The Luminary Bestiary

The other night, I dreamed that I woke up in an owl’s nest. It was dark, and the moon bore down like an enormous and glowing eye. I cowered in a pile of feathers and bones and broken bits of eggshell. The other owlets were huge – seven feet tall or more – all down and fuzz and beak and claw. Or perhaps I was tiny. There was no way of knowing.

(What is large, after all? What is small. Is it not our way of saying that the world only exists in relationship with our consciousness? Is it not merely a subtle self-aggrandizement?)

Their eyes blinked in the hovering moonlight. They glowed. They rustled their underdeveloped wings and opened their razor mouths. They cocked their prehistoric heads to the right and the left. They leered their faces toward my own, and squeaked.

Am I owl? I asked my dreaming self. Or am I lunch?

I didn’t know. And I woke for real before I knew the answer. I lay in bed for a long time, looking for the moon in a sea of stars. And I fell asleep listening to the far-off hooting of owls.

The next morning, I told my dream to my son.

“I had that same dream,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. “The exact same one?”

“Well,” he clarified, “not exactly the same. In mine I woke up in a dragon’s lair. And I couldn’t tell if I was a prisoner or dinner or treasure or a dragon. And then I decided.”

“Which were you?”

“Treasure. Or a dragon. I can’t decide.”

I would have told him that he was already both, but he had already run outside to play. And meanwhile, I had monsters on the brain.

People have asked me – quite often in the last few weeks – about two particular characters in my book: the Dragon and the Nybbas. Specifically, I’ve been asked about the genesis of these characters, and how they took root in my mind, and the process of their own becoming. And I’m never really sure what to say to these questions. The dragon, of course, is, well dragony. With fire and wings and scales and a foul disposition. However he is also old. And broken. And cowardly and infirm and lacking in hope and heartless. I do not mean heartless here to mean cruel or vicious. I mean simply that his heart is not in his body. And that is problematic.

The Nybbass, on the other hand, shifts its shape to suit its purposes, but it’s primary form is in mirrors. It lives on distortions, reflecting a reality that is mostly true, with enough omissions to skew belief or poison that which once was good. Mirrors, of course, can do that all on their own dang selves, but the Nybbas makes it worse.

The thing is, though, that I can’t really tell how these creatures have taken root in the landscape of my imagination. I can only say that the world in my head is densely populated with monsters. They creep around the edges of stories, asking politely to be let in. (And sometimes, not so politely.) There is a six-legged feathery monster with eyes like dinner plates and razor sharp teeth that prefers to live in bone dry forests, where the dying trees are slowly succumbing to bug infestations. There is the leather-winged cat that wipes out entire species of migratory birds and are likely responsible for cow-mutilations around the country. There is a dragon the size of a thimble and a troll that lives in my basement and a man eating worm that crinkles the lawn in my back yard. There is a beast made of river-muck with tin cans for eyes and a mouth full of teeth made from broken glass that sklurks in the creek behind my house and ripples its gassy path from wetland to footbridge to fishing hole. There is a ghost dog in the field that howls at the moon every Tuesday night at eleven.

My mind is thick with monsters.

And I think it always will be.




You know that dream when you’re naked in public? Yeah. It’s pretty much exactly like that.

This week, a box of books arrived in the Barnhill house. Two boxes, actually. I opened them up, and peered inside, and saw multiple copies of my book looking back at me, blinking their sleepy eyes.

 I have been a basket case ever since.

Now, to be fair, I’ve been a basket case for a while. The time when I erased the ending over and over and over again, trying to get the thing to land right. The time when I poured over galley pages from sunup to sundown until my eyes were bloodshot and dry and my skin flaked away like dust and my soul became clouds and clouds and clouds. And I was a basket case when the first ARCs arrived in the mail. And when the art was finalized. And when they sent me the map. And when I knew that the first reviewers were holding my book, or pouring over my book, or ignoring it all together.

But now.


Mind you, we’re still well shy of the official release date – October 9 – but that doesn’t matter. There is a stack of VIOLET at the Barnes and Noble. I saw them. And then I ran away. Amazon has them at the ready. Any beloved indie bookstore can snag a copy – or ten – in a matter of days. If they don’t have them already.

Which means that my baby is in the world, and I cannot hold anything back.

I was hanging out with a bunch of other moms from the neighborhood last night. There was wine and cookies and book talks and a bunch of ladies dishing about god-knows-what, and I brought a copy of the book to show them. These are women whose kids play with my kids, who show up at neighborhood functions with caprese salads and noodle bakes and bars. These are good, good women. Anyway, they asked me if I was excited.

“No,” I said. “I’m terrified. I feel vulnerable and hopeful and frightened and exposed. It’s not a pleasant feeling.”

They were amazed at this and somewhat flabbergasted, so I clarified. “You know that moment when you’re in labor, and your clothes have been taken away and you’re wearing one of those flimsy hospital gowns, and your feet are in the stirrups and your rump is facing the door and about fifty-seven people have been in and out of the room in the last fifteen minutes, all with an unobstructed view of your nether regions?”

Tight grimaces all around. Yup. They remembered.

