Sunday, March 8, 2015

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A Tale of Two Sci-Fi Romance Heroines


In: sci-fi romance space convict heroines

I was on Twitter the other day and happened upon a discussion about BREAKOUT, the forthcoming book in Ann Aguirre's Dred Chronicles. The readers expressed their enjoyment of the series and indicated a desire for similar fare. For example:

[edited to remove links per request]

"We need more like this!"
"Exactly! And more HEROINES like Dred, too!"

Well! That's exciting to hear. I'm also a fan of heroines like Dred and have read the first two books in the Dred Chronicles series. SFRs with space penitentiary settings and those that feature a heroine in charge of the place are few and far between, so I was glad to see one get released. I've also blogged about kick-ass heroines in SFR multiple times, the most recently being in this post.

Separated at birth?

Plus, I wrote two books with such heroines. One of them, in fact, has a lot in common with Dred. The stories are different, but share a few similar elements. So you can see for yourself, I'm presenting some of them below (Alert: this post includes *major* spoilers for both books).


* My book, QUEENIE'S BRIGADE (2011, Red Sage Publishing), stars Queenie, a Latina heroine who's the leader of an abandoned space penitentiary.

Ann Aguirre's book, PERDITION (2013, ACE), stars Dred, the leader of a semi-abandoned space penitentiary.

* Both stories feature ragtag groups of unlikely heroes--namely, convicts. (I've described QB as "The Dirty Dozen in Space." Ms. Aguirre has shared that PERDITION was pitched as "Prison Break in space").

* Both feature kick-ass heroines who do whatever is necessary to protect their people.

* In QB, the heroine's name is Queenie. In PERDITION, the heroine is known as the "Dread Queen." Hero Jael calls Dred "queenie" multiple times.

* In both books, the heroine confronts a group of traitors while they're playing cards.

[please note: bolded passages indicate italicized content]

QUEENIE'S BRIGADE: 


There—at the four-seat steel pedestal table nearest the left hand wall. Three of the seats were occupied. Queenie ambled over and claimed the fourth.
“Hello, boys,” she murmured, casually lacing her fingers together in front of her.
All three murmured a greeting in response. She quickly scanned the remains of a meal and the worn hand of cards each of them held, but none seemed to be really playing. She knew this because she had watched them from afar for several minutes before making her move. They’d appeared deep in conversation. The cards were props, ones meant to deceive.
She was very familiar with these men: Eberto, Brayden, and a towering, heavyset man who had only ever been known as Jackass. Of all the former gang leaders she’d had to subdue, these three were the most cunning, and had held out the longest. Were they up to their old habits again?
“Want me to deal you in?” Eberto asked, scratching at his tattooed cheek.
Queenie stretched languorously for a moment before shaking her head. “No. I just came by to issue a friendly warning.”
Eberto kept his even gaze on Queenie, but in her peripheral vision she noticed the other two exchange quick, concerned glances.
Eberto cocked a brow. “So why not announce it at a general meeting?”
Ah, so it was your idea, she thought. “Because my warning is reserved for back stabbing sons of bitches.” She narrowed her eyes. “The military ship is mine to command as I see fit. No one else is qualified for the position. Especially no one at this table.”
Beside her, the dark-skinned Brayden scowled. “Queenie, I don’t know what you’re talking about. We didn’t do shit.”
Her voice dropped to a growl as she jumped to her feet. “You’re going to lie about it, too?”
Brayden threw aside his cards and glared at her. “I’m not fucking lying!” For emphasis, he slammed both palms flat on the table, loudly enough to draw the attention of everyone else in the room.
Before he could react further, Queenie whipped out two daggers and drove both of them deeply into his hands. Blood oozed out thickly, but she held fast. “Yes, you are. I can always tell. Your eyes dart left and down—just like they did a second ago,” she hissed, her voice carrying far and wide in the now-silent room. She gave both daggers a sharp twist. More blood spilled out onto the table’s surface. She pinned each man briefly with a penetrating stare. “Now, are you ready to behave?”
Gritting his teeth in pain, Brayden nodded. Jackass followed suit, his face peppered with sweat. Eberto shrugged in resignation. Even if Queenie had been wrong about their plan to steal the ship from her, they had been planning something.
These people were convicts, not saints, and patience was an infrequent visitor to their neighborhood. They demanded action, and if she were going to survive the exodus, she had to give it to them.
She stared hard at the daggers embedded in Brayden’s hands. Even if the action wasn’t exactly what they were expecting.
Queenie extracted the daggers with a flourish, and then wiped them off using Eberto’s sleeve. “Send the cleaning bill to my accountant,” she said while sheathing them. She concluded her performance by blowing them all a mock kiss.
Queenie left without looking back. If someone jumped her—and it wouldn’t be the first time—she was prepared to fight. But no one did. Gradually, the activity resumed. Conversation flowed again. The sounds faded as she exited, heading into the rest of the compound to finish her patrol.

