Book Review and Author Interview: Wish You Weren’t Here by Janeen Ippolito

This may shock you…in fact, I'm almost certain that it will…but a book doesn't have to feature a dragon as a main character in order for me to enjoy it.

Incredible, I know. But it's true. To take an example at random, I've found in recent months that I particularly like books with genie protagonists. Granted, I've only read two so far, but I think this is enough to confirm a new trend in my literary tastes. On the other hand, both of these books are by Janeen Ippolito, which means that they're probably a cut above other fantasy novels in their niche.

The Steel City Genie books are a new urban fantasy series that subverts the usual tropes of the subgenre and delivers something well worth the time of even the pickiest readers. You can read my review of Book 1, If Wishes Were Curses, on Goodreads here. Short version: I thoroughly enjoyed it and grabbed the sequel, Wish You Weren't Here, as soon as it was available. Here are my thoughts on that one.

And yes, I'll admit that there is a dragon in it. But only on the sidelines.

Wish You Weren't Here Review

I've heard it said many times with regard to both book series and TV series that you can't keep the audience interested once the protagonists have gotten married. Wish You Weren't Here proves that to be a load of hooey. Because marriage can be exciting too (or so I'm told), even without introducing the possibility of the happy couple splitting up (looking at you, Season 6 of every TV show in existence). True, Book 2 of the Steel City Genie series does feature the return of main character Allis' Jinn ex-boyfriend, but while this creates some realistic conflict in the story, one never really gets the impression that Allis and her vampire-lawyer husband Cendric would actually split up. Despite that, their relationship remains just as engaging as it was in the first book, even with the total absence of a will-they/won't-they element. Take note, all writers of romantic subplots.

The mythology continues to be as fresh and intriguing as it was in Book 1, If Wishes Were Curses. It gets a lot more layers here as the workings of Jinn magic are explored in more detail, as well as the politics of Allis' world (and beyond). The lazy route in urban fantasy is to just take a city setting and throw some magical creatures into it without really exploring all the ramifications of this scenario, but Ippolito steers clear of this pitfall. There's great depth to the world-building here, which serves to make the reader feel more invested in the story.

But above all, this book is just fun. World-hopping elves adopting sheep made of living cement? Yes, please. This story is not afraid to let its hair down (do stories have hair?) and be completely wacky. That's exactly the kind of book I love. And I suspect you'll have a great time with it as well.

Postscript: Vampires and genies arguing about Reformed theology is something that I didn't know I needed in my life.

Author Interview with Janeen Ippolito

Your books are a refreshing new addition to the urban fantasy market, thanks to the atypical creatures and mythology you introduce as well as the clever way in which you subvert reader expectations. You’ve written in other speculative sub-genres before, like the epic-fantasy/steampunk combo in the Ironfire Legacy series. What inspired you to branch out into urban fantasy?

I’ve wanted to write urban fantasy since before I knew it existed. When I was a kid living in Pittsburgh for a time, I was amazed at the random bursts of greenery and foliage that would sprout around the industrial city. I always wanted to explain that in my head. So magic made the most sense! And then as soon as I started reading fantasy voraciously, I fell in love with urban fantasy. It was a no-brainer to combine magical creatures with the human world. The universe of The Steel City Genie series has been cooking for about three years total, so I’m very excited to get all these books written!

How did you first come up with the premise of the Steel City Genie series, and what inspired you to use genies/Jinn as a central plot element?

Haha, well no offense to Allis, but she wasn’t my first pick for lead character! As I started developing the cast of characters, I wanted a more holistic PI form that didn’t just solve crimes, but also helped people get back on their feet–including wrongfully-accused monsters. So when I considered focusing on Jack, the lead monster-hunter, or Theiya, the Fae detective liaison, Allis was always in the background dealing with the more relational aspects. But I enjoy flipping tropes, and having a monster-hunter lead character or a Fae detective wasn’t appealing to me. A genie matchmaker-turned-romantic crimes consultant? That was fascinating to me.

The matchmaker part is something you usually see in paranormal cozy mysteries, but with my own passion for cross-cultural communication and relations, I knew a lot about the darker side of interpersonal crimes. And I was also amazed at how many big issues in urban fantasy books could be solved if people were just more relationally-savvy and communicated better. So by flipping the expectations, I suddenly had this trickster main character who bluntly values emotions–unless they’re her own. Because every character needs weak points. One of Allis’s is that she’s great at understanding and sympathizing with others, and then is incredibly brutal and dismissive in self-reflection. It was overall a fun, fresh way to approach the book.