“Well, it’s just like that.”

“Oh, honey,” they said.

And then they gave me wine. God bless them.

Violet – the girl that I struggled with and fussed over; the girl who inspired fits of tenderness and exasperation; the girl who haunted my dreams for months and months? She’s gone now. She’s gone from me. And I never get to have her back. And that, my friends, is a mournful thing.

Still, it means that she belongs to more people than just me. She belongs to the reader. She belongs to the library. She belongs to the classroom and the after school center and the back seat of the station wagon on a road trip to Lubbock. She belongs to you. And the kid next door. And the world.

Godspeed Violet. Godspeed Demetrius. Godspeed Cassian and King Randall and Auntie and Moth and Nod. Godspeed Dragon and even the Nybbas. Godspeed to you all. I’ll miss you.


Butt-Kicking Princesses in History – Thyra of Denmark

The Danes, as a group, pretty much ruled in the nicknaming department. Particularly with their various monarchs. Olof the Brash. Halfdan the Black. Harald Bluetooth. And so forth.

Thyra, Queen of Denmark, was a lady of questionable parentage – with more folks listed as possible fathers and mothers than a new-born kit in a bunny factory. Which is to say that her parents, while terribly important, were likely not married. So she was married off to a Danish king who’s moniker was, I’m not even kidding, Gorm the Old.

And he wasn’t even old. And plus, his name was Gorm, for god’s sake.

And that, of course, makes a good story – the clever girl marries the schumpy boy and makes a great man out of him. It is, as we all know, the Marge Simpson approach, (“Lisa, most women will tell you you’re a fool to think you can change a man but those women are quitters.”) with a long and glorious history in storytelling. And it may be true.

However there is another record from the historian Saxo Grammaticus tells us another story, thusly: “This man [Gorm] was counselled by the elders to celebrate the rites of marriage, and he wooed Thyra, the daughter of Ethelred, the king of the English, for his wife. She surpassed other women in seriousness and shrewdness, and laid the condition on her suitor that she would not marry him till she had received Denmark as a dowry. This compact was made between them, and she was betrothed to Gorm.” Was she a princess or a bastard? Who knows. What I do know is this: Stories like that make me question my whole life. Withholding your hand in marriage until the young man in question can produce for you an entire nation? My god. This woman was brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that?


Thyra was already well-known by the time she married poor old Gorm. Or, at least it is said that she was. Thyra has many stories. Perhaps they are all true. Perhaps none are. The stories say that she was pretty, brave and resilient. They say that she fought an army of Germans and held them at bay. They say that she travelled across the Sea of Trolls to retrieve a stolen daughter.

They say a lot of things.

And you know what? I’m inclined to believe it. After all, they called her husband Gorm The Old. Know what they called her? The Pride of Denmark. (Or the Ornament of Denmark. Or the Jewel on the Neck of Denmark. In any case, it’s clear she was held in high regard.) According to legend, she was wooed aggressively by Otto, the emperor of Germany. And she held him off with batted lashes and sly smiles, all the while building a massive dyke (that still stands today) from which to wage war. And friends, war was waged and Otto ran off with his tail between his legs.

Go Thyra.

Later, when Gorm persuaded her to become his wife, she laid down her final terms for the nuptials to take place: He must first build a new house and sleep in it by himself during the first three nights of winter, and record what dreams he had. Only if she liked what she heard would she then consent to marry. When he reported that he had dreamed that a herd of oxen came out of the sea and that birds fluttered down from the sky and landed on the house, Thyra was satisfied.

Which means that Gorm may be cleverer than originally believed. After all, these dreams came straight out of the bible (they are the ones that Pharaoh reported to David – oxen from the ocean symbolizes a bountiful harvest, while birds indicate a strong nation). Gorm wasn’t a Christian, but he knew his beloved was. Could it be that he would think to report the exact dreams that he knew would please his wife? Could it be that he invented the stories that would, for once and for all, remove her last hesitations and pave the way of winning the gril of his dreams? Nice move, Gorm. Nice move.

Tricky fellow.

In any case, Thyra lived a long time, but not nearly as long as her husband. When she died, he mourned desperately, and erected two runestones in honor of his beloved. The Pride of Denmark. The Treasure of Denmark. The Jewel of Denmark. The Mother of Denmark. Thyra.

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History – Tomoe Gozen

Okay, fine. She’s not a princess. But she was a samurai – a samurai! –  which is so friggin’ cool I can hardly stand it, so I had to include her. And as a result, I’ve been running around my house all day, slaying my enemies with my imaginary sword, and beheading possibly-carnivorous bunnies in the landscape of my imagination.

(And my kids accuse me of not having a real job. THE NERVE!)

(Is being a writer not a real job? Oh god. It’s not, is it.)

My ten year old just asked me what I was doing. So I told her. “Writing about a girl samurai,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “So you’re writing about me, then? Good.”

“Are you a samurai?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “not now. You haven’t bought me a sword. But I am in my dreams.”

And now I live with the knowledge that my willowy girl lives a double life as a sword-handling samurai princess in her dreams, and my life is awesome forever.

