cultural insensitivity or problematic nostalgia pitfalls through framing them as limitations of the Companion’s perspective that the Doctor can then respond to (even if it ends up creating inconsistencies in the Doctor’s own ethical palimpsest over time).

Many of my favorite time tourist stories are about doctors – of the medical rather than the Time Lord variety. I’m not the only one, as it seems like medical professional is the occupation most likely to time travel into the past. The crossroads where science collides with superstition – a place where people with an advanced skillset have to adapt to hostile conditions to save lives – is a breeding ground for competence porn. In your usual medical drama, you have to get to House levels of medical obscurity to get that sort of effect, but in a time tourist drama, any rando doctor can be a god. 

The k-drama The Great Doctor (aka, Faith) plays with this in an amusing way when a soldier from Goryeo (pre-Joseon Korea) kidnaps a present-day doctor to save the life of his queen (the co-founder of what would become Joseon) who has been stabbinated in the neck. Unfortunately, Eun-Soo (the doctor he kidnaps) is a plastic surgeon. The show plays with the increasing limitations of her skillset as she runs out of supplies she brought with her, and it also shows her learning from doctors in the past as well as teaching them what she knows. It also has a fairly decent closed-loop time travel execution, so it gets double marks from me. 

Another example with great medical competence porn is Time Slip Dr. Jin. During Dr. Jin’s jaunt back to the late Joseon era, he trepans people multiple times, makes penicillin to treat syphilis, and struggles through a dysentery outbreak, all in gloriously gory medical and scientific detail that gives me joy. The time travel framework of the show is… better if you just don’t think about it. But the doctor-out-of-water competence porn is A++.

You don’t have to be a doctor from the present to engage in competence porn to bring me to the yard, though. I love stories that let people from the past be competent in the present. Although Sleepy Hollow had a lot of problems, one of the places it worked for me was when it juxtaposed Ichabod Crane flailing with modernity against him being a smart and adaptable fish-out-of-water. I wish they would have delved more into him flailing and then figuring things out. 

A similar example that worked better for me in executing that element was Queen In-Hyun’s Man. Although he’s a Joseon scholar plopped onto the film set of an historical k-drama, Kim Boong Do doesn’t stay a fish-out-of-water for long. He has the transferable skill of being smart and crafty. He quickly adapts and figures out how to use his jaunts to present-day South Korea to defeat his enemies in the past.

What are your favorite time-tourist stories, and why do they work for you?

Next up – The ‘have your cake and eat it too’ of time travel stories: Alternate Timelines!

Clarion West Write-a-thon Wrap-up!*

The Clarion West Write-a-thon is over, and I’m pleased to share that this year was by far my most successful year, both in terms of donations and in terms of blitzing through my main goal.

The first goal was to progress on the Super Sekrit Projekt, with 5k words a week. I can now share that the secret project is a collaboration with Marie Brennan, code-named R&R. You can read about it on my blog and hers.

We’ve been knocking out about 9k words a week, and this past week we managed a whopping 15k. We’ve completed six chapters and hit the 1/4 mark. We’ve also mapped out all the chapters and scenes for the next quarter — collaboration pretty much requires both of us to do a lot more gardening than either of us are wont to do on our own. It works really well to keep our pace up. There is never a question of ‘what are we doing next’… except insofar as both of us are likely to forget our names if we sleep. But that’s why Google made spreadsheets.

Marie is much better about providing weekly updates for that project. You can find them on her blog under the R&R tag if you want more details.

My second goal was revising Chiaroscuro. I’ve made some progress on that, though the runaway progress on R&R has dominated everything. I don’t think I will make the August 30th deadline I gave myself, BUT I have a good map and a few empty weekends ahead of me before Worldcon, so I’m going to plow through on that.

Third goal was short stories in my re-imagined ballet line. I managed bupkiss on that one 😀

*Sung to the tune of Winter Wrap-Up:

What I’m Doing This Summer

I’ve recently made passing mention to a super secret collaborative project I’m working on. I’ve been hesitant to say more because so often projects like this die before they ever get momentum.

However, after six-ish months of planning, plotting, and worldbuilding, and three weeks of intense writing that have already pushed us past the 25k point, I feel confident in saying this is a thing.

To get a feel for the flavor, listen to this:

Capers! Heroic vigilantes and antiheroes! Identity hijinks! Masquerades and mistaken identities! Romance and betrayal and rooftop assignations, all while wearing fabulous outfits!

