Creating Language for Fiction

We haven’t updated the blog in a while, as we’ve been completely buried under other writing projects. However, a question came up on another site recently about inventing an entirely new language for fiction. Since this is something that’s on our minds right now—we’re about a third away through wirting the fifth Passionate Pantheon book, in which psycholinguistics plays a key role (the protagonist is interested in linguistics and anthropology), we thought it might be appropriate here.

Do you need to worry about coming up with an entire new language for your fantasy or science fiction world? You can, sure, if you’re a linguist, or a conlanger, or someone else with an interest in language.

Should you do this? For the most part, your audience probably won’t care.

I think it’s good to know how the language in your setting works. Language is important. But unless you’re JRR Tolkien, who wrote his stories essentially (at least at first) as a way to give the languages he invented a context and a history, every moment you spend creating a language is a moment you, well, aren’t writing.

Now, Eunice and I are both language nerds, so we know a huge amount about the language of the City in the Passionate Pantheon novels…most of which will never appear in the novels themselves.

For example, we know the language is tonal. We know the language started as a pidgin of several pan-Asian languages thousands of years ago. We know that in the time the novel is set, there are no extant Romance or Romance-derived languages left.

Eunice invented a brilliant writing system for the language fo the City. It’s both phonetic and ideographic; the language has thousands of written symbols, each of which represents a word, and each of which also represents a sound. Since the number of ideographs is far larger than the number of phonemes, each spoken sound can be represented by one of hundreds of different ideographs.

So a piece of text can be read two ways: phonetically or ideographically, with the ideographs that are used to spell each word informing the meaning of the word.

That means you can write a piece of text ideographically, like Chinese. Or you can also write it phonetically, with any given word spelled in literally hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Eunice also invented a completely brilliant, breathtakingly beautiful system for teaching children to read and write: “story wheels.” These are short fables or parables, written phonetically in circles with each line of the fable written like the spokes of a wheel. Children play a game where they change the meaning of the story by changing the characters that spell each phonetic word, so the phonetic words retain the same meaning and pronunciation but the context changes.

Some information about the language does appear in the books, where it’s relevant. For example, the protagonist in the fifth book is fascinated by language, history, and anthropology, and that’s part of the book’s plot. (In one scene, she gets distracted on her way to a sex party by a conversation on anthropology, because who among us hasn’t had that experience, amirite?)

There’s a scene in the book where she plays a game with her childhood drone on the evening before she takes her first adult name, and loses her drone forever:

The drone accompanied her to her room, where it hovered silently as if it didn’t know what to say. She sat on the edge of the bed with her knees drawn up to her chest. At last it said, “Would you like to go to sleep?”

“No,” she said. “After tomorrow, I’ll still be able to see my parents, but I will never see you again. I would like to spend a last few moments with you.”

The drone bobbed up and down in a nod. “What would you like to do, little mouse?”

“I want—” She stopped herself from saying I want things to be different. I want this not to be the end. The unspoken words hung heavy between them. “I want to spend time with you.”

On an unseen signal from the drone, the lights dimmed. The projector in the drone’s nose glowed. A circle floated in the air in front of it, divided into sectors by glowing green lines, every sector filled with graceful calligraphy. She leaned forward. “I haven’t seen this one before.”

“It’s a new story I’ve been working on,” the drone said “I call it The Stars that Sang.

“Were you thinking of me when you wrote it?”

“Yes.” The drone dipped. “Do you want to play?”

“Yes!” She studied the wheel for a while, reading the flowing script over and over. “Okay. Fourth line, change the spelling of ‘space’ from ‘vast lonely deep despair’ to…um…” She frowned in thought. “‘Open heavenly wide distant.’”

“Mm, interesting,” the drone said. The floating wheel changed, the calligraphic characters rippling into new shapes. “I’m surprised you didn’t start with line two, ‘night.’”

She shook her head. “Too obvious.”

“Okay, now you’ve changed the sentiment of the opening, where do you go from here? You’ve taken away the emotional contrast between the opening and the closing.”

“Hang on, I’m not done yet!” She stuck her tongue out at the drone. “Line seven. Change the spelling of ‘silent’ from ‘calm peaceful waiting sunset together’ to ‘heart hangs awkward tense breathless.’”

The glyphs changed. The drone tilted sideways, considering the new story. “You’ve left the story the same but changed the meaning entirely.”

She rubbed her hands together. “I’m just getting started. Eighth quadrant. What if we change the spelling of ‘music’ from ‘sweet light joyous exultation soaring’ to ‘sweet sorrow regret past haunting’?”

