This month's topic is Food in Fantasy, and since I proposed that, it's my turn to host. Welcome one and all!
Stay Me With Apples, Comfort Me With Flagons
Lacking food storage, the now idealized Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers were little safer. As for Neolithic farmers, those enormous stoneworks speak as much fear as reverence: they were at famine's mercy, and they knew it. When the climate changed in Orkney, they opened the top of the Tomb of the Eagles and filled in the centuries-old community temple, a mute testament to the despair of people who felt themselves abandoned, literally, to death.
Before the Industrial Revolution, very little changed. William Langland’s great medieval poem, “Piers Plowman”, is vague if dour about vanity and lust, but to the sin of gluttony it speaks with passionate and specific detail, invoking a society where spring doesn’t mean admiring the pear blossom but hunting desperately for the first green vegetable shoots.
Nowadays, at least in the First World enclave, our food fetish has gone negative: for most of us, food is far too available, far too tempting, far too dangerous. Our bookshops swarm with delectably illustrated cook-books, opposite shelves of diet-books. Our TVs bristle with celebrity chefs and celebrity dieticians attacking red meat, dairy products, processed food. Yet every December, Australians, having largely excised religion, and often present-giving, from their major food-based festival, embark on an orgy of food-buying, preparation and consumption calculated to send their nearest and dearest to an early grave.
Ironically, this Desire-Taboo attitude brings us right back beside the oldest (Western) fantasy stories, of the Judeao-Christian apple and Persephone’s six pomegranate seeds. Unsurprisingly, if from our differing angles, Elsewhere’s food has always been the easiest and most tempting way to get lost precisely where you DON’T want to be.
But safe or wholesome food? As Ursula Le Guin remarked ruefully elsewhere, “It is hard to make a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another…” (“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”). It seems equally hard for myth, romance or fantasy to invent desirable food that isn’t taboo.
Most often, good food in modern fantasy marks a temporary safe halt: the desert inn in Diane Duane’s The Door into Fire, the old woman’s farmhouse in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Spell Coats, Beorn’s house in The Hobbit. But overall, earthly fantasy food should aid the verisimilitude, hence prohibiting chips and hamburgers in Pre-Industrial secondary worlds. And also hence, the scathing entry for “Food” in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland reads: “See STEW, SCURVY, STEW, WAYBREAD … and STEW” (79) A ruling that covers most noble and courtly menus too.
There is a standout exception: once again, Patricia McKillip’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe, where food plays a subtle but vital role. The lost heroine is spell-hidden in the castle kitchen. While the story bangs about upstairs through wizardry, succession worries, prince-abductions and scorched-earth hunts, its progress is recorded below through a series of hasty improvisations and unenchanted but inspired food.
As openers, for hall lunch “a proud flock of liveried servants” carry “trays of cold beef, whole poached salmon, loaves of braided bread, salad, fruit dipped in chocolate, cakes of cream and walnut chopped as fine as flour” (27. Supper, in contrast, is “a prolonged drama of great pies of hare and venison with hunting scenes baked in dough on their crusts, vegetables sculpted into gardens, huge platters layered with roast geese, woodcocks and pigeons, and crowned with hummingbirds made of egg white and sugar” (28).
As the narrative cogs engage Prince Talis, summoned home from mage school, nearly kills the King with a misspelled thunderbolt. In counterpoint, “Servants bearing trays of spiced wine and hot brandy had flung them into the air, splashing themselves; goblets rolled among the hounds” (48). Ruffled if coping, the kitchen dispatches the scullion heroine with a tray for the prince, now sequestered as a dangerous magician in the old keep. When she drops the tray, the prince reassembles, “’Salmon swimming in gravy, roast beef on a bed of broken meringue ... The bread is only slightly damp …’”(61). The bearer goes unnoticed.
Next time, the kitchen is coping with a punitive hunt. “’Twenty-six quail,” the fowl cook said… ‘Eighteen woodcock, thirty grouse, eleven lark, thirteen wild duck.’
