You may have seen me moaning on Twitter about the wait between these Tales of the Underlight books. I really enjoyed How Beauty Met the Beast –and I can tell you that the second installment, How Beauty Saved the Beast, is mighty cool as well. Please help me welcome author Jax Garren to the blog today!
Jen: First, I want to start off by saying how much I enjoyed How Beauty Met the Beast.
Jax: Thank you!
Jen: For those who haven’t read it, let’s talk a little about the premise of the series.
Jax: The Tales of the Underlight are fairy tale retellings set in the punk-alternative community of Austin, Texas in the very near future. They center around two warring secret societies. Our heroes are a part of the Underlight, a US-based network of anarchists who have an underground base in Austin. The antagonists are from the Order of Ananke, a cult dedicated to the Greek goddess of fate. Ananke pulls its membership from the world’s wealthy and powerful and focuses on controlling society from behind the scenes. The series has a little bit of magic, a little bit of weird science, action and romance. The first three books (a novella and two short novels) are based on Beauty and the Beast, with a burlesque dancer and a burn scarred soldier as the titular characters.
Jen: Wesley isn’t your typical “beast” hero. He doesn’t just have a rakish scar on his cheek or an unfortunate nose… he is terribly disfigured. Tell me about the decision to go “all in” with his appearance.
Jax: Part of the inspiration for this story was a rebellion against the handsome beast. Though there are some wonderfully done stories like that, I wanted a retelling where the appearance issue was undeniable. It may not be right, but looks alter how we’re treated and how we think about ourselves. I tried to create a character whose looks were damaged enough to give readers a visceral reaction, and that’s where the burning idea came from because burn scars can completely alter a person’s appearance in frightening ways. Research for these books was emotionally tough; I have so much respect for burn survivors! (I’d also wanted to create a modern phoenix character for awhile–someone who could rise from the ashes. Hence his tattoo.)
The transformation element is important to me, too. In the original fairy tale, the beast was once a handsome man who was turned into a beast, but we don’t see much about how he dealt with this bomb dropped on his life. I wanted to tell a story where we’re with our hero grappling with that shattered self-concept. When the story begins Hauk has physically recovered from the fire that disfigured him. He thinks he’s emotionally dealt with it because he has friends and a job he’s happy with. But he keeps his body covered up and doesn’t reach out others, both because he assumes nobody wants to touch his damaged skin and because burn scarring can change the way nerve endings experience things, so being touched feels strange to him.
At first his attraction to Jolie isn’t emotionally threatening because he doesn’t believe it’s possible for her to return his feelings. In book 2, though, her friendly affection for him starts to develop into something more. That’s when the real challenge begins for him as he must decide if he can accept his scars enough to let her love him—and not just in the emotional sense. (For a really early sneak peek, that “not just in the emotional sense” issue might, ahem, be a major component of book 3…)
Jen: What is it about Jolie that allows her to see him as so few others can?
Jax: Jolie was fun to write. She’s brash, beautiful, sexually assured, rich—and utterly confused by interpersonal relationships. She comes from 1%er money and power and grew up surrounded with all the glamour money could buy or surgically alter. Her social calendar was filled from her father’s Rolodex, and her path in life was paved by family expectations. When book 1 begins, she’s turned her back on that to find an existence that will hold more meaning for her, but she has yet to figure out what that will be. She knows how deceiving appearances often are, so it doesn’t take her long to get past Hauk’s looks—at least as a friend. It makes him different from what she knows and that’s exactly what she’s looking for. She’s also intrigued by his selflessness and authenticity, things that she longs for in her own life.
They have an opposite problem in this way. Jolie is a burlesque dancer. She’s fine being physically naked in front of anybody—she knows she’s beautiful and finds that aspect of herself boring. Growing up she was often told her beauty was her best trait, and her greatest fear is that’s true. So she doesn’t let people into her head or her heart. Sex is easy for her. A relationship with a good man is scary. Hauk terrifies her because she admires him so much, but fears that while he might lust after her (it’s been five years for the poor guy after all), she’s too pampered for a selfless man like him to love.
Jen: When I was creating my tags for the review, I realized I had a hard time categorizing the series. It’s not really paranormal, or steampunk, or sci fi, but not really contemporary… how would you characterize it?
