A few years ago I learned that there was a massive book festival for fantasy, science fiction and horror right here in Scotland. Since 2017 CYMERA, Scotland’s Festival of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writing, has been held in Edinburgh. It was just over an hour and a half drive away from me in Glasgow, and considering I’ve been halfway across the UK for another convention, this was easy! I made my mind up right then that one day I would go.
Then the pandemic happened, and that day came a lot sooner than I expected when I saw a tweet offering press passes for 2021 which was being held virtually. I hesitated because I’m not a fully-fledged book blogger, and to some people that makes a difference. What the hell, I thought. If they said no, then I’d just save up and go another year, as I’d always planned to do. I’ll never forget the words of the email confirming that I had gotten press passes. I don’t know which member of the CYMERA 2021 team replied, but thank you for your kind words that day <3
Unsurprisingly, this review has been delayed by my health conditions. I had hoped to have this completed weeks ago, and I apologise to the CYMERA team for the delay. Now, without further ado, let’s get to the review!
It all started back in 2017 when “festival enthusiast Ann Landmann and Noel Chidwick, mastermind behind award-winning sci-fi magazine Shoreline of Infinity, were having a cup of tea and lamenting the lack of genre authors in book festivals programmes”. For her dissertation for her MA Arts, Festival and Cultural Management, Ann created the business plan for CYMERA and the festival was born. You can read the full story over here on the CYMERA website, and there is also a wonderful media page full of interviews where you can learn even more about CYMERA.
That’s the official spiel, so what actually is CYMERA all about? Well, I can now happily tell you from experience that it is the book festival/convention/event that any fantasy, science fiction and/or horror book fan has ever wanted. The authors cover a wide range of topics, genres and themes, the panel hosts are fantastic and there are laughs, serious discussions and just so much going on. There’s a book quiz, tabletop roleplaying happening, writing and publishing workshops, a creators hall with a fantastic array of things to browse, an open mic session, a writing competition and a writers’ group get-together which I’ll get to later.
I’m sure I’ve missed something, so I suggest heading over to the CYMERA 2021 page and browsing through the programme. It was impossible to attend every panel (without a time machine or something of the like) so I can only report back on the ones I was able to attend personally anyway.
There is also a discord channel that I recommend joining if you’re interested in attending CYMERA at any point, or just want to hang out with people who love fantasy, science fiction and horror books!
My first panel for the festival was ‘Trust No Witch’ with Ciannon Smart and Cari Thomas, chaired by Sonali Misra. I was quite excited about this one as I love young adult books, urban fantasy is my jam and I had heard amazing things about Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart. Incidentally, it had just come off hold at the library for me too, and I was going to be getting stuck into after I finished the book I was currently reading. This panel couldn’t have come at a better time. Sonali Misra did a fantastic job of hosting this panel, and the questions she posed to the two authors helped to highlight the differences between the two novels. While Cari Thomas’ Threadneedle is set in contemporary London and draws on British and Celtic history of witchcraft, Ciannon Smart’s Witches Steeped in Gold is a Jamaican-inspired fantasy novel set on the fictional Island of Aiyca.
It was wonderful to learn how the authors created their stories, with Ciannon revealing that she always starts with the character when writing a story, however, she pointed out that plot and character come hand in hand. She asks herself, “what does the character want and how can I stop them getting it!”. This tactic allowed for her to throw in a lot of twists which she had lots of fun navigating and have made readers send her messages like; “I hate you, how can you do this??”. Ciannon loves them, they’re her favourite messages.
Sonali Misra turned the discussion to world-building, and both authors spoke about the research and influences that contributed to their world-building. For Cari, Threadneedle is the culmination of a lifelong love of magic and is a new world of witchcraft that is wild, ancient, surreal, and feminine with light and dark threaded in modern day London. Her research included the control of women and magic, and she discovered that knot magic, which features in Threadneedle, appears in folklore around the world.
It was a lovely panel with brilliant and engaging questions from the chair, Sonali Misra, and if you get a chance to see either of these authors in a panel I recommend doing so.