‘Pluck them,’ the head cook said. ‘Spit the grouse and woodcocks, braise the lark and quail in butter, stuff the duck with sliced oranges before they are spitted. They will be served with an orange-and-brandy sauce.” (77). The kitchen offers the prince a tray of “game hens seasoned with rosemary, tiny potatoes stuffed with mushroom, soup of leeks and cream, a braided loaf of dark sweet bread, a compote of cherries in brandy” (86) and this time he remembers the bearer. But our next kitchen-view is of crisis. The fanfare for supper fails to sound.
Hall-mistress and servants wait beside “steaming silver bowls of soup with tiny saffron biscuits shaped like fish floating in it” while, “Haunches of ham crackled and split on the spits” (97). The soup threatens to spoil, the head cook begins to throw things, and dire news comes from the hall. The prince has been lost in the magic wood. Beans scorch, meringue swans burn, the undercooks open a brandy bottle. But the King plans a night hunt, and the kitchen jerks back to work.
“‘Reheat the soup,’ [the head cook]commanded, “Remove the fish. Chop green onions to float in the bowls with a pinch of paprika ‘… [His] eye fell on the brandy bottle. ‘Take hot brandy and spiced wine to the hunters in the yard, and thin slices of apple and game pie – quickly!’” (101)
When the hunt returns in the small hours for a “cold supper,” “[h]ams were sliced, and cold roast fowl, and long loaves of bread; a simmering soup of shredded beets was ladled out … to cool. Lettuces and boiled potatoes and scallions were chopped and mixed with vinegar, pepper, rosemary and dill. Dark, dense cakes heavy with nuts and dried cherries, redolent with brandy ... Whipped cream and flaked, toasted hazelnuts frosted the cakes… Undercooks funneled rosettes of minced pear onto the soup” (119).
But the prince stays lost. When Atrix the mage arrives, breakfast includes “pale wine scented with spices .. a plate [of] pastries stuffed with nuts and cream, cold salmon, a swan carved out of melon with its wings full of strawberries “(150). But soon both king and kitchen feel the brunt. “The king had retired in fury and despair to his chamber … Supper – roast, peppered venison, tiny potatoes roasted crisp, hollowed and filled with cheese and onions and chive, cherries marinated in brandy and folded into beaten cream – sailed over the bearer’s head and splashed … a hundred-year-old tapestry” (155).
Next day, “’Hunt,’ the head cook said tersely… ‘Again. Take up bread and cheese, smoked fish and cold, sliced venison. Mince the rest of the venison for pie. Also onions, mushrooms, leeks. Take up spiced wine’” (155).
The hunt’s next return “filled the kitchen with feathers, as grouse and pheasant and wild duck … were plucked, beheaded, stuffed and spitted. Hare, squirrel and deer were skinned, gutted and left in the cold-meat pantry,” and the head cook improvises again: “‘The venison can be smoked, the small game will do for cold pies for the hunters.” (155-56).
A normal (castle) breakfast, “silver urns of chocolate, trays of butter pastries, hams glazed with honey and sliced thin as paper, eggs poached in sherry, birds carved out of melons and filled with fruit” (156) segues into disaster: tray bearers come back “white as cream”, and then with ultimate calamity, trays of uneaten food. The head cook’s “face is tight” as he copes:
“’Cook the eggs until they harden, and roll them in minced sausage. The ham will keep for when the King hunts again. Mash the melon in sweet wine and strain it for cold soup –‘“ (160) Later things worsen. Wine is all drunk, but food ignored, and “’what is this dent in the bronze tray?'
‘The King kicked it,’ a servant said morosely. ‘He’s boiling and about to froth’” (161).
The head cook carries on more composedly than the King. “’Nonsense. Cold ham, herb bread, mince pies, red wine. The King may throw it to the dogs. At least it will get eaten’” (161). And when the hunt returns with even more kills, he sends up “stew and game pies ... salads of spinach and radish and bacon, hot black bread, simple heavy fare” (161). The only time this culinary tour de force ever mentions stew.
