Guest Post from Karen Heuler: Let’s Be Brutally Honest Here

Photograph of Karen HeulerSo, how many people have you killed?

I mean, characters.

And how long have you been doing it?

I have to confess: It was hard for me to kill my first character, but after that it got easier. I actually stopped noticing how many there were or who they were.

I occasionally killed a major character, at the end, but even before I got to the end it was possible for me to kill minor characters as if they were placemats. I even people killed people I wanted readers to love. If it bumped up the plot, I was all for it.

And then I suddenly realized that I had gotten used to killing characters. I was killing them without remorse.

How many, I wondered, had I killed?

Ah. I didn’t want to go back and count. It was like going back and counting calories after an expensive dinner out. Why ruin it?

More than ten? Of course. Hundreds? Possible. Thousands?

Well, actually, even more than that. Like a great many writers these days, I’d killed off a proportion of the planet for an apocalypse that caught my fancy. It was a particularly lovely apocalypse. It would make a wonderful, visual, stunning movie. Not your usual, squishy, guns and guts and screams and hands-smashing-through-glass kind of movie, either. A grand and glorious apocalypse with lots of people dying in a very artistic way.

See? Even now I’m proud of it.

I remember being outraged by how easily Orson Scott Card got Ender to destroy a whole civilization and then absolved him of responsibility. Nope. Own up, Ender! Responsibility exists!

And yet.

And yet, I kill people.

How long will it go on? Will I ever grow tired of it? Will I switch to stories where no one dies; where, in fact, people fall in love and have babies? They could be strange new babies; I could, conceivably, do that.

Because even though I feel no guilt, I feel that I should feel guilt. It somehow isn’t right to say these weren’t really people and I didn’t “really” kill them.

Besides, I’m sure that the idea of killing is not a slippery slope. It isn’t, is it?

Just because I can write about it so easily doesn’t mean I’d ever actually do it, right?


Bio: Karen Heuler’s stories appear in literary, fantasy, and science fiction magazines regularly. Her 2014 novel, Glorious Plague, was about a strangely beautiful apocalypse, and her second story collection, The Inner City, was chosen as one of the best books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly. She lives in New York City, where murder never happens and rents are extremely low.

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Guest Post from Luna Linsdsey: Putting the Mind Sciences in Science Fiction

Google's predictive powers cause this question to answer itself.

Google’s predictive powers cause this question to answer itself.

Hard science fiction tells stories based on the hardest of hard sciences, particularly on the engineering and technological application of these sciences. If a story doesn’t have space ships, terraforming, anti-grav, robots, or semi-accurate descriptions of planetary orbits and atmospheres, it cannot join the elite ranks of hard SF.

Any story which dips overly much into issues of society, culture, or what it means to be human, is often tagged as soft science fiction. Even cyberpunk, a high-tech genre, is usually considered soft, because of its thematic commentary on the fallen state of mankind.

The implication is that hard SF is somehow “better”, just as the hard sciences are “better”. Physics is a hard science. Psychology is not. Psychology is assumed to be flimsy, weak, inaccurate, and easy. “Soft.” Therefore, SF that deals with it is equally easy.

This division seems a little unfair, because to me the “soft” sciences are arguably far more complex than hard sciences. Physics and chemistry picked up the low-hanging fruit of empirical discovery, those aspects of our universe that could easily be discovered by looking through a microscope, telescope, or mass spectrometer. But understanding the interplay of synaptic pathways? That takes advanced tools like fMRIs and scanning electron microscopes, which have only recently been invented.

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Guest Post from Anne Leonard: Writing “Strong Female Characters” in a Patriarchal Secondary World Fantasy

Cover of Dorothy Dunnett's book CheckmateIn Dorothy Dunnett’s sixth book, Checkmate, we get this passage:

She had been led into behaving like a female. And she was being dismissed as a female. But she had charge of his good name, although he might not know it; and she had work to do, although, like a fool she had lost sight of it.

Here we see the character of Philippa Somerville in all her complexity: determined, strong, imperfect, aware of her role in her culture and refusing to be limited by it. Philippa is a prime example of the “strong female character” existing in a patriarchal world, and although the novel is historical rather than fantasy, it and its companions have a lot to teach about writing strong women without giving up the conventions of a patriarchal social structure.

