Writing a Villain – a Guest Post by Amalie Howard

Amalie Howard, author of many books including Alpha GoddessThe Almost Girl, and The Fallen Prince is the queen at writing nasty, nefarious types. Today, she joins us to tell us the ins and outs of writing a really great bad guy.


As a kid, when everyone else wanted to be Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Princess Leia, I was the kid who wanted to be Darth Vader.

*whispers to you* . . . come to the dark side . . . 

I don’t consider myself to be a villain, but I do appreciate both sides of the battle as well as the lure of being bad. Because, let’s face it, villains can be awesome. And not only are they awesome, but they’re crucial to most stories. The villain is the antagonist that makes the role and journey of your protagonist so much more meaningful. Put in the simplest terms, they’re meant to keep your hero from reaching his (or her) goals. They’re the obstacles to the hero’s journey. The stone in his shoe. The sand in his swimsuit. The Joker to his Batman. The Voldemort to his Harry Potter. You get the picture.

That said, there are many different kinds of villains: villains who become twisted through some life-altering event or quirk of nature, villains who are simply born bad, villains who like being evil, villains who want to preserve the greater good, villains who have no choice but to be villains, and villains who are heroes in disguise.

But my favorite type of villain is hands-down the complex, misunderstood kind. The kind where the definition of villainous is mired in shades of gray, where moral nihilism starts to beg the question. What’s right? What’s wrong? Who defines goodness and/or badness? Is this villain truly a villain?

Megamind is a great example of this. He’s not inherently evil, but was pegged from the start into that role because of circumstance. In the end, he turns out to be the true hero of the story. Another example of a character often portrayed in a villainous light is Kali in East Indian mythology. She has a bad reputation for being a berserker killer goddess, but a lot of her fury comes from her deep-rooted protective instinct, much like a ferocious mother bear defending her cubs. She is considered to be the great mother goddess, capable of terrible destruction and yet also representative of powerful and nurturing female power. I like that combination of strength and ferocity (which is why I am writing about her in my next YA book, Dark Goddess, out in Spring 2017 from Sky Pony Press).

For me, writing a good villain (not an oxymoron by the way) is essential to my stories. And by “good,” I mean well-rounded, multi-dimensional, and layered. A good villain has to be as fleshed out as much as the hero. As the creator, you have to understand what drives him, what his motives are, what he wants so that these are transparent to your readers. His goals (nefarious as they may be) are just as important as the hero’s. At the end of the day, he is the surrounding pressure—the mold that helps shape your hero into the person he is meant to be. A good villain fosters urgency, creates impetus, causes challenges, incites tension. In short, this friction is what give your story its kinetic energy . . . the force that keeps it moving from page to page. One of the biggest things I talk about in my creative writing workshops is your character’s GMC or Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. Each character must have a goal they are working towards, motivation that drives them to achieve this goal, and the conflict that keeps them from getting there. The cool thing about villain/hero conflict is that their goals will usually be at opposing ends of the spectrum, which can make for very interesting tension.

In my own writing, I like to keep my readers guessing as to who the true villain is. Often, I’ll have a character who checks all of the boxes, but will turn out to be an ally. Conversely, I also enjoy writing characters who may seem wonderful on the outside but may have secret agendas. My favorite villains are the ones you don’t see coming.

Some tips on writing a good villain:

  1. Make sure your villain is complex, layered, and multidimensional. (He is a reflection of the hero so put as much work into him as you would your hero.)
  2. Give him real goals and motivation that make sense in the framework of your story.
  3. Create a believable backstory that brings value to his narrative.
  4. Avoid typical villain clichés (long speeches, disfigured, vain, jealous, angry at the world, abusive, sinister, over-dramatic, dressed in black, etc.)
  5. Surprise your reader.

Some well-done villains in literature:

  1. Alex DeLarge—A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  2. Dolores Umbridge—Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  by J.K. Rowling (In many ways, I see her as even more evil than Voldemort.)
  3. Coulter—His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
  4. Ramsay Bolton—A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (I really, really, REALLY hated him.)
  5. Count Dracula—Dracula by Bram Stoker
  6. The White Witch—Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis

 

Howard, Amalie - Alpha Goddess

Amalie Howard is the award-winning IndieNext author of Alpha Goddess, The Riven Chronicles, the Aquarathi series, and the Cruentus Curse series. Her debut novel, Bloodspell, was an Amazon bestseller and a Seventeen Summer Read.

Her next novel with Sky Pony, Dark Goddess, is a sequel to Alpha Goddess, and will release in Spring 2017.

She currently resides with her husband and three children in Colorado.

Visit her online at www.amaliehoward.com or follow her on Twitter @amaliehoward

 

 


9781626362086-frontcover

Alpha Goddess

In Serjana Caelum’s world, gods exist. So do goddesses. Sera knows this because she is one of them. A secret long concealed by her parents, Sera is Lakshmi reborn, the human avatar of an immortal Indian goddess rumored to control all the planes of existence. Marked by the sigils of both heaven and hell, Sera’s avatar is meant to bring balance to the mortal world, but all she creates is chaos. A chaos that Azrath, the Asura Lord of Death, hopes to use to unleash hell on earth.

Torn between reconciling her past and present, Sera must figure out how to stop Azrath before the Mortal Realm is destroyed. But trust doesn’t come easy in a world fissured by lies and betrayal. Her best friend Kyle is hiding his own dark secrets, and her mysterious new neighbor, Devendra, seems to know a lot more than he’s telling. Struggling between her opposing halves and her attraction to the boys tied to each of them, Sera must become the goddess she was meant to be, or risk failing, which means sacrificing the world she was born to protect.

 

The Almost Girl

The Almost Girl

Seventeen-year-old Riven comes from a world parallel to Earth, a world that has been ravaged by a devastating android war. As a Legion General, she is the right hand of Prince Cale, the young Prince of Neospes. In her world, she’s had everything: rank, responsibility, and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to rescue his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.

Armed with the mindset of a soldier and racing against time to bring Caden home, Riven must learn how to blend in as a girl in a realm that is the opposite of all she’s ever known. Will she be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?

 

9781510701700-frontcover

 

The Fallen Prince

Riven has fought for a hard-won peace in her world, and has come to shaky terms with who and what she is—a human with cyborg DNA. Now that the rightful ruler of Neospes has been reinstated, Riven is on the hunt for her father in the Otherworld to bring him to justice for his crimes against her people.

But when she receives an unwelcome visit from two former allies, she knows that trouble is brewing once again in Neospes. The army has been decimated and there are precious few left to fight this mysterious new threat.

To muster a first line of defense, her people need help from the one person Riven loathes most—her father. But what he wants in return is her complete surrender.

And now Riven must choose: save Neospes or save herself.

 

Continue Reading

5 Sky Pony Protagonists As Cool As Black Widow

Captain America: Civil War hits theaters tomorrow! Most of us in the office are so excited to watch the feud between Cap and Iron Man unfold on the big screen but to celebrate the release of the film we’ve been excited to see ever since the credits rolled on The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we want to highlight one of our favorite female superheroes: Black Widow. Avenger, spy, friend, enemy—someone whose bad side you most definitely wouldn’t want to be on—Natasha Romanoff is quite the powerful female character. We imagine that when you’ve seen Civil War once or twice or three times, you’re going to need another source for your awesome female characters. Check out these Sky Pony books with some awesome female protagonists!


 

1. Itzy—Divah

Itzy Nash is the kind of hero who takes everything in stride. She isn’t phased by fallen angels swooping in or demons in her closet. And she doesn’t need a boy to rescue her.

“If Buffy the Vampire Slayer edited Vogue, Divah’s heroine Itzy Nash would be its first cover girl.” —Wendy N. Wagner, author of Skinwalkers

giphy941GkjrYv7pL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Eloise meets Rosemary’s Baby in New York City’s very own Carlyle hotel.

Seventeen-year-old Itzy Nash is spending the summer at the exclusive Carlyle hotel in New York City. But the hotel harbors more than the rich and privileged; it is host to a gorgeous fallen angel, reclusive movie stars, and—Itzy soon learns—demons of the worst sort. When the Queen of the Damned checks in, all Hell breaks loose. Itzy is called upon to save herself—and all of humanity—from the ravages of the Underworld. There’s only one problem: Itzy’s possessed.

Part gothic thriller, part historical fiction, the novel straddles the Upper East Side and the lush trappings of the Carlyle hotel, and Paris during the Reign of Terror in 1789. Marie Antoinette is the Queen of the Damned. Marilyn Monroe is an expert demon hunter. To kill a demon, Hermès scarves, Evian water, and a guillotine are the weapons of choice.

