Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Read this: Damsel to the Rescue

Damsel to the Rescue
by Kaia Sønderby

I've been dealing with some extra stress lately, and have been pulling out all the stops in my self-care activities. There's been lots of dance-it-out music, silly movies, and garden therapy.

And reading. Lots of reading tried-and-true favorites: Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice, and A Wrinkle in Time. In addition to these classics, I also revisited Damsel to the Rescue by Kaia Sønderby, a book she sent me to review. I read it and was working on a review when I first got sick and it kinda fell off my to-do list. But it never fell off my favorites list.

I mean, it's got a smart, witty and brave damsel who would rather be tending her garden and perfecting her plant magic than off tromping around in the wild rescuing some silly prince.

Yes, you read that correctly. Our heroine Terrilyn Darkhorse lives in a somewhat gender-flipped magical world where girls are expected to learn how to use a sword or bow (or in Terrilyn's case, some kind of magic) in order to rescue whatever prince has gotten himself kidnapped by some evil, scheming, shape-shifting Dark Lord.

There is so much about this book I absolutely love. First, of course, is that it's chock full of brilliant, brave young women off on adventure in a magical world, competing to see who can win the favor of the queen by rescuing the prince from some far-off tower.

As expected, over the course of the adventure, Terrilyn Darkhorse has to face her many external and internal challenges, recognize her strengths and weaknesses, and come to terms with her own desires in a world that holds high expectations for her.
Terrilyn Darkhorse descends from a long line of successful, prince-rescuing damsels. Now that she's sixteen, she's expected to uphold the family tradition. But Terri would rather remain at home, tending her garden, perfecting her plant magic, and staying far away from the highly competitive world of damsels.

Then the local prince is kidnapped and Terri's mother makes her an offer: If she rescues the prince, Terri can have the family's second estate, Trellis, to turn into her own gardens. Terri has wanted Trellis since she was a little girl, so she sets out with her best friend Rune as her official sidekick, hoping to avoid the other damsels altogether.
Try as she might, she just can't seem to get away from the other damsels. As frustrating as it is for Terrilyn the introvert, it's actually quite enjoyable for the rest of us to watch her as she's called into action time and again to rescue some poor hapless damsel. As she goes along, we meet more and more of her so-called competitors and get to know a wonderfully diverse group of young women, each of whom has her own fascinating story. 
Which would be easier if they didn't have to keep rescuing rival damsels from basilisks and man-eating trees. But Terri can't justify abandoning them, because the monsters are being controlled and directed at her and the other damsels—a feat only a Dark Lord could accomplish. Terri's magic improves with every challenge she faces, but she knows it's not enough. If she wants to succeed, she'll need to break the rules and recruit her rivals to help her defeat the most powerful Dark Lord the world has seen in five-hundred years. 
The story could very easily be simply a series of battles between different girls until the ultimate winner takes home the prize (er... prince), but it is so much more than that. Damsel to the Rescue is a charming story about unlikely friendships, and the importance of not just accepting differences but embracing the power of diversity. And because of that, it has unequivocally earned the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval. I highly recommend Damsel to the Rescue for teens and adults looking for an empowering and inspirational book about smart, brave, and kind young women.

Not only was I lucky enough to get a review copy, but I was also able to chat with author Kaia Sønderby about her story, her process, and her call for teenaged girls to buck expectations and do what they want.

SRPS: First of all, tell me a little about yourself. What's your background? What inspires you? What are some of your goals?

KS: I was born and raised in America, mostly in Rhode Island. I admit, I didn't have the easiest childhood: My father passed when I was nine, I was diagnosed with autism shortly after, I was bullied pretty severely in school. I'm still not sure how I made it through high school, and I couldn't afford much community college. But here I am, living in Sweden, happily married. Life is far from perfect, but all things considered, I feel like I landed on my feet.

I'm inspired by so many things, but I especially love speculative fiction. Ever since my father died, I've found solace in strange and magical worlds. Those worlds were where I hid when I was lonely or upset from being bullied. I want to pay that forward, to provide readers with the shelter and escape fiction provided for me. I want to diversify spec fic, to write a wide variety of works that people from all manner of backgrounds can see themselves in. And I want to be a voice advocating for disability in speculative fiction -- from more disabled characters to more disabled authors.

SRPS: I absolutely love Terrilyn Darkhorse. She's such a great mix of an introvert, reluctant leader, kickass fighter, and tender-hearted gardener. Where did she come from? What was the inspiration for her character?

KS: I'm not sure how well I can explain my process. My characters sort of... unfold as I write them, as I get to know them. Some of Terri's grouchiness is for humorous effect, obviously, and that's where I started from. She's got a chip on her shoulder, and she's not a very patient individual when it comes to people. But as I started to see her through Rune's eyes, her softer side came together. Her tenderness and patience for plants started to grow into understanding for her companions' troubles, her temper and frustration channeled into a will to fight, and her organization and control of her gardens became a talent for organizing and leading her friends. All the ingredients were already there.

