Jeff & Will talk about their upcoming trip to New York City for the Romance Writers of America national conference and reveal the news that they will be among the presenters at the RITA Awards ceremony on Friday, July 26.

Will reviews The Masterpiece by Bonnie Dee while Jeff reviews a book Bonnie co-wrote with Summer Devon called The Nobleman and the Spy.

Jeff interviews Michael Vance Gurley about his new YA steampunk novel Absolute Heart (Infernal Instruments of the Dragon #1). Michael discusses the inspiration behind the story, what he did to build the world it takes place in and what he hopes for the trilogy. He also talks about what’s coming up next for him.

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Show Notes

Here are the things we talk about in this episode:

Jump to Book Reviews

Interview Transcript – Michael Vance Gurley

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Jeff: Welcome Michael to the podcast, or back to the podcast I should say.

Michael: I’m super excited. Thanks for having me Jeff.

Jeff: Yeah. We were talking before I hit the record button that we last had you on in Episode 42 and now we are at 198, it’s kind of crazy. So like you did the first time we had you on, you’ve come up with a book that I didn’t even know I needed to read when I first got to read it. So you’ve got this YA book called ‘Absolute Heart’. It’s the first book in the ‘Infernal Instruments of the Dragon’ series. Tell everybody what this is about, both the book and the series behind it.

Michael: ‘Absolute Heart’ is above all else a steampunk book. It’s an adventure set in a world where clockwork powered England – in 1880s Victorian era England – is at war, a sort of Cold War, when we first pick up the series, against the Magically Powered Ireland who’s been kind of besieged by the Brotherhood of the mage. It’s a clock. It’s a warlock group that is sort of made the queen subservient to them in ways you have to find out when you read it. And it’s really the story about two boys. Gavin the high councilman’s son from England and his friends, following him when he has these terrible secrets – he thinks they’re terrible – and when they’re found out he could be executed for them, for at least one of them. So he does what all teenagers do when they have something awful happen and they think they’re gonna get trouble, he runs away and his friend, his best friend Landa who’s an art officer, which is a mechanic, a computer engineer and she’s a powerful female character that I’m really proud of. And she has his back and challenges him and calls him foolish when he’s foolish and she goes with him and some other people who have their own agendas on this quest. Then the other side, the Brotherhood, sends Orion of Oberon who is a young warlock of immense power because he’s the nephew of the ailing Irish Queen. They send him off to get the most powerful weapon in the world – the dragon stones and there’s a lot of mystery and history about the dragon stones and what they are and what they can actually do, but they want them to end this war in their favor.

So of course they have a meet cute, or at least I hope people think it’s a meet cute.

They have to decide like, are they going to get together? Will they/won’t they? Of course, there’s the will they/won’t they thing. I’m really excited about the steampunk adventure and it sets off and is set to be a trilogy so I’m really excited about that, and hopefully people will like it – the inclusion of fairies and the air steamships and all the wonder that is steampunk.

Jeff: Steampunk it’s so not really anything I read… I dabble in it periodically, but something about Gavin and Orion and the bad ass friend you gave Gavin. Full disclosure to the listeners, I read a very early draft of this. You have a lot going on in book one, what you’ve parroted back now, into a more condensed story, but how did all this coalesce and come together and what was the inspiration?

Michael: You really should pat yourself on the back because your viewers should know that you read an early ARC and gave me notes, and edited, and really kind of dissected it for me – like, wherever it was messy you, like a good editor said, “That’s messy.”

The research starts with reading steam punk books and reading a lots of YA, which is of course a terrible addiction of mine. In reading all of that steampunk and finding those characters that you like, and you want to write about – because I use Scrivener, you have the photo option to put your vision of the characters, the places, the ships – you put photos in there and I work with a split screen so I can always reference that, so I never really lose track of it. But yeah, it was great looking into all that steampunk stuff and going into like Cassandra Claire’s ‘Clockwork Angels’ series or Scott Westerfield’s ‘Leviathan’ series. And if I can get even a little bit of that spirit I’ll be really happy. But it starts with loving steampunk. You really should write what you know and write what you love. I’ve never been an airship captain but I love reading about them and I love that whole idea. And you know, thinking about like ‘Leviathan’, that series has a powerful gender bending quality to it, with the girl because she has to, dresses like a boy and acts like a boy in order to have a career – and I love that. I hope I’ve engendered Landa with that a little bit as well.