Yes, this is another post about writing “strong female characters.” I am coming to this issue from the position of someone who likes traditional epic fantasy with pseudo-medieval (or at least pre-industrial) cultures. This is my comfort read, and it is what I like to write. This is partly because that was what I grew up on, partly because I’m enough of a romantic to still have a soft spot for heroes, and partly because I like to interrogate that social structure. For me, interesting female characters are the ones who have to face social oppression – the same social oppression I do – and who fight against it within the limitations of their own beliefs about their roles. Feminist fantasy with matriarchal or egalitarian societies isn’t as interesting to me as a writer because it avoids the very problems I want to get my teeth into – what is a woman to do when oppressed? What if she doesn’t know she’s oppressed?


One of the problems faced by fantasy writers who consider themselves feminist but like to write about secondary worlds based on historically patriarchal cultures is the disconnect between the oppressive culture and the strength of the female characters. This disconnect is why people tend to fall into the assumption that a strong female character has to be a Brienne of Tarth, acting like a man.

That assumption leads to the argument that a strong female character is not historically accurate. Under this logic, because there aren’t lots of historical episodes of women going around acting like epic heroes, there’s no need for a strong female character in epic fantasy. Aside from the silliness of saying fantasy has to be historically accurate, the problem with this argument is that there are lots of different kinds of strong women in history. What makes a woman a strong character is not her physical prowess (though it could be); it’s her agency. The character’s agency is where the clash between oppression and strength is negotiated.

Consider The Handmaid’s Tale; most of Offred’s narrative is describing how she is being subjugated in Gilead and remembering what it was like before. She’s not fighting back or leading a revolution. No one would say she’s not a strong female character, though, because she has voice, feelings, thoughts, memories, and choices. Her agency is internal, in how she responds to the situation in which she is caught. (And if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, why not? Go read it!) Even if the character accepts the stereotypically gendered roles of her culture, she has to make decisions, and these decisions have to have consequences. This is almost a basic rule of writing, regardless of the character. Something needs to be at stake to move her story forward.


Some of the best examples of dealing with the disconnect between a patriarchal power structure and a strong female character are historical novels about real women with real power. The Lymond Chronicles (6 books, beginning with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett are far and away my favorites.

Set in Scotland, England, France, Turkey, Russia, and some other places during the period between Henry VIII’s death and Elizabeth I’s accession to the crown, Dunnett’s books are amazing for their historical detail, storytelling, intelligence, and characters. In the fourth book, Pawn in Frankincense, Dunnett writes one of the most devastating scenes that I have ever read, leaving George R.R. Martin looking cuddly by comparison. (The books can be read individually, but the reading experience will be much richer taking them in sequence.)

The women’s stories include the growth of Philippa Somerville, a gentleman farmer’s daughter, from child to adult; the consequences of a love affair 30 years past; estrangement between a mother and her son; the unhappiness of a young merchant woman who despise herself and the people around her; and a woman who endures abuse because of her devotion to the cause of an independent Ireland. One woman is a courtesan who has considerable power over powerful men. Several women are queens or courtiers. These books show how women with power wield it (the mother of Mary Queen of Scots is described as having “the thick oils of statesmanship” oozing through her veins), and they also present women who don’t necessarily have political or legal power but have power of personality and rich, complicated lives.

Significantly, the women are not all likeable. (Nor are the male characters, for that matter.) Mary Tudor comes off as rather pathetic, Margaret Douglas is scheming and power-mad, the Dame de Doubtance is a creepy astrologer without a shred of empathy. The younger Philippa is at times frustrating to read because she is absolutist who makes some bad decisions with significant consequences. The strong female character doesn’t have to be the heroine. She doesn’t have to be perfect. But she does have agency, and her choices matter.

These women also aren’t the sixteenth century equivalent of suffragettes or bra-burners. They don’t question the sexual double standard, they don’t don armor and go to battle, they don’t talk about being oppressed or fight overtly against it. (And yes, in one sense it’s kind of absurd to talk about a queen being oppressed – but on the other hand, it’s quite clear that no one is very comfortable with power lying in a woman.) While some of them engage in activities that don’t fit our idea of what women did in the sixteenth century, that’s only a part of them. They are living full and complex lives within the patriarchal society, rather than rebelling. A strong female character can, like Philippa, be aware of being “led into behaving like a female” and put that behind her without questioning her internalized conception of being a female. A strong female character is something feminist readers want, but the character doesn’t have to be a feminist to fit the bill.

