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Dragon Unleashed!

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Hooray! The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is out TODAY in the U.K.

(But whoops, that all got a lot more rhyme-y than I’d intended. Sorry! I’m a little bit giddy right now, as you can probably tell. But the book itself doesn’t rhyme, I promise! ;) It’s not that sort of book at all, as you can tell if you read the first chapter.)

It all started late one night, about 2 years and 4 months ago. I’d finally, finally gotten my younger son (still a baby) to sleep, so I’d turned off the light and was just starting to fall asleep myself (and oh, I DESPERATELY needed that sleep, by then!)…when suddenly an opening and a heroine flashed simultaneously into my mind.

A delicious opening.

A wonderful, fierce dragon-girl.

A passion for chocolate.

Ohhh!

I couldn’t wait. For the first time in months, I didn’t even care about sleep!

I jerked upright, opened up my laptop, and with the light from the screen casting an eerie glow through the darkened bedroom, I started to type.

Once I’d finished writing down the first scene, I went to bed smiling, with all the different characters playing through my head all night long.

I am so happy that I finally get to share them with you guys!

The Bookseller calls it an “irresistible fantasy adventure”; School Library Journal calls it “a delicious fantasy treat that will satisfy readers who hunger for feel-good tales that pack a girl-power punch, like Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted or the movie Moana“; and in a lovely, serendipitous book-birthday gift, the UK’s Reading Agency has just selected it (in an announcement made today!) for this year’s Summer Reading Challenge (a program my own kids take part in every year through their local library – so I am REALLY excited to see my book on this list)!

You can find The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (or request it) at any physical bookshop in the UK, and you can order it from any online bookseller. I’m afraid there’s a little longer still to wait for Australians (who will get it on March 1st) and North Americans (who will get it on May 30th)…

…But if you do read it now, will you please let me know what you think? I have been waiting SO LONG to talk about it with you guys! I want to know who your favorite characters are! And what your draconic passion would be! (Trust me, that question will make far more sense once you’ve read the book. I promise!)

And if you’re able to take the time to write even just a very short review on Amazon or elsewhere, I will be so very grateful. ALL reviews, good and bad, make such a huge difference to a book’s success!

And I ALWAYS love seeing pictures of the book out in the wild. :)

Sadly, my poor 8-year-old is home ill today, so I can’t go out to celebrate the official book birthday. But I can’t wait for the launch party on Saturday – I’d love to see any of you guys there! And today, I’m having a yummy at-home party courtesy of my agent, as you can see. Mmmmm! The perfect way to celebrate this chocolate-filled book.

Thank you guys so much for celebrating with me. Chocolate to everybody!

Guest Blog: E.C. Ambrose on Medieval Magic and Medicine

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You guys know I love historical fantasy – so today I’m hosting author E.C. Ambrose, whose latest medieval fantasy novel, Elisha Mancer, was published by DAW Books today!

Here she is:

***

E.C. Ambrose as a medieval surgeon

One facet of my work which I am proud to share with Stephanie is the incorporation of magic with history — in particular, a historically appropriate conception of magic for the period.

Researching historical magic is a tricky process. The would-be researcher will first encounter all kinds of works on contemporary witchcraft or magic, and sleight-of-hand—all of which are interesting, but not very useful. There is, however, an academic line of inquiry into the history of human beliefs about magic, including the archaeology of magical charms and texts, and the study of magical texts, and the biographies of historical magic practitioners.

For my era, I was thrilled to discover Societas Magica, the academic society for the study of magic during the Middle Ages. These scholars study manuscripts of magical knowledge or understanding which are frequently bound together codex-style, either with other magical texts, or simply collections of household knowledge, of which magic was only a part. They have overseen a series of volumes from the University of Pennsylvania press covering a wide variety of magical studies and practices, including ritual magic, divination, and conjuring spirits.