For anyone who loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this has an epic battle between angels and demons with a doomed love story at its core. But it’s also darkly funny, for fans of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and more than anything it’s something original—dark, funny, clever, and glamorous.

2. Tal—Wandering Wild

Tal is a schemer. Faced with challenges that would force most to bend to expectations, she’s determined to make her own luck and write her own path. And it doesn’t always go well for her—especially when what she wants most clashes with what has long been decided for her. But a fierce loyalty, especially to her brother, is the force that always sees her through. After all, “Fortune favors the bold.”

giphy1

9781510704008-frontcover“I believe in possibility. Of magic, of omens, of compasses, of love. Some of it’s a little bit true.”

Sixteen-year-old Tal is a Wanderer—a grifter whose life is built around the sound of wheels on the road, the customs of her camp, and the artful scams that keep her fed. With her brother, Wen, by her side, it’s the only life she’s ever known. It’s the only one she’s ever needed.

Then in a sleepy Southern town, the queen of cons picks the wrong mark when she meets Spencer Sway—the clean-cut Socially Secured boy who ends up hustling her instead of the other way around. For the first time, she sees a reason to stay. As her obligations to the camp begin to feel like a prison sentence, the pull to leave tradition behind has never been so strong.

But the Wanderers live by signs, and all the signs all say that Tal and Spencer will end only in heartache and disaster. Is a chance at freedom worth almost certain destruction?

3. Riven—The Almost Girl

Riven is determined and resourceful. She is loyal and fierce and she will do anything to accomplish her goals.
giphy8

The Almost GirlSeventeen-year-old Riven comes from a world parallel to Earth, a world that has been ravaged by a devastating android war. As a Legion General, she is the right hand of Prince Cale, the young Prince of Neospes. In her world, she’s had everything: rank, responsibility, and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to rescue his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.

Armed with the mindset of a soldier and racing against time to bring Caden home, Riven must learn how to blend in as a girl in a realm that is the opposite of all she’s ever known. Will she be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?

 

4. Kora—Beyond the Red

Kora is the first female ruler in generations and remains powerful on the throne though people think her younger brother should rule in her place. Kora is cunning and strong and fights for what she believes in.

giphy39781634506441-frontcoverAlien queen Kora has a problem as vast as the endless crimson deserts. She’s the first female ruler of her territory in generations, but her people are rioting and call for her violent younger twin brother to take the throne. Despite assassination attempts, a mounting uprising of nomadic human rebels, and pressure to find a mate to help her rule, she’s determined to protect her people from her brother’s would-be tyrannical rule.

Eros is a rebel soldier hated by aliens and human alike for being a half-blood. Yet that doesn’t stop him from defending his people, at least until Kora’s soldiers raze his camp and take him captive. He’s given an ultimatum: be an enslaved bodyguard to Kora, or be executed for his true identity—a secret kept even from him.

When Kora and Eros are framed for the attempted assassination of her betrothed, they flee. Their only chance of survival is to turn themselves in to the high court, where revealing Eros’s secret could mean a swift public execution. But when they uncover a violent plot to end the human insurgency, they must find a way to work together to prevent genocide.

5. Flo—The Wanderers

Flo is a brave and strong character with a lot of sass. She discovers just how strong and brave she truly is on her journey. giphy4

9781634502016-frontcoverA Unique Twist on Shape-Shifters with Fast-Paced Action, Thrilling Adventure, Mystery, and a Bit of Romance

Flo lives an eccentric life—she travels with a popular circus in which the main acts star orphaned children with secret shape-shifting abilities. Once Flo turns sixteen, she must perform, but she’s not ready. While practicing jumping a flaming hurdle in a clearing beside the circus, she spots a dark figure in the trees and fears he saw her shift. The news sends the circus into a panic.

In Flo’s world, shifters are unknown to humans with the exception of a secret organization—the EOS, referred to as “hunters.” Hunters capture and kill. They send some shifters to labs for observation and testing—testing they don’t often survive—and deem others useless, a danger to society, and eliminate them. To avoid discovery, shifters travel in packs, constantly moving and keeping themselves hidden. Up until now, the circus was the perfect disguise.

Believing she has brought attention to the group, Flo feels dread and anxiety, causing her to make a mistake during her performance in front of the audience—a mistake that triggers a violent attack from the hunters.

Flo manages to flee the torched circus grounds with Jett, the bear shifter who loves her; the annoying elephant triplets; and a bratty tiger named Pru. Together they begin a new journey, alone in a world they don’t understand and don’t know how to navigate. On the run, they unravel secrets and lies that surround the circus and their lives—secrets and lies that all point to the unthinkable: Have they been betrayed by the people they trusted most?

Continue Reading

Writing a Sequel with Amalie Howard

What does it take to write a sequel? Amalie Howard shares her experience on writing a sequel. Check it out below! 


No one ever ever tells you that writing a sequel is hard. Like really, really hard.

First of all, I have to preface this post by saying that I loathe cliffhangers. I don’t mind small cliffhangers after all the major plot points have been resolved, you know, to whet your appetite for the next book in a series. However, I absolutely abhor those books that just end, and then you find yourself turning pages to the end, being confused, going back to re-read the last ten pages because you’re convinced you must have somehow missed the resolution, and then curling up in a corner with cushions rocking back and forth with a handful of cookies muttering to yourself about cursed cliffhangers.

So when the time came for me to write my own sequels, it was a daunting prospect. Because expectations. And those things weigh a ton. After all, with a sequel, you need to write a whole new story, roughly a hundred thousand words, with the same characters in the same world, and not repeat stuff you’ve written before. You don’t want to disappoint readers waiting breathlessly for that second book. Or worse, write a “filler book” that is meant to lead up to the last in a trilogy. That’s a total sell-out move. Fillers make me want to break things. I was lucky, I guess, because a few of my series were duologies. A relief on the one hand, and yet, so much added pressure to make that closure super satisfying.

Let’s address handling the same elements from book one to book two. Readers come back for a sequel because they want more—more of the same characters, more of the setting, more relationships, more challenges, MORE. And you, as an author, have to deliver. While making the story different. No one wants a remake. Unless it’s Star Wars. Then you can remake until the cows come home. But let’s pretend your book isn’t Star Wars, even though, inside, you hope it is. You have to work. And plan. And re-read Book One. And outline. And re-read again. And then write. A story board can help with keeping track of details. I use post-its or an excel spreadsheet, but many people like programs like Scrivener. Do what works for you.

Character growth is essential in a sequel, and that has to come from what your characters have accomplished or achieved in Book One. Unless your main character loses his or her memory (beaten to death trope), you have to work within the parameters you have built. Your readers went with you on a journey in Book One. Don’t devalue that by taking the easy route and erasing everything they’ve co-braved your hellfire for. Unless you’ve consulted with JJ Abrams and your memory loss hook is genius, brainstorm another route. Work with those brilliant, flawed characters you’ve created, and then ruthlessly throw your darlings to the wolves.

Let’s talk The Almost Girl and The Fallen Prince. In Book One, Riven was a soldier. By the end of her journey she learned to come to terms with what it meant to be human. In Book Two, I knew I had to springboard off that growth and take it a step further. To do this, I had to put her into situations that would test her mettle and push the limits of her newfound sense of self. In a similar fashion, I wanted to put Caden—the new king of Neospes and her love interest—into challenging situations of his own, forcing him to find a balance between his heart and his political strategy. My dependable hero from Book One is forced to face some serious issues. Growth has to push the character forward. Yes, there can be setbacks, but overall, everything should be moving your story to a new place.

Next, honor your rules. You’ve built an amazing world with structure and rules. Uphold those. They are still the cornerstones of your sequel. If you start breaking the rules you created down without good reason or undermining them, your readers will revolt. So change rules judiciously and with valid reasons, otherwise the world-building will start to unravel. In The Fallen Prince, I introduce a new pocket of civilization within the rules of the desert world I’ve built, however it’s an anomaly because said colony uses an extinct resource. Without giving away spoilers, I had to make the existence of this new society make sense within the established rules of the parallel universe. If Book One is set on a desert planet, you better be sure if Book Two is underwater, that they’re space explorers, or time jumpers, or something that you’ve already set up in the first book. Otherwise you risk alienating your readers.

Finally, your sequel has to make sense. If it’s not a sequential story, then it’s not a sequel. That’s a companion novel . . . which is a whole other beast. Give your readers what they are salivating for—characters they’ve connected with set in a world they love with a whole new adventure to look forward to. And write the end. You owe them that.