My next panel featured two authors I had not read yet but was eager to get to know more! Destiny Calls with Victoria Aveyard and Kesia Lupo was chaired by Eleanor Pender, who I would soon learn is a massive fantasy map enthusiast. Victoria Aveyard was joining us from LA and Kesia Lupo and Eleanor Pender were in Bristol, England.
The first question Eleanor posed to our two authors was what the idea of destiny meant to their writing. Kesia started us off talking about how the idea of destiny can be intoxicating, and in a fantasy setting it’s an immensely powerful concept to play with. Victoria agreed, admitting that destiny is a concept that she both loves and hates; “where does freewill stand if there is a place you’re supposed to get to?”. With that in mind she tries to balance the concept of the “chosen one” and “destiny” in her work as she likes those tropes but if they’re not told in an interesting way they are boring to an audience.
After that fascinating introduction to the topic of destiny, the authors introduced their new books. Kesia Lupo’s We are Bound By Stars is the second book in a duology, however, either book can be read first. Book one is We Are Blood and Thunder. In We are Bound By Stars, the heir to the kingdom and a maskmaker are both rebelling against their destinies. Victoria’s Realm Breaker was inspired by the idea of what would happen if the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings failed in their task and were killed; “who would be the B-Team?”. The result is Realm Breaker, a team of misfits and criminals led by a teenager who have to do it because otherwise the world is going to end, and they’ll die as well.
Eleanor Pender was one of the best chairs at CYMERA, her questions created some fantastic discussions between the authors, and she did a wonderful job of engaging the audience as well. She even got the authors to do the same, and after we had a vote about whether we were team prologue or not, Victoria asked the audience whether they liked maps. She went on to explain that when she was writing Realm Breaker, she consulted her map often, working out how many miles her characters had to travel by horse. It was pretty funny when Kesia chipped in with “I just introduced flying carriages” and as Eleanor pointed out, it’s the writer’s choice how fast magical items move.
This was an extremely fun panel where everyone was relaxed in each other’s company and there was some wonderful light-hearted banter throughout with fun anecdotes. To give you an idea, at one point Victoria quipped, “so we just changed this panel to be let’s talk about Kesia’s grandmother!” upon learning that she married an Italian Count.
A panel that I was really looking forward to was Magical Investigations with Ben Aaronovitch and C.S. Green, chaired by Bryan Burnett. These are two authors who I had yet to read, who both write urban fantasy set in my home city of London. Ben’s Rivers of London series was first published in 2011, while Caroline’s novel, Sleep Tight, is the first in a new series for her.
As all the panels had been spoiler free so far, I knew I was safe from spoilers and could learn more about the books and the authors. The panel was fantastic, and I’m not sure whether the two authors or Bryan were familiar with each other beforehand, but everyone was chatting away with ease.
There was an interesting insight into getting published from Ben, who described the Rivers of London series as him mixing his own interests in fantasy and police procedurals together and decided to write something he would enjoy reading. He explained that “at the end of the day as an author that’s basically what you do, you write the book you would quite like to read that no one has written, and then you hope that other people buy it”. He continued on by saying that you can mash any genres together, the key is how you execute it.
Later on in the panel, when a question about pitching to agents came up, Caroline advised that it’s better to go big or go home. Ben agreed, stating that you can’t censor yourself at the beginning. His advice was to apply to every agent who doesn’t rule out the genre you are writing, as long as you adhere to their directions for sending manuscripts. The reason for this, he stated, was that “it’s not enough that your book be quite good, someone has to fall in love with it, right? That’s how a book gets taken on by an agent. Someone falls in love with it”. I think that is probably the best advice I have ever heard regarding finding an agent, because isn’t that what reading and books is all about? He went on to say that like love, you need to get around and if you get nowhere with a manuscript put it away for a few years and then try again because the staff will have changed. Again, really useful advice that I’ve not heard anyone else say.