They stayed up until well into the night, writing and rewriting the drone’s story, until by the time her eyes grew heavy it had changed in meaning many times even though the words remained essentially the same. Eventually, she crawled beneath the covers, still fully dressed. The drone pulled the covers over her with a set of long, jointed manipulators that unfolded from its body. “Sweet dreams, little mouse,” it said.

“It still sucks,” she said.

“I know.”

But as for actually making the language? To the extent someone might speak or write it? Oh hell no. Only one tiny fragment of the language exists:

She stared at the night sky for a while, watching the stars twinkle beyond the shield. The larger moon glowed through wispy clouds just above the wall. After a time, she said, “Will you sing me a song?”

“Of course. What would you like to hear?”

“Sing me the song about the mouse in the moonlight.”

The drone floated higher. “As you wish.” Its voice changed, softening, becoming deeper as it sang.

Lahr Airiîthnē, na elerē, hauieira so vanawya elle
Lahr Airiîthnē, ye olowē, ramatriyá allanyo té hwell
Fandirhî håo on kyio noyinniara
Ran Apla, ye Apla, in méie jhonaíra
Lahr Airiîthnē, na elerē, vanasaya etra tun nos esserentiália

She closed her eyes as the song unfolded, pretending for just a moment that her naming ceremony was still off in some distant future, with endless days of play still stretching out before her. As the drone sang, she pictured the story wheel behind her eyes, the lines of the story arranged like spokes, each line both a word and a sentence.

The drone’s voice faded away at the end of the song. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. “It’s not right,” she said.

“Right does not mean painless. This is necessary,” the drone said. “The little mouse has grown into a strong, beautiful person. I came to you to help guide you to this place. Now your path is entirely up to you. It’s time for you to step into yourself.”

We know enough about what the language sounds like, and the rules that are used to put words together, to do that much, but no way in hell are we ever going to create a whole language!

Living Space in the City

Image: Gontran Isnard

The City is a place of no scarcity and no want, where everything you could ever desire can be summoned from a Provider at will. Yet when we look at how the people of the City live, most of them have private living spaces that are, from modern American perspectives, quite small, almost Spartan even. Why, in a world where you can choose to have as much stuff and space as you want, does this happen?

Part of it is simply that the people of the City don’t need to warehouse a lot of stuff—indeed, they’d consider having a space where you simply store physical possessions (with the notable exception of gifts) to be quite odd. If you can simply conjure up whatever you need from a Provider, you don’t need closets to store your clothes, drawers to store your eating utensils, cabinets and chests and furniture to hold everything you accumulate.

And of course, unless you prepare food as a hobby or artform, you need not have any provisions for storing or cooking. Kitchens simply don’t exist in most living spaces in the City. Why would they? Cooking is an exotic pastime, like throwing pottery or making hats would be for most Westerners in the real world.

That same post-scarcity, instant-on nanotech assembly that lets the Providers produce anything at a moment’s notice also allows people to change their living space on a whim, at the push of a button. Well, no, you don’t even have to push buttons if you don’t want to; you need only sufficiently describe what you want so the AIs can make it happen:

“Planning to make any changes?”

“Yeah. Place is not really set up for me.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“You offering to help?”


Yaeris smiled a genuine smile. “Thank you.” She called up a pullover shirt and slacks from the Provider, then conjured a terminal and tossed it to Lyrin. He perched on the edge of the tiny table. A few quick gestures later, a glowing hologram of the Avatar’s quarters filled the room. “What do you want to do?”

“Some windows would be nice,” Yaeris said. “I don’t need a place to write music. A simple art studio is fine. Let’s move that wall and make space for entertaining. We can build a new room for the bedroom. And make the bed bigger.”

A brief expression of sadness flashed across Lyrin’s face at the last. “If that’s what you would like,” he said.

Yaeris ran her hand up his back. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I…” She shook her head.

They worked throughout the night before they had a design that Yaeris found pleasing. As morning sun shone through the frosted ceiling, Lyrin tapped his terminal. The Provider in the studio flipped open. A swarm of tiny mechanical gnats boiled out. They flowed past Yaeris and Lyrin as they set about the job of reshaping her living space. Watching the small things go about their work filled Yaeris with a wild joy.

from The Hallowed Covenant

Imagine if you could shape your living space to anything you wanted any time you liked, but you never had to store anything, because whatever you might need was always at your fingertips, all the time. What would your living space look like? How would that change the way you think about space?

In a sense, as Eunice pointed out, the City is almost the perfect consumerist space, because it is constantly consuming new goods all the time…but it isn’t a capitalist consumerist space. In the real world, minimalism is a wealth display—a minimalist space signals that you have the means to afford to buy whatever you need whenever you need it and then throw it away as soon as you’ve used it. (Think Elon Musk and his tiny homes.) In the City, it’s exactly the opposite: everyone has the ability to have anything they desire all the time, so there’s simply no need to keep all your possessions at hand.

