Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Guest post by Nancy Holzner + Giveaway

What Is It About Shapeshifters?
by Nancy Holzner

My Deadtown urban fantasy series features Victory Vaughn, a shapeshifter who kills other people's demons for a living. From the moment Vicky began to take shape in my mind as an idea, I knew this character would be a shapeshifter. The question was, "What kind of shapeshifter?"

Modern readers tend to think of shapeshifters as werewolves and other were-creatures. Most of the time, the were is in human shape, but he or she can change into the form of a specific animal, such as a wolf. Sometimes the change happens at will; often, the change is forced by a full moon or other external condition (such as cold weather, as in Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy). In animal form, the were may retain his or her human mind and personality, or the Beast may take over entirely.

One of the things that make weres so popular is the sexy combination of human and animal. The were's human side may be rough-edged or refined, but when the Beast comes out, the animal side throws off human constraints and acts at the most primal level.

Although werewolves are arguably the most popular form of shapeshifter today, the idea of shapeshifter is at least as old as Ovid's Metamorphoses. In this poem, everything is always in flux, and anything can change into something else. The weaver Arachne changes into a spider. Daphne becomes a laurel tree. Narcissus becomes a flower. The gods, of course, can change their shape at will and return to their usual form, as when Zeus abducts Europa by becoming a white bull and running off with the young woman when she climbs onto his back.

Sometimes shapeshifting is a boon. For example, the Norse warriors known as berserkers were said to change into bears or wolves to become fiercer fighters. Some demons can shift into beautiful women to seduce the unwary.

Often, however, shapeshifting is a curse, or at least a problem. Think of the fairy tales, such as The Frog Prince or Beauty and the Beast, in which a man is forced to change his shape until he's released by a woman who loves him for who he is. Shifting may be a punishment, as in the case of Arachne or of Lycaon, a king who tested Zeus's omniscience by killing his own son and serving the body to the gods as a meal. A furious and disgusted Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf to reflect his brutal nature.

Sometimes a random event, such as being bitten, forces an ordinary person to become a monster. In my favorite werewolf movie, the classic An American Werewolf in London, two college students hiking on the moors are attacked by a werewolf. One dies, the other finds himself transformed. Just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When I was preparing to write Deadtown, I knew I wanted Vicky to be a shapeshifter. Why? Because she makes her living fighting demons, and demons are shapeshifters themselves. Personal demons take on many forms, tailored to a specific person's fears, worries, and regrets. What haunts you at night may be nothing to your neighbor, and vice versa. So it seemed to me that an expert demon-slayer should also be able to change her shape. Although I love reading about weres, I thought it would be cool if Vicky wasn't restricted in the shape she could take on.

I recalled a story from The Mabinogi, a medieval collection of Welsh legends and myths, about the goddess Ceridwen and a boy named Gwion Bach. Ceridwen had given birth to a hideously ugly son. In order to increase the boy's chances of success in the world, she created a potion that would contain all of the world's knowledge, including the knowledge of shapeshifting. The potion had to be stirred constantly until it boiled down to just three drops, then it would be ready. Ceridwen hired the boy Gwion to stir it for her. The boy stirred and stirred—but he consumed the last three drops himself. (Some say he drank them on purpose; some say the drops landed on him when the overheated cauldron shattered.) At any rate, Gwion Bach received the knowledge Ceridwen had intended for her son. Furious, she chased him. As she gained on him, Gwion changed into a hare to run faster, but Ceridwen changed into a greyhound. The boy jumped into a river and became a fish; Ceridwen hunted him as an otter. He flew into the air as a bird, and Ceridwen dove at him as a hawk. Eventually, the exhausted Gwion ran into a barn and hid in a pile of grain, becoming a piece of grain himself. Ceridwen shifted into a black hen and ate the entire pile. Nine months later, she gave birth to a second son—Gwion reborn as the great Welsh bard Taliesin.