So that’s what Marie Brennan and I are working on, if you can call it work. Writing with her is so much fun that I actively look forward to getting butt in chair every day.

Now that R&R (our code for it) is out of the bag, look for posts about collaboration, magic systems, clothing design, economic and political systems, folklore, civil engineering, and all the other fun things that come up when you knock two anthropologists together and tell them to design a world for fantasy intrigue.

Changing Up the Pronouns: They/them edition

For a long time I didn’t change my pronouns because I’ve spent my life correcting people on pronouncing my name, and it’s exhausting and annoying.

However, revising Chiaroscuro (especially the Sadaz chapters) has had me thinking a lot about pronouns, identity, visibility, and the importance of language in disrupting people’s gender assumptions. For that reason, I’m asking people to start using they/them when referring to me. It’s a small hill on which to pitch a battle, but every inch counts.

And hey, I actually think it’ll be easier to get people to use they/them than it has been to get them to pronounce my name correctly.

Art is not Apolitical

I went to see the touring production of The King & I on Thursday night (in order to get Hamilton touring company tickets, we had to get SHN season tickets, and The King & I is one of the season shows). Just before the King’s song “A Puzzlement,” in a line of dialogue that I don’t recall from any production I’ve seen, the King contemplates the value of building a wall around Siam vs. reaching out to French or British allies who might pose a larger existential threat to his country.

The actor had to pause for several moments while the audience laughed darkly. It’s San Francisco, so it was an audience sympathetic to the particular critique embedded in that line. I’d be very interested to know how it plays at other stops on the tour… if they even leave the line in?

But that moment, and then the performance of “A Puzzlement” right after it, really drove home how political even the classics of musical theater are. I mean, they might seem simple or problematic by today’s standards, but with shows like The Sound of Music or The King & I, Rodgers and Hammerstein presented some fairly topical critiques alongside their earwormy tunes.

The King & I is banned in Thailand for its presentation of King Mongkut as, to paraphrase the Wikipedia article, “a polka-dancing tyrant,” and for the suggestion of a romance between British Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut (though… interesting fact we learned… Anna was likely Anglo-Indian and hid her descent to avoid prejudice against her and her children). However, the show, for its time and genre, makes a solid attempt to give Mongkut layers and to address issues of colonialism in SE Asia even as it critiques human rights issues in SE Asian countries. Yul Brynner (Russian, btw, so there’s a valid yellowface crit to be made against the original productions) was definitely a reason that the King is such an iconic character for many lovers of these classics, but I think the actual conflicts that King Mongkut struggles with in the show are a reason he endures as a memorable character long after Brynner retired from the role.

I’ve been chewing on these thoughts the past two days, thinking maybe I’d write a post about them, and then Mike Pence went to see Hamilton, and the intersectional cast of PoC, LGBT people, and women voiced a critique and a plea to Pence at the end of the show. They could have done something else. They could have refused to perform for the pleasure of a man who has spent his life and political power ensuring that these actors and people like them will be treated as less than human. They didn’t, possibly because they recognized that Pence was only one person in an audience of people who don’t share his prejudice or history of oppressive action, an audience of people they wanted to perform for.

But to expect them to be silent and happy performing for such a man…? No. It’s a sickening thought. If I was one of those actors, expected to perform at the behest of a man who viewed and treated them as subhuman… I would have spoken out, too.

Like Tuptim speaks out to the King at the end of The Small House of Uncle Thomas:

TUPTIM: Topsy glad that Simon die, Topsy dance for joy! I tell you what Harriet Beecher Stowa say that Topsy Topsy say:
“I specks I’se de wickedest critter in de world!”
But I do not believe that Topsy is wicked critter. Because I too am glad for death of King. Of any King who pursues a slave who is unhappy and wish to join her lover. And your Majesty, I wish to say to you…

[King rises in anger, silencing Tuptim]

Your Majesty, and honourable guests! I will tell you end of story. Is very sad ending. Buddha has saved Eliza. But with the blessings of Buddha also come sacrifice.

Hah. See. We come full circle.

Art is not apolitical. Critique is not harassment. And I applaud the Hamilton cast, a cast of one of the most political shows ever to come out of the musical theater tradition, for saying, politely, that the tyrant in their audience – polka-dancing or not – should consider whether it’s right to enjoy the work and efforts of those actors when he has a history of using his power and position to dehumanize and oppress them and is in a position now to do much, much worse.