I love fantasy that explores themes of family – ties of blood, ties of love, ties of loyalty – and I am delighted to say author CSE Cooney agreed to stop by for Wyrd & Wonder to discuss these notions in the complicated context of her necromantic novel Saint Death’s Daughter…
Let me introduce to you to the family of Miscellaneous Stones in my recently released novel Saint Death’s Daughter. To know them is not, exactly, to love them. But to know them is to understand Miscellaneous—Lanie—a little better. And who, after all, wouldn’t want to get to know your friendly neighborhood necromancer a little better?
There’s Lanie’s father, Unnatural “Natty” Stones: Chief Executioner by trade. Super stylish, adorably extravagant, a great patron of the arts, and always a gentleman—even when looming over you with a bit of garroting wire and an apologetic smile.
Then there’s Lanie’s mother, Abandon Hope Stones. Her career is not as glamorous or as publicly performative as her husband’s. She’s the Royal Assassin for the Blood Royal Brackenwilds. She’s very good at her job. Too bad it’s left her emotionally deadened, chemically dependent, and cold as the corpses she inevitably leaves in her wake.
Digitalis Stones is Lanie’s aunt. Okay, she’s more like Natty’s mother’s second cousin, but Natty always calls her “Aunt Diggie,” so Lanie does too. Not that she has much of an opportunity to do so. Diggie’s pretty busy running her casino out of her living quarters, and hiring herself out as a leg-breaker for loan sharks whenever she’s having a cash-flow problem. Diggie’s the exception to the rule that “the house always wins.”
I’m going to pause here and let you bask in your introduction to these first three characters… and then (spoiler alert), I’m going to break it to you gently that they’re all dead by the first page of the book.
You know who’s not dead on the first page of the book? Lanie’s older sister, Amanita Muscaria Stones—scion of the Stoneses, flower of her illustrious line!
Now, Nita sees herself, very properly, as the head of the family, as Lanie’s protector—even, in some respects, her mentor—and certainly the more powerful of the two siblings. (Lanie disagrees, naturally. What siblings don’t disagree from the time to time?) Lanie may see her sister as a nightmare, a monster, a threat to be avoided, placated, tricked, flattered, and bargained with at all costs—lest Nita do unto Lanie what she has done to countless other small mammals who have happened to cross her. But Nita would never guess her little sister feels that way. Nita thinks that Lanie thinks that Nita’s a hero! A patriot! A doting older sister, a friend and confidante. Yeah. Very tight-knit family group.
Last but not least is another dead character: Grandpa Rad. He’s been dead a hundred years, but that hasn’t stopped him from giving his opinion about anything.
Grandpa Rad, or, as the history books know him, “Irradiant Radithor Stones,” is the ghost of Lanie’s great-grandfather, and the last known necromancer to be born into the Stones family line—until Lanie came around, that is. He’s the only one in her life who can help her understand her strange powers, the only source of knowledge about her death magic. And he’s, you know, rancid. His morality is non-existent, his politics are outdated, and his attitude toward Lanie is so toxic with bigotry and patriarchy, it makes Lake Karachay look like a pleasant picnic ground. Plus, he’s a mass-murderer. Plus, he wants to take over Lanie’s body and puppet it around as his own personal reincarnation chariot.
So, there you have it. Meet the Stoneses. Their family tree only seems to bear fatal fruit, doesn’t it? There is a ghoulish familiarity in their dynamics, an almost cartoonish hyperbole when you look at them in summary like this. In the novel, characters become more complex than they first appear, sure. But here, in this cocktail-party equivalent of a get-to-know-you, they’re as exaggerated as the emotions we have in dreams.
In real life, a friend once described her mother as “an emotional refrigerator.” In my fantasy novel, I’m all like, “You want an emotional refrigerator mother-figure? I’ll GIVE you an emotional refrigerator mother-figure!” and thus, Abandon Hope Stones, complete with her perfume of ice and almonds, and her spun-glass soprano, and her workshop full of torture implements. Perhaps one of the ways I was trying to understand my own world was to exaggerate elements of it, to magnify the minutiae, the better to examine it.