But it isn’t just about space for your stuff. There’s another component to this as well: in the City, a lot of your living is done outside your home, in public spaces. It’s something that also happens in many, if not most, of the countries in the real world, both historically and today (excluding the oddities of the last few years, when public gathering was significantly harder). Suburban North America is something of an outlier—through much of history, living was something you did away from the home (for men, anyway—in some societies the rules were often, as you might imagine, rather different for women).

The Cities in the Passionate Pantheon are all built along a similar template (well, except for the City in the fifth Passionate Pantheon novel, which is quite a departure—stay tuned for more details!): they’re enormous circles, protected by a shield dome that also regulates the weather, with the Temple District at the center, surrounded by an enormous belt of open green space—parks, forests, rivers, and so forth—with a ring of living towers around the outside edge.

The space between the Temple District and the living towers is, in a sense, the living heart of the City. Socialization happens there. Parties, festivals, gatherings, all take place there. The space changes constantly; what was a small forest yesterday might be a lake filled with boats today, perhaps with an island with a party space in the center, and a valley park filled with paths and gardens tomorrow. The City is a living place in a way that’s hard for people in the real world to imagine. (And if rubbing shoulders with lots of people isn’t your bag, you can create a small home for yourself wherever you like in that space between.)

Each of those towers is itself almost a miniature city of its own, with living quarters separated by communal spaces that occupy an entire floor. Living and socializing happen, for the most part, not in people’s own spaces, but in those community spaces. The City thinks about space differently, and those differences are reflected everywhere, even in the architecture of the City itself.

And speaking of the shield dome, that has an impact on yet another aspect of the way the City thinks about space. If you want to, you can just…ask the drones to make a bed for you in a park somewhere, secure in the knowledge nothing will happen to you if you decide to bed down there for the night. You won’t freeze, or get sun/heat exhaustion, or be harassed, or have your things stolen, or be aggressively moved on by law enforcement. In a very literal sense, you can, if you choose, live completely without a private space of your own at all, and be just as comfortable as everyone else. The division between “public” and “private” space is quite different. In a very real sense, while there may be spaces in the City that are yours, nobody really “owns” land—in fact, the idea would probably seem quite weird to citizens of the City. The deep emotional attachment that some show to a specific little plot of land…that just doesn’t really make sense in the City.

You can also move whenever you like. At a moment’s notice, you might decide to change towers, or move from a tower to a small space in a park somewhere (or vice versa), and it just…happens. The space you occupy is temporary. Of course, people still decorate and personalize, but that’s much easier as well, with the help of the drones and assemblers. There’s no sense that it’s “your” space and moving to a different space is an ordeal. This means that communities and bonds can be a lot more fluid and wide-ranging as well. Communities of interest that are also communities of location become more typical, forming clusters of people that move on when their interests change.

If you have anything you want at your fingertips, the drive to accumulate stuff isn’t necessarily a given. We can be tempted to think of the drive to accumulate wealth, resources, stuff as intrinsic to the human species—stuff is how we measure our success, how we show wealth and status, how we display social power, and so forth—but if you were absolutely confident that you could have whatever you needed, all the time, whenever you needed it, and nobody attached status to it, would that still be true?

We think the answer is no. Up to a certain point, having stuff, whether that’s physical space or possessions or resources, is ultimately about security. If a society is completely secure—if you absolutely know, without question, you will always have whatever you need—there’s no point to accumulating more physical accoutrement (and therefore needing more space to store it in). The drive for security moves to accumulating financial resources instead, as a proxy. In a post-scarcity society, accumulating financial resources doesn’t provide security; accumulating personal connections does. (The character Jakalva in Unyielding Devotion is the ultimate expression of this; she is, in some ways, a post-scarcity version of someone like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. She has extraordinary power through her connections at all levels of society, and her presence and actions impact people whether she intends to or not.)

When we started writing the Passionate Pantheon novels, our goal was a sexy romp in a far-future Utopia. Somewhere along the way, though, we started asking questions about what that means. What would the City look like? What would life in the City be like? This novel, The Hallowed Covenant, is the first that looks at life away from the Temples, and explores what living in such a city would really look like.

As we think more and more about life in this society, we find ourselves more and more often removing sex scenes to make more room for story and world, even though we long ago decided that a sex scene will only appear in the story if it also informs the reader about the characters, their motivations, the plot, or the setting. Which is perhaps not what you might normally expect from porn…but this isn’t, as far as we know, anything like any other porn out there.

Preorders for The Hallowed Covenant, the new Passionate Pantheon novel, close in just a few days! Act now to get a copy of the book, and an advance review copy of Unyielding Devotion (due out fall of 2023), here!