Dunnett is not the only writer of historical fiction with strong and interesting female characters. Here are a few recent other books which should satisfy anyone looking for “historical accuracy” in trying to decide what role women should play in epic fantasy:

Cover of "Hild" by Nicola GriiffithHild, by Nicola Griffith. This is based upon the life of the woman who became St. Hilda of Whitby. Set in 7th century Britain, the book is thick with historical and physical detail. It presents the life of women who are family of the Anglo-Saxon kings, including slaves and women of lower rank. Hild is a mystic who both does women’s domestic tasks and leads men in battle. She is bisexual; she is listened to by men but is forced into a marriage; she has complicated relationships with the people around her.

shadowonthecrowncoverShadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood, by Patricia Bracewell. These two books are about Emma of Normandy, who in 1002 was married as a teenager to AEthelred the Unready and became a queen of England. In many ways Emma does not have power compared to the men around her, but she fights for what she can get and she uses it. She is a survivor — she was a Queen of England for over 30 years, to two different kings.

Theodora – Empress, Actress, Whore and The Purple Shroud, by Stella Duffy. These two books chronicle the life of Theodora from her childhood as a sex slave to her death as the Empress of Byzantium in 548. The title The Purple Shroud refers to a speech made by Theodora which is said to have inspired Justinian to put down a revolt rather than to flee Constantinople. Theodora is an interesting character because of how she rises through the social ranks and because of her forceful personality.

wolfhallcoverWolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Although these books are largely the story of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, they include as characters Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s wife and sister. They depict the ways women interact with powerful men. The relationship between Cromwell and his wife Liz is nicely drawn, and Liz, like Dunnett’s Philippa Somerville, is a good example of a woman on the fringes of political power who has her own agency.

Sharon Kay Penman has written too many historical novels about English royal families for me to list here, but her first, The Sunne in Splendour, is notable for its portrayal of Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, which is almost 180 degrees from Shakespeare’s portrayal of the same. Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville is also a strong – and unlikeable – character. Penman’s novel When Christ and His Saints Slept is about Matilda of England (Empress Maude) and her war to gain the English crown in the early to mid 12th century.

In sum, the writer of epic fantasy can keep full-blown patriarchal power structures and ideologies as part of the world-building. But history is rife with stories about women in such worlds who also have power, agency, and complex lives. Putting such characters into the epic fantasy world is only going to enrich and deepen it.

Bio: Anne Leonard has been writing fantasy and other fiction since she was fourteen and finally, after a career with as many detours as Odysseus, published her first novel, Moth and Spark, in 2014. She has a lot of letters after her name that are useful when trying to impress someone. She lives in Northern California. Her website is She can be found on Twitter at @anneleonardauth and on Facebook at

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Documents of Tabat: An Auction Handbill

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What are the documents of Tabat? In an early version of the book, I had a number of interstitial pieces, each a document produced by the city: playbills, advertisements, guide book entries. They had to be cut but I kept them for web-use. I hope you enjoy this installment, but you’ll have to read Beasts of Tabat to get the full significance. -Cat

A flyer, kept carefully folded, in the top drawer of Bella Kanto’s dresser. Dated some twenty-five years earlier, the paper crumbling and worn, and never looked at since being placed there.


Trained by Renowned Beast Trainer Jolietta Kanto, Her Estate

Will Be Sold At Auction

On the 12th Day of Autumn, at the Black Dome

At 2nd Afternoon Bell


Two serviceable male Minotaurs, of approximately 25 years, trained in simple guard duties and of proven loyalty and good breeding.

One stout Satyr, capable of gardening and light field work.

One hearty Centaur female, trained in cookery and housekeeping.

One Oracular Pig, of unremarkable accuracy.

Two hands of small hunting dragons of good bloodline and health, with two females currently in brood.

Brace of Riddling Deer, elderly.

One Dog-Man, incapable of breeding but trained for fugitive-hunting.