(My kids are cooler than any book I will ever write. This is another bit of knowledge that I must live with. It’s not so bad, as bits of knowledge go.)

Tomoe Gozen was the wife (one of several) to the general Minamoto no Yoshinaka. The samurai business was, at the time (12th century, Japan) a fairly dude-centered industry, but Tomoe was known for her superior fighting skills, her horsemanship and her valor. She was an expert in archery, military tactics, and competitive beheading.

Okay, fine, I made up the competitive bit …. but she was a good beheader, which, really, is an under-appreciated skill. I couldn’t do it. Could you?

The epic poem, The Tale of the Heike, which describes the massive struggle for control over Japan by the Taira and Minamoto clans at the end of the Genpei War, tells us this about our Tomoe:

Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.

According to the poem, Minamoto no Yoshinaka had defeated the Heike and driven them far to the West. He also took the holy city of Kyoto, and tried to declare himself the leader of the clan. He had, after all, done all the work. Or, he and his warriors. Which is to say, he and his wife – who he apparently sent into the thick of battle and only joined her when she made sure it was safe.


Anyway, his cousins did not agree, and a battle for control ensued. Specifically: The Battle of Awazu in 1184.

Both Tomoe and Yoshinaka fought valiantly (Tomoe beheading, as usual), but they were vastly outnumbered. With his horse stuck and lamed in a half-frozen field. Yoshinaka told Tomoe to flee, which sounds sweet, until he added that it would be shameful for him to die in the company of a woman. Which, if you don’t mind me saying, is a bit rich. And I hope she socked him one, right in the eye. Because he would have deserved it.

So, righteously ticked off, Tomoe stormed away. And then she got bloody – first beheading Honda no Moroshige of Musashi,  and then running her sword through the middle of Uchida Ieyoshi. She then evaded capture and vanished from history.

Some accounts say that she gave up the sword and became a nun. Others say that she got married again and was domesticated. Baloney, I say. There’s no grave and no further mention of her in the historical record (and by “historical record”, I mean, of course, this cool poem and not much else. There is a grave for her (first?) husband, so we know for sure that he exists. But she is a mystery. I like mysteries.).

Which means that she could have gone anywhere. An outlaw in the forest. A secret friend to travelers. A sword-wielding foe of those who abuse their power. A beheader of bad guys. I don’t know, but I refuse to believe the official account. Any woman that gnarly isn’t going to disappear just because some man tells her to.

She will enlarge. She will become a contradiction, a poem, a legend, a dream. She will contain multitudes. She will inhabit stories just because. And she will not die.

My daughter, apparently, is a sword-wielding samurai in her dreams. Perhaps so am I. Perhaps so are you. Perhaps all of us become Tomoe Gozen the moment our eyes droop and our heads drop back. Perhaps we hear thundering beats of her horse’s gallop and our eyes begin to blaze and our sword arms itch, and all at once, someone yanks on the back of our collars and hauls us into battle.


Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Urraca of Zamora

I love a good sibling rivalry story. As one of five siblings myself (oldest sister of four girls and one boy) and the mother of three (I may have mentioned them once or twice), I know quite well the shrewd calculations and endless scheming, the simmering  cauldron of perceived slights and all-out wrongs, the endless record-keeping and pecking-order-awareness. It’s more complicated than Secret Santa day at the UN, I’ll tell you what.

Take the Infanta of Zamora, Urraca. First of all, look at this picture:

Notice the heavy lidded stare? Notice the sidelong glance? Notice the scheming slump? My daughters make that same face. Hell, I make that face, and I don’t even live with my siblings anymore.

Urraca was – as I am – one sibling in five, but was, unlike me, the heir to a kingdom. Lucky girl. I, on the other hand, will be heir to my dad’s ginormous dictionary and my mom’s ancient Cuisinart (though, I may have to thumb wrestle my sister for it) (she doesn’t know that I have THUMB ARMOR! With POISONED BARBS! And RAZOR WIRE! One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war, HI-YA!).

Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right Urraca.

Anyway, Urraca’s father was Ferdinand the Great, the guy who conquered the heck out of the various principalities of Spain – held by both Christian and Islamic rulers – and crowned himself Emperor of Spain. This is not – to be clear – the same Ferdinand who kicked out Spain’s Muslims and Jews and, just for fun, whipped up a good old fashioned Inquisition, and ushered in one of Spain’s more unpleasant chapters. I mean, crowning oneself emperor is – let’s face it – a jerk move. But at least it’s not an Inquisition.

So, on his death bed, he divided up his empire, giving his three sons separate kingdoms, while his daughters were each given a walled city-state to call their very own. Ferdinand, having abandoned the trappings and riches of emperor-ness and wearing the simple clothes of a monk, challenged his children to play nice and to be fair and to love one another and God and Spain and then he died.

And then the wars started.

Really, we can blame brother Sancho – the eldest, who, rightfully so, thought that being the oldest meant that he was In Charge. As an eldest child myself, I can relate. He was, after all, king of Castille, the largest and most important of the three kingdoms. So he convinced his brother Alfonso to go to war with brother Garcia to nab Galicia, which Alfonso did willingly. Then, with extra money and arms at his disposal, Sancho went after Alfonso’s Leon, Elvira’s Toro and Urraca’s Zamora.