While Ben discussed how the character of Abigail led the story in his latest novella, What Abigail Did That Summer, Caroline explained that for Sleep Tight it was the crime that led the story. What inspired her to write a novel about a crime that takes place while someone is sleeping was her real life experiences with sleep disorders, and as a disabled person I found this very interesting. She merged the supernatural with sleep paralysis, and that was the foundation for Sleep Tight.
Caroline also spoke about having a strange feeling of “am I allowed to do this” about stepping into the fantasy genre and writing about supernatural. As her previous work had been in other genres, she felt that people would laugh at her and say things like “you’re not any kind of fantasy writer, you couldn’t possibly get away with it”. She described it as a strange lack of a confidence, however, it didn’t deter her from writing the book. She was determined to do so and as she was coming to the end of her contract with her publisher, she was in the position to write something different and renegotiate her contract.
There was a lot of good questions asked by Bryan on this panel, and both authors were very interesting to listen to. The only bad thing about this panel is that it ran out of time!
Writing Multitudes with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Cassandra Khaw
Another highly anticipated panel for me was Writing Multitudes with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Cassandra Khaw chaired by Ruth E. Booth. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and even interviewing Adrian before, and I’ve been interested in Cassandra’s work for a while. There were a few technical bumps to start with, but that just made this panel even more fun and set the light-hearted tone from the start.
As with all panels, they started with a rundown of the latest novels from the two authors, and Ruth passionately introduced us to Adrian’s Shards of Earth. The following discussion included interest points about cultural perspectives, and the role of bureaucracy in fiction. In particular, Adrian’s point that when bureaucracy is involved, you need someone to deal with it. It was a topic that I hadn’t thought much about until this panel, nor had it occurred to me that it often gets swept under the rug. Lawyers and other civil servants are a lot less exciting than most of the other characters we usually find in genre fiction.
Ruth then asked Cassandra to introduce us to their first SF novel, The All-Consuming World. Their explanation was captivating and entrancing, and took us through every emotion. I am extremely excited about this book. One of the things that they were thinking about when writing The All-Consuming World was how de-sensitised people are to how horrific wounds are made and what they feel like. Their thinking was that if people could “slide into the skin of someone experiencing something the next time they see it on social media, see it on the news, they hear it as a story they’re a lot of less inclined towards walking away”. In particular, they continued, the way the media frames abuse as glamorous and sexy is particularly problematic. In The All-Consuming World, Cassandra approaches the topic through the lens of clone technology,
Cassandra gave some useful and interesting insight on what it is like to write for different mediums, namely writing for games verses writing novels. They described a game as a novel that someone can explore, and they can explore it in any way they want to, whether that’s wondering into an alley or looking for something specific. You have to give them the freedom to that while also shepherding them in the direction of the story, otherwise nothing happens or moves forward.
The great thing about this panel is that it was a wonderful discussion about writing. Both authors had completely different ways of approaching writing, for example, and it was a delight to listen to two creators just openly talking about their methods. Ruth did a superb job of chairing the panel, her queries expertly coaxing insightful answers from both authors. This was another panel that could have continued on for a lot longer, and I would love to see again.
The panel that will always stay with me is Once Upon A Fairytale with Lucy Holland, A.G. Slatter and Hannah Whitten. As you can tell by the image accompanying this panel, it was an absolute hoot. Chaired by the lady herself, director Ann Landmann, Ann let it slip that every year she has her pick of which panel she chairs. This year it was this one. I’ve been to several conventions over the years and other than John Roberton’s interview with Brian Blessed (which was more like Brian Blessed interviewing himself…) I have not laughed so much at a panel. If it wasn’t for the fact the panellists were not in the same room together and were in three separate time zones (it was early morning for A. G. Slatter in Australia!) I would have thought there might have been a bit of a pre-panel drinking to steady the nerves.
