Tag: Blodeuwedd

Queer Werewolves, Traumatic Shapeshifting, and Doomed Heroes

I have been waiting a very long time to write this post. Months at the very least, but really it feels like the culmination of several years of work and waiting and more work and more waiting, and now — now at last the news is here:

Gollancz snaps up three-book deal from Finn Longman in six-figure pre-empt
The Bookseller, 29th Feb 2024

That’s right. I’ve got more books coming. Adult books, specifically, and fantasy, which makes a change! Not just one, not even two, but three medieval retellings being published by Gollancz over the next few years, and I am SO EXCITED to be able to tell you about them at last.

First up is The Wolf and His King, coming in 2025. This is a queer retelling of Bisclavret that, yes, is focused on the homoerotic possibilities of the relationship between Bisclavret and the king, but is also about chronic pain and illness, the mortifying ordeal of being known, and being an exile in your own home. There is a lot of yearning, and some of that yearning is romantic, and some of it is about desperately wanting to be something your body seems determined not to let you become.

I’ve talked before on this blog about how this book uses werewolfism as a metaphor to explore chronic pain, and that’s definitely at the heart of the story — but there’s a lot more than just that in there. It’s about love and feudal interdependence and needing to be understood and trying to build peace. It’s partially in second person and partially in verse; it’s the weird medieval book of my heart, and it felt at times like it would never sell, but it did. And next year, you’ll be able to read it. In fact, you can even pre-order it right now… [edit: or imminently, the links don’t seem to be up yet, but REALLY SOON]

In 2026, I’m bringing you The Animals We Became [working title], which is a queertrans retelling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, looking at gender, compulsory heterosexuality, and trauma, via nonconsensual shapeshifting. The Fourth Branch is not a nice story, nor a kind one, but it’s been one I’ve been wanting to retell since my first unfinished attempts at doing so back in 2012. It’s a tale that I think has a lot to say about our modern anxieties about gender, autonomy, and category crisis — as well as about the difference between justice and punishment, something I keep finding myself coming back to in my writing.

This book is a newer one, because I sort of sold it on proposal, except that I got carried away writing the sample chapters for Gollancz last year and ended up drafting the entire book. I wrote a post last year about how this process helped me develop new academic ideas about the story as well as new ways of understanding it as a narrative. I’m excited to get back to it and turn that first draft into something more polished and nuanced, but if nothing else, I can promise you that my tagline of “t4t shapeshifting and trauma” remains… very accurate.

And finally, in 2027, I get to share with you To Run With The Hound [working title]. Long-term readers will know that I wrote a book with this title way back in 2018. The book I’ve sold isn’t exactly that book — it’s a proposal for how I intend to completely rewrite that book from the ground up. But yes, this is it: my Cú Chulainn novel, which is sort of a Cú Chulainn/Fer Diad novel with vague Song of Achilles vibes, except it’s also so much more than that. I haven’t written the new version yet, but the plan is to use a nonlinear narrative to explore why Táin Bó Cúailnge is actually a tragedy, and what it means to be doomed by the narrative (but not in the way you thought you were). It will feature a great many feelings about Fer Diad, Láeg, and Cú Chulainn himself.

Obviously, all of these books draw very heavily on my academic background as a medievalist, but TRWTH is the most directly related to my PhD research. Which is just as well, because yes, I am juggling writing and editing these books with a full-time PhD, and I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend that as a state of affairs, but at least the overlap means I can research them both simultaneously.

In the spirit of providing as much information about these books as I can at this point of time, I have anticipated some possible FAQs, and will endeavour to answer them:

How long have you been keeping this secret?

FOREVER. Or, more specifically, since May 19th 2023, which has been killing me. I have not been particularly good at it. I think everyone who knows me IRL has heard the news at this point. But they’ve been strictly instructed to pretend they’re surprised on social media.

When do these books come out?

The Wolf and His King is scheduled for “Spring 2025”, with a holding date of March on the pre-order pages. As soon as that’s actually pinned down, I’ll let you know. The others should follow in 2026 and 2027, as long as there are no hurdles along the way, but I can’t promise there will be no PhD-related delays 🙈

Are these adult books or YA?