***

PERDITION:

Dred and Jael approach the suspects (Jael's POV):
They stopped their card game at his approach, eyeing him.
"We're full," one of them said. He was the biggest of the bunch, with a shock of dark hair and two deep set eyes. A scar meandered down his left cheek…
Dred and Jael confront the card players about their duplicity. Dred then passes her judgment:


"I find all four of you guilty," she whispered.
Before they could react, she vaulted onto the table, leaving her legs vulnerable. They could've struck out at her; though Jael would've killed them too fast for her to come to harm, she couldn't have known for certain. It was pure bravado, an absolute statement of sovereignty…
…"Four traitors," she called in a ringing voice.
  Dred's loyal followers then proceed to kill the traitors. (pgs. 88-91)

* In both books, a secondary male character has unbreakable loyalty to the heroine and sacrifices his life for her.

* In both books, the climactic hand-to-hand fight scene involves the heroine killing the villain with a hidden dagger.

QUEENIE'S BRIGADE:
The crackle of energy burned past her left ear. Missed me, you son of a bitch! Deftly somersaulting forward, Queenie produced a hidden blade from her uniform. As she sprang back to her feet, she rammed it home into the Calithian’s unprotected chest. His weapon fell to the deck.

PERDITION:

From Jael's POV:
Incredibly, she was smiling. She slammed her chains toward the Great Bear, twirling them around his weapon, then she hauled with all her might. On another man, the move might've yanked the huge blade away from him, but instead, Grigor used his haft as a lever to haul the Dread Queen to him to drop the finishing blow. As the bardiche sank toward her skull, a slim knife stabbed upward through Grigor's chin, all the way into his brain. The giant staggered back--and the audience sucked in a collective, disbelieving breath. That was when Jael realized she'd dropped the chains a few seconds before; and when Grigor thought he was spinning her helplessly toward him, in fact, that dance of death was Dred's, and the measure ended with the clever spike of her hidden blade, the one she kept in her boot. (p. 316)
* In book two, HAVOC, one of the final battle scenes features a grudge match between Dred and the villain. They fight without armor. In QB, Queenie tricks the villain into fighting her without armor in order to level the playing field. These are some fierce, fearless heroines!

QUEENIE'S BRIGADE:


Even as the Calithian pointed his weapon in her direction, Queenie laughed wickedly. She tossed her guns and rifle aside. Her helmet followed, clattering upon the deck as it rolled away. Though Drake would undoubtedly have a shit fit, she removed her protective vest as well. Flung it behind her with a flourish.
Raising both hands, she challenged the Calithian commander to a physical engagement. Your head belongs to me. “C’mon,” she said, raising both fists. “I’m taking you down here and now!”
HAVOC:

Dred's POV:


But she had been looking forward to this moment since he arrived on station, talking about how he controlled the facility. Wrong, you bastard. This is my house.
"Armor off."
His men started to protest, but he waved them away, and there was an oddly ritual air as they stripped the plated segments and piled them nearby. (p. 265)
  ***

So how about that?! QUEENIE'S BRIGADE offers readers an SFR that features a Dred-like heroine and includes "…high octane action with freaking romance!".

It's nice having proof that the stories authors have been telling in the niche, digital-first realm of SFR are translating to mainstream print publishers and that readers are responding positively. That's already happened in droves with erotic romance, but this is one of the main instances I've seen with a specific type of SFR character and setting. In this case, ACE has basically declared a book about a convict heroine in charge of a space penitentiary who falls in love has *widespread* appeal.

Technology--particularly ebooks--has massively changed how many of us buy, consume, and discover stories. "E" may be the new paperback, but the stories themselves haven't changed much. In general, SFR stories in mainstream print books aren't better than their digital sisters, they're just packaged and distributed differently. (By packaging I mean covers. Let's assume a coherent story, good formatting, and at least basic editing are already in place.) Of course, therein lies the rub.

The impact of packaging

QUEENIE'S BRIGADE doesn't have the fancy packaging or wide distribution of Dred Chronicles, but the two stories have a few key elements in common. So if readers want more heroines like Dred, will they be willing to take a chance on books without expensive covers? 

This is one of the challenges that face SFR in general. Even if digital-first/small press/indie stories offer experiences similar to those in mainstream print, some (many?) readers may still forego a satisfying reading experience in order to wait until another Big 5 publisher releases a similar title. Let that sink in for a moment.