Here are a few pointers:

Do:

  • Write an outline
  • Brainstorm a different and fresh plot
  • Go for higher stakes
  • Flip things upside down
  • Introduce new characters
  • Deliver a great villain
  • Maintain consistency and style
  • Adhere to rules

Don’t:

  • Repeat the story you’ve already told
  • Be afraid to kill your darlings WITH VALID REASON (think George R. R. Martin)
  • Cliff hang (cliff teasers are okay)
  • Go off into left field (making it too difficult for readers to connect)
  • Make your sequel a set up for Book Three. Just don’t. Been there, done that, and it didn’t end well. Plan to write the end and make it a satisfying conclusion. Your readers will thank you.

 

Howard, Amalie - Alpha Goddess

Amalie Howard is the award-winning IndieNext author of Alpha Goddess, The Almost Girl, The Fallen Prince, the Aquarathi series, and the Cruentus Curse series. Her debut novel, Bloodspell, was an Amazon bestseller and a Seventeen Summer Read. She is currently working on Dark Goddess, the sequel to Alpha Goddess, which will release from Sky Pony Press in Spring 2017. She lives with her husband and three children in Colorado.


Amalie Howard’s Books:

The Almost Girl

The Almost Girl

Seventeen-year-old Riven comes from a world parallel to Earth, a world that has been ravaged by a devastating android war. As a Legion General, she is the right hand of Prince Cale, the young Prince of Neospes. In her world, she’s had everything: rank, responsibility, and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to rescue his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.

Armed with the mindset of a soldier and racing against time to bring Caden home, Riven must learn how to blend in as a girl in a realm that is the opposite of all she’s ever known. Will she be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?

 

 

The Fallen Prince

9781510701700-frontcoverRiven has fought for a hard-won peace in her world, and has come to shaky terms with who and what she is—a human with cyborg DNA. Now that the rightful ruler of Neospes has been reinstated, Riven is on the hunt for her father in the Otherworld to bring him to justice for his crimes against her people.

But when she receives an unwelcome visit from two former allies, she knows that trouble is brewing once again in Neospes. The army has been decimated and there are precious few left to fight this mysterious new threat.

To muster a first line of defense, her people need help from the one person Riven loathes most—her father. But what he wants in return is her complete surrender.

And now Riven must choose: save Neospes or save herself.

 

Alpha Goddess

  In Serjana Caelum’s world, gods exist. So do goddesses. Sera knows this because she is one of them. A secret long concealed by her parents, Sera is Lakshmi reborn, the human avatar of an immortal Indian goddess rumored to control all the planes of existence. Marked by the sigils of both heaven and hell, Sera’s avatar is meant to bring balance to the mortal world, but all she creates is chaos. A chaos that Azrath, the Asura Lord of Death, hopes to use to unleash hell on earth.

Torn between reconciling her past and present, Sera must figure out how to stop Azrath before the Mortal Realm is destroyed. But trust doesn’t come easy in a world fissured by lies and betrayal. Her best friend Kyle is hiding his own dark secrets, and her mysterious new neighbor, Devendra, seems to know a lot more than he’s telling. Struggling between her opposing halves and her attraction to the boys tied to each of them, Sera must become the goddess she was meant to be, or risk failing, which means sacrificing the world she was born to protect.

 

Continue Reading

The Soldier by Amalie Howard

Amalie Howard, author of The Riven Chronicles, has a new E-short out! Check it out below!


The Soldier

A Short Story Prequel in The Riven Chronicles

First appeared on YA Books Central

 

Part I: In the Outers

 

The sun is riding high in the sky, sending blinding waves of undulating heat across the scorched plains. The water in my eyes evaporates as fast as I blink. The gauge on my temperature guard reads a hundred and twenty degrees . . . and climbing. My odds of survival descend with each hike in temperature.

Spitting a mouthful of red-tinged saliva to the cracked earth, I stare down at the body struggling beneath my fingers and twist just enough to sever the creature’s spinal cord. It doesn’t make a sound as it dies. I watch the light fade from its eyes, an ugly yellow glow that pales to gray, and then nothing. Its socket-less gaze doesn’t waver, eyeing me balefully even in death.

My entire unit had been ambushed, attacked by a Reptile raiding party of some sort, and I’d taken a blow to the back of my head. I stayed conscious long enough to see the creatures rip apart two men under my command before blacking out. When I woke, only one of the Reptiles remained, the others destroyed by the pair of Vectors who’d answered our desperate distress call. I stare down at the remnants of the Reptile I just killed.

I’m not even sure how I’ve survived.

One of the Vectors scans the area with a blue stream of light, checking for data patterns to send back for analysis. Standard protocol. I stare at the red-streaked sky, and haul myself to my knees, grunting. My brain is fuzzy, but that’s to be expected after that kind of crack to the skull. The base of my head throbs in tune to my pulse and I press the heel of my palm there. My fingers come away red and sticky. Wincing, I check off some personal facts to clear my head—everything I can remember about myself.

My name is Dorn. I am a soldier of Neospes. I am seventeen. I was recruited three days shy of my fifth birthday. I am second legion—a commanding officer. And my men are dead because of me.

I am Dorn. I am a soldier, I repeat forcefully, banishing the last thought. Men die in battle every day, more so here in the Outers than anywhere else, and I’m lucky to be alive. Holden and Banks will be remembered as brave heroes who gave their lives to defend Neospes.

Wiping the bluish ichor off my gloves on the rusty sand, I glance to the side at the rotting mess of flesh and wire lying on the dusty earth. The creature is not even human, constructed of random bits of decaying flesh weaved into metal. Reptiles. They’re a scourge on the earth. I kick the thing in the head, disgusted. They are one of my world’s most hideous abominations—an inhuman marriage of organic tissue and artificial intelligence.

I glance at the Vector who crouches next to me, its milky eyes unsettling, and revise my earlier sentiment. Reptiles aren’t the only abominations in Neospes. In some ways, the Vectors are worse. They are purified corpses and, like the Reptiles, wired and controlled by internal programming. But at least they are loyal and not capable of independent thought. The Reptiles are rogue; the Vectors are complicit.

I study the red smears on the ground—what’s left of my companions’ bodies after the Reptiles finished scavenging. Black stringy worms creep up from the fissures in the ground to consume the meager remains. A rush of bile stings my throat—nothing goes to waste in the Outers. It would have been smart to have a team of Vectors on patrol instead of three vulnerable humans. But we’d been foolish . . . taking on scout duty without them, thinking ourselves superior. Better.

I’d been foolish. And my men had paid the price.

I cringe as the medicinal smell of the Vector’s body beside me assaults my nostrils. It doesn’t speak, only watches, waiting for orders in the hazy silence. Sometimes it’s comforting that they don’t have active vocal cords. They’re ominous enough without speech.

“You got the call?” I ask it roughly. It nods. “Good. Report it, and let’s get out of here.”

The Vector relays the information real time to the base computers back in the dome via the chip its brain, and then blinks, staring unnervingly at me. I hate feeling like the Vectors can see right through to all my darkest secrets. Clenching my jaw to hide my revulsion, I drag my gaze away to stare once more at the creature I’d killed.

This isn’t the first time a Reptile has attacked so close to the perimeter of Neospes, and it isn’t a good sign. It means they’re low on food, which makes them braver—more desperate. Fourteen humans, mostly derelicts out foraging themselves, had been murdered and taken for parts. All we’d found of the fourteen bodies were bone shards picked clean, their ivory color dull, not one drop of blood, tissue, or hair remaining.

We’ve known for years that we couldn’t underestimate the Reptiles—after all, they are remnants of the powerful Machines that once controlled every part of our world. But remnants aren’t the same. They’re shadows of what used to be.

Dangerous shadows.

At first, the perimeter reports had been sporadic, but recently the attacks had become more consistent, as though the Reptiles were scouting . . . searching for structural weaknesses in the dome.

The Reptiles wanted in.

It’s what I’d do if I were them—an ongoing, methodical check for flaws, seeking a crack in the earth that I could burrow beneath in order to get into the dome. Or, better yet, systematic attacks to draw the humans out into the open where the wastelands would kill us more efficiently than they could. The Reptiles are smart—far smarter than we give them credit for.

“Let’s go,” I say to the Vector.

I cough, spitting another mouthful of dark red chalk onto the parched ground before climbing into the back of the hover vehicle. My head is spinning slightly, but I think I can make it back without passing out. There are black spots in my memory, hazy patches of fighting and sleeping and bright lights. I can’t make head or tails of the sketchy recollections, but I’ve had worse concussions before. A few minutes in a med-lab will fix me right up.