The authors introduced their respective new and upcoming books, Lucy Holland introduced us to Sistersong and talked about British folklore, including Cornish folklore, which particularly interested me as I have Cornish ancestry (Not many people know that Cornwall used to be its own nation, one of the Celtic nations to be exact, and therefore, it’s correct to refer to oneself as Cornish just as you would say Irish or Scottish).
This panel will forever go down in memory for me as the time I outed myself as a writer in front of a festival director and three authors, and was told that if I wanted a story with a disabled character I needed to write it myself and as a cherry on the top, Anne would see me on a panel in a couple of years – while everyone nodded in agreement.
There’s nothing quite like a bit of public humiliation to make you take a good hard look at yourself and as I wrote in my June recap, that night I started writing again for the first time in years.
I also attended:
- The Price of Freedom with Everina Maxwell, Elizabeth May and Laura Lam chaired by Eris Young.
- To Make and Break an Empire with Andrea Stewart and Tasha Suri chaired by Elspeth Wilson.
- Fighting the Good Fight with C.L. Clark and R.F. Kuang by Katalina Watt.
- The Weight of Destiny with Caroline Logan and Katy Rose Pool chaired by Eleanor Pender.
- Spies, Spies Everywhere with Terry Miles, Cavan Scott and Charlie Stross chaired by Peter Sutton.
These other panels I attended were no less fantastic, however, we will be here all day if I keep describing them in detail to you. In some cases I feel that they are discussions that you need to witness first hand and topics that need to be talked about by authors in their own voices. One thing I did notice was that the topic of trauma and representing it correctly came up in multiple panels. As an abuse survivor this was particularly interesting to me.
I will warn you that your TBR will not thank you by the end of these panels. One good thing about not attending in person is that I could hold myself back from splurging on a book as soon a panel finished. If you’re going to attend next years, hopefully in person, expect to buy a lot of awesome books!
Buy the Books
You can find all the books by the authors in the panels I attended in my store here. Below are the books mentioned in this post.
Genre Writing Groups Get Together
As mentioned in my introduction, CYMERA isn’t just about author panels. I would have loved to have attended some of the workshops with publishers, however, as they were all in the morning that wasn’t possible for me. I hadn’t planned to attend the Genre Writing Groups Get Together at first. But, I was having such a good time, and I also didn’t want the magic to end. So after my last panel, spurned on by my new-found inspiration and desire to start writing again, I decided to just go for it.
And I will forever be glad that I did.
The Genre Writing Groups Get Together was held by the Edinburgh Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers, Edinburgh Genre Writers, and Glasgow Science Fiction Writer’s Circle (GSFWC). A member from each of them introduced their group and explained what they did. What I appreciated most about their introductions was that they were informative, insightful and also friendly and encouraging. The idea of joining a group of strangers and offering your written work up for thoughts and critique is scary, however, all three groups offered much more than just a critical eye. They were a place to talk about writing in general, to meet friends, learn about being getting published and even meet up for drinks. I was actually almost in tears as one of the members of GSFWC introduced their group, describing how welcoming it was to diversity. When she mentioned spoons, I knew I’d found a place to belong.
I’ve been hanging out in their discord channels ever since, and I highly recommend joining them if you’re a Science Fiction, Horror and/or Fantasy writer in Scotland, even if you’re not situated in/near Edinburgh or Glasgow – you’ll find that you won’t be the only one 😉
Over to you
If you’ve made it to the end of this review, thank you for sticking with me! It’s taken me a while to get this one done, and I hope I’ve managed to leave you with a sense of how magnificent the CYMERA festival is. It is the place to be for fans of science fiction, fantasy and horror writing in the UK, and internationally, if it continues to be available virtually (we’ll have to see what happens in 2022). Having lived in Scotland for eleven years now, I am completely biased towards Scotland, but I honestly can’t think of a better combination; books and Scotland.
Maybe I’ll see you there next year 😉
CYMERA hosts author events throughout the year, so I highly recommend giving them a follow on Twitter and Facebook so you don’t miss any of them! You can also catch up with any events you missed and check out some goodies from CYMERA 2021 on their YouTube channel!
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