Meanwhile the heroine rediscovers magic, the prince meets the Queen of the Wood, and hall-servants bring back “cold broken fragments of salmon wrapped in pie crust, roast venison seared over flames and simmered in wine, garlic and rosemary, carrots and onions fried in butter and ale, baked apples stuffed with cabbage and cream, baskets of fruit woven out of egg-white and drizzled with chocolate flavoured with brandy” (176).
For a last time the heroine takes up the prince’s tray: “onion soup with a melting crust of cheese, a loaf of dark bread, a flagon of wine, a tart of oranges sliced into thin bright circles glistening under a glaze that smelled of ginger” (206). This time, meticulous, imaginative culinary detail dovetails with war and magic’s culmination: the prince remembers the scullion heroine, enters the kitchen to discover her, and the narrative’s eclaircissement begins.
Later, with the magic over, the mysteries folded away, the heroine, restored to her Wood princess status, brings the prince another tray, and this time the food goes undescribed. But the story ends as she re-enters the kitchen where she knows “the tray–mistress would be counting scratches, and the plate-washers would still be at the sinks, and the head-cook debating tomorrow’s meals, and everyone picking at leftovers” and says “’Tell me all your names’” (247).
It is uncommon, even in modern fantasy, for a secondary world novel to end belowstairs. It is a fitting finale that the focus should here move from the amazing food to its makers. The food itself is not particularly Elsewhere, in terms of high-end modern cuisine, but that this parade of lushly detailed dishes is never shown as magic, evil, or a temptation, justifies its makers’ place in the final spotlight. Unlike the mages or kings or Faery folk, their power has never produced anything but good.
* * * * *Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” appears in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012.
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The Silver Apples of NarniaThis month the theme for the Great Fantasy Traveling Roundtable Blog is food—appropriate for December, given the various holiday feasts and parties on many of our calendars. So, food—food and fantasy, food in fantasy literature—and what popped out of my mental toaster were apples and Narnia, in particular the silver apples.
Apples, apples and more apples, appear again and again in The Chronicles of Narnia. They are the first food eaten by the Pevensies when they return to Narnia in Prince Caspian—apples grown in an orchard they had planted centuries before, an orchard blessed by Pomona, the greatest of the wood goddesses. Perhaps the most potent, symbolically at least, are the silver apples. According to the WikiNarnia, “In all of existence, there are only “four known individual silver apple trees.”
The first one appears in The Magician’s Nephew. Digory and Polly are sent by Aslan to find the Garden of Youth and there take a silver apple from the Tree of Youth. There he meets the Witch, who was “just throwing the core of an apple . . . The juice was darker than you would expect and made a horrid stain around her mouth” (142-143). She has attained her heart’s desire, immortality, but already is experiencing what will many long years of despair of an evil life. She was warned: Come in by the gold gates or not all/Take of my fruit for others or forbear. /For those who steal or those who climb my wall/Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair (141).
Digory plants the second silver apple tree, the Tree of Protection, on the banks of the Great River of Narnia, with the apple he brings to Aslan/The tree grew quickly. “Its spreading branches seem to cast a light rather than a shade, and silver apples peeped out like stairs from under every leaf. But it was the smell which came from it, even more than the sight, that had everyone draw in their breath.” This breathtaking scent will keep Narnia safe from all enemies. As Aslan explains, the Witch “dare not come within a hundred miles of the Tree, for its smell, which is joy and life and health to you, is death and horror and despair to her” (155). For 898 years this Tree protects Narnia from all enemies. Presumably it dies and only then does evil come into Narnia: the Witch, having outlived the Tree thanks to the apple she ate, returns and the hundred years of winter begins.
It is an apple from this Tree that Aslan gives to Digory that cures his mother. And from this apple grows the third silver apple tree, in the garden behind a row house in London. The magic is lessened in our world, although it “did bear apples more beautiful than any other in England and they were extremely good for you, though not fully magical.” This otherworldly tree is magically connected to its parent in Narnia: “Sometime it would move mysteriously when there was no wind blowing . . . when this happened there were high winds in Narnia.” When a storm brings down the English silver apple tree (whether or not the apples are silvery here is not mentioned), Digory, by then an adult, has “part of the timber made into a wardrobe, which he put in his big house in the country” (166).
