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Exclusive Interview: Genevieve Valentine on Her OPERATION ARCANA Story “Blood, Ash, Braids”

SF Signal is pleased to present a series of interviews with the authors of the military fantasy anthology, Operation Arcana edited by John Joseph Adams and available now from Baen books.

Here’s what Operation Arcana is about:

In the realms of fantasy, the battlefield is where heroism comes alive, magic is unleashed, and legends are made and unmade. From the War of the Ring, Tolkien’s epic battle of good versus evil, to The Battle of the Blackwater, George R.R. Martin’s grim portrait of the horror and futility of war, these fantastical conflicts reflect our highest hopes and darkest fears, bringing us mesmerizing visions of silver spears shining in the sun and vast hordes of savage beasts who threaten to destroy all that we hold dear.

Now acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams is sounding the battle cry and sixteen of today’s top authors are reporting for duty, spinning never-before-published, spellbinding tales of military fantasy, including a Black Company story from Glen Cook, a Paksenarrion story from Elizabeth Moon, and a Shadow Ops story by Myke Cole. Within these pages you’ll also find World War I trenches cloaked in poison gas and sorcery, modern-day elite special forces battling hosts of the damned, and steampunk soldiers fighting for their lives in a world torn apart by powers that defy imagination.

Featuring both grizzled veterans and fresh young recruits alike, including Tanya Huff, Simon R. Green, Carrie Vaughn, Jonathan Maberry, and Seanan McGuire, Operation Arcana is a must for any military buff or fantasy fan.

You’ll never look at war the same way again.

In this “mission debrief” Genevieve Valentine talks to Hannah Huber about her Operation Arcana story “Blood, Ash, Braids”…

Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti , won the 2012 Crawford Award and was nominated for the Nebula. Her second novel is speakeasy fairy tale The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Her third novel, political thriller Persona, is due from Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press in 2015. She’s currently the writer of DC’s CATWOMAN.

Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic Arts, Lightspeed, and others, and the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, After, Teeth, and more; stories have been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, and have appeared in several Best of the Year anthologies.

Her nonfiction and reviews have appeared at, The AV Club, Strange Horizons,, Lightspeed, Weird Tales,, LA Review of Books, Fantasy Magazine, and Interfictions, and she is a co-author of pop-culture book Geek Wisdom (Quirk Books).

Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.

Hannah Huber: Witchcraft and women pilots for Russia during World War II is such a novel combination, yet the way you put this story together, mixing technical expertise with sly references to traditional signifiers for witches, it feels natural! How did you come to bring these two worlds together?

Genevieve Valentine: The Germans actually took care of that one for me, when they nicknamed the Russian pilots “Night Witches.” It was both a clear invitation to the fantasy element, and a chance to reframe the phrase in the story itself.

HH: The narrator claims that witches don’t survive long enough to form covens, and yet there are several examples in this story of women forming tight-knit groups – mundane parallels to a coven. What are some prominent examples of the theme of female camaraderie that you’ve encountered in literature? Do you think this is a theme that deserves more exploration than it gets?

GV: They do find that camaraderie, and it’s definitely not a coincidence. In the story, magic takes a toll (as it should), but the swiftness with which someone burns through a lifetime supply is probably always a shorter timeline than you hope for. (Particularly when you’re protecting others – that camaraderie made manifest.) And I think camaraderie between women – which categorically deserves more exploration than it gets – is often as much a matter of perception and position than of representation. Austen’s novels are filled with complicated relationships and ties of loyalty between women, but those are often positioned by modern interpretation as secondary dynamics within a romance, when the text has very different priorities. The sort of camaraderie that’s most easily categorized tends, ironically, to be the war story; banding together to face a common and immediate conflict is a familiar arc. Code Name Verity is a recent example of this particular brand of camaraderie, but there are also a lot of great narratives about the kinds of camaraderie that exist between women who aren’t on the frontlines; Heart of Iron has some very interesting friendships on the edges of a war.

HH: Your story deals at several points with how the narrator is seen by others: her commanding officers, her own village, the Germans, etc. Would you say that there is a certain despair, a sense of doom, in the plight of both a witch and a soldier in the context of your story, whether they’re seen as easy prey or a force to be reckoned with?

GV: Absolutely; while the actual Night Witches had a spectacular survival rate considering the equipment and training they were given, being a pilot was a horribly dangerous job, and to some degree signing up for any mission meant accepting the possibility that it would be a one-way trip. In terms of her abilities, I wanted to channel her identity as a witch through that same gauntlet of identity; underestimated at every turn until she’s with other women who have been underestimated in their own ways, and who have opened up given the opportunity to prove themselves in ways she can never really open up – and her coming to terms with that.

HH: Do you see witches as liberating, even cathartic, literary figures that symbolize the power women can wield? Do you have any favorite literary witches, or witch-centered books that you would recommend?

GV: Well, given that my book recommendation is the Penguin Book of Witches, which collects historical documents about the persecution of those accused of witchcraft, particularly surrounding Salem, I’m not sure how cathartic I would consider the position. However, it is absolutely a narrative of power; to accuse a powerful woman of witchcraft was a way to subdue her, and there are lots of stories on the axis of what one’s willing to sacrifice to keep that power. Oddly, one that’s coming to mind is Tanith Lee’s White as Snow, which uses witchcraft as a sometimes-accidental conduit in a narrative soaked in magic and mythology, but one that also addresses cycles of violence and the connection between power and suffering. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a sense of witchcraft as both asset and liability, and it’s fascinating.

HH: What is an upcoming project that you are excited about?

GV: I’m currently writing Catwoman for DC Comics in an arc that sees her taking over the Gotham underworld, which has been a fantastic story to tell, and though initially I was signed on for a single arc, I’ll be continuing as the writer, which I am really, really excited about.

HH: What is the appeal of military fantasy? Why do so many writers – or you yourself – write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

GV: I think it’s the same idea of the familiar arc being mapped-over with something new; we are all a collection of war narratives and fairy tales, and it just makes sense they’d play well together.


About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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