A warm, dry wind spins a cloud of dust toward the truck like a miniature cyclone. The waning sandstorm had been perfect cover for a Reptile attack. We’d been hit not suspecting a thing.

“Move out,” I order as one of the Vectors initiates the command unit on the hover. Gunning the engine, we race across the red desert. It’s red because of the rock, but people still say that it’s because of all the blood the land had consumed. The Outers are a wasteland, and isn’t a place where anything human can survive. Only the Reptiles have managed to scrape out an existence here.

For a sharp second, I wonder whether Corporal Banks and Second Lieutenant Holden would be gutted for parts.

But it’s a stupid question. I already know the answer.

I think of the glistening pile of bones we’d found and bile fountains into my mouth. Retching, I close my eyes, letting the slow comforting rocking of the hover soothe my scattered nerves. We arrive back at the dome—the hub of Neospes and one of the bigger human cities rebuilt in the Eastern hemisphere—in barely any time at all. Taking the portable navigation tablet from my suit, I tap in a sequence of numbers and the screen lights up with an urgent message from my commanding officer, General Riven.

I’ve known her for years, but just the name on my tablet sends a spiral of dread through me. Even though she’s much younger than me—barely fourteen—she’s as hard as they come . . . and far more deadly. The daughter of the man behind Neospes’s bio-robotics engineering unit and the mind that invented the Vectors, Danton Quinn, she inherited her father’s rigid, ruthless core. At eleven, she’d been the youngest recruit to lead as a commanding officer, and now she’s a general, the highest-ranking officer in Neospes, and part of the king’s private guard.

The Vectors obey her without question, and although working with them makes my skin crawl, she shows no such reaction. Other soldiers joke that she’s one of them. But Vectors are dead, and she’s as alive as we are. Still, that doesn’t make her any less cold or forbidding. She follows orders to the letter, executing them without conscience or question. To her, mercy is weakness, and compassion a flaw. Truth is, all things considered, she may as well be one of the Vectors.

The holograph scanner on my tablet tells me exactly where she is, and after decontamination, I make my way to the communications building, despite my lingering grogginess. Shaking my head to clear it, the scanner accepts the Neospes identity chip implanted in my wrist and opens the thick metal doors, granting me entry.

Captain Reck Dorn, Second Legion, flashes from red to blue in bright lettering. I’m scanned three other times before I’m allowed access into the inner sanctum where the general is waiting. Keeping my eyes averted away from the Vectors guarding nearly every access point, I walk down the narrow hallway to the archway at the end.

In a wide room bordered by metallic walls and standing alone beside a flat table displaying a holographic map of the Outers, the general is slight in stature with short dark hair braided close to her scalp and a single blue and silver ranking braid hanging over her ear. There are no Vectors in this room, which strikes me as odd since she’s never without them.

The general doesn’t acknowledge me, but I’m sure she knows that I’m here. My arrival would have been announced at the first entry point, and she isn’t the sort of person that one can sneak up on. At first glance, she seems small and vulnerable, especially without any guards, but looks are deceptive. She’d kill me in half a blink before I could even formulate a plan of attack.

I take a deep breath that makes my neck and skull ache. “General,” I say. “You wanted to see me?”

“Captain Dorn,” she replies. Her voice is lilting but detached as she shuts down the hologram with a swipe of her finger. “You were attacked?”

“Yes, by a Reptile raiding party.”

“How many?”

“Twelve. They were more organized than I’ve ever seen the Reptiles. I would be dead if it hadn’t been for the two Vectors who answered my distress call.”

She’s frowning. “The Reptiles have always been organized. They may seem ragged, but they’re still robots . . . intelligent robots. We shouldn’t underestimate them. Were you hurt?”

“One of the Reptiles got in a lucky blow. Nothing that a med lab won’t take care of,” I add confidently, despite the insistent pounding in my brain that seems to have gotten louder in the last few minutes.

“See to it, then. You were lucky to survive after being out there for such a long time.”

A long time? I must be confused or she received incorrect information.

In spite of being summarily dismissed, I hesitate as she turns away. “General, we should contact the next of kin of the other two men who were with me on Outers detail—Corporal Banks and Second Lieutenant Holden. They were both killed in action.”

She turns, as though in slow motion, her eyes like lasers on mine, and the hollow numbness from my neck spreads across my back and around to my stomach. Her gaze is assessing, moving systematically from my face to my feet. She frowns so sharply that I can almost hear the crack of skin across her brow.

“Captain, you were on solo perimeter detail. There were no others with you.” Her words are inflectionless. Tiny pinpricks of sweat dot my brow as I process what she’s saying, but there’s a gaping hole in my head where answers should be. I glance dumbly at the tablet in my hand as if I might find them there.

Had I imagined the attack?

No, it’s not possible—I’d seen the Reptiles rip the other two soldiers to pieces with my own eyes. I’d smelled the blood vaporizing in the heat. Hadn’t I? My head aches and a wave of dizziness makes the floor tilt.

“No,” I say slowly. “You’re misinformed. Corporal Holden and Second Lieutenant Banks were with me. I saw them die.”

“Holden and Banks?” she asks, and I nod. The general consults something on her own tablet, then looks back up at me with guarded eyes. “You were all part of the same Outers detail, yes, but Corporal Holden and Second Lieutenant Banks were killed in action two years ago. Captain Dorn, are you sure you’re all right? Perhaps you’re confusing events. I saw in the report that you suffered a blow to the head. You’ve only been gone for three days.”

I stumble backward, the dizziness turning into full-on vertigo. “Three days?” I repeat dully. “That’s impossible. No . . . it was only hours before the Vectors came.”

“Captain, you’re dehydrated and disoriented,” the general says in a tone that makes chills race down my spine. Her mouth is pinched at the corners and her icy blue eyes, narrowed. “You were in the Outers for three days, not three hours. Three days. Your distress beacon came on an hour ago—the Vectors reported that they found you huddled in a cleft at the base of the Peaks. You were lucky that the electromagnetic interference of the area prevented the Reptiles from following you there.”

She walks toward me, her face impassive, but her movements purposeful. My head feels like everything inside of it is being sucked into a black vortex lined with pulsing neon commands as she steps within reach. She is weaponless, but I know better. The soldier in me senses danger and before she can get within two feet of me, my body is tensing in automatic attack mode.

My thoughts crash into one another in violent succession in my brain. Commands—of things I am meant to do, things I am meant to disable. And she is one of them. Each pulse makes the pain worse, pushing me to a threshold that I immediately know my body will not be able to withstand. Unless I comply.

Secure the area.

Every cell in my body surges forward, compelled by some unseen force, and my arm hooks around the general’s neck in a backward choke-hold. I can see her face reflected in the shiny surface of the opposite wall. That impassive face isn’t so emotionless now. Her mouth is in a tight white line and her eyes are so cold I can feel death blowing like a winter storm in my direction. But, strangely, I feel no fear. Only purpose.

“Don’t move,” I warn, tightening my arm.

“Captain Dorn,” she gasps, her body cool against the hot skin of my forearms. “I’m going to give you one chance to think about what you’re doing. You’re tired and clearly not thinking straight. You’ve had a shock from being in the Outers for so long. You’re ill and need medical attention. Release me immediately.”

The monotone of her voice is hypnotic but has little impact. I only recognize its timber from afar as if something in my brain is keeping me shielded from the power of her words. The pain has receded to a dull thud at the base of my skull as a new wave of orders hovers in front of my eyes.

Locate the target.

“General Riven, please stand down. I don’t want to have to hurt you.” Although my lips are forming the words, the message isn’t mine. It’s coming from somewhere else deep inside my head where the pain is at its worst.

Secure the target, my brain thuds.

The orders are simple and I must follow them. It’s the one thing that will eliminate the throbbing pain in my head—that’s the only fact I know for certain. It’s the single motivation driving me to action. I don’t question it. I obey it.

My eyes meet the reflection of the general’s in the silver wall. She stares me down, unafraid, studying me. Her nose wrinkles slightly and I see a shadow of understanding break across her face.

“You think I haven’t faced your kind before?” Her words are like hollow point bullets, detonating in every part of me.

“My kind?” I repeat, tasting the weight of the words—mine now—on my tongue.

Her eyes blaze blue fire. “Reptiles.”

 

 

Part II: Mind Over Matter

 

The world falls away beneath my feet, and I’m falling backward into an abyss. . . . It feels as if I’m splitting into fifteen different parts of myself—fragmenting bits of flesh held together by nothing but stringy tissue and shattered bone. My scattered pulse mimics her words in sonic bursts.