While most people today would not profess a belief in magic (in spite of reading horoscopes, having lucky shoes or washing their cars to make it rain), during the 14th century, and for much of human history, a healthy respect for magic was common, even among people who did not claim to have witnessed it themselves. While the official Church stance on magic was that it didn’t exist, the reality suggests that priests frequently confronted the genuine belief of their parishoners. Manifestations of apparently magical power could be taken as demonic possession or the influence of Satan, but it’s not until the 15th century that the idea of a witch hunt becomes truly significant. Interestingly, people often defended themselves against magical attack through recourse to spells or charms. These might be written down and worn on the body. Both magical charms and learned ritual magic gathered in books tend to include numerous Biblical references and the names of saints, implicating the religion of the time in magical beliefs. One of the most beautiful translations of this type of magic into a historical fantasy setting is R. A. MacAvoy’s Damiano’s Lute series, which I heartily recommend.

However, medieval research was important to me in more ways than one. I spent a lot of time (and money) researching medieval surgery, and I did not want the introduction of magic to simply wash away the reality of medical practice. One of the things that often bothers me about the use of magic in fantasy novels is its tendency to become a panacea, solving all the problems that people face without much effort or cost. The healer simply evokes healing magic and the injury (and all of its physical and emotional ramifications) evaporate.

If I may pick on J. K. Rowling for a moment, (I think she’s big enough to take it), the example I usually point to is the botched healing of Harry’s arm after it is broken during a quidditch match. Professor Lockheart inadvertently removes Harry’s bone instead of healing it. Harry is then sent to the infirmary where a potion allows him to re-grow the bone. It hurts a bit, but he’s back to normal, virtually overnight. There are huge anatomical implications to the loss of an entire bone, not to mention the subsequent replacement of that bone (joints, veins, nerves, ligaments and muscles—an entire eco-system relies on the presence of the bone).

Medieval understandings of magic were based on a few key principles, one of which was knowledge of the thing the pracitioner wishes to effect. When my protagonist, Elisha, a trained barber-surgeon, begins to discover his own magical potential, it is his medical knowledge that makes it effective. A magus without medical skill would not be able to do the things Elisha can, and sometimes, even the dual skills in magic and medicine are not enough to save the patient or solve the problem.

Finding the balance between history, magic, and medicine has been one of my challenges and delights in writing these books. Elisha Mancer, book four in my Dark Apostle series of fantasy novels about medieval surgery, lanches this month! For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com/books

E. C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at ecambrose.wordpress.com, and you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Find Volume One, Elisha Barber, on Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Find Volume Four, Elisha Mancer (published today!), on IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Cats and Dragons

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It’s been a tough couple of weeks, between my horror at so much of the recent political news (in both the US and the UK) and my personal grief over losing our sweet old dog, Maya. We will never, ever forget her.

But there are some really wonderful things happening this week for our family…and one of the most important ones happened this weekend. Meet Pebbles! (And as always, if you click on the picture, you can see a larger image.)

Pebbles is about two years old, and we found her through Usk New Start Cat Rescue. She has an amazing purr, she loooooves being petted – and our whole family feels very lucky to have found her.

She was nervous at first but has gotten more and more relaxed and comfortable every day. Unfortunately, tonight will be her first trip with us to the vets, for a vaccination and also treatment for a minor eye infection – I hope it won’t be too much of a shock/betrayal for her! Please cross your fingers for us – and if any of you are cat-owners, I’d love to hear about your favorite cat toys (or see pictures of your pets)! While we were waiting to collect her, I asked friends on Facebook (in a public post, visible to everybody) to share cat pictures and cat stories, and it turned into a really lovely thread – definitely worth checking out if you could do with some adorable cat pictures right now!

Meanwhile, my wonderful local Waterstones is gearing up for my upcoming launch party in the most amazing ways!

Abergavenny Kids just posted an interview with me about both the book and the launch party – which is only five days away now! I hope to see some of you guys there.

The official UK publication date is February 9th (this Thursday!), but it’s already in stock at lots of Waterstones and Foyles branches and online bookstores – and I would love to know whether it’s in stock yet at independent bookstores too! If anyone glimpses it on a shelf in any shop or library, please let me know – or better yet, take a photo and send it to me! I would LOVE to see those pictures.