Fluid consent, kink, and making it all fun

Image: Katie Drazdauskaite

Consent is a foundational tenet of the world of the Passionate Pantheon, even in long-term intimate relationships. We’re currently working on a series of short stories in the universe, and we don’t always have space to show that in as much detail as we’d like. Not if we want to also show the hot kinky sex they’re negotiating about, at any rate! Take, for example, this snippet, cut from an upcoming short story:

The moment the door closed, she pushed him against the wall, pinning him there with her body. “So what do I need to do?” she purred.

Hassan blinked. A quick hot jolt shot through him, a feral desire beyond the Blessing of Fire. He pushed it down firmly. “Do?” his voice sang from the drone. “Whatever do you mean, Priestess Carrathen?”

“To earn the antidote, Priest Hassen.” She ground against his hips, hot and wet. “I can’t come without it, and believe me when I say I would very much like to come. Since you’re the reason I’m in this state, it’s only fair that you be the one to decide how to resolve it.”

Hassen ran his hands up her back, beneath the thin sheer robe. He shivered at the feel of warm, soft skin beneath his palms. Carrathen kissed him, urgent and rough, tongue slipping between his lips. The fire within him blazed hotter. She folded his hand over her breast. “So, Priest Hassen, do you intend to address this situation you’ve created?”

“I’ve never been able to say no to you.”

“Not since the day we met. But would you want to?”


She laughed a delighted silvery laugh. “You see? You can say ‘no’ to me after all. Now then, what must I do to earn release?”

“This seems an easy thing,” Hassen said. “You need only summon the antidote from the Provider behind you.”

Carrathen pinned his wrists to the wall and pressed herself tight to him, teeth grazing the side of his neck. “What a practical solution. How ordinary. How…boring. Surely the Temple should reward your selfless service, Priest Hassen. What better way than by allowing you to set the terms of my release? I am in a state to be extremely…” She leaned forward to take his earlobe gently between her teeth. “Accommodating.”

“You make a compelling argument,” Hassen said. “Still, if I am to set an appropriate condition, I will need to know, how badly do you want release?”

“I’ve been bound and teased for hours.” She ran her fingers lightly over his erection, where a glistening bead of wetness formed. “How badly do you imagine?” She raised her fingertip to her lips to lick off the drop of wetness. “Now that you know, what must I do, if I am to earn what I so desperately crave?”

Hassen nuzzled her neck. “I’m sure we can work something out,” his drone sang.

“If I’m very lucky,” she murmured, “it will take a long time and a lot of hard work. You have me in such a state, I dearly hope you take advantage of it.”

“It would seem a shame not to.”

What do you see when you read this scene? You might describe it as a flirtation, a come-on, maybe even a proposition. We see a consent negotiation. Fun negotiation, yes; playful, mischievous, flirtatious, even whimsical, but negotiation nonetheless. These characters are clearly enjoying their verbal interplay as much as their physical interplay, but fundamentally this is a conversation about consent.

Too often, the real world frames consent as about as much fun as a union labor contract negotiation, only without the camaraderie or joie de vivre. A necessity, sure, but one you undertake out of obligation, not something to look forward to. Is it any wonder so many people push back against consent culture with “talking about consent totally wrecks the mood!”?

Thing is, most of us have never seen consent modeled in a fun, playful way. Properly done, sexual negotiation can be super-hot…think of the most steamy sexting session you’ve ever had, but up close and in person. The Internet is full of wonderful conversations about what consent is and why it’s necessary and (we’re both fond of the video that compares consent to tea), but they usually tell, rather than show—there’s no sense that conversations about sexual consent are necessary but also a lot of fun.

Hang on, let’s back up a bit. When you hear “flirting,” what do you think?

For some folks, flirting is a tool, a means to an end. It’s a signal. You flirt because you want to have sex. Sex (often defined by folks who think of flirtation this way as the act of a penis entering a vagina) is the end goal. If sex doesn’t happen, the flirting was for nothing. In fact, it was worse than nothing—it was an offer that turned out to be merely a taunt, a fake, a con.

For other people, flirting is a goal in itself, not a means to an end. You flirt because flirting is fun and engaging, because flirting is enjoyable in its own right. If the flirting leads to something more, hey, that’s cool, but it doesn’t have to—in fact, you might even flirt with someone you don’t intend to have sex with, because flirting is fun.

And what about foreplay?

Well, it’s the same thing. For some people, foreplay is merely the opening act, not the show. Yeah, it’s fun enough and all, but everyone knows it’s not the main event. It’s not ‘real’. For other people, foreplay is fun—fun enough that you might do it just for the joy of doing it, without necessarily needing or expecting it to lead to sex, however you define ‘sex.’ (Some people would call foreplay that doesn’t necessarily lead to anything further ‘making out’.)