My kind.

Reptiles.

My kind.

Reptiles.

Flashes of light and wire and blood ignite in my memory. As if in response to the tune of my thoughts, the faint smell of rot fills my nostrils, and I glance down at the space between the cuff of my sleeve and my gloved hand clutched around the girl’s neck. The thin swatch of skin there is discolored and lined with dark blood vessels atop larger bruises of coagulated blood. I blink, forcing the image away. I’m imagining things. Or hallucinating. But when I reopen my eyes, the pale graying flesh is still there.

“No,” I say in disbelief.

“Yes.”

The General’s head smashes into my nose, dislodging my hold as she twists in a fluid movement, her knee cleaving into the soft tissue of my stomach. The breath whooshes out of me, but not before I react to slam an uppercut into her jaw. She shifts her head to the side, the blow sliding off toward her ear, and then she’s crouching, her foot snapping out to sweep mine from under me.

I barely feel the slam of the unforgiving floor before I’m jackknifing up to grab her arm and twist it hard behind her back. She utters a grunt of pain and spins under her own arm, the sharp crunch of her shoulder popping loud in the silence. It gives her enough momentum to kick me hard in the groin. I know I should be in agony, but I’m not. Something isn’t right.

Staggering back, the hot pressure of a blade pushes into the meat of my torso. To my surprise, I barely feel it, but the pungent smell of decomposing blood throws me. I release the general, my hands falling to the thick wet sludge of my belly.

“Smell that?” she asks, thrusting the slick gore-covered dagger into my face. “That’s you.”

“No,” I say, staring down at the brackish, fetid blood covering my fingers.

“Yes, you’re dead.” The general’s eyes are uncompromising, calling out the truth. “That’s why they left you, why they let you live. They chose to leave you. They wanted you to come back here, to infiltrate the dome. Why?”

The door opens behind us and four Vectors slip in, followed by a slim, dark-haired man with a thin face and a hooked nose, whom I recognize as the general’s father, Danton Quinn. The man behind it all. His face is as emotionless as his daughter’s.

The base of my skull warms as communication races along the receptors there, transmitting something, and I brace for the pain. But none comes.

Secure the target.

The sudden emptiness in my brain takes me by surprise and I savor the sensation of peace, free of discomfort. My orders are crystal clear. The target is the man, not the girl.

The general narrows her eyes at her father, suspicion flickering in their depths. “Why are you here, Danton? I didn’t summon you.”

Danton’s gaze slithers to me. “Why is Captain Dorn here? He was supposed to report to the med lab, but I was told you overrode my orders.”

She shoots her father a measured look. Her voice is conversational as she studies the knife in her hand. “Did you know he was a Reptile?”

“What? Is that you, Dorn?” Danton asks, noticing my fresh wounds, his nostrils flaring at the smell and sight of my entrails. The Vectors snap into action, but the general raises a hand, stalling them.

“Stand down, it’s under control.” The girl’s mouth flattens into a slash. “It’s not Dorn. Like I said, it’s a Reptile. One like I’ve never seen. One that is more human than machine. They wanted him here. And I want to know why.” Her eyes never leave my face.

“It looks like Dorn,” Danton says, mildly.

The girl shoots him a surprised look as if she’d expected a different response. His face is blank, but there’s a careful, calculating expression in his eyes that he’s trying to hide.

“Smell that?” she says, thrusting the knife at him. “That’s something dead. He doesn’t know what he is, but I’ve killed enough of them to know. That is a Reptile.”

“No, I’m not!” I shout. “I’m Captain Reck Dorn, Second Legion. An officer of Neospes.” But even as I utter the words, I don’t believe them. Deep down, I understand that what the general says is true. A hot wetness soaks my face as they both stare at me with opposing expressions—hers horrified and his, exhilarated. And then I’m laughing hysterically at the absurdity of being able to weep even though I’m clearly nowhere near anything alive.

The laughter is replaced once more by pain searing through me like razor-sharp blades and cutting away the last vestiges of my resisting humanity.

Complete the mission now.

Compelled, I dive forward with renewed purpose, dispatching one of the two Vectors lunging toward me with a blow to the temple. The other I smash into the metal wall with all the force I can muster. It slumps to the ground, loosening its grip on a deadly electro-rod, and my eyes swivel back to my target.

But before I can reach Quinn, a body tackles me. The sick crack of bone fills the room as I thump to the ground, both legs severed at the knee and useless. Lethal swords in hand, the girl shoves me down and straddles my chest. Sharp points press into my neck. Her eyes are like chips of pale blue ice.

“You’re already dead, but I’ll destroy you in seconds if you so much as twitch. Why have you come here? Why did they send you?”

My gaze slides, unbidden, to the dark-haired man at her side, and I see her eyes widen with grim understanding. “It’s not me you want. It’s my father.”

She glowers at him, suspicion etched on her face. “What would the Reptiles want with you? Or you with them? Why was he supposed to report to your lab?”

Something in her voice tugs at me—a faded memory, perhaps, locked somewhere deep in this decaying brain of mine. The general, who fears nothing, fears this man.

Quinn’s reply is mocking. “Protocol.”

They remain locked in a silent battle of wills, and I take advantage of the moment to buck her off, smashing my fist into the side of her head. Despite her earlier threat, my only objective is to get to the man at her side.

His expression is greedy, as if something is nearly in his grasp, and I realize that he wants me to come to him. I can feel the force of it radiating outward like a beacon. He’s no soldier, but for some inexplicable reason, he is a hundred times more menacing than his daughter. I’m far more afraid of getting anywhere near him, even as the agonizing stabs of pain in my head compel me to crawl forward, arm-over-arm.

The girl’s fear has become my own.

Or, maybe, we were always afraid of him. Still, one truth drives us.

He is the key to our survival.

Blinking, I process the voices swirling in my head as if I am part of some kind of omniscient hive mind. Who am I? The pain at the base of my skull explodes again, and all I know as the commands in my head pulse with liquid fire is that I need to reach him. He is our target.

But before I can get there, the girl twists into a side lunge and darts between us. Her eyes are so brilliant, piercing right through me—the human part of me—and I freeze. For a second, a phantom echo of a heartbeat pulses its way out of my chest.

“Escort my father out,” she says firmly to the remaining Vectors. “That is a direct order from your commanding officer.”

“No—” Danton snaps.

“Now.”

Her eyes are hard. As much as she might fear him, she doesn’t give in. The human part of me understands that he has hurt her terribly in the past. I see it in the set of her jaw, in the rigid slope of her shoulders, shielding her from his latest machinations.

She’s only a girl—a fierce one—but still a girl. And though I may be a pawn in a game that’s bigger than both of us, I want to help her. But even as I think that, the programming blasts along my veins, demanding that I fulfill my purpose. It burrows into that spot at the top of my spine to enforce its demands with agonizing beats of pain.

No, I will it, forcing it into quiet submission. The heartbeat I’d imagined strengthens. I know who I am. I am Reck Dorn. I am a soldier. And I am still here.

“Out. Now!” General Riven shouts. Without a second glance, the two Vectors grasp the man’s arm and remove him from the room. He’s livid, but proud, too, a brief emotional burst that’s eclipsed by fury. The door slides shut, leaving me alone with the general.

For a moment, I wonder at the odd relationship between the father and the daughter—as if she is some kind of creation that he is inordinately proud of, and yet despises in the same breath.

His daughter, the feared and respected general.

Defying him.

If I were alive, I’d laugh at the absurdity of it.

But I’m still alive, aren’t I? The phantom heartbeat flickers again like some kind of strange ignition, firing into my neural connectors. Despite the programming slamming into me on all sides, I feel human. I’m something more than someone else has decided I should be. The synapses in my brain fuse together, strengthening the existence of some emotional cognition not yet forgotten. Perhaps I am not yet dead.

Like an artificial pacemaker, I will my ghostlike heartbeat to reappear, and it does—beating silently, but rhythmically—forcing the abnormal Reptilian nature frothing within me into a pocket. I stare at the girl, silencing the pain in my skull to a near whisper. I can do that now, I realize. After all, I am dead. And pain is nothing.

Pain is nothing.

I am more than what they have made me.

The seconds tick by and I count them as silent throbs in my chest. They’re just markers of time—beat by tenuous beat, moment by moment. I’m not exactly sure how much time I have, but it feels like I have control over myself once more, no matter how fleeting it may be.

I am Reck Dorn. I am a soldier of Neospes.

I am me.

“Help you,” I manage to say, though my tongue is thick and unwieldy.

