{Guest Post/Giveaway} "To Tail or Not to Tail…" by J. Kathleen Cheney

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Check out Emily's Splash interview with author J. Kathleen Cheney now if you missed it last week!

J. Kathleen Cheney is nothing if not versatile in her story telling, but weaving through her work is a common thread, that of the improbable heroine. From worlds set in humanity’s distant post-apocalyptic future to alternate worlds of today or of the near past, Kathleen’s heroines include a siren who with help from a gentleman of the city must stop a regicidal plot, the neglected daughter of an absent king coming to terms with her shapeshifting ancestors, a blind teenager who dreams of others’ deaths and who uses her gift of touch to find their killers, and the widow of a trainer who with a most unusual horse must save her farm and way of life. All use their unusual gifts and talents to overcome obstacles and find their place in the world. 

 "To Tail or Not to Tail…" 
by J. Kathleen Cheney

My books have sereia in them. In Portuguese, that translates into siren, but it also translates as mermaid. When they're talking about one, they're talking about the other.
But what exactly constitutes a mermaid?  Is it enough that she can live in the sea? Or does she have to have a tail? 
So I hit on the idea of protective coloration, like that of butterflies that have an 'eye' on their tails or cuttlefish that can blend in with everything around them.  I sat down and considered what evolution would want to disguise the sereia as…and came up with the answer of a carnivorous sea creature. As one of the largest fish, tuna seemed the most obvious choice…so the sereia markings mimic various types of tuna.

 From the start, I didn't want fish tails.

If your mermaid/siren has a fish tail, that's an impediment to her doing anything on land. If she wants to get out of the water and run, she can't have a tail. In fact, tails are impediments to a lot of things, including passing as human or having a long-term relationship with a human man. 

If a fishtailed mermaid wants to get out on land, she has to get rid of her tail somehow. That usually involves magic. The writer has two options: a spell of some sort (like in The Little Mermaid) that will replace the tail with legs, or shape-changing.  I've written both shape-changers and magic before, and there are selkies and otterfolk in my books, so I'm not prejudiced against them, but I didn't want to take either route with my sereia.

I tried to make them magical creatures rather than creatures that use magic. I made them chimeras. They're mostly human, but have a few fishy traits: gills on their necks that permit them to breathe underwater; webbing between their fingers that sense motion in water like a seal's vibrissae (whiskers); and airbladders that keep them oriented in water.
Tails?  No.  I stuck with legs.  But I still wanted sailors to have some excuse to think the sereia had fish tails.  I mean, after all, even when we have statues or paintings with two separate legs, they still look like tails.  
 © "The Fisherman and the Syren" by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)
 © J. Kathleen Cheney took this photo while she was in Lisbon!

  Several years ago I had a dream.  It started out wonderfully.  I was swimming undersea, enjoying the liquid caress of it and the freedom of effortlessly sliding through a gorgeous universe.
(I could have gone with sharks, but they're rather bland to look at. Sea snakes would have been terribly odd--stripes?--and no one wants to look like a giant squid from the waist down. Well, some people probably do, but I'm not one of them.) 
Therefore, my sereia look fishy from the waist down, but aren't actually fish.
Fortunately, I found enough tail-free mythology to feel safe going this route. The ones mentioned in The Lusiads (the epic poem by Camões) had no tails. There are mermaids in the One Thousand and One Nights that are tailless. And sirens on the whole (as opposed to mermaids) tend to be more likely to have legs, despite living in water (rusalki are in this group).
So that's where I ended up. No tails. Woo Hoo!
Who knows? For the next set of novels I may change my mind. Tails for everyone!
(That's unlikely, BTW. Everyone in the next series is human. But perhaps after that…)

O F F I C I A   I N F O:

Author: J. Kathleen Cheney
Release Date: Nov. 5, 2013
Publisher: Ace / Roc / Penguin

For two years, Oriana Paredes has been a spy among the social elite of the Golden City, reporting back to her people, the sereia, sea folk banned from the city’s shores….When her employer and only confidante decides to elope, Oriana agrees to accompany her to Paris. But before they can depart, the two women are abducted and left to drown. Trapped beneath the waves, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive while she is forced to watch her only friend die.

Vowing vengeance, Oriana crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira—a police consultant who has been investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the city’s wealthiest homes. Duilio also has a secret: He is a seer and his gifts have led him to Oriana.

Bound by their secrets, not trusting each other completely yet having no choice but to work together, Oriana and Duilio must expose a twisted plot of magic so dark that it could cause the very fabric of history to come undone….

Author: J. Kathleen Cheney
Release Date: July 1, 2014
Publisher: Ace / Roc / Penguin

Magical beings have been banned from the Golden City for decades, though many live there in secret. Now humans and nonhumans alike are in danger as evil stalks the streets, growing more powerful with every kill….

It’s been two weeks since Oriana Paredes was banished from the Golden City. Police consultant Duilio Ferreira, who himself has a talent he must keep secret, can’t escape the feeling that, though she’s supposedly returned home to her people, Oriana is in danger.

Adding to Duilio’s concerns is a string of recent murders in the city. Three victims have already been found, each without a mark upon her body. When a selkie under his brother’s protection goes missing, Duilio fears the killer is also targeting nonhuman prey.

To protect Oriana and uncover the truth, Duilio will have to risk revealing his own identity, put his trust in some unlikely allies, and consult a rare and malevolent text known as The Seat of Magic….


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  1 paperback each of THE GOLDEN CITY and THE SEAT OF MAGIC by J. Kathleen Cheney

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