Awesome story, right? I decided to use it as the basis for Vicky's race, which I call the Cerddorion, or the "children of Ceridwen." The Cerddorion can change into any sentient creature, up to three times per lunar cycle. They can change at will, or sometimes an overwhelming emotion, such as fear or anger, can force a shift.

Because I don't like to make things too easy on my characters, I imposed a couple of limitations: During a shift, the animal mind takes precedence—the closer to a full moon, the stronger the animal mind. If Vicky becomes a jaguar, for example, she acts on the perceptions and instincts of a jaguar, and all she remembers afterward is images and impressions. Also, among the Cerddorion only females have the ability to shift, and they lose it if they give birth. Vicky's sister, Gwen, chose to have a family. Vicky, on the other hand, is committed to her responsibilities as a demon-fighter, but that makes it hard for her to think about relationships. In Vicky's world, being a shapeshifter gives her power. But it's also difficult, it can be painful, and it requires sacrifice.

Shapeshifters offer us the chance to drop our inhibitions and put on a different face from the one we usually present to the world. What's your favorite kind of shapeshifter? If you could change your shape, what form would you take on?

DARKLANDS, the fourth novel in Nancy Holzner's Deadtown series, is now available.

Darklands Excerpt

Calling a spirit is tricky business. To do it right, you need a ritual dagger, along with candles, incense, salt, and an altar loaded up with all kinds of magical paraphernalia. Except for the kitchen salt shaker, I didn’t have any of that. What I had was my intention.

I stood in the center of the living room, having pushed its few pieces of furniture against the walls. I took a couple of minutes to get centered, breathing deeply and going inside myself. Breathe in . . . breathe out. Breathe in . . . breathe out. No thinking, no guilt, just a steady focus on each breath. When the world seemed to pulse in time with my heartbeat, I opened my eyes. I pointed at the cabin floor and moved in a slow, clockwise circle. I concentrated on my intention: protection. I projected my will from my brain, my heart, down my arm and through my pointing finger, creating a sphere of protection around me. Nothing could enter the circle unless I allowed it.

Let it be so.

Then, I called the Night Hag. I pulled up everything I knew about her legend. I remembered the terror I’d felt as a child—lying in bed, sure she was coming for me, pulling my pillow over my head to block out the sound of galloping hooves. I could see the pages of a book of Welsh folktales, one from Mab’s library, where I’d read her story. I felt the uncanny shiver that had tingled through me when, walking alone at night in a dark Welsh lane, I’d felt something pass by. My pulse pounded like those galloping hooves. My whole body trembled with the desire to run, to flee, to stay out of range of the hag and her pack of hellhounds. But I stood my ground.

And I called her to me.

“Mallt-y-Nos!” My voice rang out with a confidence I didn’t feel, pushing past the cabin’s walls. “Matilda of the Night! Lady of the hunt! Mistress of Hounds! Night Hag, who drives lost souls to the Darklands! I, Victory Vaughn, do invoke thee!”

The words echoed back to me, then faded. My intention cut through the silence, as I held the image of Mallt-y-Nos in my mind. A silhouette on horseback, shadowy against the moon, long hair flying behind her as she rode. She reined in her horse and cocked her head, listening. I called out again: “Mallt-y-Nos, come to me!”

In my imagination, the hag wheeled her horse around. She whistled to her hellhounds. Shrieking a bloodcurdling hunting cry, she raced toward me.

“Come!” I shouted, shrieking too, raising the volume to blot out the horrible sound of the hag’s approach. “I command thee!”

Hounds bayed and howled in the distance. The sound grew closer. The ground shook as thundering hooves pounded closer, closer. I clamped my hands over my ears and kept shouting. I wasn’t saying anything now; I was just making noise. Anything to fight the terror of her approach.

An explosion jolted the cabin as the wall collapsed. I staggered back a step, almost falling, covering my face with both arms. A tingle in my shoulder told me I’d bumped into my protective magical barrier, and I jerked forward. I had to stay inside the sphere.