“Dorn?” The girl’s eyes are like the sun on a winter’s morning—bright, unerring, and intense. I bask in the light of them, remembering how it feels to have sunlight on my face, how it feels to know that someone won’t forget who you were . . . who you are. Despite what she knows I’ve become, she doesn’t loathe me.

“Yes.” I force my hands to turn palm up, a gesture of compliance—not that I need to. I want her to know that I’m here, despite how I may appear. If possible, her eyes flare even brighter. I wonder at the otherworldly shimmer of them. Or why she has no fear of what I have become.

“Captain Dorn,” she says gently, crouching next to me. “What is your mission?”

“To secure the target.”

“Which target?”

“The man,” I say with numb, uncooperative lips. A new flurry of orders surges in my brain, commanding me to silence any answers to the general. They are listening—those that have twisted me—from deep behind my eyes, the signals transmitting information like electricity. But they do not control me. Trying to resist, I clench my teeth together so tightly, I can feel them fracturing along my jawline. “Father . . . is . . . key.”

“The key to what?” Her voice sounds urgent but unsurprised, as if she has guessed what the man is capable of—that he will conspire with his enemy to satisfy his own desires.

“Coding . . . tech.”

“Artificial geneto-robotic technology?” Her eyes widen in delayed understanding as she answers her own question. “Reptile with human pairing.”

Wireless commands fly like lasers as fast as I can process them, ordering me to shut down. The agony is lava-like, pouring through me—punishing—but I won’t go down without a fight. I can’t. My teeth fracture inside my mouth and I can only nod in answer to the general, swallowing shards of hard white fragments even as my eyes roll back in their sockets.

“Thank you,” she says, her fingers trailing along the side of my temple. I flinch, but they are unexpectedly tender, as is her voice. “Somehow, you’re still in there, aren’t you, Dorn? How is that possible?” she murmurs. “If you were truly a Reptile, you would have fought me to the death. Something inside of you is alive, fighting against any artificial programming.”

“Imsorry—” I slur raggedly. It’s the only phrase my lips can form. I don’t know if I’ve even made a coherent sound, but she knows what I mean. Her eyes flare a little. My own burn with an emotion long forgotten, the traces of something lost years ago in the Outers where Captain Dorn died.

“We’ll fix you, don’t worry. I’ll find a way.”

But I know she doesn’t believe the words any more than I do. I’m a goner. Already I can feel the programming overriding the conscious fragments of my fading humanity despite my renewed efforts to resist it. It won’t be long now. I am their instrument. Their weapon.

“Isstoolate.”

“No, it’s not. My father will fix—”

My eyes close. “Hedid . . . it.”

 

 

Part III: Sins of the Father

 

The girl rocks onto her heels stunned, my words worse than any weapons. My claw-fixed fingers reach over to touch hers. Despite the rigid leader I know her to be, her sudden vulnerability ignites my waning compassion. I want to comfort her but don’t know how. I’m not a father or a brother. I’m a boy myself.

A dying boy.

A dead boy.

Not yet! My lips crack open and I find her eyes once more.

“Dorn?”

“You,” I grit through the thickness weighing down my tongue. “Kill me.” A mouthful of some foul fluid—a mixture of clotted blood and saliva—seeps into my mouth, but I blubber past it, “While me.” She nods, her face stricken. “Kill it,” I whimper through the wet froth on my lips, “before . . . hurt you.”

“It? Who?” she whispers, leaning in. Raising my arm, I grab the blue and silver brain hanging down from her hair, jerking it tightly in my grasp so that her face is nearly pressed to my cheek.

“Him. Tech.”

“My father?”

I nod, feeling the last remaining neurons in my head failing like dimming stars. I don’t have much longer. The ones who created me would have me dead rather than hand over any intelligence that could be used against them. I can feel the poison from the chip they’ve implanted starting to leach into me, demolishing any vulnerable organic material.

“What tech? Reptile tech? How? Dorn,” she says more urgently. “How?”

“S . . . sorry,” I whimper, the half sounds becoming static cries of pain. “Kill. It. You. Tech.”

She nods, her eyes fierce, and I can only hope that she understands what I’m saying. “I will make this right, Dorn. I will. I promise you that.”

“Do it,” I choke out.

She raises her hand, one of her short curved swords in her fist, and I close my eyes waiting for the final merciful strike.

But it never comes.

Instead, the door hisses open on its seamless hinges as a small army of Vectors surges in. The alarms are cacophonic, filling the room with shrieks and a flurry of activity. “Secure General Riven,” a man’s voice commands, muffled by a plastic mask. “Her security is compromised. Her life is in danger. Do it now!”

Out of the corner of my eye, the general is swept away from me in seconds. One of the Vectors slips a clear mask over her face. “No!” she shouts, flailing against the dead but resilient arms holding her and dragging her away. “STAND DOWN!”

But the Vectors don’t listen, pulling her farther away with each step as the man watches in triumph through his mask. He has won, I realize dully. The general’s life is tantamount, and her father has returned with a clever and calculating strategy. If her life is at risk, the Vectors are programmed to protect her, even from herself.

“Code Twelve,” the man barks in an insidious tone, confirming my guess. “Don’t struggle, Riven. It’s designed to protect you and to override all other orders. Your life is in danger from this traitor.”

“He’s not a traitor,” she snaps. Her fingers dig at the mask on her face. “You’re the traitor.”

Her father’s smile is oily. “So says the deadly nerve gas his body secreted a few seconds ago. Leave the mask alone or you’ll die.”

“What? No, there’s no gas.”

“Isn’t there?”

“Dorn?” Her eyes meet mine across the cold silence. I let the truth of it surface in them so that she understands, and I watch her hands slowly flutter down to her sides. The nerve gas I’d released a second ago would have been quick and painless. She would have died just as I would have once she destroyed me. Neither of us would have been turned into monsters.

At least she would have been safe. I would have protected her. I could have.

If it weren’t for him.

I lunge forward in a demented rage, crawling forward on arms fueled by fire, unimpeded by the legs that no longer support my body. The man is ready for me. He crouches down to meet me, his fist crunching into what is left of my face, and smiles. It’s a callous smile—one that tells me in no uncertain terms who the victor is.

It’s not him. It will never be him.

A single whimper seeps out of the corner of my mouth like a wraith . . . the last drop of what’s left of Captain Dorn. The man’s hand brushes across my clammy forehead, catching the hot bead against his fingertip and erasing its existence. His grin widens in gruesome delight, as if he’s taking pleasure in crushing the last bit of mortality from me.

“Don’t fight it,” he whispers.

Reaching around the base of my neck, he digs into the ragged flesh there without hesitation. I see the barest flash of silver—a disc that he pockets—just as a shock of electricity surges through my body. Looking down to his other hand, I see that he is holding the Vector’s fallen electro-rod from earlier.

It’s set to liquefy.

“Curious that his humanity almost circumvented the programming,” he whispers so no one else will hear, leaning down to peer deep into my eyes and ignoring my slurred words. He’s not speaking to me, I realize, but to the ones who have built me. “I will need time to restructure the coding. You have completed your part of the bargain as agreed.”

A cloud of static fills my mind as if there’s some kind of transmission wiring tripping in my ear, and then there’s only emptiness and the bits of me that used to be. My remote hosts are gone—having fulfilled whatever vile agreement they’d had with the man. For a second, I wonder what he would have promised them in exchange for their technology.

“Danton, stop,” the general shouts from behind us, her tone pleading. In my last moments of lucidity, I understand that she’s begging for me just as I had for her. “Please. It needs to be interrogated. Dorn is in there. I spoke to him.”

“Whatever he is, he tried to kill you, Riven,” Danton says loudly, thrusting the weapon forward. “The punishment for dissension is death.”

“It was the programming. You can help him.”

But it’s too late. I am a liability—the only one who knows the truth, and if he has his way, the truth will die with me. Quinn initiates the spark on the electro-rod.

A sweep of gut-wrenching fire rips through me like a storm, mercifully taking with it every single bit of pain. And in the silence . . . those precious few seconds between the few cells firing in my brain, fighting for life, I find clarity.

I stare at the girl, seeing more emotion on that face than I’ve ever seen in all the years I’ve known her. I want to tell her that it’s going to be okay, that she’ll overcome whatever is coming around the corner. But I can’t.

Because it’d be a lie.

With what the man is planning, there’s no hope for any of them. Not even her.

Especially her.

The blood slows beneath my clammy-cold skin for the last time, shocked into final stillness from the inexorable bolt of the electro-rod. The robotic programming in my brain seizes in response, its internal wiring melting like the all-too-fragile decayed human cells inside my body.