Adult. Definitely. I feel this is worth emphasising, especially when we come to Animals, because honestly, Gwydion is awful. I mean, he is the ultimate poor little meow meow, and he is terrible. The Wolf and His King would probably be fine for most teenage readers, but since it’s not aimed at teens, they might not vibe with it so much. The others (especially Animals) are heavier, and deal with darker themes in ways that aren’t particularly suitable for younger readers. (Full content warnings closer to the time, although I recommend googling the Fourth Branch for the general vibes…!) But, you know, I’m not the book police, so use your own discretion.

What genre label would you put on these books?

I think I would describe them as literary fantasy. I don’t know if this is how they would be “officially” labelled. Their fantastical elements — werewolves and shapeshifting and whatever is going on with Cú Chulainn — are crucial parts of the story, but I’m not interested in explaining them, or particularly in developing a magic system for them to exist within. The focus is on the themes and the ways that the stories are told, often with experimental POVs and stylistic choices. Hence the literary part, I guess. But some would probably describe them just as fantasy. That makes sense, too. Historical fantasy almost fits, except that the history we’re dealing with is pseudohistory, and deliberately ambiguous in its exact dates.

Does this mean you’re only going to write adult books now, or will you write more YA?

I don’t have any more YA books contracted once Moth to a Flame comes out in May. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to write any more. I think I’m probably going to take a little break from it, though (juggling these + the full-time PhD is more than enough, honestly), so it might be a couple of years before I have something else lined up on that side of things. I’ve got a couple of ideas I might pursue: a contemporary novel set in a secondary school orchestra, featuring the world’s most codependent string quartet, or a queer pacifist sci-fi Robin Hood retelling that might well be summed up as ‘be gay, do crimes’. Or I might write something else entirely. But we’ll see.

What formats will they be published in?

I believe it’s hardback first, with simultaneous e- and audiobook, and then paperback later. I’ve never had a hardback before, so that will be a novelty.

Will they be available in [x] language?

I have no say over translation rights but I very much hope these books will be picked up and translated into as many languages as possible! If you are a publisher and you want foreign rights, I guess now is the time to talk to Gollancz — hit them up at London Book Fair or something. Especially if you want to translate them into Celtic languages. I would absolutely love to see Animals in Welsh or TRWTH in Irish… listen, I know the market’s small, but it’s worth it. Let’s do it. I believe in us.

How much romance/sex is there in these books?

[ETA: A brief explanatory note, because the response to this book announcement has been fabulous and this post has spread much further than I expected, and therefore beyond my usual readers — The Butterfly Assassin trilogy contains zero romance, and this has been something I’ve been keen to emphasise in my publicity, not least because it’s unusual in YA. So existing readers might be curious whether I’m continuing in the same direction on that front, and that’s why I picked out this question to answer. (Not because I think it is the most important piece of information about any book in general, or anything like that!)]

The Wolf and His King is significantly focused on yearning, although mostly of the unfulfilled variety for the majority of the book. There are some sex scenes, largely poetic rather than explicit. I have told my mum that she’s allowed to read this book, if that helps. I don’t think you could describe it as capital R Romance, or really as romantasy, but it does technically have a HEA, so I guess if you really wanted to stretch your definitions, you could.

The Animals We Became has some sex, and very little romance. It’s a bit more explicit than The Wolf and His King, and I haven’t decided if my mum’s allowed to read it yet. Given the plot of the Fourth Branch, issues surrounding assault, consent, and bodily autonomy are quite central. It’s not what I would call a romantic book.

I really can’t tell you much about To Run With The Hound at this point, because I haven’t written it. I think it will deal a lot with the blurred boundaries of friendship/sworn brotherhood/attraction/enmity. I don’t think romance in the modern sense will be a focus, but it is substantially about complicated relationships between people, and, yeah, also about heroic masculinity and combat/war as a form of intricate ritual.

How much murder is in these books?