I’m sorry that North American and Australian readers have longer to wait! It’s coming out in Australia on March 1st and in North America on May 30th. But no matter where you live, you can read Chapter One online now!

I finished the first draft of my first adult romantic fantasy novella (Snowspelled) last Friday, so now I’m working on my new short-short story about Kat’s mother (on commission for the winner of my last charity auction item!), and then I’ll leap back into my next MG novel, which is all about grumpy princesses, goblin girls, and really annoying older sisters who think they rule the world (because they do).

…or at least, I will if I can convince Pebbles that she should let me use my hands for writing instead of typing. (You wouldn’t believe how long it’s taken me just to type this blog entry! Silly kitty…but very, very soft kitties with loud purrs can be very persuasive about things like this, as I’ve discovered in the last few days.)

Happy Monday!

All of Our Families

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I am so horrified by the news, it’s hard to be coherent or articulate.

But here is a family story I grew up on:

When my great-grandfather was a little boy, and his mother was still too weak to get up off the couch after having had a new baby, their house was burned down by Cossacks, and my great-great-grandmother’s wedding ring was yanked off her finger and stolen.

…Because they were Jewish.

They were middle-class. They spoke Russian, like their neighbors. They thought nothing like that could happen to them. But they were wrong.

They spent the next 3 years trying to find a way to flee the country. My great-grandfather had to leave his family behind for those three years and be hidden among a family of Christian friends who pretended he was theirs, for his own safety.

Three years later, the family finally managed to reunite and escape the country, taking great risks along the way. Finally they came to America, where they were safe.

Over and over again, in all of my family stories, from all the different branches and religions, my ancestors came to America and were safe.

President Trump’s Executive Order just denied that option to refugees of all ages in desperate need, as well as immigrants from multiple predominantly-Muslim countries.

I’m thinking of all those families, like my own family, seeking safety to live and work and thrive…and being turned away based on an Islamophobic prejudice that is every bit as bitter, as hateful and as dangerous as the anti-Semitism that targeted my family.

…as well as all those green-card and visa holders who happened to be traveling outside the country when the ban was enacted and who may now be turned away when their return flights land in American airports, not allowed back in to join the rest of their families in their new home in America. (Updated: they are already being turned away.)

America is a country of immigrants.

America was founded with the core concept of religious freedom.

My heart is breaking for so many families today.

Saying Goodbye

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Just over ten years ago, Patrick and I set off on a windy, rainy day, through semi-flooded roads, driving two hours from home to Border Collie Trust, Birmingham, to find ourselves a new dog. We were still grief-stricken over the loss of our first dog, Nika (who died far too young of a terrible genetic disease), but I was desperate to have a new dog to look after, to help heal the wound.

When we arrived, we looked through their big book of dogs and found two that looked like good matches. The assistant asked us which one we’d like to meet first, and we said, “It doesn’t matter. We’ll meet them both.”

She came back a minute later with a short-haired, black-and-brown-and-white border collie mix full of energy…who took one look at us and leapt straight into our arms, wagging her tail, radiating joy with her whole body, and giving us one unmistakable message: It’s you! You finally came for me!!!

We were supposed to take her for a walk around the grassy yard, but every few feet we had to stop because she kept flopping onto her back for tummy rubs. She didn’t want exercise at that point – she wanted love. And as we knelt over her, petting her while her whole body wriggled with delight, Patrick looked up at me and said: “Are we really going to send her back to her kennel to look at another one?”

Well, of course we weren’t. We couldn’t. She’d chosen us, and we chose her back. She rode in my lap all the way back home.

We never knew exactly how old she was. The vets back then, in 2006, said that based on her teeth, she could be anywhere between two and five years old. She’d been found after wandering stray somewhere in Wales. She had a bad shoulder, and based on the pattern of the injury, the vet said she’d probably been thrown out of a moving car. It looked like she might have had puppies at some point when she was extremely young. It was too late for her shoulder to be fixed by the time we adopted her; she’d been wandering stray for at least a month, and it was during Bonfire Night in the UK, so she had developed a terrible fear of fireworks and loud noises in general.