In real life, for example, siblings sometimes fight—bully each other—hurt each other terribly. Then we grow up, and some of us forget or even purposely discount all of that damage—because it’s all in the past, right, mere childish pranks? Okay. Well, let’s examine this through a fantastical lens. Let’s give one of the siblings a power called “fascination” that makes her able to talk anybody into doing anything she tells them to, if they ever hold her gaze for three seconds. Oh, and also, she’s not only the type of kid who pulls the wings off flies, but she’s been encouraged by her parents to pull the wings off flies since infancy. All her birthday presents were tweezers and boxes of flies.
What does that sibling relationship look like, starting with childhood, growing into adulthood? Now give the younger sibling an allergy to violence that leaves her vulnerable to any harmful act committed near her. Let that very allergy—which, to her sister’s eyes, makes her a puny, mewling runt—be the sign of her great power to come: a reaction against violence and death so outrageous that, in its full maturity, can raise even the dead. How do these two siblings perceive power differently? Violence? Gentleness?
But a family is not just blood, right? It’s marriage too. (If one defines marriage as being “bound by unbreakable oaths and the mutual engendering of a child,” which, okay, Nita does. But her chosen consort, Mak, definitely doesn’t, since he didn’t come by his oaths or his child willingly.)
With the introduction of Mak into the Stones family as a, for lack of a better term, “brother-in-law” to Lanie, and the subsequent production of Nita’s daughter, Sacred Datura Stones, we begin to see how family might be examined in a different way. This is news to Lanie, for whom family has only ever meant the Stoneses. And the Stoneses are what they are. They’re famous for it, in fact. How could they be otherwise?
Nita learned her parenting skills from Natty and Abandon Hope. That is, she learned to basically be an absentee landlord where her child was concerned. She’s a career woman, like so many of us, and like so many of us, has a huge debt to pay off right when she’s barely breached her twenties (sound familiar?). She’s too busy running around the country, making money killing a bunch of people to care for her kid. That’s what sisters and co-parents are for, right?
Lanie—now “Auntie Lanie”—is not without a career herself. Raising the dead is serious business. It requires a lot of hours studying, tinkering with bones, and experimenting with one’s own blood. These traits—laser focus, obsessive drive—tend to leave a girl irritable and baggy-eyed. And raising a child can be pretty harrowing even when it’s your full-time job. But she does a few things right, some of which she learned from her undead foster mother, Goody Graves: she’s always there at bedtime for stories, she tries to answer all questions with scientific accuracy, and she would give her life to protect her niece’s.
This last thing, this fierce and bewildering love of the child, is something she shares with her brother-in-law, Mak, who otherwise hates everything to do with the Stoneses. Lanie and Mak both love Sacred Datura and they both try to raise her as well as they are able. Mak teaches his daughter his language, his songs, his meditation techniques. When, in a moment of trauma, Sacred Datura responds violently to an act of loving parenting, he does not stand idly by and let her get away with it. He communicates clearly, with discipline and tenderness, that such behavior is not love, not family. If she continues in that vein, he will no longer be family to her.
Mak also challenges Lanie’s cultural and theological worldview—as she challenges his. Their platonic, occasionally truculent, parental collaboration is often a challenge, sometimes even devastating. But ultimately, what it yields for their small unit of three is a transformation of the meaning of the word “family.”
What a Stones is is no longer what a Stones always has been. Not only does Lanie have a chance of breaking free of those expectations (though she is aware, going forward, there is much to unlearn), but there is hope for the next generation. Whatever Sacred Datura chooses to be is what the Stoneses will become. The so-glamorous motto of “Stoneses die young” dies when Lanie and Sacred Datura choose, instead, to live.
Get to know Lanie and her family in SAINT DEATH’S DAUGHTER by CSE Cooney, out now from Solaris Books.
Many thanks to CSE Cooney and Rebellion Publishing.