We all know what happens with this wardrobe.
The fourth silver apple tree is only hinted at in The Last Battle. The world of Narnia has ended; the Pevensies and their friends are in Aslan’s country and are being called to “Come further up and further in” (167) and to pass through the golden gates into a walled garden, “into the delicious smell that blew towards them” (169)—presumably the same delicious smell of the silver apple tree in Digory’s garden. At the centre of this garden is an orchard, “where the Phoenix sat in a tree and looked down upon them all and at the foot of that tree were two thrones, a King and Queen so great and beautiful that everyone bowed down before them” (170). These two are King Frank and Queen Helen, the first King and Queen, crowned hours after Aslan sang Narnia into existence. That they are compared to Adam and Eve suggests this tree is the Tree of Knowledge, a silver apple tree.
Clearly Lewis is drawing upon a variety of sources for these silver apples, and not just Genesis and the Garden of Eden—the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is never identified in the Bible as an apple, silver or otherwise. That fruit—and the silver apple tree Digory finds, are both forbidden and are both symbols of temptation, of the fall, of sin, of knowledge and immortality. For Digory this knowledge comes in a flash: the Witch is wrong; he must do the right thing, follow the rules, and do as Aslan has commanded. It takes Adam and Eve a little longer to figure things out.
According to the Myths Encyclopedia, “Apples are brimming with symbolic meanings and mythic associations. In China they represent peace, and apple blossoms are a symbol of women's beauty. In other traditions, they can signify wisdom, joy, fertility, and youthfulness.” In Norse mythology, the apples of the goddess Iðunn are necessary for the gods to keep their eternal youth—otherwise, they will grow old, grey, bent. One of the tasks of Heracles is to bring back the golden apples from the Tree of Life that grows in the Garden of the Hesperides. When Eris tosses out her golden apple, meant for the fairest, momentous and cataclysmic events are set in motion. Apples are sacred to Aphrodite: throwing an apple at someone was to symbolically declare one’s love (even though the fruit Eve picks is never identified).
Avalon is apple-island; Snow White is tempted by a poisoned one. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Apples, apples, apples: food as myth, as metaphor, as icon, as a way to the truth—to greater knowledge of self, of what is real. Aslan’s Country is the truly real; we live in the shadowlands. God gave us bodies that must be sustained, must be fed—and he gave us souls that also must be sustained and fed. But why apples, what makes them so special? Originating in Western Asia, today apples are grown world-wide. Originally they were among the earliest trees to be cultivated, now, they are ubiquitous and we eat them raw, cooked, baked, fried, and stewed. They were (supposedly) with us in the beginning in Eden. Silver apples frame Narnian existence, from the beginning to the end. They are a fruit given by God, weighted with meaning.
I believe I will go get an apple . . . a Pink Lady, they taste so sweet …
* * * * *Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. He is currently at work on a novel about a gay werewolf and a collection of gay-themed fantasy short stories. One of the collection's stories, "The Boy on McGee Street," was published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press) in October 2012.
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Deborah J. Ross
Food: A Fantasy Writer’s Secret World-Building WeaponFood is an integral part of world-building, whether it plays a direct role in the plot or not. Its availability and quality affect every human endeavor, and scarcity – or fear of scarcity – is a powerful motivation for conflict. What we eat (and what we don’t eat), when and with whom, all these tell a story “off the page” about ourselves and our culture. So it’s important to depict both food and its setting in a way that deepens the world we are creating.
I live in a small town, and on our 1/3 acre plot, my husband and I grow a significant portion of our produce, which I then harvest, preserve, and cook. Even without the digging and planting, weeding and pruning, this is hard work. It also takes planning, not to mention a knowledge of climate and soil, compost/fertilizer management, pest/predator control, and techniques for “putting food by.” I notice when food is taken for granted in fiction, just the way an experienced equestrian will notice when horses are treated like motorcycles.