As far as the genie aspect, honestly I was listening to the Dove Cameron cover of “Genie in a Bottle” because pop music is a not-gonna-be-guilty-about-it pleasure. That was when the first idea of Allis popped into my head. I saw this character just dancing at a quality nightclub. Not brooding, not skulking, just unashamedly enjoying the music. And then the wrong guy comes up to her, and instead of just blowing him off, she plays along until she figures out what he’s up to, because a genie who could grant wishes would be able to read people extremely well. Then she deals with him and his miscreant ways. So when she became the protagonist, the genie element did as well!

Bringing in the Jinn aspect came in as a way to deepen her character and explore some aspects of first generation Americans, which Allis is–Russian on her human mother’s side, Jinn from her father’s. One difficulty of first generation Americans can be trying to figure out where they belong in the world and how to balance their cultures. In Allis’s case, because of the terrible Fae court her entire Jinn side has been physically cut off, so she doesn’t “look like a Jinn” (although I will have fun with that in the future). And then I had her dad leave her mom right after Allis was conceived.

So basically it gives Allis a fantastic abandonment complex, a great “who am I really?” complex, and a disconnect from her very powerful magic. And then I get to explore all of that, and more, in future books. I did a lot of research into Jinn folklore and worked with a consultant, but as I realized that many, many tribes had their own folklore, and the folklore doesn’t always agree, I decided to just roll with that and make the Jinn as much as a chaotic place as the Fae. So “all the myths are true” fits for the Jinn as well–expect quite a few crazy things going on!

What’s your typical strategy for planning a series of books? Do you outline all the titles in advance, or do you take it one book at a time, with a rough outline of where the series is going to go?

I outline all of the titles in advance with problems, solutions, and very rough loglines, plus any extra information I might have around. With a series, the set-up of the first book is crucial to the rest of the story, so I’m always jotting down ideas for different books as they come to me. It’s not so much strict outlines as dumping relevant ideas and brainstorms into containers so they’re there when I need them. The Steel City Genie Series will be at least six books, and probably ten.

Book 1, If Wishes Were Curses, revealed some fascinating details about certain characters’ backstories and set up an intriguing conflict for the future. Can you give some non-spoilery teasers for what we can expect for your characters’ journeys in Book 2?

Kiran Singh, Allis’s Jinn ex, definitely plays a key part in the story. You’re going to learn more about Jinn culture–but it’s very big, so not everything will be revealed! You’re going to see some new and unexpected characters and Allis’s worldview is going to be shaken just a bit. Plus, I definitely factor in that while Allis and Cendric are OTP, they still haven’t known each other all that long, so they’re going to have to work through some things with their sudden marriage. Little aftershocks from that elopement are going to keep reverberating throughout the coming books–especially because many immortals don’t take marriage as a vow all that seriously, especially elopements. Even when they are destined. So expect some continued outside hostility and conflict towards their union, as well as anger about Allis coming into her power. Magicals don’t really like other magicals getting more powerful than them.

The Steel City Genie books have continuity connections with the various other books you’ve written. Could you tell us the story of how that came about, and tease the ways in which the different series are linked together?

The short answer: I like stories to be friends with other stories.
Another short answer: it saves time to use existing characters by combining universes instead of creating new characters that are essentially duplicates.
Okay, that answer was a little longer.
A third not-even-trying-to-be-short-answer: long conversations with author friends who have compatible characters who really like to hop universes can lead to fun crossovers and unexpected moments.
Owls will speak sign language. Elves will adopt cement sheep. Moody vampires will get nicknames.
And life is better all around. 😉 [Interjection from Kyle: YES.]

Also, this has led to a fun concept known as “arranged family-ing” that will be explored in book three. Mwahaha.

What advice would you give to authors who are considering writing in the urban fantasy genre?

You really need to understand some core parts of the genre:
-PLACE. The environment matters a lot. The environment and setting must, MUST be a character.
-CAST OF CHARACTERS. Even if your main character is one of those loner types, we read urban fantasy books to see different, quirky characters interact with the main character. Being able to manage a cast of distinctive characters is crucial.
-THE UNEXPECTED. Urban fantasy readers want to see unique takes on fantasy characters interacting with non-magical, “normal-ish” settings. So deliver the unexpected that results.
-HAVE FUN. I mean, you’re getting to put all kinds of random magical creatures in our world! It’s fantastic. Whether you’re going for humorous or serious, have fun and play a little. Or a lot.

In closing, I want to thank Janeen for being on the blog today, and to remind you that you can (and really, really should) purchase Wish You Weren't Here on Amazon today, or download it free through Kindle Unlimited.

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