Pets and Poisons

Let me start out this post by saying RIO IS FINE, and also, because it can’t be stated often enough (and for anyone who got here by googling): DON’T FEED YOUR DOG CHOCOLATE, GRAPES, OR RAISINS, and definitely no sugar-free gum with xylitol (That means keep those purses with your packs of Trident in them OFF THE FLOOR).

Okay, now, on to metaphorical poisons and fictional pets.

First off, I’m over on the Poison Book Tumblr today. Poiso is the debut novel of author Bridget Zinn, who, sadly, passed away from cancer before her book hit the shelves. Her friends and colleagues have banded together to help promote the book for her, which makes them all the awesomest people ever. Check it out and then check out the book, too. It’s a twisted fairy tale and the heroine has a cute pet pig. What’s not to love?

Speaking of pets…

Yesterday, I ended up in a long Twitter convo with authors Sarah MacLean and Louisa Edwards about what makes a reader root for the hero of your story, and, in the course of the conversation, we started talking about how a hero being nice to animals tends to make the reader like a hero who might otherwise be a little prickly. This is the trick screenwriters call “Save the Cat.”

Readers of this blog know I’m a big animal fan, and readers of my books know I am no stranger to putting cute fuzzy (or not so cute OR fuzzy) animals in my stories. From Poe’s Voldemort the snake (and, later, Reepicheep the mouse); to unicorns from Bonegrinder to Bucephalus, Angel to Flayer; to Goneril the homeless witch’s retriever; and Nero, the yellow barn cat who ONLY liked Kai — I got you covered on the animal front.

(True story, when I started writing this post, I had thought to myself that I didn’t start including animals until the unicorn series, but I’d forgotten Poe’s pets!)

Of course, my characters don’t always “save the cat.” In fact, Astrid and Co. spend a good amount of time vanquishing the cat. But they’re you know, conflicted about it.

I can’t wait for you all to meet Slipstream, my newest animal creation, in ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA. This is the first time (beyond Care & Feeding, I suppose) where I’ve actually given my main character a pet to call her own. Persis’s pet Slipsream is an animal Persis’s people call a sea mink, even though that’s not really what it is. Sea minks don’t exist anymore; they are an extinct species of sea otter. What Slippy is is a genetically engineered otter-like creature, modified to be as tame and useful and clever as a well trained German Shepherd, but with all the cuteness of a particularly fine specimen of otter. Which, if you know otters, is a pretty high bar:

Also, he’s red, like the sea minks of old, who are said to have had such fine and beautiful deep red pelts that they were hunted to extinction off the North Atlantic Coast. The “sea mink” name was borrowed from the extinct creature to pay homage to the red-coated, extinct forebear, but it also does double-duty — call an animal a “mink” and you definitely get the idea that its owner is a very wealthy and spoiled sort. And that’s just the impression Persis wants. Because the other thing Persis likes about Slipstream is that, unbeknownst to everyone except her inner circle, he’s a spy, too. Most people just think he’s her silly, pampered pet, as seen in this scene below, of the first morning Justen and Persis spend together:


In the scene below, my heroine Persis pretends to be a spoiled, airheaded aristocrat to help hide the fact that she’s secretly a super-spy, a plan that’s complicated when she gets an unexpected houseguest…


Shoving herself to her feet once more, she reengaged the screen and pulled the lever on her bath. A rush of hot mineral water flowed into the high-backed basin, and Persis tugged off her shift and slipped into the slightly sulfur-scented water. She didn’t even bother with perfumes. The obsidian wall above the bath was polished to a high sheen, and she checked out her reflection. Bloodshot, baggy eyes, but that was probably the sickness, not any lingering effects of the genetemps itself.

“By the way,” came Justen’s voice from the other side, “your friend gave me a message for you. The one with the blue hair?” His tone dripped with disdain. “She said she took your packages straight to your tailor.”

More good news. Persis slumped in her bath, allowing a small smirk at the thought of the league’s medic, Noemi, being called a tailor. Noemi would hate that. But she would know what to do for the children. Persis leaned her head back as the heat soaked into her aching muscles. “Thank you.”

Thank you, Justen Helo. Persis covered her face with her hands and groaned. Her whole life, she’d imagined what it would be like to meet a member of that famous family, perhaps when she went with Isla to one of Queen Gala’s parties. But it had never happened. Instead, this was what happened: Justen Helo had saved her life, and she’d thrown up on his shoes. So much for the elegant, charming Lady Persis Blake.

There was silence for several minutes on the other side of the screen, long enough for Persis to contemplate falling asleep again. But Justen couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Lady Blake? Do you plan to be very long in there?”

“Am I keeping you from an appointment, Citizen Helo?” She knew the Scintillans servants would have seen to all Justen’s needs, not only because he was Persis’s guest but because of his famous name. Regs would do anything for a descendant of the Helos. Justen was no doubt considered a model citizen back home.

And that’ s why letting him wander around out there unattended might not be the best idea. With a groan, Persis pulled herself up to a sitting position in the warm, soothing water. She’d soak her bones later. For now, she needed to deal with the Galatean revolutionary standing in her bedroom.

She dialed in the instructions to her bath, which promptly responded with a flow of frangipani-scented water. Rinsed and perfumed, she emerged, dried off, and garbed herself in an ocean blue kimono that covered her from neck to foot. Properly armed, she exited the bathroom only to be greeted by an empty space. She looked around in confusion, and spotted Justen outside in the garden, near a table set with breakfast for two. He was kneeling on the vibrant, manicured lawn, while Slipstream balanced on his hind legs, his long neck stretched up as he begged for the bit of manguava cake Justen dangled over the sea mink’s glossy black nose.

“He’ll balance treats on his nose if you want,” she said from the steps, squinting as the full sunlight hit her face.

Justen tried it and sat back on his heels, impressed. “Very well-trained pet you have.”

“That’s what my father paid the gengineers for.” Persis turned her attention to the sea mink. “Slippy, end!” Slipstream flipped the cake off his snout and caught it in midair as Persis stepped off the stairs and onto the soft, loamy earth of the lawn. “Ever seen a sea mink before?”

“We don’t use gengineering for personal pets in Galatea,” Justen said, rising to his feet. “just for stock animals, guard beasts, stuff like that.”

Stuff like mini-orcas to feed your enemies to. But she wouldn’t dwell on that now. Not when Justen had been so kind as to save her life. Not when she had so much shallow socialite to convince him of.

“Slipstream is an excellent guard beast,” she replied as the animal scurried to her side. “I’ve never had my yacht stolen even once.”


Ah, pets. Tricksy little things. Sometimes, you can use them to make your reader like your heroine, and sometimes, your heroine can use them to make your hero think she’s a brat.

Posted in other writers, Rio, SSG, star-swept, unicorns, writing advice, writing life, YA, zoo

One Response to Pets and Poisons

  1. Morgan says:

    I have never heard of “Save the Cat” but it makes a lot of sense and I can see what you mean! How interesting. Thank you for posting a snippet of Across a Star-Swept Sea too, I really enjoyed it! Makes me want the book even more 🙂 Persis seems like an awesome character and I do love otters. As well as the word tricksy at the end of your post, always makes me think of Smeagol! Haha.