In the City, sex is pervasive. People have sex, and we mean a lot of sex, quite casually, for a large number of reasons, and often in ways so exotic they don’t even have names. Yet we suspect that for people of the City, both flirtation and foreplay are far more likely to be seen as activities of their own, that don’t need to lead anywhere else and certainly don’t need to end in sex (which is in itself defined much more broadly than we would in the real world—in fact, we have an essay percolating about that!).

And in the City, the little talk about consent isn’t a tedious, super-heavy prelude to the main event. There’s no heavy sigh, no “okay, now we need to sit down and have The Talk.” It’s baked into flirtation. It’s so ordinary, so normalized that negotiations about consent just naturally weave themselves into almost every activity. People of the City don’t see negotiation, consent, flirtation, and foreplay as separate things, items in a checklist you tick off before you get to the sex. Yet consent is absolutely foundational to the worldview of the City.

The City prizes agency and consent in ways that, far too often, the real world doesn’t. The social framework of the City rests on a foundation of respect for agency, autonomy, and consent. Not just in sex, but in everything. We’ve mentioned before that people of the City would, for example, be quite appalled at making a child hug a relative they didn’t want to touch. Children of the City have, in many ways, greater agency than adults in the real world.

To those of the City, consent is necessary, and conversations around consent happen more or less constantly. So how do they do it without making all these conversations into a heavy, off-putting burden?

We cut the scene at the start of the essay from a short story we’re writing for the release of the upcoming novel, The Hallowed Covenant. (We’re used to writing 120,000 words at a time, so writing 8,000-word short stories always means a lot of cool scenes end up being chopped out.) We dusted it off and put it here because it shows that a negotiation can be fun and playful, without being, like, such a drag, man.

Let’s go through and have a look at exactly what’s going on in this scene.

This scene takes place as Hassen, a minor character from The Brazen Altar, is training a new novice to take his place. One of Hassen’s jobs is to sexually stimulate potential Sacrifices as they recite the Litany, so that if they’re chosen to be bound to an altar at the top of the great ziggurat enduring forced orgasms from sunup to sundown while they recite the City’s history, they’ll be able to get through the whole thing.

During this training, Carrathen agreed to act in place of the potential Sacrifice, given powerful aphrodisiacs and a Blessing that prevents orgasm, then tied down and teased for three and a half hours…all for the purpose of training a new novice in the fine arts of sexual stimulation, of course. Not quite ‘For Science’, but a similar vibe.

Now she’s worked up, and looking for release. She could simply take the antidote to the Blessing that prevents orgasm, then do whatever she likes…but, as she says, what’s the fun in that?

Carrathen introduces the game they’re playing asking Hassen “now that I’m in this state, I’m interested in going further with you, are you interested?” Hassen reminds her that she has an out available to her, without implying that he isn’t interested. She acknowledges it, and makes clear she would like to continue. All this is basic consent negotiation 101, but done in a playful way, without interrupting the flirtatious game they’re playing.

Now, you might argue consent is particularly important in this situation because they’re negotiating some pretty kinky sex. But we would say that from the perspective of the City, the sex they’re negotiating isn’t all that kinky. When we talk about the Passionate Pantheon, we say there’s a lot of kinky sex going on, but that’s viewed from our real-world perspective. From theirs, it’s quite different. The City takes a much broader view of what’s possible in sex, and a big part of that is the City’s emphasis on consent and the fact that consent is woven so tightly into ordinary interaction, rather than seen as this extra thing you have to do before you can get jiggy.

When all your flirtations are opportunities for negotiation, and you have a mindset that sees consent as a fun, hot, sexy thing in its own right, it’s much easier to take a broad view of sex.

The two of us enjoy flirting, and we enjoy conversations around consent. One of our goals in writing these stories is showing how fun those conversations can be. (Okay, we also write them because we want to explore a world where the social attitudes about sex are pretty close to the opposite of those in the real world, and because we think the stories are hot and we hope you will too.)

We also think that when you weave negotiations about consent into the fabric of your flirtation, rather than treating those negotiations as some separate thing, you can have better sex. It becomes part of the build up, the foreplay, the tentative initial exploration of the biggest of our sex organs—the mind. As someone we both know says, “Vanilla dating is too hardcore for me.” The idea, so prevalent in much of mainstream dating, of just continuing until you’re told to stop…that sounds to us like it can only have two results. Either you have mediocre and/or generic sex, or you keep going until you risk traumatizing or harming someone. When you don’t know where the boundaries are, you find them by tripping over the landmines. (Yes we know that’s not how landmines work, just go with us here, ok?)

