Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Badass Ladies in Space: I Interview Rhonda Mason, author of THE EMPRESS GAME! (plus a book giveaway!)

Can you hear the squee echoing around the world? That's me, because today I have the fabulous Rhonda Mason, author of one of my favorite reads this year: THE EMPRESS GAME, which comes out today!

One seat on the intergalactic Sakien Empire’s supreme ruling body, the Council of Seven, remains unfilled: that of the Empress Apparent. The seat isn’t won by votes or marriage. It’s won in a tournament of ritualized combat. Now the tournament, the Empress Game, has been called and the women of the empire will stop at nothing to secure political domination for their homeworlds. Kayla Reunimon, a supreme fighter, is called by a mysterious stranger to battle it out in the arena. 

The battle for political power isn’t contained by the tournament’s ring, however. The empire’s elite gather to forge, strengthen or betray alliances in a dance that will determine the fate of the empire for a generation. With the empire wracked by a rising nanovirus plague and stretched thin by an ill-advised planet-wide occupation of Ordoch in enemy territory, everything rests on the woman who rises to the top.

Did you read that? This book is basically the Thunderdome of Space Opera! The main character is a total take-no-shit badass, the combat is unrelenting, and there's kissing! That's a recipe for Rachel catnip right there. Is it any wonder my blurb is on the paperback cover singing its praises to the sky?

Click to enlarge, and thank you Hisham El-Far for the picture! 

Seriously, it's really fun and good, and if you liked my Devi books, you should go check THE EMPRESS GAME out right now!

Now, me being me, the moment I finished the book, I reached out to author Rhonda Mason in a rush of fangirlish glee to invite her onto the blog because interviewing badass ladies who write SF is becoming quite the thing here on Pretentious Title. (Click here to read my last interview with Jennifer Foehner Wells, author of FLUENCY.) 

To my delight, she agreed. She's also going to be giving away a SIGNED COPY! 

How to win a signed copy of THE EMPRESS GAME!

To enter, just leave a comment below!! For extra brownie points, you can also mention what kind of content you'd like to see on my blog. Do you want more interviews, more fiction stuff, more writing posts, more business info? Let me know! It won't actually improve your chances of winning a book, but it will make me super happy! :) 

I'll choose a winner at random on Friday. Just make sure you give us some way to identify you in the comment. It's hard to contact Anonymous to let them know they won. If you don't want to sign into blogger, that's totally cool. Just leave your twitter handle or some other identifier in your post and we'll find you!

Now, on with the interview!

Rachel Aaron-Bach interviews Rhonda Mason

RA: Thank you for agreeing to let me talk your ear off!

RM: My pleasure. :)

First things first (and for full disclosure), I blurbed your book! I meant every word of my fawning praise, too, because The Empress Game was awesome. I've been cackling that I got to read it first for weeks now. Seriously guys, if you loved my Paradox books, you're going to love this one, too!

Speaking of Paradox, your editor asked me to blurb The Empress Game specifically because your heroine, Shadow Panthe, and my own Devi Morris are both total badasses, though in slightly different ways. As a giant fan of Badass Ladies In Space, I was instantly on board (and as is probably obvious by now, absolutely loved it)! Can you tell us a bit about your leading lady and how she came about?

The opening scene for The Empress Game (EG hereafter…I’m a lazy typer), with Kayla fighting in the Blood Pit, came to me in a flash, in one of those all too rare “inspired by the muse” moments. Honestly, she came to mind almost fully-formed. She begins the book with a volatile combination of determination, self-loathing and desolation. She has an intense dedication to her il’haar, her only remaining family. She not only protects him physically, but shields him emotionally from the harsh reality of their existence (as best she can).

I credit her fierceness and all around badassery to my family. I grew up in a house of strong women. It was me, my two sisters and my mum, each of whom are badasses in their own way. We protect each other, we support each other in any endeavor and we love each other with an unbreakable bond. We may not need daggers and a wicked side-piercing kick to keep each other safe, but we’re every bit as fierce as Kayla.

Wow, that's a much cooler story than how I came up with Devi! You have history. For me, Devi just walked into my head one day and was all "You're writing my book" and I was like "sure, whatever you want, just please don't kill me."