Jeff: What went into creating your world of magic in Ireland and steam power and clockwork in England, because there’s so much that you can pull from to create the steampunk universe. What was your decision to make these things your universe?

Michael: Steampunk is – one of the amazing things about it is, an amazing thing about worldbuilding as well, is you can go with historical fiction. You know, like my first book and it’s wonderfully creative but you’re also stuck with… you can’t lie.

It’s historical fiction, you can make up characters and you can make up some things, but really if you get too far away from reality, people stop believing in what you’re writing about with historical fiction. At least I think so. I stuck with the roaring 20s pretty well and that kind of thing. Steampunk is like a little bit to where you’re in the 1880s Victorian era.

But then you have these advances and you can get creative and wild and all of that. A lot of that came from traveling for me too, like I’ve traveled to Ireland and I kissed the Blarney Stone, which of course means I’m full of B.S. I guess, the gift gab you know. And then I went to England and I went to Stonehenge and I played around amongst all of the hinges there, because that’s where they keep them, and how a lot of fun. And the idea of the magic stones and power and Irish magic and castles – and then of course the troubles with the war between Northern Ireland and England – and I just rolled that back 40 years or so, and brought all that magic and the Stones and the power, I brought all that together and that’s really where the idea came from.

I also wrote a comic book like 20 years ago that had a lot of the fantasy stuff in it and it never got published but I tweaked it and changed it throughout the years. You can almost say that this part of this book- the backstory, the fantasy magic side – is about 20 years in the making, which I guess makes this a labor of love.

Jeff: That’s very cool that it goes back quite that far.

Michael: Makes me feel old saying it out loud.

Jeff: You could have had the idea when you were 5 or 6. What do we have to look forward to as the as the trilogy progresses – without obviously spoiling anything necessarily – but what can you kind of hint at about the story arc?

Michael: Well, you know I’m a big fan of sci-fi, and Steampunk is really an offshoot of sci-fi in a way, or vice versa I guess. But, you know ‘Star Wars’ originally was ‘Star Wars’ and then they added ‘A New Hope’ to the title when they were like, “Well, you know Darth Vader is still out there.” I mean, you know they gave Luke and Han Solo some medals. But, you know, then you get Darth Vader out there. So I love that idea of there’s always more. If you look for it, if you see the little bits, like there’s actually Darth Vader and an emperor… we’re still at war guys, so come back for ‘Empire’, and guess what, it’s going to get darker and worse and that’s really kind of what’s happening here – the book sort of gives you an ending but – and I think so does every book [in the series]. It has an ending, but it really isn’t. If you’re reading it, you know there’s a lot more that’s about to come down, and we might lose some people along the way, and maybe find some new people that you love, who’s together might not always be together.

Jeff: So with everything, between the magic and the clockwork and the steam and everything, your story, your book bible for this must be huge.

Michael: I used this great British author named Ellen Gregory who did some high seas adventure, and she read an early Edit 2 and gave me some criticisms – which I kept calling British-isms – and gave me some pointers in that, and we were joking about that too, that I have one hundred pages on the parts of a ship… hundreds of pages and you could just bore people to death writing about that.

It’s like giving that little bit to make it believable, and make it feel fantastic or whatever, and then let it go. And then I just use that incredible knowledge about mid ships and jibs at parties.

I can talk about all that stuff at a party now, but you don’t put too much worldbuilding in, but it is fun. I do have lots of stuff, like when I’m writing, there’s fairies in the book and I did so much research about Oberon, the king of the fairies and all that history. And then my amazing editor Dawn Johnson at Dreamspinner/Harmony Ink – I mean the whole team has been amazing, and each person has challenged me. Which is really part of the deal, you have to kill your darlings right? You have to allow some of your characters to change with some of the professional feedback. And so, anyway, I was able to use that research and pull it in and I still miss stuff, and some of those editors were like, “Hey, you know the name of that person? Shouldn’t it be this, for this reason historically?” I’m like, “Yep, I don’t know what I was thinking.” You know, And so it really takes a village, you know.