So yes, these consent conversations are a lot of fun, but more than that, treating consent as a part of your ordinary interactions enables you to explore a wider range of possibilities.

So why don’t more people do it?

The shallow, surface answer, presented here, is that many people—mostly, in our societies, cishet men—don’t want to talk about consent because they’re afraid the answer will be no.

But that’s overly simplistic. There’s more to it. A big part of it is a starvation model of sex vs an abundance model. If you have a starvation model of sex, if you see sex as something rare that’s hard to find, you won’t be inclined to make it even harder to get by putting more hurdles in the way. And why is sex scarce? Well, a lot of women are selective about who they have sex with because they are reluctant to be judged or shamed afterward, or they don’t want to risk violence precisely when they’re most vulnerable, or both. (Often both, and usually without any guarantees of decent sex to make up for it either.)

And perhaps not coincidentally, the people who are most likely to have a starvation model of sex are often the very people most likely to judge women for having sex or disregard their partners’ boundaries, or both—a stunning example of self-defeating behavior if ever there was one.

In the City, and in many real-world sex-positive spaces, sex isn’t scarce. When sex isn’t scarce, it’s not a big deal when someone says no. That gives you the freedom to negotiate for the sex you want…because hearing no is really not that big a deal. If someone says no to something, you’re not left feeling that means you’ll never have another opportunity to have the kind of sex you want to have.

If you take anything away from all this, let it be the idea that treating consent like a necessary chore, something you have to get through in order to get to the good bits, is a self-defeating attitude. Conversations about consent can be part of the good bit…indeed, if you approach consent negotiations with the idea that they’re fun and sexy, you may find that doors to even more good bits—good bits hitherto undreamed of in your philosophy—open to you.

Preorders for the new novel, The Hallowed Covenant, open in a few days! To celebrate, we’re working on a collection of short stories in the Passionate Pantheon universe you can find on our Indiegogo page. Stay tuned!

Without Monogamy, What Is Commitment?

In The Hallowed Covenant, the third novel in the Passionate Pantheon series, we took a deep dive into the philosophy of the City by looking deeper at the lives of its residents. The Hallowed Covenant explores themes of atonement, commitment, and celebration, and spend a lot more time outside the various temples than we did with The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens. (The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, goes even further in this direction, spending time with characters who don’t occupy any special position of high rank in the City and aren’t Sacrifices to their chosen gods at all.)

One of the ideas that engaged us whilst writing The Hallowed Covenant is notion of
“commitment.” The City is a society where sex is integrated into almost every part of social life, nearly as casual as a handshake (for us, that is—you’ll notice residents of the City rarely shake hands, or even touch, on first meeting…there’s a reason for that, which might be a good topic for a future essay!). In such a society, what does commitment even mean?

In the real world, we’re so conditioned to see sex and commitment as part of the same tangled hairball that there are people who will argue, with absolutely genuine conviction, that commitment is not possible without sexual exclusivity. So how does the City think about commitment? What does commitment even look like? How is it celebrated and experienced?

“Today we celebrate a cleansing,” Sayi said. “Tashaka and Sendi call upon the Keeper to wipe away all past wrongs so they may join in union with a clean slate.” The air around her vibrated with her words, carrying them to every corner of the enormous hall. The flowing motes of light swirled in a vast whirlpool above the stage. “I call upon Tashaka and Sendi to write down all their transgressions against one another, so they may be washed clean by the Keeper. Let each be erased as if it never happened.”

Tashaka and Sendi dipped pens into the ink pots and wrote on long strips of pale pink silk. As they finished each strip, they handed it to a veiled Confessor, who rolled it up and placed it in the censer. Dense blue smoke rose from within. Sayi could not help noticing Sendi prepared several more ribbons than Tashaka.

When they finished, Sayi said, “Let those closest to Tashaka and Sendi now do the same, so that they move forward in friendship unsullied by the misdeeds of the past. Allow me to accept the weight of all your sins.”

The people seated behind the balustrade came forward. Tashaka and Sendi stood beside Sayi while their friends wrote on narrow strips of silk. A Confessor took each strip reverentially and placed it in the censer to be burned. Thick smoke twisted in the air.

—from The Hallowed Covenant

Commitment exists in the City, of course. For as long as we are recognizably human, with a desire for human love and human intimacy, it will likely continue to exist. Tying commitment to sexual exclusivity is neither necessary nor inevitable; commitment is what happens when you resolve to bind some part of your life with that of another, journeying forward together as partners, united in a common purpose: helping one another navigate life together.