I guess you could say Terri formed much like her beloved plants. At first there was only a seed, but it time in grew into something much bigger and more complex. I was a little afraid people might find her too grumpy, so I made sure to show her more vulnerable moments, as well. It's such a relief to know that people like her.

SRPS: Actually, if I'm being honest, I think all the characters in Damsel to the Rescue are great -- such a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds. What was the decision behind including so many types of characters in the story?

KS: Believe it or not, Damsel to the Rescue contains one of my smaller casts! I love writing a huge variety of characters, and so I have to be a little careful or my casts get completely out of control. There's so many types of people in the world and as a writer, it makes my job more interesting and fun for my cast to be diverse. I think it adds verisimilitude for the reader, as well.

Even though I sometimes have to wrestle myself over cast-building, it proved to be very useful for Damsel to the Rescue. One of the main themes is that people are not necessarily who they first seem to be. Insecurity, disappointment, loneliness, disillusionment, etc., these things can shape our impressions of people a lot. I wanted readers to be surprised by these characters, to see that beneath some of their cliche surface traits, they were much deeper and more complex people. Thus I was really able to make something out of my natural inclination towards variety.

I want to be a voice advocating for disability
in speculative fiction -- from more disabled characters
to more disabled authors.

SRPS: Terri and her mother and grandmother do not see eye to eye on much. I can't help but think that their relationship is, in a way, a kind of analogy for modern feminism -- with the third wave feminists continually butting heads with the old guard, so to speak, and bucking the outdated ideas in favor of more modern and inclusive path. Is there any of that in the story behind the story?

KS: I wish I could say there was. I thought of a lot of feminist elements, and the story deals a lot in things like girl-on-girl hate, how we're trained to see each other as competition, etc. I guess that one slipped by me.

It is, though, a story of generational divide, even if it's not specifically the feminist one. The world has changed so much, as have the paths the current generation can take through life. But some of the older generations have a real problem with that. They get so mad over current technology, current trends, the fact that younger people aren't following the same route through life that they did--even though that's just not possible anymore! We're called the "entitlement generation" simply because we'd like to be able to college without racking up massive debt, like they did.

Terri and her friends, the things they do, their desires and their actions, stem in part from the frustrations of a society that expects them to follow in the exact paths of their forebears, whether it makes sense to do so or not. They're reacting to a world that is trying to restrain them based on gender, age, social caste, etc. Fantasy as a genre is often too busy romanticizing the past to consider the present, but I wanted Damsel to really speak to what the current generation is feeling.

SRPS: What is the take-away message you hope your readers will get from Damsel to the Rescue?

KS: There are quite a lot of minor take-away messages in Damsel, but to me the most important one is the one I put in for teenage girls. That they don't have to bend to society's expectations. They don't have to hate each other or view each other as competition. That's it's all right to stray from the path that society dictates, to want different things from what society expects you to want. That as girls and women, we all win when we work together and make an effort to understand where each other is coming from.

Like I said before, I was bullied badly, and most of that was by girls. Now that I'm older, I realize that while yes, some of those people were just toxic, so much of what I went through from these awful things we teach girls. We need to stop seeing each other as the enemy, so I wanted to show a really positive friendship between girls that strengthens them so much more than infighting and hatred.

There are quite a lot of minor take-away messages, but
to me the most important one is the one I put in for teenage girls.
That they don't have to bend to society's expectations.

SRPS: I think I speak for all your readers when I ask about the timing for the second book. I need to know what happens with Terri and her group of friends! Can we expect it anytime soon?

KS: Oh boy... I hope this doesn't disappoint people too much. The second book, Damsel in Shining Armor, is actually about Terri's eldest daughter, Alyssum. Characters from the first novel will get appearances, and young Rune and Terri will return for a companion novel starring the character Zelle.

Damsel in Shining Armor is actually written, but it needs editing. Hopefully I can get that sorted out in time to release it later this year.

SRPS: Where can people purchase their own copy of Damsel to the Rescue?

KS: Right now, Damsel to the Rescue is available for Kindle on Amazon. I may put it up elsewhere in time, but as this was my first independently published book, I wanted to start with one website.

SRPS: What other projects are you working on? Anything fun or exciting?

KS: Part of the reason why I put my work on Damsel in Shining Armor on hold, as to work on my Xandri Corele scifi series. The first book -- Failure to Communicate -- is out and doing quite well. It features an autistic protagonist and her quest to help her crewmates negotiate with an alien species that may hold the power to change space combat for the worse, amidst sabotage, assassination attempts, and rampant cronyism.

This, too, is a story I believe strongly in. I believe it's so important to have a voice for those of us who are disabled, to show us as something other than issues or victims. And there's a strong feminist theme to it as well, with a wide gamut of female characters front and center.

SRPS: That sounds so great! I've already added it to my TBR pile. When you're not writing, where else can people find you online?

KS: I'm not as good about being social as I should be. It's not exactly my strong point. I am on Twitter, and I can also be found as

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