But oh, did she love people. She loved people so much. And the love she gave us was incredible.

I was diagnosed with M.E. not long after we got her, so I was never able to give her the long walks she adored – she had to rely on Patrick and on various dog-walkers we hired over the years for her exercise. But she loooooved to cuddle up on the couch with me, and she kept me company all through every day. Most of my first pregnancy was spent cuddled on the couch with her curled into my side, a warm, loving companion. And when we brought home our first baby, she accepted him immediately, too. He – and then his little brother – were the family puppies, and she was infinitely patient with them both. She played very gentle tug-o-war with them once they were old enough, and even as her spine grew worse and worse over the years, until she had to take a cocktail of four different medications (including multiple painkillers) every day, she remained gentle, loving and invariably affectionate with all four of us.

She spent the last couple of years of her life tottering around, as her deteriorating spine made it more and more difficult for her to walk, but she still exuded love and affection and she loved, most of all, being surrounded by people. She was a part of every family celebration, and she cuddled into anyone who was sad.

On Tuesday night, she had a terrible stroke. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. I spent that night sleepless, worrying…but the next morning, she was better. The vets said she’d made a miraculous recovery, and she might have many happy months left. I went to bed filled with relief.

She had a second stroke that night. That time, she did not recover.

Yesterday, we had to make the hardest decision. She spent the afternoon beforehand in our sunny garden, being petted and loved by the whole family. Patrick and I were both with her at the end.

The kids are devastated now, and so are we. She was gentle, loving, and an essential part of our family.

The love she gave us over the last 10+ years was well worth the pain of losing her now…but oh, does it hurt.

If you have a pet, please give them an extra hug from me today.

And if I’m a little slower than usual in responding here or elsewhere for a while, I hope you’ll understand.

Chalk Art and Joy and Chocolate

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I’ve always loved my local Waterstones and felt really lucky, too, in how supportive they’ve always been of my books. It’s an incredibly warm, welcoming environment in every way, and my family visits it at least once a week as readers, so of course it was the natural place to host my launch party for The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart.

But I still never expected this.

And OF COURSE I had to head straight in to town this afternoon to check it out in person!

I am in awe of the staff member who created this chalk art, replicating the front cover of the book so perfectly. And the way it felt for me to see it there, filling up that familiar blackboard over the counter in the shop I’ve been visiting with my family and loving ever since I first moved to Wales 7 years ago…

It felt amazing. It feels amazing.

I am really, really lucky to have such a wonderful local bookstore, and such a supportive one, too.

And naturally, I can never walk out of a bookshop without a new book for myself, too! I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch for ages, and just check out how gorgeous this cover is. How could I resist?

It’s 3 weeks and two days until the launch party. (We discussed the food for it today, and oh yes, there WILL be chocolate!)

It’s three weeks exactly until The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart comes out in the UK. Chapter One is already online. Everything’s ready.

I cannot wait to share it with you guys!

A Love Letter to my Favorite Book Published in 2016, on the Occasion of its One-Year Birthday

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It’s January 12th – which means it’s exactly one year to the day from the day that Patrick’s Secrets of the Dragon Tomb was published!

I can’t even count how many times I’ve read this book – and I loved it more and more every time. When I read the first draft, well before it sold or even found an agent, I knew immediately that it would be published. It was so sparky and funny and exciting and heartfelt. It was just wonderful! And I loved every new version more. The final, published version absolutely blew me away…and I wasn’t the only one!

Publishers Weekly gave it one of their rare starred reviews, saying

Samphire’s swashbuckling tale is both a pitch-perfect pastiche of a Victorian serial and a well-rounded, three-dimensional story of a boy learning that the world is more complicated than he thought. Abundant humor, intricate worldbuilding details, and precisely timed slapstick and mayhem mesh as neatly as the gears and levers of the water abacus, producing a gorgeously articulated clockwork of a novel.