This is just as true in the City as it is in the real world. The people of the City commit to one another in a vast number of ways, tailored to their individual needs and tastes. A public ceremony of commitment is, whatever society it takes place in, a declaration before the people around you: this is a person I choose (or, in some societies, was chosen for me); this is someone who means something to me.

The ceremony we see in The Hallowed Covenant begins with a ritual cleansing, a symbolic wiping away of lingering hurts over past transgressions, to allow those committing to one another to move forward unencumbered by the weight of past wrongs. (This theme of transgression, atonement, and forgiveness is central to The Hallowed Covenant; we wanted to explore what these ideas mean in a society with no codified laws or system of justice. We return to them again in Unyielding Devotion, one of the “dark” books, where they take on a very different form.)

In The Hallowed Covenant, we see a commitment ceremony that centers on ritual cleansing of the past—but it’s important to understand that this wiping away of past transgressions does not mean pretending that the past never happened. It can be easy to imagine a partner as a tabula rasa, the past as an empty book: nothing they did before matters; none of it is real. That’s a naïve, potentially even dangerous, idea, because you cannot love someone you do not know, and you cannot know someone without knowing their past. (Which is not to say, of course, that anyone owes you their past.)

The wiping away of the past, then, is about forgiving without forgetting. It’s about acknowledging the person you’re committing to, in all their glorious imperfection and in all their history, while also letting go of those last lingering remnants of the small hurts we inevitably inflict on one another. Tashaka and Sendi, the characters celebrating a commitment in The Hallowed Covenant, record their transgressions to be burned, but that doesn’t mean those transgressions never occurred!

In the City, a commitment ceremony does not, of course, mean you have to stop having sex with everyone else, and indeed Tashaka and Sendi, after their visit to the Confessory, also visit a House of the Blesser to partake of its delights (well, relatively speaking; those who serve the Blesser must endure 9-hour-long orgasms…something that sounds wonderful to non-kinky folks, but if you’ve played at all with forced orgasms, we can see you cringing and covering your nethers from here).

Which is not to say nobody ever forsakes all others. In the City, every relationship is bespoke. In the fourth book, Unyielding Devotion, we meet Jakalva, who is committed to a partner who is her only lover, even though she hosts extravagant parties legendary even in the City for the extraordinary sex that takes place at them. Having only a single lover is an eccentricity, something outside the social norm, but it does happen.

When your template for commitment isn’t solely based on the requirement of sexual exclusivity, that lets you focus on what commitment really means. You can argue that the laser focus on sex that defines many real-world ideas about commitment causes people to forget other forms of commitment: the commitment to building a life together, to helping each other grow towards the best possible versions of themselves, to being there through turbulent waters. Taking sex—or any other form of assumed expectations—out of the equation allows more deliberate attention to the other things that matter.

But perhaps this is typical of the City, to expand things beyond sex. In the real world, when we talk about “consent,” we usually mean sexual consent; residents of the City tend to apply ideas of consent, autonomy, and agency far beyond sex, which is why, for example, the people in the City would never ask a child to hug someone they don’t want to hug, something that happens in the real world all too often.

The point here is that commitment doesn’t look like just one thing. The City has no rulebook for what a committed relationship must look like. The residents live lives adapted to their needs, rather than adapting themselves to traditions. The City empowers people to make commitments that work for them and express the values they wish to express, but it does not dictate what those relationships must look like.

That doesn’t mean there’s no social contract in the City, of course. One of the strongest ideas in the City, and one we explore at length in The Hallowed Covenant, is the idea that a promise is sacred, and a promise once given can never be broken:

“What I mean is…” Her voice trailed off. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “The thing is…”


Tessia twisted her fingers together. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.” Her voice was nearly inaudible.

“I see.” Penril sat back with his arms folded in front of him, lips pressed in a tight line of disapproval. “You made a promise not only to me, but to the gods themselves. This is a serious matter.”

“I know!” Tessia wailed. “I can’t do service, I just can’t!”

Penril sighed. “When we created the first gods,” he said, “we struck a pact. The gods agreed to provide for us, and in exchange, we agreed to worship them. Central to this covenant is the idea that a promise is a sacred thing. Nobody, human or god, may break a promise once given. To do so is to tear at the foundation of our society.”

“But I—”

“I’m not finished!” Penril thundered. “If we cannot count on one another to keep our promises, the bonds that tie us to each other in mutual cooperation fail. All of society crumbles. A promise, whether to a person or to a god, is a bond. If you break that bond, what place do you have among civilized people?”

Tessia wept, wracking sobs that shook her slender frame. “I know!” she said. “I can’t—I just—I didn’t know! I thought I could do it! I’m sorry!”

Penril’s gaze held steady. “You have made a promise to the Blesser and to me. You made your promise in the presence of Avia in her role as Vessel of the Blesser. Keeping your promise is not optional. I will expect you to be here half an hour before sundown in four days’ time, prepared to serve the Blesser.”

