I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading fantasy novels inspired by Russian mythology with books like The Bear and the Nightingale and Deathless. But there is a lot more to explore of Russian culture and history through an SFF lense! Corry L. Lee uses Russian political history as inspiration for the fascist state in her debut novel, Weave the Lightning.
Magic. Propaganda. Treason. Circus… if that doesn’t sound intriguing, I don’t know what will!
Weave the Lightning will be available in bookstores April 2 (UK), April 7 (US) 2020.
Historical fantasy with a hint of romance isn’t the most obvious choice for a particle physicist! What inspired you to write Weave the Lightning? Did you want to write historical fantasy or did the story develop on its own and fit that sub-genre?
Haha, for sure. When I mention the Ph.D., people are always like “you should write hard SF!” I probably will eventually, but when developing Weave the Lightning, that seemed too much like “real work.”
So I decided to write fantasy. Ever a scientist, however, well-defined magic systems like I was reading from Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks really appealed to me. I wanted quasi-scientific rules for (how people think) magic works, but also—avoiding “real work”—for that magic to be entwined with the mage’s emotional life.
I also wanted deep-rooted equality around gender and sexual orientation. So often badass female and queer characters in fiction have to rail against the same heteronormative patriarchy that overshadows our real life—talk about exhausting work. If magic doesn’t discriminate, why should society?
For good measure, I threw in some trains. And some kissing. When people don’t have magic, they develop technology. I find the influence of magic on technology and vice versa fascinating. And kissing is just fun.
So… Russian-flavored fascism, magic from lightning, 1910s era tech, and kick-ass women and queer characters in a society that simply accepts that they can be awesome… who needs particle physics?
The use and control of powerful magic is core to your novel. Why did you want to explore the dangers of uncontrolled power in this way?
I love being in control, knowing I’ve got this. But often, I don’t. Or I’m not sure. Or someone (maybe me) is expecting something huge, and it’s stressful.
Now imagine that feeling, but you’re about to be hit by lightning. In fact, you have to be hit by lightning because the secret police are ready to shoot you if you don’t transform that lightning into magical weapons.
Learning to be good at anything involves failure, yet failure is often glossed over in our genre of “Chosen Ones” who are the best at arcane skills with little-to-no training. But failure has not just a personal emotional cost (what does this failure mean to you and your concept of self?), but it can have severe physical/psychological ramifications if you’re talking about magic. I wanted to explore that. I wanted badass young people who thought they were going to be amazing the first time they handled magic to discover it wasn’t that easy. I wanted consequences. And I wanted them to pick themselves back up and rebuild after failure.
Because we have a choice after we fail. We can blame someone else. We can quit. We can lower our gaze and stop trying to carve a new path. Or we can learn—become better, stronger, wiser. What makes a person stand back up? What makes a person run away? And how do you know when you should do one versus the other?
Science and magic are often set at odds, do you think there’s space for only one?
Science, at its core, is about understanding our world, our universe, ourselves. If magic is a part of that world, then science just expanded its definition.
That said, the two don’t always coexist amicably. Some types of magic break (our world’s) physical laws like children stomping through sandcastles. Is that bad? Not necessarily. Other types of magic rigorously account for conservation of mass (or other physical laws). Is that good? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on your audience and the story you’re telling.
If I’m reading urban fantasy and the romantic lead turns into a bat for some leathery-winged sexy-times, I don’t care where that extra mass went (that example got a little weird, but roll with me here). If you interrupt the action to explain, you’ll likely lose me as a reader. If, on the other hand, you’ve set up that matter is absolutely conserved and then someone gets magicked into a tiny bat in the heat of battle, I’m going to be on the edge of my seat wondering where the rest of her just went. If I don’t find out, or if it doesn’t matter to the story, I’ll be disappointed.
But what about applying science to magic? As you may have guessed, I think that looking at magic through a scientific lens is brilliant and something we don’t see enough. Humanity’s propensity to ask “why?” makes us great. (Unless you’re the parent of a 2-year-old, then all I have is a solidarity fist bump.) We strive to make sense of our world then use what we learn to make our lives easier. That’s science and engineering, hand-in-hand.
So, heck yeah, if there’s magic, we’re going to study it. We’re going to come up with theories. We’re going to use it to solve practical problems like ending famine, communicating across distance, and making it so women don’t have freaking periods and cramps and unwanted pregnancies.
Science and magic don’t have to be best friends, but why wouldn’t they be?
Stories of resistance – of the underdogs fighting back against oppressive empires – have long been a staple of genre fiction. Why does this continue to be so compelling for readers?
Fighting the evil empire and winning? That’s hope.
Hope is powerful. It drives us to be better, to look fear in the eyes and say “I won’t let you stop me.” Hope reminds us that even if things suck, we can still fight. And maybe we’ll win.
We may not be fighting fascist dictators and the secret police in our daily lives. But whether we’re punching a glass ceiling because of our gender, struggling to get ahead despite systemic racism, trying to shrug off daily microaggressions that say the way we love is not okay… or even if someone just cut us off in traffic, we all have things we’re fighting against.
To see the underdogs win—or even just stand back up after they’ve been beaten down—that feels good.
Why should we read Weave the Lightning? Pitch us the book!
Come for the travelling circus, for the rich Russian-inspired world, for the lightning magic…
Stay for the flawed, perfect, struggling characters finding a way to hope and fight and love despite a world stacked against them.
Corry L. Lee is a science fiction and fantasy author, Ph.D. physicist, award-winning science teacher, data geek, and mom. In Ph.D. research at Harvard, she shed light on the universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang. At Amazon, she connected science to technology, improving the customer experience through online experimentation. She’s currently obsessed with nordic skiing, yoga, and coffee. A transplant to Seattle, Washington from sunny Colorado, she is learning to embrace rainy days. Learn more at www.corrylee.com