Joking aside, your book, like mine, contains both high octane combat sequences and strong romantic elements. The love story is central to the plot without overwhelming the action or politics, which is always good when your main character starts out as a space gladiator! That said, The Empress Game could definitely be classified as a Romance just as much as it could a Space Opera (or it could just be called "Rachel Bait," because Space Opera + Romance = Win). Was this blending of genres a deliberate decision on your part, or did you just write the book you wanted to read?

To be honest, EG started out as a “Futuristic Romance” (a la Catherine Spangler). I’d just written an epic fantasy novel that came close to selling but never did. In a reaction to that, I thought, “romance is a much easier sell, and I enjoy reading futuristic romance, I’m just going to bite the bullet and try it.”

I learned quickly, about 50 pages in, that while I enjoy reading SFR, I couldn’t stand writing it, and using the “romancey language” (as I call it) that goes along with writing a true romance novel. I was rolling my eyes at what I was writing, and I knew without a doubt that I could never write as hot as that market now demands. I consider myself a writer of “speculative fiction with strong romantic elements.” The difference between that and SFR is a very, very fine line/grey area. And I’m OK with the overlap. I hope it appeals to readers of both SF and SFR.

While I enjoy the romance element, it was the story that moved me to write. So, basically, I wrote the book I wanted to read. A story without a romance element? Forget it! A romance that overshadows the worldbuilding, action and plot? No way. I have to have it all. :)

An author after my own heart, I see!

Like any good Space Opera, The Empress Game has a lot of politics. The main thrust of the plot centers around recruiting and preparing Kayla to take part in the titular Empress Game, a no-holds-barred fight to see who gets the throne of a galactic empire, but that's just a tiny piece in a much larger political landscape. Personally, I enjoyed having a look of how a galaxy-sized government would actually work, but you do squeeze in a lot of talk about trade deals and galactic economics that one wouldn't normally expect in a book whose primary plot is the run up to Mortal Kombat: Empire Edition. Did you do this to show the realities of the political power at stake, or do you just really like inventing SciFi economics?

I actually consider myself something of a weak worldbuilder, since I am SO interested in character interaction and plot. In my rough drafts, my critique partners often have to point out, “Rhonda, you have two people standing in an empty room talking to each other—again.” ;-) Knowing that about myself, I pushed myself to create a world that felt like it existed outside of the Game. 

More importantly, I wanted to show that just because Isonde had her own political agenda and considered it of paramount importance to the empire as a whole, not everyone cared about it. Most people are primarily concerned with their own needs, and the reality is you can bring those people around to your side if you meet those needs. Isonde is a master at knowing how to use people’s political/social/economical wants and needs to accomplish the things she wants done.

As Captain Jack Sparrow might say, “It’s all matter of leverage, savvy?”

One of my favorite mechanics introduced in the book was the one-way psychic connection between Kayla and her brother. As a writer, I loved the tension you were able to create by having one character able to talk in the other's head without the other being able to answer, especially as things got more dangerous. I also just loved their relationship, period. Protective Mama Bear (panther?) is a role that both helped and hindered Kayla as a character in a very believable way. I loved watching her struggle between her duties from the past and her life in the present. Plus, you managed to write a teenage boy who actually sounded like a teen boy without being annoying! That is a feat

Without spoilers (because this is clearly going to be a major part of the trilogy going forward), can you tell us more about the culture Kayla and her brother came from?

Hmm. This is a tough one for me because, (and this is horrible for a writer to admit, I know!) I only make up the worldbuilding bits I need as I go along. *covers face in shame* Terrible, right? 

(RA/B interruption: Not at all! I'm a big fan of the idea that the author should only worry about knowing what they need to make the series work. It's all too easy to go overboard on worldbuilding because you feel like you should know everything and end up working so hard you kill your enthusiasm for the setting. Not that authors shouldn't know what's going on, but all things in moderation.)

I have to admit to not knowing a ton about life back on Ordoch. But…I had better figure it out soon for books 2 and 3!