“NO FAIR,” Alfonso said, but Sancho wouldn’t listen, and now Alfonso was on the run.

Toro folded like a napkin, so Alfonso and Urraca combined forces. Alfonso tried to convince Urraca to come with him to Leon, but Urraca wouldn’t have it. “Have you seen this friggin’ castle?” Urraca said.

Sure, it’s looking a bit worse for wear now, but then it was impenetrable. Nothing that Alfonso would say could convince her. She had said her piece. She had counted to three. And she wasn’t moving. So Alfonso left for Toledo to regroup, and Urraca prepared for war.

Sancho, meanwhile, had teamed up with El Cid, (yes, that El Cid)

who convinced Sancho to go and pay his sister a visit, kiss her hand, and then wage all-out war. Which he did. Because why not?

It was unsuccessful, alas. Zamorra was too well-defended, and Urraca too shrewd a tactician. Unable to penetrate the walls, El Cid convinced Sancho to just wait the city out. Eventually, with her people starving, Urraca would cave. After all, El Cid argued. Ladies are delicate. And tender hearted. And they can’t stand to watch the men and women and children in their community suffer starvation or pain or bloody death. And that may be true. But Urraca was very good at convincing people to do things. And so the Nobleman Vellido rode out to meet Sancho. As Urraca had instructed him to do, he told Sancho that he was switching teams. And then, using trickery and cunning, got Sancho alone. I imagine the interchange went something like this:

VELLIDO: Boy, oh boy, Sancho, I sure am glad I switched sides. Your team rules!

SANCHO: I know, RIGHT? Welcome aboard.

VELLIDO: Hey. I have a GREAT idea! Let’s go over on the other side of that rocky knoll. Just the two of us. With no one else. We’ll watch the sunset and drink some wine and have lots of fun male bonding!

SANCHO: OMG! That’s totally the best idea EVAR!

VELLIDO: Awesome! I think I’ll bring this spear! For no particular reason!

And off they went.

Now, no one can prove that Urraca was behind this, of course. But it is widely believed that she was. Because she had a city to defend. And a snot-nosed brother to put in his place. And, as I said, she was very good at convincing people.

When Sancho was discovered, spear sticking out of his puny little body and hovering near death, he is said to have uttered these words:

“The traitor Vellido has killed me, and I die for my sins because I broke the oath I made to my father.” In which the rest of the world said, “WELL, DUH,” and then he died.

And let this be a lesson to all of us. If Sancho hadn’t made such a fuss, then the five siblings might have been content with their respective shares, and maybe later crises in Spain would have been averted. Or maybe not. While no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps the truths of human intolerance and the lust for power and the unbreakable code of sibling rivalry would have asserted itself no matter what. Perhaps the Inquisition was inevitable – just as any exercise of human horror, of man’s inhumanity to man.

Still, one may take some hope in the person of Urraca – who didn’t go after her brother’s share or her sister’s share, who didn’t make a mockery of her father’s plea to share and play nice. Instead, she simply stood up to a bully, and took him down. And rightfully so. There are too many bullies, and I expect the Middle Ages had far more than their fair share. Having dispatched with her brother, and the aftermath of nobles with too much time on their hands and too many weapons at their disposal and too much temper boiling behind their ears, she went back to ruling her small nation with some amount of fairness – and perhaps a little smug satisfaction as well.

She was a sibling after all. And no one does smug like siblings.

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Arachidamia of Sparta

Okay, I have to admit it: I am having MORE FUN THAN SHOULD BE ALLOWED researching these powerful princesses. I’m also becoming more and more deeply convinced that Disney – and even the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang and Perrault and Calvino and the rest of my beloved (and doubly beloved!) fairy tale compilers, whose words I treasured when I was a child and whose vision shapes the writer I am today – are pretty much full of crap. Because history is lousy with ladies whose ambitions, talents, schemes, vision, fortitude, and force-of-being have left deep and indelible grooves in the world around them.

Take Arachidamia, for example.

Now, despite the fact that the Greeks weren’t all that keen into things like women’s rights during ancient times, the Spartans were a bit different. A war-like, austere culture (spartan, if you will), both athleticism and battle-prowess were recognized as being both possible in the fairer sex, as well as admired.

 And to hear Plutarch tell of it, those ladies from Sparta were forces to be reckoned with.

Queen Arachidamia of Sparta was a woman of wealth and power and status. When King Pyrrhus, feeling his advanced age and the numb recognition that his long career of warmaking had landed him with empty coffers and more dead friends than he could count, decided to make one last foray into war with Sparta, Arachidamia smiled to herself, and began to get ready.