And Reck Dorn is nearly gone.

But I hold out, focusing on the girl-general’s face and the sound of her voice. She believes in me. She sees me as I am. As I was. I hold on to the vision of her eyes—the pale blue light behind them telling me that I’m not alone.

My lids drift closed, the artificial life seeping from my already inert body, taking with it the few facts about myself I remember—the ones I cling to with the very fabric of my being—the parts that makes me so unequivocally human, and so not them.

I am strong. I am worthy. I am human.

I am a soldier.

My name is


The Riven Chronicles:

The Almost Girl by Amalie Howard

9781510701717-frontcoverSeventeen-year-old Riven comes from a world parallel to Earth, a world that has been ravaged by a devastating android war. As a Legion General, she is the right hand of Prince Cale, the young Prince of Neospes. In her world, she’s had everything: rank, responsibility, and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to rescue his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.

Armed with the mindset of a soldier and racing against time to bring Caden home, Riven must learn how to blend in as a girl in a realm that is the opposite of all she’s ever known. Will she be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?

The Fallen Prince by Amalie Howard

9781510701700-frontcoverRiven has fought for a hard-won peace in her world, and has come to shaky terms with who and what she is—a human with cyborg DNA. Now that the rightful ruler of Neospes has been reinstated, Riven is on the hunt for her father in the Otherworld to bring him to justice for his crimes against her people.

But when she receives an unwelcome visit from two former allies, she knows that trouble is brewing once again in Neospes. The army has been decimated and there are precious few left to fight this mysterious new threat.

To muster a first line of defense, her people need help from the one person Riven loathes most—her father. But what he wants in return is her complete surrender.

And now Riven must choose: save Neospes or save herself.

Continue Reading

Amalie Howard Interviews Editorial Director, Julie Matysik

The process of taking a book from acquisition to publication is different for every book. What remains a constant in the process (or at least in Sky Pony Press’s experience!) is the presence of both an author and an editor to facilitate the process of turning a manuscript into a printed book. Julie Matysik, Sky Pony’s editorial director, has worked with many authors over the years. Amalie Howard, a Sky Pony author, stepped in to interview Julie and get some insight about what it’s like to be an editor at Sky Pony Press.

Howard, Amalie - Alpha Goddess
Sky Pony author, Amalie Howard

Amalie Howard is the award-winning IndieNext author of Alpha Goddess, the Aquarathi series, and the Cruentus Curse series. Her debut novel, Bloodspell, was an Amazon bestseller and a Seventeen Summer Read.

Amalie Howard’s books:

9781626362086-frontcover
Alpha Goddess by Amalie Howard, 2014
9781510701717-frontcover
The Almost Girl by Amalie Howard, March 2016
9781510701700-frontcover
The Fallen Prince by Amalie Howard, April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amalie Howard Interviews Julie Matysik:

Julie Matysik is the wonderful editorial director of children’s and education publishing at Skyhorse Publishing, and we are here to celebrate the inaugural launch of the fantastic Sky Pony Press blog! I was so honored to have been asked to conduct this interview. Not only do I adore Julie on a personal level, but on the professional side of things, she is also a tireless, talented, and driven editor whom I greatly admire.

5491_583475165782_5405296_n
Julie’s first desk at Skyhorse’s previous office space, 2009.

As editorial director, Julie oversees acquisitions for Sky Pony Press, Skyhorse’s children’s imprint, and manages the Education category titles across the board. She acquires new and licensed titles for Sky Pony and handles manuscripts through all stages of production for the publication process.

Now on to the interview:

Amalie: Hi, Julie! You’ve been with Sky Pony from its inception, helping to launch the children’s imprint from day one. What inspired you to become an editor, children’s in particular?

Julie: Like many people in publishing, I have had a love of books and reading all of my life. In high school, I was that introspective kid who visited the library in the summer between grades and read every book on college reading lists and things like that. So when I went to college, I decided to major in English because, well, I would be able to read a lot. But I guess I had never really thought about how books came to be—probably because I was a bit of a book snob and would only read the “classics” or “tried and true” books recommended to me by college professors and didn’t think of publishing as a current industry. But as graduation drew nearer, I realized I didn’t know what to do with my English major. I met with a professor in the English department who suggested I take her Intro to Editing and Publishing course and that’s when it first dawned on me that I could work on books. What a novel concept! So after a few years teaching abroad and at a preschool in the Midwest, I moved to NYC and started to pursue a career in publishing. Becoming a children’s editor, however, fell into my lap somewhat, though I had toyed with the idea of working on children’s books when I first applied for jobs. When Skyhorse’s publisher decided to start a children’s imprint (this was after two years of my working at the company on adult nonfiction titles), I was happy to transition to a new focus. Everything sort of grew from that moment rather organically. And I’ve never wanted to look back.

A: That sounds like a match made in heaven to me. It’s awesome when you get to do something you love. So, how many years have you been involved in publishing, and what are some of your titles?

J: I’ve been working in publishing for seven years. I started as an intern/part-time assistant at a small boutique literary agency and then was hired as an intern and then editorial assistant at Skyhorse in early 2009. I’ve worked on so many books while at Skyhorse (you should see the index cards I keep for each book in my desk drawer!) so it’s hard to pick just a few titles. Focusing on the children’s list, I’ve acquired and edited author/illustrator Iza Trapani’s nursery rhyme books The Bear Went Over the Mountain and Little Miss Muffet; Beth Vrabel’s Pack of Dork series titles as well as A Blind Guide to Stinkville; Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones’s Gorillas in Our Midst (the first Sky Pony picture book to be picked up by the mass merch accounts); and, of course, your Indie Next Pick, Alpha Goddess.

A: That’s cool that you keep index cards for each book. It must be such a rewarding feeling, knowing that you’ve made so many author dreams come true. Including mine! As you know, I love being a Sky Pony author, but from your perspective, what makes working with Sky Pony so different?

J: Sky Pony takes a lot of the principals that our publisher, Tony Lyons, has set up for our parent company, Skyhorse, and puts them to great practice. We aren’t a huge imprint or publisher and we know that we can’t always compete in certain areas with the bigger houses. But we love seeking out those special authors and stories that deserve to be published. We aren’t afraid to take chances on authors and books that have been rejected by larger publishers because they were too “exotic” or not “commercial” enough. We are a forward-thinking publisher who isn’t too rooted in any one way of doing things. And we have such a small committed staff who loves what they do and who champion each book on our list. Sky Pony really does feel like a family in many ways, and I hope that feeling extends to our authors and the agents we work with.

Two Sky Pony Press picture books made it into the New York Times! Woot!
Two Sky Pony Press picture books made it into the New York Times! Woot!

A: Sky Pony absolutely does feel like a family, I agree, and having been one of those acquisitions those other publishers thought was too exotic, I am so happy that you give those kinds of books a home. Despite not being a huge imprint as you say, Skyhorse Publishing has had amazing growth over the past few years. What do you attribute this to, and what we can expect from Sky Pony in the coming months?

J: One word: Minecraft. Haha. But in all seriousness, our novelizations for Minecraft fans have opened incredible doors for Sky Pony, not only in the trade but also in the specialty and mass merch retailers. Sky Pony used to be a small imprint that very few people in and outside of the industry knew. We were publishing incredible books but still trying to find our footing in the market. Then along came this crazy little game called Minecraft and our novels for Minecraft fans and boom! Sky Pony books were everywhere, in large quantities. This has opened up the door for all of our amazing authors and books and we’ve seen an incredible rise in sales and distribution.

Sky Pony has some really exciting things coming up in the next few months, including starting a line of chapter books written by New York Times bestselling author Nancy Krulik and her daughter Amanda Burwaser. And you can bet that we’ll be on the lookout of the next big “trend” in kid’s books as well.

] Drowning in thank-you cards from a bunch of fourth-grade Minecraft fans!
Drowning in thank-you cards from a bunch of fourth-grade Minecraft fans!

A: That sounds awesome. My three children are addicted to Minecraft, so that’s not surprising, and they adore their Sky Pony Minecraft books. So, let’s talk about the editing side of things. In your opinion, what makes a good editor?

J: That’s a hard question to answer, actually. I likely edit differently from my colleagues, but I don’t think that makes one of us better or worse than the other. In general, I do think an editor has to be impassioned about the project she or he takes on—to really connect with the story, the characters, the voice, and the author. An editor must be the author’s advocate within the publishing house and work tirelessly to make sure her or his voice is heard. I believe a good editor works collaboratively with authors and doesn’t just tell them to “do something this way” or else. An editor should be willing and able to adapt to the author and story that she is working on at any given moment, knowing that the next book she edits might be a completely different process than the previous one. And that’s okay.