Ordoch is technologically advanced compared to the Sakien Empire, but it is by no means a utopia. They have psionic powers, which seem to be fading among the common people. The strongest psionics occur among the upper classes, who breed for that sort of thing. In the upper classes it is common to have twins born in an il-haar-ro’haar paring, something you rarely see among the lower classes.

What’s not clear in EG (and I am very much looking forward to exploring this more in books 2 and 3) is that the il’haar-ro’haar paring is meant to be an equal bond. The ro’haar, typically the weaker psionic of the two but the stronger physically, protects the il’haar with her might. The il’haar, in return, protects his ro’haar with his psi powers. We only see the imbalance in the Kayla-Corinth bond because she is older and better trained, and Corinth is undertrained/underdeveloped psionically.

And thanks for the compliment on Corinth! I realized just recently that he is the only child character I have ever written, so I’m glad I didn’t botch it. :)

He's seriously cute. I really liked him, which is super rare for me. I normally hate kid characters in adult fiction!

Thank you so for taking the time to answer my questions! So what can we expect from you next? You've obviously got two more books in the Empress Game trilogy, but is there anything after that?

I definitely have another story in the works after the EG trilogy. I’m going back to my fantasy roots for this one. Back in the day (before selling EG) I wrote the first 120pgs of both EG and the fantasy (whose awesome title is a secret until I sell it!) I decided to try selling EG first, so I shelved the fantasy at the time. Once EG was off on the grueling rounds of first agent querying, then my agent querying editors, I turned my attention back to the fantasy.

I’d say I’m about halfway through that first draft and I am DYING to work on it! Breaks my heart to have to set it aside while I write books 2 and 3 in EG. (EG was initially supposed to be a standalone, but Titan Books asked if would consider turning it into a trilogy.)

The fantasy novel is set on a chain of volcanic islands, with an interconnected island nation culture. The islands have no naturally occurring metallic ore, so all of their building materials/weapons/modes of transportation are limited to materials such as wood, bone, stone, fibers, sharks’ teeth, etc. For the first time in my life, I am gaga for worldbuilding! The limitation of having no metallic ore provides fascinating opportunities for ingenuity and it’s amazing how much the worldbuilding is driving the plot.

Surprisingly, Silmande (the lead character) is not a butt-kicker, if you can believe it. (I am in love with weapons and hand-to-hand combat!) Instead she’s a force to be reckoned with through sheer determination and her magic powers. She has a rare gift (no spoilers!) that, over the course of the story, she comes to realize is much darker than she ever thought.

Clearly, I could go on and on about this, so I’ll stop here! :) But, needless to say, I am excited about it.

Now! Question for you, Rachel:


I know you published both your fantasy series, The Legend of Eli Monpress, and your space opera series with Orbit. Was the use of the pen name Rachel Bach your publisher’s request, or your own decision in order to keep the two genres separate for your fans?

Not letting me off easy, I see? Well, it's no secret that the name switch was my publisher's idea. As anyone who's read both knows, my fantasy and my scifi are different animals. More specific to this question, the Paradox books are R-rated with swearing and sex while my Rachel Aaron books generally keep things to a PG level. Given this difference, Orbit decided it would be best to put the series under different names so as not to dilute my brand for either.

At the time, I was not a fan of this decision since two names meant twice as much work and promotion and since fans of one series might not realize I had others since the names were different. Now that I know more about author branding, though, I think it was a good decision. My readers know what they're going to get when they pick up a Rachel Aaron vs a Rachel Bach book, and that's a good thing.

Of course, I could have made this all much easier on myself if I could just pick a genre and stick to it, but I've always been a contrary "write what you love!" sort of author, and I don't see that changing any time soon. I'm not getting another name, though. Two is more than enough!

Rhonda Mason divides her time between writing, editing, bulldogs and beaching. Her writing spans the gamut of speculative fiction, from space opera to epic fantasy to urban paranormal and back again. The only thing limiting her energy for fantastical worlds is the space-time continuum. When not creating worlds she edits for a living, and follows her marine biologist husband to the nearest beach. In between preserving sea grass and deterring invasive species, she snorkels every chance she gets. Her rescue bulldog, Grace, is her baby and faithful companion. Grace follow her everywhere, as long as she’s within distance of a couch Grace can sleep on. Rhonda is a graduate of the Writing Popular Fiction masters program at Seton Hill University, and recommends it to all genre writers interested in furthering their craft at the graduate level.