Now, at this point, Sparta was in the middle of a war with Crete, and while things were at this moment going their way, the King and most of the army were far away across the ocean, and impossible to reach in time. And the armies of Pyrrhus were…..extraordinary. Difficult to fight in the best of circumstances. The Spartan Senate, seeing the approach of the armies of Pyrrhus, knowing that they were out-manned and out-armed, made the wrenching decision to gather the women together and send them to Crete where they’d be safe. “Oh, no,” said Arachidamia. She gathered the women and approached the Senate. Arachidamia walked into the Senate chamber, according to Plutarch, “with a sword in her hand, in the name of them all, and asked if they expected the women to survive in the ruins of Sparta.” They would defend their homeland, the women snarled. And the men in the Senate felt their knees start to shake.

The matter was settled, so the Spartans – both men and women – began digging a huge trench, running parallel to Pyrrhus’s camp. And then the battle began.


Pyrrhus attacked with twenty thousand troops, and five thousand elephants. Have you ever seen an elephant at war? They fight like tanks. They leave a trail of destruction in their path. No matter, said the women of Sparta. And they fought like wolves.

Pyrrhus was astonished. This was supposed to be easy. He didn’t even want to engage in this war in the first place – and only did so at the behest of an old friend who held a grudge against Sparta for refusing to make him King. No one has ever made me King, but you don’t see me going to war about it, now do you?

Pyrrhus fled, ended up in Argos where he was struck by a falling statue while walking under a bridge and then beheaded. Serves him right.

History, strangely, is mute as to the fate of the fighting elephants. But, given that elephants typically live in matriarchal societies, unhindered by the bother of warmongering, I like to think that they gave up their warlike ways and retreated into the forest, munching on mulch for the rest of their days.


You know, it’s funny: in most of the descriptions that I’ve read about IRON HEARTED VIOLET, Violet is usually described as “an unconventional princess”, but I’m starting to think that such a descriptor is incorrect. There’s no such thing. Women and girls change history every day – and always have done so. Be they princess or soldier or scholar or artist or spy. Or preacher. Or writer. Or activist. Or friend. Sometimes, it just feels good to know that.



Tick, tock, tick, tock. Pub day approaches. Yikes!

Well, I’m a basket case, of course. But I’m getting excited.

Last Saturday, I read from IRON HEARTED VIOLET at the Anderson Center – a place that I’ve never been to before, but now will haunt my dreams forever. It is a gorgeous and pastoral farm, tucked into the heart of bluff country in southern Minnesota, that has been transformed into an arts center with a residency program. Gracious brick buildings, art galleries, studios, a completely awesome brick tower with a meditation space at the top.  I can’t even begin to tell you how deeply jealous I am of every person who has ever done a residency there since the beginning of time.

Anyway, they host a children’s book festival every year, and you should all go next September. It’s everything that you would ever want from a children’s book festival: banjo players, art projects, face painting, balloons, STILTS FOR EVERYONE, sing-alongs, marbles, people in costumes, people ringing bells, cool authors giving readings in the parlor of a gracious old brick home, books being bought hand over fist, and……wait for it…… cannons.

Speaking of cannons, one went off, right in the middle of my reading. It was awesome. I was describing a scene when the king and queen stand before the court to present the new princess. I read this sentence, “The king and queen entered quietly, without announcement or trumpets or pomp….” and then there was a terrific boom. I bowed, of course, and added “or cannons.”

I don’t have any cannons today, alas, but I do have this: An excerpt! Of IRON HEARTED VIOLET! If I could, I’d send it to you on the backs of one hundred elephants followed by nattily-dressed zebras waltzing with pretty girls in their arms and prancing ponies singing the soundtrack of The Wiz. Unfortunately, you must use your imaginations to fill in the gaps. Enjoy! 


Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess

Gentle Readers:

I’m still on princesses currently. Bear with me.

Sometimes, it’s good to be honest with oneself. There are a few things that I feel very sure about in regards to the general trajectory of my life.

Number one: I deeply doubt that I will ever be considered as an expert or consultant or Person Who Generally Knows Things, in military matters. Or in matters that are even vaguely military-ish. Not gonna happen.

Number two: if I am ever in a wrestling match, I will never, ever win. Not ever. Not for money. Not for horses. Not for my freedom. Just not. This is not to say I’m a weakling – I’m actually pretty strong. I do twenty to thirty pushups a day (though, not all at once) and and can lift heavy children and carry heavy Duluth packs and balance a canoe on my shoulders while hiking a mile-long portage and can shovel dirt in the garden til the cows come home. But wrestling requires a certain know-how and a certain willingness to knock a person on their back and hold them motionless for some given amount of time. I cannot do this.

Number three: No one will ever, ever, write an opera about yours truly. And I am not saying this to guilt any of you into whipping one out, mind you. It’s just that there’s nothing about my life that is particularly opera-ish. And I say this as an opera lover.

And so you might understand, then, my current obsession with the Khutulun, Wrestler Princess of the Mongol Empire. Because the words “wrestler” and “princess” should always go together. Always.

Now here is her story. Khutulun was the great-granddaughter of the great Genghis Khan (and if you want to read an amazing book about Mr. Genghis – the guy who ruled the world from atop his horse, and whose footprints were so heavy and so indelible that they still are seen today, you should stop what you’re doing right now and read Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldAnd then you should read The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His EmpireIn fact, you should probably read those books right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) She was also the niece of Khublai Khan and the daughter of Khaidu. Khaidu had other daughters as well, but only Khutulun made the history books. And story books. And operas. But that was later.