I dropped my arms to see what I’d called

I stared into the fiery, red eyes of a massive steed. Flames shot from its nostrils, but they broke to the left and right before they reached me. Hounds leapt forward, jaws snapping, but they couldn’t reach me. My protection held.

“Quiet!” shouted a woman’s voice. The hounds fell back, milling around the cabin. The wall they’d burst through remained intact. The half-dozen hounds that crowded the place didn’t look like any dogs I’d ever seen. Each was the size of a small horse. Their eyes glowed red and orange, lit by inner fire. Saliva dripped from their fangs; it sizzled when it hit the floor.

The horse turned sideways, and Mallt-y-Nos came into view. I blinked. This was the Night Hag? The woman astride the horse was young and beautiful, with blue-green eyes and golden blonde hair that flowed, shining, to her waist. She looked nothing like the nightmare hag that had terrorized my childhood imagination. “Why have you summoned me?” she demanded, regarding me imperiously from her demonic steed.

Before I could answer, her face changed. Wrinkles formed around her eyes, on her forehead, between her nose and mouth. Her blonde hair faded to gray, then bleached white. Her skin went from creamy to blotchy red to jaundiced. I gaped, unable to look away, as the beautiful young woman sagged and faded into an ancient crone. Finally, the hair thinned to a few wiry strands. The skin shriveled and peeled away, baring the skull beneath. Flames consumed the eyes, leaving only a red glow.

I looked into the face of death.

The cycle began again. In the course of a few minutes, Mallt-y-Nos flowed from youth to middle age to decrepitude and death. And back again. And then again. I stared, fascinated, almost forgetting the terror of her presence.

In her death’s-head form, she pointed a skeletal finger at me. “Why did you call me?” she asked again, her voice impatient. Youthful flesh covered her skull. Her cheeks turned pink; her eyes sparkled. Thick, shining hair cascaded down her back. “Do not suppose, mortal, that you can command me. I came because I was curious. Mortals run from me; they do not request my presence.”

That I could believe. Even in her youthful form, she was terrifying.

“I called you to ask you a favor.”

Nancy Holzner grew up in western Massachusetts with her nose stuck in a book. This meant that she tended to walk into things, wore glasses before she was out of elementary school, and forced her parents to institute a “no reading at the dinner table” rule. It was probably inevitable that she majored in English in college and then, because there were still a lot of books she wanted to read, continued her studies long enough to earn a master’s degree and a PhD.

She began her career as a medievalist, then jumped off the tenure track to try some other things. Besides teaching English and philosophy, she’s worked as a technical writer, freelance editor and instructional designer, college admissions counselor, and corporate trainer. As Nancy Conner, she writes how-to and reference books on topics ranging from classical mythology to using Office 2010.

Nancy lives in upstate New York with her husband Steve, where they both work from home without getting on each other’s nerves. She enjoys visiting local wineries and listening obsessively to opera. There are still a lot of books she wants to read.

For information on Nancy and her books, visit her website. You can also find Nancy on Facebook and Twitter. And visit her Kickstarter page to find out about her plans for a Deadtown prequel!

Book #4 in the Deadtown series

They call it Deadtown: the city’s quarantined section for its inhuman and undead residents. Most humans stay far from its border—but Victory Vaughn, Boston’s only professional demon slayer, isn’t exactly human…

Boston’s demons have been disappearing, and Vicky’s clients are canceling left and right. While fewer demons might seem like a good thing, Vicky suspects foul play. A missing Celtic cauldron from Harvard’s Peabody museum leads her to an unwelcome conclusion: Pryce, her demi-demon cousin and bitter enemy, is trying to regain his full powers.

But Pryce isn’t alone. He’s conjured another, darker villain from Vicky’s past. To stop them from destroying everything she loves, she’ll have to face her own worst fear—in the realm of the dead itself.


A signed copy of (winner's choice) any book in the Deadtown series: Darklands, Bloodstone, Hellforged, or Deadtown!

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Giveaway open worldwide and ends on 12 August 2012!

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