Sold For No Fault; With The Best City Guarantee

Sale Positive And Without Reserve

Terms: CASH


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A Glimpse From the College of Mages

In the lull between bells, the campus walks were deserted and their scent trails stale, the pupils all in their classes this late morning. They worked them hard at the College of Mages, and no student would have a break until after a lunch of bread and fishy oil and the moments they could snatch for chatting, flirtation, naps, or mischief, before they were forced to plod on to other debates in other classrooms.

The sunlight was weak in this place, a thin draught of heat unlike the fierce burn of home, particularly in late winter. The Sphinx lay on a stone slab outside the Hall of Instruction, wishing for the comfortable give of sand and listening to the voices from inside: an instructor teaching her first year pupils about the Lists.

The Sphinx combed her hair with a paw. Black strands, dull from infrequent brushing, had fallen in front of her face — discolored claws slid through them, dirt-darkened to a matching color. A fly crawled across her tawny flank, and her limber tail swatted it away as she listened.

“How do we know,” a student asked. “What is Beast and what is Man?”

The instructor’s voice was mild, although she had answered this question before at the lecture’s beginning. “The races that are Human and the races that are Beasts are set forth in the Lists.”

“What if the listmakers were wrong?” a student asked. There was brief, shocked silence at the words before the instructor said “We do not believe that they were wrong.”

The words’ quiet conviction made her hackles rise, the fine fur at the nape of her neck, where it shaded between hair and mane, bristle. Irked and restless, she rose, abandoning her puddle of sunlight to move along the gravel paths of the College, in and out of the pine and cedar shadows.

An itch between the pads of her paws, furry grooves full of sensitive hairs, told her that somewhere in the crypts below the college, Carolus was teaching a class on summoning ghosts. There was electricity and regret in the air, and spiritual energy stirred on the breeze, pulled here and there by forces of attraction and repulsion.

A wiggle of ectoplasm circled her ear, an incipient ghost trying to figure out whether or not it wanted to be born. Another flick of her tufted tail, as big as a fat feast carp, dispelled it back into shredded wisps, and it did not reform as she passed out of range.

She patrolled along the high iron fence that kept the townsfolk out and the students in, intricate ironwork that held containment sigils, woven together so thick and strong that passing through the gates felt like sliding through velvet and steel curtains, heavy weights catching at her. She resisted their impediment to pause outside, surveying the street.

Only one passerby paid her much attention – some northerner newly come to town, country dust still thick on him and his eyes wide with wonder at the city’s nature as it unfolded strange thing after strange thing. Including her, who he eyed with trepidation as he moved along the street. He was a mouse, a boy who would snap beneath one pounce.

She watched him with her wide golden eyes, knowing their unnerving nature. Outside the city, Beasts were more dangerous – her uncanny fellows stalked the humans through the wilderness, and claimed hundreds each year, but she had become Civilized in her role as the doyenne of the College of Mages. She was legendary to the students — generations had tried to evade her detection when sneaking in or out of the grounds. Though she was forbidden to harm them, they acted as though she would. As though she was still dangerous.

Perhaps she was.


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Documents of Tabat: Artists of Tabat

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What are the documents of Tabat? In an early version of the book, I had a number of interstitial pieces, each a document produced by the city: playbills, advertisements, guide book entries. They had to be cut but I kept them for web-use. I hope you enjoy this installment, but you’ll have to read Beasts of Tabat to get the full significance. -Cat

An Instructive Listing of the Major Artists of Tabat, being Pamphlet #5 of the series of “A Visitor’s Guide to Notables of Tabat,” Spinner Press, author unknown.

Tabat’s art tradition is well established, and not a mere copy of the practices and schools of the Old Continent, as has been charged against the artists of Verranzo’s New City. Tabat’s artists build upon the traditions of the past while innovating and creating anew in a way that reflects the diversity and history of the city. When making conversation about the city’s art, it is useful to know the names of its leading figures.

1The cousin of famous Gladiator Bella Kanto, Leonoa Kanto is a figure in her own right, known for an eye that catches remarkable depth of detail and a willingness to speak about her work and how it relates to the day’s influences unmatched by other artists.