A: Wow, it sounds like you wear a lot of different hats and have to be flexible in your process, depending on changing needs. I can personally attest that you have been a wonderful advocate for me. What do editors look for in both authors and submissions?

J: Personally as an editor, I look for an author who clearly wants to be published but who isn’t afraid of being edited. I want someone who feels comfortable working with me and who is willing to accept that her or his manuscript may need some extensive revisions and fine tuning. I don’t want an author who thinks her or his book is perfect as is without any editorial insight. In terms of submissions, I want a manuscript that is engaging, that has a great sense of place and characters, and that treats both major and minor characters as important and integral to the storytelling.

A: I think that’s the beauty of a having a good editor—one who can see potential in the bones of something that may need work. And, of course, an author who is willing to work toward that shared vision to make that book the best it can be. What kind of fiction do you primarily acquire?

J: Since Sky Pony has recently grown to include five editorial staff members, I’m acquiring less fiction than I once did. But for the few novels I am acquiring, I look for stories that have a good dose of diversity, that explore “issues,” and that are set more in a contemporary space, though that’s not always the case (as you know with Alpha Goddess and other books you’ve published with Sky Pony).

A: Contemporary does seem to be a hot button these days, but glad to hear you are open to others and still occasionally acquiring! When you open a manuscript, what do you hope for in the first few pages?

J: I want a killer first sentence—a sentence that is going to propel me to the next and then the next. And that doesn’t mean I need intense action right up front; rather, I want something that pulls at my very core and gets me engaged to want to keep moving forward with the book. I want a first sentence or two that sticks with me throughout the rest of the story. Then, beyond that, I want to become almost instantly invested in at least one character—main or not.

A: I could write an essay on fabulous first sentences, so I hear you. There’s nothing better than that first powerful sentence that just hooks into you. So, let’s talk books. What are some subjects or some styles that you don’t see tackled often, and what would you like to see more of?

J: Fortunately, I think the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign has opened a number of doors for writers who are tackling difficult subjects, who are writing about people who are marginalized in our society, and all that. Those are the books that I’m most drawn to and love seeing more of. I think you know this about me, given our history of working on your Rama and Sita retelling, but I think bringing more stories from the East into the Western market is something that I’m still not seeing a lot of, but would like to. In picture books, I want to see more stories where the main character can be a person of color or different ethnicity without the story having to be necessarily written with that in mind.

A: Yes! I love that you’re drawn to more nontraditional ideas and was so grateful that you saw something special in my Ramayana reimagining. Writers of all walks are no longer afraid to tackle complex subjects and are trying to incorporate more diversity in their works, so it’s fantastic to hear that you are actively looking for that. So say an editor falls in love with a manuscript and takes it to the acquisitions board for approval, why/how/when could a prospective manuscript be turned down during the acquisitions process?

J: This is one of my least favorite things about the job. A manuscript can be turned down at acquisitions for a number of reasons: 1) sales may not think the book will be successfully sold or won’t have a large enough market; 2) it may come to light through a meeting that a book is too similar to another book already published; or 3) the publisher or others making these decisions may just simply not like the concept or the comparable title sales figures. Turning down a manuscript might happen at any stage—early on after an editor reads the first 20 pages, or when an editor discussed the concept with fellow editors or the editorial director, or at acquisitions meetings.

A: I can see how that would be difficult. Rejection is rough on both ends. Once a manuscript passes the internal approval stages, could you briefly explain what an author can expect once his or her novel has been contracted for publication?

J: Every publishing house has its own timeline and processes, but generally, an author can expect to start working with an editor on either larger conceptual edits or line edits or both after a book has been contracted for publication and the manuscript officially delivered. An author will be involved in the cover design process (seeing comps and probably hating many of them until finding that perfect gem, or loving one comp right up front, only to be told that the sales team or a buyer has asked for a completely new design). An author will likely have a back-and-forth dialogue with her/his editor regarding the edits and will be reading and re-reading the manuscript in many different forms (manuscript, copy edited manuscript, and typeset pages) before the book is finally submitted to press. It can be a whirlwind process or a slow and, sometimes daunting, journey, depending on scheduling and the amount of work the manuscript needs.

A: Ah yes, I remember getting my cover concept for Alpha Goddess and absolutely falling in love with it. I’m a big fan of revisions and getting on the same page with my editor to hone a book into something even better than what I’d submitted. Speaking of revisions, on your end, what is the hardest element of editing a newly acquired manuscript?

Amalie and Julie at the launch party for Alpha Goddess in Larchmont, NY.
Amalie and Julie at the launch party for Alpha Goddess in Larchmont, NY.

J: Getting started. Editing a book, for me, is like sitting down to compose an essay for a college course. Your head if full of ideas, but it’s hard to get everything in order, to find that perfect way to begin. That’s what’s hard for me on every single manuscript that I acquire and start working on. But once I get over that first or second page, then I’m usually good to go!

A: Much the same for us writers! Getting started is always the hard part. What are some of the common misconceptions about the editing process?

J: That editors are only going to line edit for grammar and usage. Sometimes a manuscript is quite clean and that’s the bulk of what editors end up doing. But most times, editors will be pointing out inconsistencies in plot or characterization, will be making suggestions for major cuts, additions, or shuffling around of scenes to make the book more cohesive, and will be picking apart or suggesting sentence rewrites on almost every page. Be prepared to get your manuscript back with a lot of tracked changes and different colors. But don’t be scared!

A: Yes, all those tracked changes can be daunting, but once you start working through them, it becomes easier. Deep breaths and one page at a time, I say! Overall, what do you like best/least about being a children’s book editor?

J: I love coming to work or sitting at my kitchen table at home and allowing myself to enter the mind of a child or young reader and to get a bit lost in that part of myself that still remembers what it was like when books were full of pictures and when reading independently felt invigorating (like getting your driver’s license at sixteen). That’s what I love the most.

What do I love least? Having to send rejection letters to children’s authors. They are all so sweet and seem to get dejected much easier than adult authors (though I could be generalizing, so my apologies).

A: I love that escapism, too, and I can see how saying no to someone would be tough. I don’t envy you that part. Let’s talk about something nicer. What are some of your favorite books (that you have not edited)?

J: You’ll laugh, because I actually read a lot of adult books outside of publishing children’s books, so most of my favorites are adult fiction or nonfiction. But some of my favorite kid’s books that I haven’t edited are Hot Jazz Special by Jonny Hannah, Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats, A Story, a Story by Gail E. Haley, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.

A: That’s not surprising given you are such a devoted lover of books, and I’m only laughing because you tell me I have minions in my basement, but it sounds like you have the same—little book reading clones. What fantastic choices! I haven’t read a couple of those, so I’m excited to check them out. Before I let you go, let’s talk big picture. What changes over the years do see as positive for the publishing industry? And are there any changes that concern you?

J: I think the fact that more diverse books are being written and published for children is a huge plus for the industry. I think the industry has stopped its fear mongering about ebooks and how they’ll be the death of the industry—that’s clearly not been the case. But I am concerned about the closing of bookstores, both large and small. Shopping for books online just doesn’t provide the same experience as going into a store, touching a cover, feeling the weight of the book in your hands, and paging through a book’s contents to see if it might be the perfect read for you or someone you love. I’m not sure what the closing of bookstores means for the industry, but I have to believe that people will keep reading—and authors will keep needing editors.

A: Thanks for sharing your insight. I agree that the growth of diverse books is a wonderful plus, and I firmly believe that authors will always need good editors. I’ve honed my writing skills since my first book, but nothing will replace the contribution of a smart editor. So, last question: what kind of content can we expect to see moving forward on the Sky Pony blog?

J: We have a lot of great stuff planned for Sky Pony Express! We’ll have days dedicated to picture books, middle grade, and young adult books; we’ll have posts about the Sky Pony team and the inner-workings of the imprint; we’ll have guest posts from authors, Sky Pony staffers, and possibly other industry people; we’ll have giveaways; we’ll have #tbt posts; and we’d love to hear from readers of the blog what they’d like to see happening here. It’s an evolving process and one that we want our whole Sky Pony extended family to feel connected to and a part of in some way.

A: I adore the name! Sky Pony Express sounds so fun! Julie, thank you for your time, and readers, please feel free to share your comments and thoughts below. We would love to hear from you. Thank you so much, and happy reading!

Continue Reading