Jeff: What do you hope people get out of this book?

Michael: What I’m hoping to get out of it is enough people interested to get a whole trilogy out of it and to get an audio book. I really want to hear this story come alive – the swashbuckling adventure come alive. I hope people get entertainment out of it. I hope they feel empowered and maybe challenged on their beliefs a little bit, which is, you know, a lofty goal. And it sounds like hubris to say it, but I hope people read it and see the LGBTQ+ world is just like everything else. It’s steeped in mystery, and history, and great characters with amazing depth, capable of heroic acts and terrible evils, and everything in between. You know, some people will write a character and be afraid to make the gay character or the trans character do something horrible, but that’s wrong. They have to do everything that everyone else does in order to make it real. And so I’m hoping people will forgive me if I do something horrible to a character, or make them do something terribly wicked… you know, mustache twirling – and not, of course, hate the straight characters that do bad things as well.

Jeff: Right. Now, you kept a lot of this book in your family, in some ways too, because your husband Jason Buren did the cover and interior art – and the cover is gorgeous.

Michael: Thank you. I love the art.

Jeff: How did he come to get involved in it an what was it like collaborating with him on those elements?

Michael: Well, Jason’s an amazing artist and graphic designer. We actually worked on the first one together and we worked on comic books together and what I realized through it – honestly working with Dawn and the great editors, kind of makes you realize some things – you have to back up and state your vision. Say what you want. Show covers of things you like, and things you don’t like, and then not micromanage it. Because then what you’re going to get is my artistry, which I’m a writer you know, not technically a graphic artist. So you really get your best work if you let the artist kind of figure it out and that’s what happened. I let go of the reins of both books and I think that the covers are amazing, if I do say so myself. I think this cover is so exactly what I wanted to be, and I was unable to say it out loud. And that’s what a good artist should do in the interiors too. I wanted so badly to have chapter art and I know that people don’t have to let you do stuff like that, but [my publisher] Dreamspinner was so amazing. I pitched this idea of clockwork meets fantasy with the Dragon Wing and the clockwork gears together So I’m so excited to show some of that together with the dragon wings with the mixture. Anyway I’m so excited and geek about it. I even got a little gears as text breaks in the art, in the books, it’s really fun. It’s really gorgeous. But you, know let go and see what happens. That’s the idea.

Jeff: When you were here in Episode 42, we were talking about a historical m/m hockey romance called ‘The Long Season’. This is a total departure. Unless you can talk about the fact that you’re dealing with historical times. Had you always seen in your career switching genres so completely?

Michael: You know that’s a great question. I want to challenge myself to do something completely different every time. And so, like being a new writer, writing historical fiction was crazy. That’s too much to take on.

I said, “Well, whatever. It’s a labor of love, you know?” So then for my second novel, a trilogy? Themed like science fiction? Like, “Oh you’re crazy, that’s too much. You’re not going to handle it.” And who knows what we’ll see. The first one got picked up, thank you Dreamspinner and I’m super excited about it. I want to challenge myself and I love that genre. So I say, let’s do something completely different. People ask me about doing a sequel of ‘The Long Season’. We’re doing another hockey book. You know, I’m really proud of the fact that I wrote a character, Maggie in ‘The Long Season’ who was Brett’s best friend. Turns out Bret’s best friend started off with John Paul, which I’m really proud that people want a Maggie story and I think that’s amazing. Who knows when that might happen. I might do that. My grandmother certainly, when she read it before she passed away, she said it can’t end here and she’s right… another story. And I did all that roaring 20s research… who knows, I might go back, but I want to challenge myself to do something different. I could write another hockey book because I love it and I love the whole romance side of it and who knows.

Jeff: I was thinking you need to find a way to introduce hockey into the Infernal Instruments universe.

Michael: I mean, there might be some sports related in there a little bit, but like medieval hockey? That would be fun. I mean the 1880s isn’t too far away from Lord Stanley, so they could theoretically run into Lord Stanley somewhere. You know that can happen. Good idea.