The packaging factor can't be underestimated. Big 5 Publishers pour big bucks into covers and marketing. Money talks and can help create instant validity in the minds of readers. Mainstream print distribution is also cultivated as a form of instant validity (particularly for debut books) even if there's no scientific proof to back it up.

Big 5 placement also impacts which books and authors are showcased in major blogs and magazines and which aren't. Therefore, I question packaging because in my experience with reading SFR, the amount of money a Big 5 publisher has is frequently the only factor differentiating their books from non-mainstream ones.

In the age of ebooks, how relevant is expensive packaging?

Lest we forget, Linnea Sinclair's FINDERS KEEPERS and an earlier version of GAMES OF COMMAND called COMMAND PERFORMANCE were originally released by small press publisher Novel Books, Inc., in 2002 and 2001, respectively.

Read this post at Bev's Books, which chronicles Bev's (a longtime romance reader) initial discovery of Linnea Sinclair's work when it first became available:
Next up here I have a special treat. I was digging around some old electronic files recently and found some things that I treasure almost as much as some of my old paperbacks. A lot of people nowadays know about a book called Games of Command by Linnea Sinclair. But do they know about or have the original story that appeared as an e-book called Command Performance from before she made it to the big time in print?

I do, plus several of her other books in their original e-book form.
Check out the covers for COMMAND PERFORMANCE and FINDERS KEEPERS:



The changing face of SFR 

Obviously, cover design technology has come a long way (although the kitschy-cool appeal of these original images can't be denied!). However, Linnea Sinclair's stories didn't change. Only her packaging and distribution channels did. In other words, her stories held appeal regardless of the packaging. Bev also shared that
For some odd reason, most of the e-books I picked up back then tended towards a combination of science fiction and romance. Not all, but definitely the majority. They weren’t all great writing but, hey, at least they were attempts to make the combination work. It seemed the time had come and I was finally on that quest to find that one last thing that the mainstream romance genre wasn’t doing to my satisfaction. Oh, it was still dancing around it. All over the place, but it wasn’t really doing it.
These days, mainstream romance publishers aren't releasing enough SFR to my satisfaction, either, but digital-first/small press/indie publishers *absolutely are*! And publishing has shifted so much because of ebooks that I'm not sure mainstream is a place SFR has to be in order to be a viable genre.


For comparison's sake, look at the runaway successes of Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. A streaming service's original programming became a highly profitable endeavor. The shows aren't on network television or in theaters, but they created high caliber entertainment despite the direct-to-video distribution—something many have always associated with lesser quality productions (a holdover attitude from the 80s and 90s). 

Given the digital-first beginnings of Linnea Sinclair's work and the rise of ebooks since then, it seems we've come full circle. In the early stages, her books came out electronically and now SFR is primarily a digital-first genre. What makes Linnea Sinclair a valuable artist isn't her platform today; it's the fact that she was writing SFR and getting it released in 2001 no matter the odds stacked against her.

Naturally, I view other non-mainstream authors of SFR as having the same value. They're serving the underserved readers and releasing books far more often than mainstream print authors are able to do.

These days, many, if not most, sci-fi romances are non-mainstream releases. In that sense, I wonder why expensive packaging apparently still matters so much. If packaging is a significant factor in an SFR reader's book purchases (or library borrows), they're going to miss out on an awful lot of titles. It'd be similar to refusing to watch HOUSE OF CARDS or ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK simply because they aren't on network television.

Honing the competitive edge

If someone were to tell the person who stated "Exactly! And more HEROINES like Dred, too!" about QUEENIE'S BRIGADE--or frankly, any non-Big 5 SFR that seems up her alley--would she truly be interested? When readers say they want more of a specific character, are there any unspoken rules about this request? Do they mean they want heroines like Dred regardless of medium or author, or only in books by authors of Big 5 publishers?

If packaging is important to a reader, no problem. Truly. Some, like Apple aficionados, fall under the sway of marketing, making them more likely to buy products for the packaging in and of itself. Packages can be lovely things.

Therefore, when it comes to connecting readers with SFR books, it's good to know if packaging will be a factor.

Since publishing is a business, a non-mainstream SFR's packaging should ideally achieve a professional level if the book is to have a chance at reaching readers outside of SFR's core audience (there are always exceptions, such as poorly edited/packaged books becoming runaway successes, but I mean in general). Even now, there are books that would probably sell more if the covers were improved. The question then becomes how can non-mainstream SFR address the packaging/marketing issue in order to successfully connect with readers for whom a fancy cover/Big 5 publisher is important?

Joyfully yours,
Heather