Anyway, Khutulun (whose name means moonlight) was the youngest of fourteen brothers, so the story goes, and, being a self-respecting little sister in the face of a pack of rowdy ruffian brothers, did what any of us would have done. She learned to fight. And she was dang good at it too.

(You see! It is an accident of birth order. This is why I will never be a wrestler, not because of any kind of endemic flaw. Man! I am so glad I’m writing this post right now!)

Anyway, as she grew she became skilled in the arts of war. This was unusual for the time, but not altogether unheard of. After all, there are several Medieval accounts of Mongol hordes (because this is how Medieval Europeans were able to keep the moral high ground, you see. If you swap “horde” with “persons who are different from us” it’s much easier to hate them) that indicate that the sight of women fighting along side of men was a fairly regular occurrence.

Still, Khutulun was a wonder. Her wrestling prowess – in a culture that prized wrestling so much that it was one of their most popular sports and pastimes – was known throughout the empire, and no man could beat her. Big men, little men, men with blood on the brain and men with love in their hearts, she beat them all. She also excelled in the Mongol sports of competitive horse riding (apparently that was a thing) and archery. In her culture, athletic ability was so highly prized that it bore a spiritual component. That she was so physically adept and so skilled with her body, there was an aura of blessedness about her. This carried over to her prowess on the battlefield, and her presence among the warriors was not only an asset (because she was just that good) but she was like a talisman as well. Her presence made her co-warriors assured of their own victory. And they were victorious.

This was problematic for poor Khublai who was trying tame the Mongol’s nomadic way of life and their warmongering ways. He had already decided that China should be the main base and the central seat of the empire of the Golden Horde, and was trying to enforce the strict courtly manners of the Chinese upon his Mongol brethren. This did not go over well, and there were conflicts between the armies of Khublai and the armies of Khaidu. Which meant that Khaidu and his daughter Khutulu were often at war.

Remember that poem by Coolridge?

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Through caverns measureless to man
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

I know. It’s off-topic. But I like it, and this is my blog. And anyway, it’s not really off-topic, because it highlights the difference in attitude between the sedentary Khublai and the nomadic Mongol tribes. So there.

Now, Khutulu was a skilled warrior, and a keen strategist. Warfare was big with the Mongols – as it was for pretty much everyone in the Medieval era – and Khutulun was the best. She was so good, that people wrote her prowess down – something not often done. Because most of the writers were men, and they didn’t feel the need to write about women. Not to get all….. well anyway, it was true. Marco Polo, however, was amazed by her – not only her valor and cool-headedness amidst the chaos of the battlefield, but of her unorthodox way of fighting as well. She’d ride into the battle at her father’s side and scan the enemy. Then, before anyone could react, she would “make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.” This would freak the other side so much – just at the sheer scope of her speed, how she’d magically insert herself into their midst and grab some poor slouch by the throat and carry him off, that they’d panic. How can you fight a warrior like that? Answer: you can’t.

Lots of men wanted to marry Khutulun, but she would have none of them. Her parents begged her to choose someone, but she waved them off. Finally, she said that she’d offer a wager. Any man who wanted to marry her had to put up one hundred horses. And then they had to try to beat her in wrestling. No one could, and our Khutulun amassed over 10,000 horses. Which gave her both power and status among the Mongol tribes, so good on her.

She remained undefeated, but she did end up marrying a fellow warrior. A man of her choice, not a marriage of submission. And she continued her war-making even after her marriage, which meant that she remained unconventional.

Now, she likely would have faded way. While she’s mentioned by Marco Polo as well as a few Muslim writers who happened to be travelling with traders and who wrote about the Mongols as a curiosity, rather than documenting their own culture, Khutulun was rejected by the scribes in Khublai’s courts and generally was removed from any historical documents from the Mongols themselves. She remained in the oral history and folklore, and if it weren’t for the Marco Polo mention, she might have disappeared from the annals of history altogether.

However, there is the opera bit.

In 1710, the French historian François Petit la Croix came across her story while researching a book on Genghis Khan, and included it in a separate book of Asian themed fables and folklore. He changed her name, though, to Turnandot, which means “Turkish Daughter”, which isn’t quite right, but what can we expect from a Frenchman, really? He changed the story a bit, too. In his story, she wouldn’t marry a man who wasn’t her equal – not as a wrestler, but as a riddle-solver. Which is awesome, but slightly less awesome than wrestling. He also, instead of paying her in horses, her thwarted lovers were put to death.

And then Puccini turned it into an opera.

And as much as I love Puccini, and as much as I love opera – this one in particular – and as much as I am deeply jealous of anyone whose life – or fake life – or frenchified version of their life – or whatever, is so very very awesome that it is deemed opera-worthy? As much as that, I still like the original story better. And I still want Khutulun to be my spirit guide and guardian angel and imaginary best friend. Because holy heck does that lady rule. She rules.

Butt-Kicking Princesses In History: Isabella of France (aka The She-Wolf)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have decided to start writing a series of posts about real-life princesses who didn’t fit the stereotype of the delicate princess attached to their husbands or fathers or brothers like roses on the vine. My new book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, features a princess who, like these, does not fit a lot of stereotypes: she is not  beautiful; she is not delicate. She does not wilt in corners or suffer in silence. She is crafty and cunning and full of wiles. And that’s how I like it. I like to write about princesses who make noise, whose actions have consequences – both good and bad.

So I’ve been looking into some princesses who made a little noise. And it’s been fun. First off: Isabella, the She-Wolf of France.

If I had ever been given the power to choose my own moniker, I would for sure choose “she-wolf”. Because wolves rule. And she-wolves are powerful and wily and cunning and strong and I love them. They are excellent mothers, they are good communicators, they back up their sister-wolves always, and they can go from snuggles to throat-ripping to home-building to gonna-stand-my-ground-and-don’t-even-THINK-about-attacking-my-young-you-big-jerkface, to snuggly mama and cubs time again. She-wolves rock.

I, alas, am far from wolfy, so I fear it is a long shot. Instead of Kelly “The She-Wolf” Barnhill, I’m more like Kelly “The Inconsistant Door Mouse” Barnhil. Or Kelly “The Perpetually Late Robin” Barnhill. Or something.

Not so for this lady:

 I mean, look at her. She is holding that rose so dangerously. I half expect it to be hiding a poison dart. And her lovely, calm expression belies her intention to raise an army of mercenaries and kick the royal butt of her philandering royal husband.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Isabella of France. Betrothed at seven. Married at twelve. A pawn for peace between two nations hell-bent for generations on kicking the spit out of one another. As an act of good will, King Phillip (usually called Phillip the Fair) and Queen Joan of Navarre, sent their only daughter to marry King Edward II of England – by all accounts an unserious, incurious and selfish King, more interested in pleasures and parties than the tedious work of running a kingdom. What’s worse is that he was famous for his long line of lovers – both male and female – and it pleased him to use his special-friend-of-the-week as a tool to insult and humiliate his young bride.

A jerk, right? I mean look at that guy:

He’s got “jerk-face” written all over him. I would never invite him over for dinner. And if I did, it would be something that I only mostly reheated from the freezer.

Of course, I am not a she-wolf.

Isabella was young and inexperienced, but she knew an insult when she saw one. And she was not about to take it lying down.

Now, at this time, the control that the King had over England was shaky at best. Like that old adage “all politics is local”, the real power lay in the local authority, and the local Barons were not all that happy with Edward. He had a nasty tendency to pick favorites (typically handsome favorites that he considered dating-material), lavishing favors on the  favored few while ignoring or insulting everyone else. Sabers rattled; battle cries yawped in the enraged throats of the jilted barons. And everyone polished their armor.

The King had a lover named Piers Gaveston, and despite the natural discomfort that one would have in dealing with the lover of one’s husband, Isabella forged a working relationship with Piers, even building strong diplomatic ties between his house and France – and the house of Edward and France, solidifying everyone’s position across the board. Though mostly, to be fair, her own. Isabella gained control over an impressive amount of land – all of which was hers outright – and her own militia and her own treasury. She was a force to be reckoned with. While Edward hardly bothered himself with Matters of State, Isabella was figuring out how to run a country – and how increase her adopted country’s status in the world.

Good on her.

But then Piers was murdered. And things got tricky.

This was, of course, a politically-motivated murder, though, to be fair, most accounts say that Piers was intensely annoying. And insufferable. And the fact that the Crown lavished everything possible on him I’m sure was too much to bear. The barons didn’t like Piers’ favored status, so they slaughtered the poor sod. But King Edward was, well, a man with needs, so he found himself a new boyfriend – Hugh Dispenser the Younger (a guy who tried his hand at piracy for a while. PIRATES!) – and England got bloody. Again.

First, there was the Dispenser War. (Side note to feudal despots everywhere: wars waged in the name of love or lovers typically do not go well. See: Helen of Troy). Then, there was the fact that Isabella and Hugh could barely stand to be in the same room as one another. So the working relationship was out. Add to that, the growing discontentment among Britain’s feudal lords – even those who stayed on Edward’s side during the war. It seemed that few people could tolerate Edward, and NO ONE could stand Dispenser. Things were not looking good for anyone.

So Isabella did what any self-respecting She-Wolf would do.

First, she went to France under false pretenses (and she brought her lover with her. Because why should Edward have all the fun?). Second, she asked the King of France (her brother) for an army. He refused (his own grip on power was tenuous), but Isabella didn’t let that stop her. She used her impressive treasury and land holdings to purchase herself an army of mercenaries. And they all went to England.

At first Edward and Hugh didn’t see her 1,500-strong army as much of a threat. They probably laughed about it over a good bottle of Bordeaux. But once she crossed the channel into England, the barons – all still pretty sore at the King – got wind of it, and they joined the party.

Isabella dispensed with Dispenser, jailed the king (and probably murdered him) (reportedly with hot pokers) (ouch)and put her son – Edward III – on the throne, with herself as regent, as the boy was too young to rule.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t mess with She-Wolves. They will turn your armies against you, humiliate you in public, put you in prison, put your lovers to death, and possibly murder you with hot pokers. You have all been warned.