Jeff: Do you foresee more in this universe, potentially if the if the trilogy works out and is successful?

Michael: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think it’s set up perfectly for a TV show. That’s huge right. But I’ve even thought about – I have a friend who’s a game designer and I even thought about… man, that would be amazing. That whole steampunk idea is a huge world and you’ll see in book two, the world’s even bigger than you see in book one because it’s a world at war. It’s a world half conquered by clockwork powered England and half conquered by magic powered Ireland. So everywhere you go France, and Germany, and Africa, and potentially the United States. Are they even the United States? It’s a huge world, so the stories could go anywhere. You know I think of like, Gideon Smith books. ‘Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl’ I think the first is called. They, at some point, they end up in an airship going to the United States, and the Wild West, and Egypt, and all kinds of things. Steampunk is open.

Jeff: I hope that just keeps going and expanding. So what’s coming up next for you? Are you done with book two or are still writing on the trilogy ,and can you look beyond this first trilogy? What’s next?

Michael: Well, interestingly enough, it goes back to your last question. Books two and three, the trilogy, has a beginning, middle, and end in my head. Of course there could be more after that, much like ‘The Long Season’, but in my mind I’ve already started about halfway through writing a third completely different genre book, challenging myself with something completely different, which is a contemporary YA book built on my travels to Antarctica. So it’s a YA, two young people who meet and fall in love on a cruise to Antarctica. Sort of a travelog and what happens, and the interesting things, and people, and penguins that they see. I won’t give away too much, meaning – that’s what I’m in the middle of now.

Jeff: That’s exciting. A little something new there. Again, totally disparate, but you mentioned what you want to keep mixing it up.

Michael: So yeah. And we’ll see how that works out. I’m working with a gender nonconforming character, which is really new for me, it’s taken lots of research to get intersectionality in the forefront of the book, you know not as a ploy, but as a reality of the world that we live in, and people that need representation. So I’m really excited about that.

Jeff: Hurry up and write that please.

Michael: All right. Hopefully, if you’re willing, you’ll probably see it before anybody else as a proofreader.

Jeff: What’s the best way for folks to keep up with you online, to keep up is as ‘Infernal Instruments’ continues and this new contemporary book starts to take shape?

Michael: If they go to my full name – Go on there and there’ll be links to my two book sites and to my Instagram, they can go to Captain Rhetoric on Instagram and find me, that’s where I write self-involved book reviews where hopefully people care about what I think about these amazing books that I read, and travel pictures, and just little bits like that, not too much of me, just sort of what I see about the world. I like to do that on Instagram and that’s the best way to keep up with me.

Jeff: Well I wish you the best of success with ‘Absolute Heart’. It’s been great to talk to you a little bit about it. And when that contemporary is done you’ll have to come on back.

Book Reviews

Here’s the text of this week’s book reviews:

The Masterpiece by Bonnie Dee. Reviewed by Will.
The Masterpiece by Bonnie Dee is a makeover story with Pygmalion themes in a historical setting. Essentially, an irresistible gay version of My Fair Lady.

The story centers on a guy named Arthur. He is the well-to-do gentleman in this particular scenario and, one day, he’s out enjoying the good life with his bestie, a guy named Granville. Occasionally Arthur calls Granville, “Granny” and it totally cracked me up.

Granville believes very heavily in the British class system. Arthur is a little more modern in views. He feels that if a man has the wherewithal and can pull himself up by his bootstraps, he can achieve anything with his life, no matter where he was born on the ladder of social hierarchy.

In order to prove their different theories, they set a wager, and that bet involves Joe the shoeshine boy. Arthur must make Joe a gentleman in six weeks. It is there that he will make his debut at the biggest party of the social season.

Joe moves in with Arthur who is very glad that to realize that Joe is not only very smart and very kind, he is hardworking and interested in bettering himself. Joe is undertaking this particular makeover because he has dreams of owning his own men’s shop one day – with a focus on finely crafted shoes.

They get down to work and, after spending several days studying and learning which fork to use, they decide to get some fresh air. So they go for a constitutional in the park where they unfortunately run into Granville, who’s like escorting some demure young ladies. Joe does very in his first unexpected like test.