Throughout most of human history, food has been a limited and therefore precious commodity. The availability of nutritious foods that can be stored has shaped the course of civilization. Far too many writers seem to be taking their own experience of food (it’s what you buy in a can or a frozen package at the supermarket) and extrapolate that into their fantasy worlds. Then it’s all too easy to bounce the reader out of the story.
Projecting modern technological methods of food production, preservation, transportation, and preparation into a lower-technology fantasy world runs the risk of booting a knowledgeable reader out of the story. (Come to think of it, the same holds true for a higher technology world as well.) For example, to stew means to simmer for a long time over low heat, and is an excellent way of preparing tough cuts of meat, but it takes hours, and that means plenty of fuel and a cooking vessel of a material like metal – which is heavy -- that can withstand long cooking times. I’m sorry, Peter Jackson, but Eowyn could not have served Aragorn a stew while on the road to Helm’s Deep. She might have heated water and cobbled together some rather unappetizing dumplings, but that’s not a stew.
More significantly, food presents an excellent vehicle for world-building. Each aspect of its production and handling conveys a tremendous amount of information about the society, ecosystem, and cultural attitudes. So if all your characters breakfast on bread and cheese, and every inn serves stew, you’re missing a great opportunity to make your world and characters more interesting.
A few thoughts on agriculture: Food has to come from somewhere, and unless you have a magical system that transports it from another dimension or creates it out of thin air, someone has to grow or gather it. We can challenge the “primitive-society” stereotypes of men-as-mighty-hunters and women-as-lowly-gatherers by looking at the limitations of game and the central importance of food that is gathered or grown in small gardens. The difficulty for us as writers is, I suspect, that gathering/gardening requires so many hours every day. It’s hard to go off and have adventures when most of your time is spent on feeding your family. Adventures generally rely on the ability to “leave home” with the disposable time to do other things besides obtain and prepare food. Besides, hunting is so much more heroic; all kinds of dramatic things can happen.
The shift from hunting-gathering – where everyone participated in the activities of food production – to agriculture fueled the development of cities. Grain could then be transported and stored for long periods of time, although this is an engraved invitation for rodents (and the diseases they carry) to come have a snack. A wheat-based diet (“daily bread”), like any other diet dependent on one type of food, means a vulnerable food supply. Drought, flooding, or crop disease then easily results in famine, such as the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th Century.
Human beings are omnivores, capable of eating a wide variety of plants and animals. For example, historical records indicate Roman soldiers supplemented their diet of grain (wheat, barley, rye, spelt), vinegar, and legumes, with hares, deer, foxes, badgers, beavers, voles, wild oxen, and moles, not to mention wild mussels, chicken, duck, petrels, cormorants, herons, spoonbills, mallards, teals, geese, cranes, and crows.
We develop attitudes about what foods are “better,” which are forbidden, and which are essential to life or status. One of the most powerful ways of maintaining cultural identity is by the exclusion (or necessity) of certain foods (abstaining from pork in Islam and Judaism). Other aspects of the specialness of certain foods include holiday or celebratory foods, and which foods are suitable for which groups of people (different diets for babies, for example, or pregnant women). Food can be used to elevate individuals or demean them; likewise, different culture may vary widely in how they view the production, preparation, and serving of food. Some foods may be taboo to handle by everyone, or only by certain people.
For me, the creation and depiction of regional cuisines is one of the delights of world-building. People in India, Africa, Finland, and Venezuela don’t eat the same foods, so why should all the food in a fantasy world be the same? Different cooking styles and condiments, spices and garnishes, not to mention basic materials (wheat-based vs rice vs corn vs yams vs manioc vs whale blubber…) can result in a tapestry of sensory detail. And not a few jokes or even insults as well.
Armed with a few questions, we can look at the many roles food plays in world-building. Much of this background will be off-stage (unless your protagonist is a chef), but the decisions you make about food will color every aspect of the lives of your characters.