My Cover is All Official and Stuff

So, I’ve been far, far away for the last two weeks. We loaded up the minivan with kids and dog and food and gear and went camping in the Badlands and the Black Hills and the Rockies, and Devil’s Tower (we tried to camp in the Laramie Range, but alas, they were on fire). And it was awesome. And I have Much To Say on the subject, but it will take more brain space than I currently have available. So instead….


My cover!

I got the official cover while I was gone, but I never had a solid enough wifi signal to actually compose a post and heave it onto the internets. But now I am home. So here it is!

Isn’t it a pretty thing?

The artist – like the new cover for JACK – is a lovely Italian man named Iacopo Bruno, and I think he is super special. He also made a bunch of interior illustrations, that I can’t show you yet, but I assure you,  are FANTASTIC.

Anyway, what have you people been doing for the last two weeks? Any glorious adventures?


Regarding IRON HEARTED VIOLET: where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

this is my book as it was and my book as it is. and this is my desk in the attic.

I am now, and will be for the next week, in the final stages of my work on my next book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET. This is my last chance to get my grubby little fingermarks all over the text and the story and the outcome. This is my last chance to do….. Aw, hell I don’t know. Something.

After I send the book back to Julie Sheina, my beloved editrix, then that’s it. My voice is silenced. My fingers are stilled. I may want to re-set the book on Mars or in the future or in a utopic commune in Zimbabwe, but my cries will be fruitless and my desires thwarted. Once the book leaves my fingers, it is no longer my book.

It will never again be my book.

It will belong to the reader.

And that, my friends, is a gorgeous thing. Scary, yes. But gorgeous all the same.

In truth, there isn’t much for me to do. The copy is pretty dang clean (though I’ll have my titanium-eyed husband give it a once-through just to make sure), and I’m astonishingly happy with the story itself. The weight of the words on my tongue is both both soothing and tasty, with a little bit of a spicy bite, and the yaw of consonants against my molars has a pleasing give to it. And after so many weeks away from these characters, my heart leaps within me to see them again.

Now, many of you already know that I’m a longhand-type writer. I love the scritchy sound of the pen on the paper. I love the fact that I’m forced to slow down, to breathe as my characters breathe, to worry over my inscrutable handwriting after a long day of writing and unwind the story like a bit of tangled thread.

Here is the book as it looks now: a stack of white, clean paper. Four-hundred-and-change pages of goofy fantasy goodness with a healthy dose of my nerdy, nerdy heart, forced into typeface and heavily bleached 8 1/2 by 11 paper.

But that’s not how it used to look.

It used to look like this.

(I’m actually totally astonished that the first line has remained the same. Well, almost the same. There’s a couple sentences that precede it, but the sentence is there. And it still feels like a first line.)



Okay, fine, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s interesting – given that I have the tendency to be a slash-and-burn self-editor, the kind to employ the select-all-delete with wild abandon, to ceremonially set fire to drafts in the fire ring outside with a kind of mad, cackling glee. The shape and heft of the prose in my earliest drafts has remained constant. Maybe this means that I’m growing up. Or maybe it means that I’ve finally moved past the fact that I once lost a novel in a spontaneously-combusting, and subsequently exploding laptop.

(okay, fine, that last part was a lie. It wasn’t once. It was twice.)

In any case, the consistency in this bout of story-making interests me. Perhaps it is the reason that I feel so happy with the text now. Maybe there are benefits to learning to trust one’s instincts.

Now, as you can see here, there are actually two notebooks, which I have out in case I need to refer to my original drafting. The smaller of the two – it’s a little moleskin, which I get is all uber-precious-artiste-ish, and you all should totally make fun of me for using one, and I get it that they’re overpriced and show an over-abundance of Hemmingway-love, but I gotta tell ya, I love those friggin notebooks. First of all, they force you to write small, so a longhand page in one of those is roughly equal to a manuscript page, so they’re useful. Also, it fits in my purse, so it allowed me to keep my page counts up because I could scratch out a page or two at the park with the kids, or a the doctor’s office with the kids or at a stoplight while driving the kids, or whatever. Also, they’re super sturdy, so after a long time of hard wearing, the notebook has resisted any damage to the binding, loss of pages and whatever.

And you can make fun of me all you want, but I can still tell you to CAN IT.

The other notebook is from the very earliest iterations of VIOLET. Mostly, it was my initial experimentations with the narration and the character of the narrator. Originally, Violet was named Evangeline (what was I thinking?) and there was no character of Demetrius, her best friend.

But even at the very beginning, I was wrestling with this notion of story-making. Why do we make stories? And are stories always good? Can stories hurt us? Where is the truth in narrative – particularly now when news media and corporate and political operatives manipulate narrative for their own cynical ends?

I wrote this story because I loved the characters, but I also wrote it as a work of philosophy as well. In the end, I needed to wrestle with the notion of Story – and I needed my characters to do the same.

Did it work? I have no idea. But I’m pretty happy with it right now. While it’s mine. Before I release it into the sky.