(And you can read the full review here.)

You can see a whole batch of other great reviews from other magazines and blogs here.

It’s a wonderful book, full of hilarious moments, exciting action adventure, wild pterodactyls, dangerous clockwork crabs, spies and mysteries and infuriating (in the best possible way) family members. I looooove practical, put-upon Edward and his family full of eccentric geniuses and social climbers.

I love this book!

And look – it has a brand-new cover lined up for its paperback edition:

Isn’t it cool?

The paperback edition won’t come out until July 18th, though, on the same date that Book Two – the wonderful The Emperor or Mars – will be published, carrying Edward and his sisters on even more fabulous adventures. (Sea serpents! Museum heists! And a very, very awesome girl thief!) So if you want to catch up in time to grab Emperor on its publication day, I vote for you to buy Secrets of the Dragon Tomb now, in celebration of its one-year birthday.

Happy birthday, Secrets! I love you! :)

Disasters, Hot Chocolate Strategies, And an Opening Chapter

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Alas, yesterday’s hot chocolate experiment was such a disaster, I’m not even going to report the fine details here (except to say: TEN CARDAMOM PODS IS DEFINITELY TOO MUCH)! On the upside, though, my 8-year-old has volunteered to join with me in the experimentation process, making his own search for a new favorite hot chocolate recipe – and I have to admit (with mingled pride and envy) that his own hot chocolate experiment yesterday was FAR better than mine! Still, we’re both planning to do some fine-tuning today with our next round of experiments when he gets back home from school.

(If you want some context for this quest for hot chocolate perfection, check out the blog entry I posted this weekend. I WILL come up with a perfect pair of new recipes, I swear it!)

And check out this fabulous piece from The Guardian that was forwarded to me by Joanna Murray! The writer, Felicity Cloake, rounds up lots of different hot chocolate recipes using various approaches, then offers her own favorite recipe. I don’t think it would work for me because of how little I personally like milk chocolate – but if you do like milk chocolate, you should definitely check it out! And I loved reading about all the different methods.

In more chocolate-themed news, it’s one month exactly until The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart comes out in the UK – and in celebration, you can read Chapter One on my website now! I really hope that you enjoy it. :)

Of course, you can pre-order the book now, using this handy set of links (thank you to my website-designing husband for that! :) ) –

– and if you’re in the US or Canada, while you have longer to wait for the final book, you can enter this Goodreads giveaway for an ARC, too. Good luck!

Now I’m back to plotting out my next attempt at a perfect cardamom hot chocolate. Please wish me luck!

Hot Chocolate Recipes and Obsessions

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Readers who’ve been keeping me company for the last few years might remember that when the Kat trilogy was re-released as a boxed set, I declared its publication day (October 7, 2014) to be Hot Chocolate Day. In the week leading up to it, I posted one hot chocolate recipe after another, including guest recipes from friends. (There was Hot Chocolate One: the Original Comfort Recipe; Hot Chocolate Two: Vegan Perfection; Hot Chocolate Three: Witch’s Chocolate; and then, on Hot Chocolate Day itself, Coconut Milk Hot Chocolate.)

Of course, hot chocolate was never actually mentioned or drunk in the Kat books – I just like hot chocolate, so I thought Hot Chocolate Day would be a fun way to celebrate the boxed set. (And artist Sally Jane Thompson even drew a beautiful sketch of Kat drinking hot chocolate for the occasion!) But not entirely coincidentally, on October 24, 2014, just a few weeks after Hot Chocolate Day, as I was lying in bed in the dark waiting to fall asleep…I suddenly jerked upright, grabbed my laptop, and wrote the first 450 words of a new book – a book about a fierce dragon girl driven by her passion for chocolate (and a pot of enchanted hot chocolate that gets her into trouble in the first place!).