Who produces the food, and how are they regarded by other portions of their society? Despised, ignored, exploited, revered? Do they use magic in the sowing, reeping, weeding(!), hunting, slaughtering, harvesting, preserving…? Do they have special powers arising from their intimate relationship with the natural world, the animals they hunt, the plants they nurture? What are the traditions of sharing, communal living, and hospitality, and are they the same for other occupational groups? What happens to surplus?
What is the balance of locally grown versus imported foods? What is the seasonal or weather cycle and how does it affect food production? Are all the nutrients necessary for life present in the local diet? And are they available all year round, or are there season in which only preserved food is available? Or does the local diet provide subsistence only and robust health depends on traded/imported foods? What is the major source of calories in the diet (think outside the “grain box” to starchy vegetables, tree nuts, seeds, oily foods…)
What’s involved in moving food from the producers to consumers who then exchange money or other goods for what they cannot grow? How is perishable food handled? How are the merchants and carriers regarded? What are the penalties for theft (is it considered a grave crime like murder to steal food?) What is the response to hungry people and is it different for children versus active adults versus the elderly? How do various characters react to strange foods? What is the role or significance of poisoned food in this culture? What about psychotropic edibles? What are the intoxicants in this society and do all groups participate in them or are some reserved only for special classes? What qualities are attributed to certain foods (courage from eating a lion’s heart, cunning from snake meat)?
Are certain foods appropriate for only certain occasions (think holiday foods, funeral foods, foods given only to sick people or warriors about to go into battle)?
Who prepares the food and are they also the ones who purchase it? What are the customs of the marketplace? Is carrying food a mark of privilege, an advertisement of culinary skill, or a badge of servitude? Is a cook a priest, a skilled professional, a menial, the head of a household, or an object such as “spoils of war”? What are the superstitions surrounding the preparation of food? How is spoilage managed and when is food considered inedible? Who eats food that has gone bad? What are the attitudes towards food-borne illness and who or what gets either the blame or the credit?
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Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with JAYDIUM and NORTHLIGHT, and short stories in ASIMOV’S, F & SF, REALMS OF FANTASY and STAR WARS: TALES FROM JABBA’S PALACE. Now under her birth name, Ross, she is continuing the” Darkover” series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD. She is a member of Book View Cafe. She has lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, and is active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.Andrea Hosth
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Food in FantasyChocolate and tomatoes are from South America. Macadamias are Australian. Spice traders so closely guarded the origin of cinnamon that all manner of wild speculation grew up about its origins: fished up in nets at the source of the Nile, or taken from the nests of giant cinnamon birds. It was most definitely "not from here", where "here" equals what readers have been trained to see as the default fantasy setting, a "pseudo-medieval" Europe.
Food has origins. Food also has expiry dates. Seasons of availability. Limits to technology in preparation. So what are your characters eating?
Stew, according to Diana Wynne Jones. Invariably, unceasingly, stew. Perhaps this isn't due to a lack of imagination on the part of authors, but for fear a pedant will note that x ingredient didn't show up in y country until z. Even if the world you're writing in has no America, no Sri Lanka, no Australia. No feudal society, no pseudo-medieval Europe.
How to write around these expectations?
Neologisms have their limits. When your characters sits down to braised gaddy with shimshimar seasoning, it will only take a few meals before the reader starts skimming – and with no idea whether 'gaddy' is a herbivore, a feline, or a particularly tasty elf.
Vagueness is another approach. A supper of bread, cheese and cold meat. No mention of whether it's naan, fetta or kangaroo. Food is a necessity, a pleasure, to many a passion. To be vague about something so central is to take the flavour out of your world.
Anchoring those 'exotic' foods in your new world seems the simplest way. Cook up whatever you like, taking note of seasons, and whatever transport and preservation limits of your world. Mention the chocolate is from Zeverland. The macadamias from the Isles of Carray.
But keep the giant cinnamon birds. Those sound epic.
* * * * *Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue. See: www.andreakhost.com