Jax: Hahaha! Well…normally when I write I’m pretty firmly entrenched in a romance sub-genre, but of course the first thing I sold is the first thing I’ve written that’s all over the place. We had an internal debate about it at Carina [the publisher]. I recommended it be categorized as urban fantasy, but they thought of it as science fiction. Because of the magic, they did add “paranormal romance” to the official listing. The cover for How Beauty Met the Beast, while it’s pretty and I like it, has come across more steampunk than anyone intended. While there are steampunk elements to the Underlight, neither myself nor the folks at Carina think of the book that way. (I noticed that the cover they designed for book 2 is about as far from steampunk-looking as you can get, and I’m guessing that’s on purpose.) I do love magical realism, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge
Luis Borges, because of how it adds touches of paranormal to an otherwise normal setting, and I know this had an influence on me. Of course, unlike these authors the Tales of the Underlight are uptempo, urban genre stories. Even if I can’t, er, figure out exactly which genre. Speculative (sci-fi/paranormal) elements in the Underlight stories are present but not heavy, and they’re almost all something that some people really do believe in—like Pagan gods, conspiracy theories, weird science, hypnotic magic, possession and ancestor intercession. But there aren’t aliens or vampires or people shooting lightning from their fingertips, none of the big fantastical elements present in most science fiction and fantasy. So I might call it an urban romance take on magical realism? Clearly I wasn’t thinking about genre as I wrote this. Whether they loved it or hated it, few reviewers haven’t mentioned the genre WTFery, and frankly I’m right there with them!
Jen: Can you give us a sneak peek at what we can expect from the second installment?
Jax: Sure! The second book starts around Mardi Gras, two months after the end of How Beauty Met the Beast. At Jolie’s request, Hauk has been teaching her self-defense—which he’s been more than happy to do as he wants her able to kick the ass of anyone who tries to hurt her. To keep her comfortable during the physical nature of combat training, he’s done his best to keep things amicable but professional, and they’ve developed a solid friendship. At the start of the story, Jolie has gone with Hauk on her first mission for the Underlight, supposedly an easy-peasy in-and-out affair. So, of course, it goes horribly wrong. In the emotional aftermath of a near death experience, Hauk loses his professionalism and they almost kiss. (You can read the first chapter here on my website if you’d like to see it.) Jolie is surprised by how much she likes the idea of kissing him, forcing her to reevaluate what she wants from their relationship. But before they can work anything out, an old sweetheart of Hauk’s from before the fire shows up, sending her into a jealous tailspin.
Meanwhile Ananke escalates their efforts to acquire Hauk for study. He’s the only person who’s ever been able to resist the magical mind control embedded in their tattoos of Atropos, and they want to know how. They’ve developed a new weapon that can cancel his rages, leaving him drained, barely mobile and easy pickings for their hit squad…unless Jolie can use what she’s learned to save him.
Jen: Maybe a little excerpt?
Jax: This is from the second chapter. It’s the end of their workout the day after the almost kiss. Hauk’s been making Jolie practice getting out of a tight corner. After repeated failures, she’s finally managed to get past him using a judo throw. Things start out friendly as usual between them. Then they take a turn…
Hauk laughed, still lying on the ground with his knees in the air. He had a nice laugh, light and easy, and she found herself smiling again. She strolled cautiously toward him. “You didn’t let me win, did you?”
“No. I wasn’t expecting that.” He grinned up at her from the ground.
She stepped over his torso and stared down at him. “You were kind of a dick.”
He curled up until he was leaning on his elbows, a move that tightened his abs. “Anger works better than fear to get you out of a bad situation.”
His T-shirt wasn’t quite tight enough to see the way his muscles pleasantly rippled up the front of him, but she’d seen him once with his shirt off, and she remembered. Tribal-stylized vines climbed asymmetrically up his torso, thicker on the left side, where the skin was the most damaged. His chest was a patchwork of different skin tones and landscaped with scars like shallow canyons. The texture would be interesting to touch.
She’d touched his face before while he was asleep. The rest of his body was odd, but at least the scars had faded to skin tones. His face, though, that was the really different part of him. She’d researched burning on the internet. Melted cartilage was irreparable. His nose was nearly gone. One ear was missing; the other was half gone. He’d pierced an industrial across the top where the shell should be and three spikes into the remaining edge. He had no hair at all and marked where his eyebrows should be with four curved barbells on each side. He had no tattoos on his face, but his skull had her favorite one, a phoenix rising from a fire at the top of his spine, her colorful wings encircling his head and her beak touching his forehead, right where a priest would place a blessing. It was an incredible piece of art, and must have hurt like a mother to have been done entirely on bone like that. Although, from what she’d read about burns and burn recovery, Hauk probably had a different definition of “pain” than most people.
His grin faded. He’d told her when they first met that she could ask whatever she wanted about his scars, that he preferred open discussion to people keeping their mouths politely shut. And here she was studying him, all closed-mouthed. The wariness that had slowly receded over their two months together came back, and his eyes darted for his hoodie. About a month ago, he’d taken it off for the first time, showing her his arms. It had been a big move.
She didn’t want the relationship to go backward, so she dropped down to sit on his stomach and asked the first question that came to mind. “How many tours did you do?”
That surprised the wariness from him. “Three.”
Her jaw dropped. “Three? Weren’t you only in the Army for six years?”
He shrugged. “You can volunteer to deploy.”
“Why would you do that? You didn’t like—I mean, war isn’t fun or—I mean…” And crap, her mouth was getting the better of her.
He sat up, dumping her ass on the ground between his legs. With one hand he steadied her, watching her movements, probably so he didn’t have to meet her eyes. “No, war is not fun. I wasn’t having a grand old time, so yay, send me back. But they’re going to send somebody. Who should it have been? Some guy with a wife and kids? Or me?”
“Nobody is disposable.”
He tried to smirk at her, as if he could argue with that.
“No, Hauk. I’m serious. You’re not disposable. You said something like that yesterday, and it’s bullshit.”
He still looked ready to argue.
She crossed her arms and scowled. “You’re not disposable to me. And I’m a rich brat who thinks the world is her oyster, so you need to give up this idea that you have to sacrifice yourself for everybody else, because if something happened to you I’d be…” She did her best impression of her mother, glaring down her nose with a voice full of contempt. “I’d be put out.”
His eyes softened even if his lips didn’t, and it suddenly dawned on her how close they were. Her legs bent over his thighs and bracketed his torso. His hands had inched forward until his back was straight. If she straightened her own back and tipped her head up, they’d be right where they were yesterday, an inch away from a kiss.
And had she just said something about putting out?
“Training over for the day?” he asked, his voice husky as his eyes darkened with that same lusty fervor they’d held yesterday.
Why would he ask that?
Wait a minute.
Was it possible he’d been behaving himself, not because he wasn’t interested in her but because he wouldn’t hit on her while they were training? He’d been in the Army. They probably had strict rules about that sort of thing, and he was exactly the kind of guy who would follow them to ensure the women he worked with felt safe.
So if he was making a distinction between training time and not training time, was he asking for permission to quit being so professional?
Jolie made a gargled noise in eloquent answer to his question. She usually wasn’t struck dumb by men hitting on her—between her bank account, her cup size and her dad’s Rolodex, she’d been fending off overly aggressive suitors since she was in her teens. But all the physical hustling and bad one-liners from social-climbing hopefuls were not the same thing as a nice guy asking for…whatever it was Hauk was asking for.
On the other hand, it was possible that, just like her, he had an emotional hangover from yesterday and this meant nothing. At which point she should back away before they did something they’d regret.
But she took too long making a decision. With conviction, Hauk stated, “Aw, hell. Training’s over.” His fingers slid beneath her chin and tipped her face up.
The heat from yesterday came back with unrequited vengeance, filling her insides and shoving out rational thought. Like yesterday, she found herself drawn to his need, found an answering, if inexplicable, need inside herself. She straightened her back, bringing her lips next to his. “Training’s over,” she repeated as her arms slid around his neck.
For just a moment his breath was warm on her lips as he hesitated above her. Her heart skipped a beat as she remembered their last kiss two months ago—not the one he didn’t know about, but the first one, when she was spent from his lovemaking. A kiss so full of heat and longing, despite the barrier between them, that she’d never felt anything like it before. She’d dreamed about that kiss with soft thoughts for all the possibilities it had promised. The dream was terrifying. And exhilarating. And about to come true.
Jen: You’re a debut author. What has the publishing experience been like for you?
Jax: I’ve loved it. I’m a procrastinator, which means I love deadlines. They’re fabulously motivating. J I have an amazing editor, Rhonda Helms, whom I get along with really well, and Carina has been great to write for. At first it was bizarre getting reviews on my work, regardless of what the review said. I’ve been writing stories my whole life for my own amusement; it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started trying to get published. Now people I’ve never met from all over the world are reading my work, and it’s a dream I’ve had since childhood come true. (You! Readers! You make peoples’ dreams come true. Seriously.)
Now I’m looking forward to moving from “published author” to “career author.” If I can do that, I am lucky indeed to get to live the life I’ve always wanted. And that’s what I work for and why I keep trying to improve as a writer, so that I can take this chance I’ve been given and make something lasting out of it. Getting published is the first enormous step on the way to where I want to be. I hope I’ve started on the career I’ll have for the rest of my life!
Jen: Anything else you would like to add?
Jax: Whatever you have on your shelves right now, happy reading to all of you! Thanks for being a reader!
Thank you, Jax for visiting today. Leave a comment below for a chance to win either How Beauty Met the Beast or How Beauty Saved the Beast!