Descendent of a long line of sculptors and artists, Coe Firaubo has produced statues that adorn the Ducal gardens and the College of Mages grounds, where his most famous work, “Truth defeats the Serpents of Falsehood,” is situated.
An artist who has only recently risen to prominence, Etaya Wain uses nothing but natural elements in his artwork, employing homemade dyes and natural substances, many of them specifically taken from the north and celebrating its influence on Tabat.

Tailuaba Cloudseeker chooses to draw on supernatural influences (and magical animals) in the creation of her work, and both her subjects and her methods reflect her former Training as a Mage.

All of Tabat has lately been buzzing about unknown artist Flora, whose work is made of dried flowers, stuffed Fairies, and other creative taxidermy. The work is sold through Bernarda Manycloaks’ gallery, which has refused to disclose anything more about the artist and his or her work.


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Documents of Tabat: Flowers of Tabat

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What are the documents of Tabat? In an early version of the book, I had a number of interstitial pieces, each a document produced by the city: playbills, advertisements, guide book entries. They had to be cut but I kept them for web-use. I hope you enjoy this installment, but you’ll have to read Beasts of Tabat to get the full significance. -Cat

An Instructive Listing of the Flowers of Tabat, being Pamphlet #3 of the fifth series of “A Visitor’s Guide to Tabat,” Spinner Press, author unknown.

Winter roses were originally created by Elora Two Sails as an ornament for the winter months. Their magical nature makes them expensive, but capable of blooming during the coldest weather.

Irises, particularly the blue and gold variety that grows so thickly along the canals, is Tabat’s signatory flower, its colors matching those of Tabat’s flag.

Tulips, brought with the original settlers of Tabat from their homeland, have been developed into a wide variety of colors and shapes. Forced tulips in little pots are a traditional good-luck gift exchanged during the first few weeks of spring.

Marsh blooms include the rare Siren flower, believed to be a variant of Mandrakes, which are prized despite the dangers of their collection.

Beloved first sign of spring, primaflora are tiny blue flowers which grow low to the ground and invariably bloom on the first day of Spring.


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Documents of Tabat: Gardens of Tabat

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What are the documents of Tabat? In an early version of the book, I had a number of interstitial pieces, each a document produced by the city: playbills, advertisements, guide book entries. They had to be cut but I kept them for web-use. I hope you enjoy this installment, but you’ll have to read Beasts of Tabat to get the full significance. -Cat

An Instructive Listing of the Major Gardens of Tabat, being Pamphlet #4 of the second series of “A Visitor’s Guide to Tabat,” Spinner Press, author unknown.

Despite the city’s fierce weather, the cliffs that shelter it on the northwest and western side create pockets of weather that allow its gardeners to coax fruit and flower that normally would not be found here. Additionally, the presence of the College of Mages ensures a perennial crop of young mages ready to earn their coin by turning it to a patron’s use, creating marvels like a moonlight garden whose flowers change aspect according to the positions of the three moons in the sky, as is rumored to be located in the center of the Moon Temples’ complex, unknown to any but their priests.

Accordingly those interested in the botanic, the scenic, or the complete experience of Tabat should allot time in their schedule for the following.

The Duke’s Gardens: Appended to the Ducal castle, the grounds are open to the public on even-numbered days and feast days but are always closed during the Games. Often select Beasts and animals from the Ducal menagerie are brought out for display. Cost is a silver ship per adult visitor, with children at five per ship. Hours are dawn till the seventh evening bell.

Tabat’s Heart: These vast gardens stretch through the middle of Tabat, cutting across all but the top and bottom terraces. Tram lines and staircases line the western edge, allowing access to the paths across as well as the many sub-gardens and fountains. Admission is free and the parks are always open, but are patrolled by mechanicals after midnight until the first morning bell.

The Sea Garden: Built into the western cliffs at the water’s edge is the Sea Garden, full of corals and in the summer tanks of sea creatures and Beasts, including singing Whales and Dolphins, and a display of venomous sea serpents. Admission is free in the winter and a copper ship throughout the rest of the year, with a discount for schools and educational groups. Hours are from the last night bell through the first evening bell. Open all days except Games.

The Gardens at the College of Mages: Filled with plants, animals, and Beasts collected from across the world, these gardens are renowned in scholarly and academic circles. Points of interest include the Fairy hive in their central hall, which also acts as museum, the caged Mandrakes, their Sphinx amid its xeric landscape, and the Hypnotic Garden, which features narcotic and soporific plants and animals and which can only be entered with a guide, who wears a white silk mask and is prepared to wake the visitor if he or she succumbs. Admission is a silver merchant for two, and includes chal in the Dancing Cup across the way from the College’s grounds.

Famous for their aromatic and ornamental plantings, the grounds of the Nettlepurse estate are open every Fifteenth Day. Cost is a Nettlepurse nought. Hours are the third morning bell through the midnight bell. Go in the spring in the evening to see the humming moths that are an all too brief yearly phenomenon or visit the Cypress Maze in order to view the reflecting pool in its center.

If you have additional time, we recommend the flowering tree groves of the Piskie Wood (to be visited only in the daylight hours, and wear bright clothing to avoid the Piskie hunters who practice their livelihood there.)


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Documents of Tabat: Street Foods of Tabat

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What are the documents of Tabat? In an early version of the book, I had a number of interstitial pieces, each a document produced by the city: playbills, advertisements, guide book entries. They had to be cut but I kept them for web-use. I hope you enjoy this installment, but you’ll have to read Beasts of Tabat to get the full significance. -Cat

An Instructive Listing of the Street Foods of Tabat, being Pamphlet #5 of the first series of “A Visitor’s Guide to Tabat,” Spinner Press, author unknown.

The visitor to Tabat will find themselves faced with a multitude of new things, and the food of the city is no exception. Carts and food stalls in particular supply many of the daily food needs of the populace.

No matter where you go in the city, you will find the bakery carts. Most belong to the Figgis Bakery, but you will also see some from smaller and independent bakeries. They sell a multitude of breadstuffs, including several pastries unique to the city: two and twos, large flatbreads which are half one color, half another; hyacinth cookies with their distinctive purple icing; and jelly cups.

Close to the docks, particularly around the Fish Market, vendors sell all varieties of sea food, cooked on the spot and fresh from the boats that have just brought it in. Many of these use the seaweed spices Tabat is famous for: ironbite with its metallic peppery taste; summer salt; and the mix of dried fish and seaweed that forms the basis of chal. Look for kerik, the sweet purple nodules of seaweed that are harvested in late summer, for a particularly exotic treat.

Sweets are usually flavored with honey from bees or Honey-mothers, or a touch of Fairy honey for those with more expensive tastes. Of late, though, the Southern Isles have been sending sugar to Tabat, expensive and rare, and a dusting of such atop a pastry or cake is considered to render it the height of culinary sophistication.


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Documents of Tabat: Fashions of Tabat

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What are the documents of Tabat? In an early version of the book, I had a number of interstitial pieces, each a document produced by the city: playbills, advertisements, guide book entries. They had to be cut but I kept them for web-use. I hope you enjoy this installment, but you’ll have to read Beasts of Tabat to get the full significance. -Cat

An Instructive Listing of the Fashions of Tabat, being Pamphlet #2 of the first series of “A Visitor’s Guide to Tabat,” Spinner Press, author unknown.

Tabat, like any city, has fashions that distinguish it, often shaped by the city’s history and resources. To look like one of the natives, you may want to purchase one or more of the following to wear.

Feather cockades, worn pinned to the breast or on a hat, represent a long tradition in the city. The explorers of the early expedition Perseverance found a river of feathers, cast off by vast flocks of waterfowl. They brought back sackfuls of the varicolored feathers to the city and it became customary to show one’s support for one expedition or another by wearing the cockades. In recent times they have become associated with different political powers in the city and with the coming of the elections, they are widely used to indicate one’s party affiliation.

Rain market hats, wide-brimmed and tightly woven of purple reeds, are seen in abundance on the streets of Tabat and are as functional and cheap as they are picturesque. Some sellers sell hats with designs or slogans painted upon them, often distributing the latter at political rallies.

Great-coats, woven of wool or made of dyed fur, are traditional gear for Merchants, Explorers, and others who travel widely. Their styles may vary from year to year in matters like buttons, pocket cut, or thickness of piping, but generally they remain the same in overall look.

Dandies of either sex prize the fine lace gloves produced by the Altos factory, where they are woven by the large spiders exclusive to Altos use by order of the Duke. If on the street outside where they are housed in early morning or evening, linger to hear their haunting song.


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