Substantially less than is in The Butterfly Assassin trilogy, with the possible exception of To Run With The Hound.

How much am I going to suffer as a reader?

The Wolf and His King is the least angsty, and has a happy ending. The Animals We Became is somewhat more angsty; it has a hopeful but complicated ending. To Run With The Hound is a tragedy, and you’re going to suffer. In other words, it’s a steady run downhill from here to 2027.

How do I get an ARC?

Absolutely no idea, it’s still early days, more edits to do before that’s on the cards, but I imagine you go and ask Gollancz very nicely. When I know more, you will know more.

Do I need to know the original stories to enjoy these books?

No, I have been meticulously testing them on beta readers who are unfamiliar with the original stories, mostly to watch them yell at me when something terrible happens that was absolutely not my idea. However, if you want to do background reading, I’m happy to provide a bibliography.

The Bookseller says it was a 6-figure deal. Does that mean you’re rich now?

Tragically not. There are a lot of misconceptions about how much money authors make, and a lot of assumptions get made based on flashy headlines. Turns out when you spread low six figures over around five years, and pay taxes and agent commissions and things like that, you still end up earning less than minimum wage. On the flip side, though, it’s a very nice supplement to my PhD stipend, and the combination of the two means I can almost afford to have the heating on for more than five hours per day in winter. Almost.

For real, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and it’s more than I’ve ever earned for my writing before. I don’t want to belittle that fact: I know how it feels to be the writer with a substantially-less-than-six-figure deal watching more financially successful authors complain about how it’s hardly anything and wishing they’d catch themselves on, lol. But writing is still definitely not the business to go into if you want a living wage, so unfortunately I won’t be buying a house any time soon, and I will continue to wince whenever my bike needs yet another pricey repair.

How’s it going, balancing this with the PhD?

It’s going. Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes I’m very stressed. I think balancing these and also Moth to a Flame was not ideal, but that will all be wrapped up soon, so then I’ll only have two jobs. It helps that these books overlap so much (in content and also thematically) with my PhD research, so everything I learn as part of the PhD helps add depth and colour to the books themselves. The hard part will be holding myself back from adding a bibliography at the back of each book…

Can you tell me more about medieval werewolves?

Yes. Start here.

But what about the accidental vampire novel you were talking about?

The accidental vampire novel is not contracted. Yet. Paranormal romance publishers, hit me up if you’re into incredibly niche romance novels about desperate postgrads and the things they’ll do to a) get PhD funding and b) convince their vampire housemate to suck their blood.

When can I preorder?

For The Wolf and His King: right now! At least in the UK! Still waiting on more retailers, including more who ship internationally, but I highly recommend you go bug them to make it available because I think theoretically they can do that. All the links I’ve got so far are on this page.

For the others, ask me again in a year or so. If that’s too long to wait, remember that Moth to a Flame comes out this May, so you should go grab that in the meantime, and the first two if you haven’t already read them.

I think that is everything, but if I have not answered your question, then please ask it in the comments and I will endeavour to do so!

In general I am just really excited to share this news with you, extremely grateful to my agent Jessica Hare for being willing to take on my weird queer literary adult fantasy novels even though she signed me for The Butterfly Assassin which is really not that, and very glad to have found an editor like Bethan Morgan who is willing to spend three days going back and forth with me about the nuances of words like ‘myth’ and ‘folklore’ when dealing with medieval literature. The future is ahead of us and it is a queer medieval future — and isn’t that glorious?

The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Book Review)

When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.

However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.

(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.

The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…

A photograph of "The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think" by Mark Williams. It's a bright sunny day, and there's a tree turning autumnal red in the background.
Rooftop reads: climbing out of the window with a book is my new favourite hobby on sunny days.

First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.

Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.

Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.

This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.

(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)

I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.

So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.

Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.

He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.

I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.

“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”

Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.

In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.

Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.

There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.

So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…

(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)

So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.

If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.

You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.

If you enjoyed this post and want to enable me to continue buying books like this so I can tell you about them, please consider dropping a couple of quid in my tip jar!