You can find Rhonda at www.RhondaMason.com.

And thus concludes our interview. Thank you again to Rhonda for dropping by, and if you haven't already checked out The Empress Game, do your self a favor and fix that! I had a seriously good time reading it and I can't wait for the next one!

Thank you all for reading! Don't forget to leave a comment below to put your name in the hat for the free book, and I'll see you tomorrow for Writing Wednesday!


Jessica Powell said...

Loved the interview...I'd like to see more like it on the blog! :D

Kai Herbertz said...

Hi Rachel and Rhonda,

I'm currently reading Fluency as per your suggestion and after that I'll probably start with Karen Miller's Falcon Throne, so it'll be a while before I can read the Empress Game (there is also still Nice Dragons on my ever growing tbr pile...).

It's great to see more female authors starting to write science fiction - with fantasy, I can instantly name a good mix of women and men, but the majority of sci-fi authors seems to be male. The genre could benefit from an equal distribution of male and female authors.

All the best,


mk said...

This book is now on my Want to Read list!
I like the current mix you've got on your site. Some re your own fiction, some business of writing, some economic eval, some about other things you like

Unknown said...

This looks pretty cool. Added to the "Wants to read" list.

I'm digging the mix you've got so far. MAAAAAYYYYbe some more writing stuff and (because I need it) more of the business stuff too.


Lee Sarpel said...

Well, an 'if you like Paradox' rec has me getting in line on the Holds list at the library. So inspiring! Thank you for the recommendation and the interview, I love listening to science fiction authors talk about worldbuilding.

Nicole Karam said...

This seems like a great book and thank you for this amazing interview .

Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LaĆ­s Roque said...

i love more interviews with new released authors!

Sam said...

I added it to my to read list. The blogs I enjoy the most are the ones that offer insight fit the financial aspect of publishing. I also enjoy and read most everything else on this blog.

Unknown said...

This book sounds like it'll be right up my alley! Adding to my read list right now!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see more writings posts, but the business posts are also interesting.

Unknown said...

The Empress Game sounds interesting. I think Fluency is good, so logic suggests I'll think the same of this one. Well, maybe over-simple, but I'd like to find out :)
Interviews are always fun to read. More please.

Unknown said...

Great interview! Definitely adding Empress Game to my reading list. :)

Pharosian said...

I enjoy your posts on writing craft. I also like getting behind-the-scenes looks at numbers and business info. And this interview was good! It's great to hear about new (to me) authors. So I guess my answer is keep mixing it up. My "wish list" item would be for you to write more posts, but I know you need to work on your books, too!

Unknown said...

Great interview. I reed Fluency (and loved) based on the other interview here, so I definitely will give this a try. I would love to read more interviews and book recomendations.

Claire said...

Loved the interview--I'm definitely going to have to pick up this book one way or another, Badass Ladies in Space are my catnip too!

I started reading your blog primarily for the writing/numbers posts, because I love them, but I would love to see more interview/book recommendation posts as well!

Jane said...

This sounds so awesome! Definitely am going to read this book.

Jennavier Gilbert said...

I'm really curious about this. As a long time sci-fi lover I'm really excited to see some fresh new voices in the genre.

Paul Weimer said...

Somebody (maybe it was Liz Bourke) pointed this book out to me months ago. It does sound like its up my alley (and mission for this year to read more women authors and new authors too)

Unknown said...

Wow, that sounds awesome. Thunderdome meets space opera? How could I not?

Oh and Rachel, your writing and business posts are must-reads for me. Keep those coming, but interviews are great too.

Unknown said...

Someone described it as "gladiatoral princess." I was sold right then. I can't wait to read this

Unknown said...

I love the writing tips posts (and it's time for another space opera with badass women and kissing! :P )

Unknown said...

I love the writing tips posts (and it's time for another space opera with badass women and kissing! :P )

Unknown said...

THE EMPRESS GAME was a great read. Thanks for the recommendation!

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