Sketch by Sally Jane Thompson

It was, of course, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart…which is being published in the UK in just 33 days (and in the US/CA 3-1/2 months later).

So. It seems like time to start work on a few new recipes!

My personal cooking goal over the next couple of weeks is to come up with one recipe that I really like for cardamom hot chocolate (something I’ve been curious about for a while) and one recipe I really like for chilli hot chocolate (my fiery dragon-heroine’s very favorite kind!). (I know how she made it in the novel, of course, but that was based on eighteenth-century chocolate-making methods, and I’m not working with all of the same ingredients, so I’ll have to make my own recipe a little different.)

Today, I made my first attempt at a cardamom hot chocolate, and it was really yummy – but I think it could be even better. And my public vow is to return to this blog within one week, maximum, to report on a version that I love.

(Today’s experiment #1: I poured a cup of milk into a small saucepan along with 6 bruised – i.e., cracked open – cardamom pods and a scattering of cinnamon. I turned the hob to the lowest heat possible and let it all simmer together for about ten minutes before adding in 6 squares of 70% dark chocolate and whisking it regularly for the next five minutes. It was really lovely! I love the heat that the cardamom gives to the flavor, and the combination of cardamom and cinnamon was really nice. BUT I also thought the flavors could be stronger. I’m going to be putting in more cardamom pods next time and more cinnamon and maybe letting the whole mixture simmer longer, too.)

Of course, this means I’ll have to make a lot of hot chocolate over the next several days.

What a pity, right? ;)

Happy chocolate-drinking to all! And I’d love to hear about any of your own favorite hot chocolate recipes.

Year in Review, Wild Dreams, and a Personal Mission

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By the end of a long holiday season, I’m always feeling jittery about how little writing I’ve been able to do, with multiple deadlines mounting in my head and frustration that I haven’t managed to do more. Why haven’t I somehow done more???

But here’s what I have written in 2016, as an annual record for myself to look back on, because it genuinely helps:

  • I did structural edits (i.e. major rewrites) on The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart and Congress of Secrets
  • I wrote my Kat-all-grown-up-with-kids short-short story “Flying Magic”
  • I wrote another short-short story that’s currently out on submission
  • I wrote the last 23,000 words of my MG spies-and-fairies book (to be published in 2018) and then did a substantial rewrite of the full book before turning it in to my MG editors
  • I wrote the first 29,000 words (about the first 3/4) of my first adult novella, Snowspelled (which should be released sometime in 2017)
  • I wrote the opening to my next-next MG book (my grumpy-princess-and-giants-and-sisters-and-goblin-girls book)

So, all in all, I wrote just under 57,000 words on brand-new stories and also did major rewrites (including many thousands of new words) on three full books, along with various rounds of line edits, copyedits, etc, all of which took time and energy.

It’s certainly not a massive amount of wordage compared to many of the writers I know, but considering that my younger son isn’t in full-time school yet – so I only have 14 hours a week of writing time – I’m telling myself AS FIRMLY AS POSSIBLE that it’s not too bad. Whew.

(And I’m posting it publicly as part of my personal mission to teach myself to be proud of what I do get done rather than focusing nonstop on wishing that I’d done more.)

In the non-writing aspects of my life, I took my kids on my first solo weekend away with them and it went wonderfully; I had a great time taking my younger son on an overnight trip to London; and my older son and I went to his first-ever ballet in Cardiff and he called it one of the best days of his life. So those are the accomplishments I’m hanging onto there, at the end of a tough year!

What about you guys? I’d love to hear (either here or on Twitter or Facebook) about any of the things you’re most glad to have accomplished this year, no matter how large or small. Here’s to do-able goals and pride in our work!

And in the next few days, I’ll be sitting down to make my yearly list of Big Dreams, !!!WILD!!! Dreams (with extra capitalization and italics to emphasize the wild implausibility of them all!) and also Small, Do-Able Goals across the year. If you guys feel like sharing any of your own personal goals/dreams for 2017, I’d love to hear about them!

Wishing you all a wonderful turning of the year!