Arthur and Joe now realize that they have definite feelings for one another. Their next test comes during an evening at the theater where they unfortunately run into Granville yet again (this dude’s everywhere).

Granville has befriended a professor of linguistics, and Arthur knows that Granville is only befriending this schlub because he plans on bringing the linguist to the party to expose Joe as some sort of lower-class fraud. Joe handles the situation admirably.

He’s proving himself time and time again, but Granny is not going to give up. He makes sure that Arthur’s family is invited to the big soiree, and his family comes to stay, making it nearly impossible to have any alone time with Joe.

Finally, the big evening arrives and everything goes swimmingly. Joe is tested but everyone is really charmed and quite taken by him.

When it comes to Pygmalion stories there is usually a point in the narrative where the Eliza Doolittle character has to wonder if the professor is in love with her, or the person that she’s pretending to be. We kind of skip over that in this particular story because it’s really obvious that Arthur and Joe are like completely into one another.

What ends up happening is that Joe feels guilty, his conscious getting the better of him. All these lords and ladies and debutantes are remarkably kind to him, and he feels genuinely bad that he’s pulling the wool over their eyes. That guilt eventually leads him to leaving Arthur’s house sooner, rather than later.

Arthur and Joe try to figure out how can they make their relationship work, but they can’t. Even though they’ve essentially won the bet and they’ve proven their point, the fact is that the class system is still very much a thing and the two of them are from two different worlds.

Joe packs his bags and leaves and Arthur ends up going to India. He has been convinced by his brother and his father that he has to finally grow up and take part in the family business. While he’s away, Joe uses the money that he earns from the bet and opens his own shop.

When Arthur finally arrives back in England, there’s a big declaration of love scene because they realize they are both utterly and completely miserable without one another. And they both vow to find some way that they’re going to make it work.

I really, really loved this book an awful lot. I loved these two characters that Bonnie Dee created I was rooting for them the entire time.

The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee & Summer Devon. Reviewed by Jeff & Will.
Jeff: Bonnie and Summer are both new to me authors. The Nobleman and the Spy, which I would call a second-chance romantic suspense historical, was a complete delight full of intrigue and some steaming hot sex.

Solider-turned-British spy Jonathan Reese is assigned to keep watch over German Karl von Binder. Jonathan knows Karl all too well because during the war Karl spared Jonathan’s life. It doesn’t take much for Jonathan to lose focus on his mission and pay attention to the man who has come back into his life. He’s also aware that he cares too much for Karl to allow anything to happen to him, despite the fact that his orders as the mission begins are a bit mixed if he should allow the man to be killed or not.

Karl, despite the forbidden attraction to Jonathan, tries to keep the spy at length, sure that he can protect himself. As evidence piles up though that there’s someone on Karl’s trail, the two end up working together trying to figure out who’s behind it. It’s a tangled web that I didn’t quite believe even as it was all falling into place. The resolution was certainly something I’d never anticipated as I tried to solve it as I read along. It was quite a thrill.

I loved the feel of this book. In often reminded me of a childhood favorite TV show, Wild Wild West, which was set in the same time period of the mid 1860s. While this isn’t set in the American west with some strange characters as villains, the time period comes through loud and clear in a rich setting and how the characters carry themselves.

I also liked how Karl and Jonathan recognized that they couldn’t give in to their attraction but the more they couldn’t give into it the more they really want to. And then when they got together it was so intense. Narrator Todd Scott I have to say does a terrific job with the entire story but the sex scenes…off the charts!

Will: What really struck me and what I enjoyed the most is that it’s essentially a bodyguard trope and it has all the different things that go along with that but in a historical setting. So it was sexy and it was fun and there’s lots of adventure and action. I really enjoyed this one as well.

Jeff: Calling out the bodyguard trope is really appropriate. But what makes it a little different, at least to me, is that Karl doesn’t really want to be guarded. But Jonathan certainly takes that role because he keeps reinserting himself even where he’s taken off the case. He wants to keep Karl safe at all costs.

So, yes, we both highly recommend The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon.