New story and interview in Uncanny Magazine

Cover of Uncanny Magazine Issue 57, featuring an astronaut in a space suit with their helmet off, sitting in lotus pose at the base of a tree while birds fly above

If you’re looking for a sweet romantic story about a woman juggling work, family and a new hobby, good news! “A Magical Correspondence, to the Tune of Heartstrings” appears in Uncanny Magazine Issue 57, along with an always excellent array of other fiction, poetry and essays.

Caroline M. Yoachim also interviewed me about why I wrote this story, among other fun stuff, so I won’t repeat myself too much. But a thing I didn’t mention, that was nonetheless rolling around in my mind among all the other things cluttering up the place, was an old story from Kurt Vonnegut that you’ve probably seen before, repeated below:

When I was 15 I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.

And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”

And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”

And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.

—Kurt Vonnegut

In my story, the main character, Lissa comes from a family of artisans, luthiers specifically, but she was deemed insufficiently trainable in the trade at a young age for various reasons, including that she was tasked with helping to raise her siblings instead. Hers is a very one-track-mind family, devoted to their craft, while she becomes responsible for all the administrative duties, the non-art business portions. It’s not quite a “myth of Talent” upbringing, but it is definitely one where “being good at things is the point of doing them” to a large extent.

Lissa decides to do something she doesn’t expect to be good at, something that isn’t for money or fame. She hides it from her family because she knows they won’t understand—and they don’t! But she’s taking to heart, even if she can’t articulate it to herself, the notion that she’s allowed to do things she isn’t good at simply because she wants to and thinks she’ll enjoy it.

As I note in the interview, society these days in a lot of places seems to fight this idea, and I hate that for us. Instead of moving towards a future where we work a few hours a week and machines handle mundane chores, thus allowing us free time for self-actualization and recreational pursuits, we have algorithms attempting to push us out of the creative spaces that give us life. We have jobs making more and more demands on what should be our leisure time, with expectations that we must always be available to answer questions or handle problems or crunch to make unreasonable deadlines. But I digress.

“A Magical Correspondence, to the Tune of Heartstrings” isn’t a morality fable or an “in this essay, I will” kind of story. But I do hope it will encourage more people to do things just because you’re interested in giving them a try—as much as anyone can these days. Indulge your curiosity and exploration without pressure to perform! Or if there is some pressure, let it be self-imposed and motivating rather than anxiety-inducing. And normalize moving on from hobbies that you decide aren’t really for you, because life is short.

Seize joy where you can, friends. Don’t worry about “winning” unless you want to. May the process of doing a thing always be its own reward, whatever the final product.

Escape Pod is a Hugo finalist!

I tend to view awards season as a thing that happens to other people. Sort of like when it’s raining, and you’re all cozy inside your house with nowhere to go, and you think, “Wow, look at that, it’s really coming down, must suck for anyone who has to go out today.” And you sip your tea and do whatever you were doing. I make my eligibility post, and that’s about it for me.

But! I have the honor and privilege of co-editing a truly excellent magazine and podcast, and we are once again a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine. If I continue my metaphor, this means I’m now outside in the rain, but of course being an award finalist is awesome and not uncomfortably moist.

If you’re a voting member of WorldCon, I’d be honored if you’d consider giving us your vote for the category. Our voter packet isn’t up yet, but you can check out all our original fiction from 2023 here. We’re really proud of our reprints as well, but that’s a good place to start.

Huge thanks to all the writers who trusted their stories to us, and to the narrators who brought them to life. Our magazine literally would not exist without you!

Thanks also to my co-editor slash co-conspirator, Mur Lafferty; to our assistant editors Benjamin C. Kinney, Premee Mohamed and Kevin Wabaunsee; our hosts Tina Connolly and Alasdair Stuart; our producers Summer Brooks and Adam Pracht; our social media manager Phoebe Barton; and the rest of the Escape Pod crew, for all their hard work. We did it! Jumping high fives all around.

And of course, I’m filled with gratitude toward everyone who voted for us in the first place, to get us where we are now. As I always say in my sign off, thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.

Rigidity vs. malleability

sculpture with balls of clay, twisting pieces of clay sprouting from them, with flowers at the top
Photo by Vika Wendish on Unsplash

As I make my way through Mage You Look while also pondering side and future projects, and chat with all kinds of writers in various places about our respective processes, a thing I think about is seeing how people approach… I’ll call it rigidity vs. malleability.

For some writers, specific characters or world elements or plot points are fixed, immutable, and everything else must be built up around those things. They’re the foundations of the story house; they’re the seeds that grow into the story tree, or bush, or flower. Even if the furniture in the house moves around, or the bush gets trimmed into a topiary, those essential starter components don’t change, no matter how big or small they are.

For me, most things are negotiable. When I’m planning, I brainstorm and feel my way around, looking for shiny stuff like a corvid. And that stuff can be surprisingly vague: traits or themes rather than specific details. Archetypes or aesthetics. Vague plot shapes. I research and iterate. I fiddle and test. I make notes. I accrete. I roll around a katamari and see what sticks to it.

There comes a point for me where things do solidify, like I’ve finished my clay sculpture and I’ve fired it and now its form is set. Eventually the katamari is large enough to get yeeted into space and become a star. Except even then I may still make fundamental changes, beyond playing with the colors or extra decorations or whatever. There’s always room for that: the play, the tweaking and revision.

I think sometimes writers forget we control all the variables in a story. If something doesn’t make sense, we can rework it until it does. A character who wouldn’t make a choice in one scenario may do so if the conditions change, or if something in their back story shifts. A setting detail that doesn’t fit can be taken out or made to make sense. One plot point can be substituted for another.

Character, setting, plot, theme… they’re all up to the writer. They’re all the result of a series of choices. How you make those choices is up to you! But you have the power to control them, to set the parameters. And that power can be exercised at any time in the process.

Even after a thing is published and set in stone, there is still room to play. Things have to be internally consistent, logical, believable within the confines of what’s established. But within that framework, there are often ways to retcon, to reveal new layers that recontextualize the existing ones, to create ambiguity and uncertainty, add unreliable narration… There are many available tools to reshape or repaint or refine.

So I guess my bottom line is: embrace your process, but also internalize that you control your story. You can always add a room onto your house regardless of its foundation, or plant a vine to wrap around your tree. Take the reins! Embrace your agency! Revel in the act of creation! You’re the deity in this universe you’re crafting, and you can do anything you want with it.

99 Fleeting Fantasies

Cover of 99 Fleeting Fantasies, a Fantasy Anthology Edited by Jennifer Brozek

It’s finally here! 99 Fleeting Fantasies, a flash fiction anthology full of fantastic stories, edited by Jennifer Brozek, will be available in ebook and paperback on February 15th.

You can read my story, “Lies Seek Shadows” in the anthology, along with other works by folks like Cat Rambo, Charles Stross, Crystal Frasier, Jody Lynn Nye, Jonathan Maberry, Premee Mohamed, Seanan McGuire, Wole Talabi, and many more!

A future Kickstarter will include hardback and (faux)leatherbound editions as well, if those tickle your fancy.

Preorder your copy now, and it will be yours imminently!

Season of Lists

A side effect of award nomination time is various people and groups assembling suggestion lists for the many different categories. Not being on a list doesn’t mean you’re Not Worthy, but being on a list is a cool sign that someone likes what you’re doing. This year, I’m honored to be on a few lists in particular.

The first is the 2023 Locus Recommended Reading List. Where Peace Is Lost is included among the science fiction novels. The list feeds into their poll and survey, where you can vote for the winners of the annual Locus Awards. Voting is open to anyone! The poll closes April 15th, and awards are presented in June.

You can also find me twice on the Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together 2024 Hugo Award Recommendation List. Where Peace Is Lost is listed under Best Novel, while “In Time, a Weed May Break Stone” can be found under Best Short Story.

Last, but certainly not least, Where Peace Is Lost is also included in the Reviewers’ Choice: the Best Books of 2023 list. I’m honored that not one, but two reviewers loved my book enough to mention it among their favorites of the year. Team Paladin!

And, as Columbo would say, just one more thing… Uncanny is currently running their 2023 reader favorites poll. You can vote for your top three favorite stories published in the magazine last year; maybe “In Time, a Weed May Break Stone” might be one of them?

P.S.: Yes, the post title is a Sandman reference!

New book alert!

Publishers Marketplace Deal Report. Mage You Look by Valerie Valdes. Imprint: Avon. Where Peace Is Lost and Chilling Effect author Valerie Valdes's Mage You Look, first in a romantasy series, pitched as Witch Please meets The Love Con, in which a magic shop technician in Miami must win a spellcasting competition reality show before she's unemployed, broke and evicted, only to find herself partnered with a celebrity best known for his spectacular spell fails.

I’m so pleased to announce my next big project!

Mage You Look is the first book in a new contemporary romantasy series. It’s about a magic shop technician in Miami who has to win a spellcasting competition reality show before she’s unemployed, broke and evicted… except she ends up partnered with an internet celebrity best known for his spectacular spell fails.

The drama! The magical mishaps! The inevitable smooching!

This book has had a long and winding journey. It started out as secondary world fantasy, in a Caribbean-inspired Regency-adjacent setting, and the competition element was apprentices vying for a place in a mage’s renowned workshop. Then, everything changed when the fire nation attacked.

Okay, no fire nations, but the book languished until I started watching the Great British Bake-Off. I hadn’t realized I needed that puzzle piece to make my story complete, but there it was! And so instead of apprentices trying to become mages, it was amateur casters trying to win lucrative prizes and prestige in a spellcasting competition.

As much as I loved that book, it didn’t win over any editors, alas. But Tessa Woodward, who’s been working as my editor since I debuted, asked me: what if we make this modern instead?

Oh, the possibilities! I jumped right in and reworked the characters, the setting, the plot. Still a woman working in a magic shop who dreams of more, still a magical competition where she might win her way out of customer service drudgery, but now we’re filming reality TV on a sound stage in Miami. We’ve traded carriages for a party bus, and a fancy manor house for a boutique hotel. Totally sweet.

I’ll be sharing more details as we get closer to publication time, so stay tuned. For now, let’s Snoopy dance together in excitement!

Dream Foundry Emerging Writers Contest

Dream Foundry logo

Every year, Dream Foundry holds their Emerging Writers Contest for unpublished writers**, and this year, I’m one of the judges!

C.L. Polk will be judging submissions with me, and Julia Rios is coordinating. I’m so hyped to work with both of them, as well as the Dream Foundry staff and volunteers. Some details:

The Dream Foundry Contest for Emerging Writers is an annual no submission fees contest with cash prizes! Every year our contest coordinator selects ten finalists from a pool of submissions from writers around the world. In addition to their cash prizes, winners get featured at Flights of Foundry, an annual convention where professionals from all over the industry come to discuss all things related to the speculative arts.

Full guidelines are on their website. Submissions are open from 1 April, 2024 through 27 May, 2024. Submit one complete and finalized story of up to 10,000 words. First place wins $1,000, second place $500, and third place $200.

I’ve loved the Flights of Foundry convention since it began, and I can’t wait to see which new writers and their awesome stories we’ll be showcasing there this year!

**Technically, per the guidelines, the rules say:

  • You have published a total of less than 4,000 words of paid or income-earning speculative fiction in English.
  • You have earned a total of less than USD 320 from those words.

So not completely unpublished, just mostly!

Reading List Council shortlists Where Peace Is Lost

Logo: Reading List, 2024 RUSA Book & Media Awards

In incredibly cool news, the Reading List Council has chosen Where Peace Is Lost for their 2024 Reading List! It’s an annual best-of list that covers eight different fiction genres for adult readers, with winners and a shortlist of honor titles. My book was picked as an honor title for the science fiction category.

The council is part of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association. As someone who grew up going to the library every single weekend to trade one enormous stack of books for another, I cannot stress enough how exciting it is that librarians like my book.

If you haven’t read Where Peace Is Lost yet, you can grab a copy at the usual stores, or… you can check it out from your local library!

What I published in 2023

Where Peace Is Lost and Fit For the Gods flanked by a picture of a typewriter and an actual typewriter with a cute mouse print on top
Books, check ’em out

‘Tis the season for awards eligibility posts! *bangs pots and pans in the digital streets*

Awards aside, I think it’s good to reflect on the work we’ve done over the course of the year, and to take a moment to dredge up some pride from the murky depths of our impostor-syndrome-laden souls. Or maybe it’s more like canning the fruits of our labor so we can return to the sweetness during winter and drought and other metaphorical hard times.

And so, without further ado, what I’ve been up to this year!


Where Peace Is Lost (Harper Voyager) came out on August 29th, and I’m still so in love with this space fantasy. I poured a lot into it: honor and duty and justice, the price of violence, the splinters of empire and the scars of war… but also finding some small spark of redemption in positive action. I also tried, where I could, to make worldbuilding choices that leaned on, if not utopian elements, then at least aspirational ones: legal and cultural enshrinement of the rights of nature, direct democracy, prioritization of collective care and hospitality, rejection of carceral punishment, and so on.

Novella? Serial?

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is a Magic the Gathering novella, or perhaps a serial? Is serial even a category? Either way, it was released all at once in October, and was incredibly fun to write. I started playing Magic way back when actual dinosaurs roamed the Earth, so it makes all kinds of sense for me to write a story with dinosaurs in it. I’d also read Journey to the Center of the Earth way back when I was delving into classics, and I loved the Indiana Jones films and The Mummy and other takes on exploration and archaeology, so telling a similar story let me revel in all those childhood fantasies. And again, I got to pull in a lot of feelings about the aftermath of war, a desire to reconnect with lost heritage, and the evils of colonization. Also, sentient mushrooms!


Atalanta Hunts the Boar” is part of the Fit for the Gods anthology of retellings of Greek mythological stories. I swapped Earth for distant planets, footraces for zipships, and gods for powerful space mafia factions. Atalanta is a character who always appealed to me because of the ways she eschewed traditional gender roles, a thing that Baby Valerie was also eager to do. And yet the story I wanted to tell didn’t focus on those transgressive bits, so much as two people deeply in love who gave up aspects of their lives to be together, and are pulled back into past problems in ways that make them worry for each other and the future of their relationship.

Short story

In Time, a Weed May Break Stone” (Uncanny Magazine) started as a much shorter story I wrote during my time at Viable Paradise. Continuing my theme this year, it’s also about the aftermath of war–in this case, a soldier coming out of retirement to defend her village. Echoes of this story made it into Where Peace Is Lost, but I had trunked this one for years and occasionally dusted it off to wonder what else it needed to make it work. Turns out the answer was a love story with a hot doctor, an idea I shamelessly stole from my friend Jay, as well as bardic magic with a Cuban flair.


Eroticide” (Uncanny Magazine) grew out of ruminations about the fictional Hanahaki disease, in which people who suffer from unrequited love begin to cough up petals from flowers blooming in their hearts and lungs. It’s blank verse, as many of my poems are when they’re not sonnets, because I just can’t quit iambic pentameter.


Semiprozine looks like an ADHD medication to me, but it’s not! Unless it is…? I’m definitely talking about my work for Escape Pod, though. Mur Lafferty and I, along with our amazing team of editors and audio producers and hosts and narrators, bust our figurative butts to bring awesome stories to listeners and readers every week. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of pulling a great story from the slush pile and guiding it along the path to becoming an excellent episode.

That’s it for me this year! I’ve already got a few things pending for next year, including another story for Uncanny Magazine as well as one for the Worldbuilding for Masochists anthology, so stay tuned. And in case this is my last post of the year, I hope the new one is good for all of us.

Justice sensitivity

Where Peace Is Lost comes out tomorrow! As with most books, this one has had a long and winding journey to publication. I wanted to talk a bit about one of the things that led me to write this particular book, out of all the other possible ideas racketing around in my head. Here we go.

People with ADHD often have an overdeveloped sense of fairness, of right and wrong. It’s called justice sensitivity, and it makes us more likely to have strong reactions to little things like people leaving garbage on a picnic table, or big things like racism and social inequity. We get angry when people are victimized; we worry about wronging someone, and feel intense shame and guilt when we think we’ve done so; we retreat into hopelessness when huge problems seem unsolvable, like trying to climb a mountain wearing lead boots. We obsess. We doomscroll. We overthink.

Where Peace Is Lost tells the story of Kel, a former knight whose order was disbanded, as a condition of the treaty that ended the war they lost. To protect her people and preserve the integrity of that treaty, she’s gone into hiding on a planet far from the galaxy’s population centers. If she were a Dungeons & Dragons character, she would be a lawful good paladin, and she’s a product of my justice sensitivity.

I love paladins! My power fantasy is helping people, and paladins are magically empowered to do this–in role-playing games, anyway. But I didn’t want to rely on the rulings of coastal mages to construct my hero and the order she represented, so I looked at different historical and fictional examples of knights. Unfortunately, a lot of them are, to use the vernacular, heckin gross.

The term “paladin” comes from the legendary knights who served Charlemagne, who himself is one of the Nine Worthies we should all aspire to emulate… except he was pretty much constantly at war, and let’s just say my dude, ahem, made a lot of babies with a lot of ladies, including his underage second wife. The Matter of France positions the paladins as brave Christian defenders against Saracen invaders, so hey, religiously-motivated violence. Awesome! (Author’s note: it was not awesome.)

Arthuriana is all about powerful people helping the less fortunate, though, right? Well, mostly, but it depends on what you mean by “helping” and which sources you’re reading. Arthur conquered most of northern Europe, skipped off to Gaul to declare himself emperor, then got backstabbed by his wife and… Mordred? Lancelot? You decide! Either way, if this were an Am I the Asshole post, everyone sucks here. Kay is a stubborn hothead. Galahad is a judgmental jerk. Even my beloved himbo Gawain needs to get better at puns, reading the fine print, and managing his polycule. Bedivere is… you know, he made that wooden rabbit, we’ll let him slide.

Knights Templar? Holy corporate malfeasance, Batman! Teutonic Knights? Kept trying to conquer Prussia. Order of the Garter? I mean, you don’t want your armor falling off mid-battle, I guess. The Jedi? A monastic mishmash that stole kids from their moms. Pobody’s nerfect!

My justice sensitivity is snarling at this point. I grew up reading books and watching movies about these honorable, chivalrous characters who protected the weak and defended the defenseless. But revisiting the depths beneath the surface of these paragons of virtue was disheartening, to say the least. And what did it say about me that I kept fixating on people who solved problems with violence? There had to be a better way.

I didn’t have an Anakin Skywalker moment where I dramatically declared that paladins were evil and started on my path to the dark side. Instead, I decided to engage in a little might makes right using the power of my pen, which as we all know is mightier than the sword.

I sifted through my research for something to build on and settled on the Knights Hospitaller. Their order started, as the name implies, with a hospital. They provided medical care and lodging for the unwashed barbarians–I mean, the pilgrims visiting Jerusalem, and eventually expanded to include military protection for those travellers. (And briefly, weirdly, the Italian air force after World War II, sort of.) That origin in healing rather than harming appealed to me immensely, and I built on that foundation for Kel’s order, focusing on principles of medical care, teaching, mutual aid and protection.

For the character of Kel as a specific member of this order, I wanted someone strong, loyal, brave, and honorable in ways that would be tested by allies and taken advantage of by unscrupulous enemies. But justice sensitivity is a double-edged sword, so I leaned into her feelings of hopelessness about her situation. At the start of the book, Kel has intentionally withdrawn from society, living alone in a swamp and rarely engaging with her neighbors. She tells herself it’s necessary, to keep her enemies from finding her and using her as an excuse to shut down the sole remaining charitable arm of her order–or worse, to reignite war. She’s not wrong, but it’s not her whole truth; her former life of service was shattered by injustice, and she never recovered. She wallows in shame and guilt, subconsciously choosing to protect her wounded heart by avoiding exposure to circumstances that could remind her of her inability to defeat a massive, powerful empire.

If you’re really dedicated to justice, though–if you’re going to live that proverbial paladin life, better than the ugly mess scattered across the historical and fictional record–then hiding isn’t going to work. Avoiding exposure to injustice doesn’t make it disappear, it simply removes it from your field of vision. Kel learns this the hard way, and has to decide what she’s going to do when she can no longer look away.

Justice sensitivity can make us feel hopeless, helpless, powerless–but it can also galvanize us to make things right. Instead of hiding, we can show up. Instead of giving in, we can push back. Instead of surrendering, we can fight for justice. Empathy can weigh us down like lead boots as we climb those endless cliffs of inequity, but it can also give us wings to fly beyond them, all the way up to the stars.