—from The Hallowed Covenant

There is a social contract, but it’s not about tradition for tradition’s sake. If a traditional way of forming a relationship or expressing commitment (or even having sex, as we see with the character Sirchia in the second book, Divine Burdens, and the character Kaytin in the fourth book, Unyielding Devotion) doesn’t work for you, the City will find a place where you can be happy and fulfilled without harming others (well, sort of).

The social contract of the City is about those things that allow people to function in a cohesive society together while still seeking their own path to fulfillment, even if that path isn’t like that of other people. The City draws the line between individual autonomy and social responsibility quite differently from the way societies in the real world do, and is much less willing to sacrifice autonomy for conformity, consistency, or security. And even in its few absolute rules, the City places limitations. A promise, for example, cannot be infinite in duration. “I promise I will always be with you” is not a promise the City would require you to keep; a commitment may be for a certain time, at which point it may be broken or renewed, but when you can easily live for six hundred years, there must be provision for the fact that people grow and change…a commitment must leave room for the reality that you might not be the person in four hundred years that you are right now.

This approach to commitment helps people to find and focus on what matters most to them. Which is, we think, not a bad way to run a society.

Pre-orders for the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, open soon! This novel will also be available in audiobook form, narrated by the fantastic Francesca Peregrine.

New to the Passionate Pantheon? You can get a sense of the world from the short story This Light Becomes My Art, available on the Passionate Pantheon blog (Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3).

We will also be doing another live-stream event soon! We haven’t set a date, but the last one was a blast (and ran for more than six hours), so we’re looking forward to it. Watch this space!

What is sex?

Image: Steven Weeks

Let’s talk about sex (baby!).

I mean, okay, you might well say that’s pretty much all we do here anyway. And you’d have a good point (it’s not totally accurate, but close enough for a cigar, perhaps). The Passionate Pantheon novels are studies in sex: weird sex, post-scarcity sex, sexual fetishes so niche they don’t even have names. We talk about the philosophy of sex, the ethics of sex, the social structures around sex…

…but what even is sex?

Seriously, stop and think about it. What is sex? Shagging, knocking boots, nookie, lovemaking…what is it? How do you know when you’re doing it? It’s a hard enough question to answer in the real world, coming as we do from a heteromononormative PIV-focused culture. What about in a world where the norms of gender, sexuality, identity, even corporeal consistency, are nothing like the culture(s) we grew up in? A world where most people change most of those elements of self routinely, even casually?

As usual, the citizens of the City would answer that question rather differently than we in the real world do. And as usual, that’s intentional on our part as authors, because the Passionate Pantheon novels are a way for us to explore sex from the viewpoint of people with quite different ideas from ours.

Without haste, she lowered herself onto him, taking him inside her. Donvin ran his hands up her back. She buried her face in his neck with a sigh. He stared up at the sky, lost in the tinsel chaos of the rain against the shield dome. Rippling streamers of light snaked across the sky. Rashillia rocked her hips, each slow, subtle motion igniting ripples of pleasure across his skin like the golden light above.

Gradually, Rashillia slowed, until at last they lay together unmoving for a long moment that stretched out to eternity, simply basking in the feel of one another. “You are delightful,” she said. Whorling eddies danced over Donvin’s body. She ran her fingers through his hair. “Thank you for sharing this moment with me.” She placed a gentle kiss on his lips, so softly it stole his breath away, then rose and vanished into the party.

Donvin lay on his back for a long time, relishing the hum in his skin and the silent spectacle overhead. Presently he rose, summoned a black robe edged in red and a glittering amber drink from the Provider, and wandered through the party. All around him, people chatted, or basked in the pools, or had leisurely sex. A lean, graceful man with white hair and deep indigo skin spun long metal rods with balls of fire at their ends.

—from the short story This Light Becomes My Art

Sex in the City is a strange beast. Sex permeates every part of civic life in the City: it’s religious worship, it’s social entertainment, it’s part of the system of justice and atonement, it’s deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life.

But with all that boot-knocking going on, the way the City defines sex is quite different from the way we in the real world define sex.

People in the real world sometimes struggle to figure out what “counts” as sex…especially those who had sex education that disregarded or downplayed the connection between sex and pleasure that isn’t aimed at procreation. “I’m a virgin, that’s why I only do anal!” “If two women have sex, are they still virgins?” Go on any social media where folks talk about sex and sure as night follows day, eventually you’ll run into this kind of confusion.

Most people in the real world, however confused their ideas about sex might be, will probably agree that if a penis enters a vagina, it’s sex. It’s practically the only act which the majority of people think of as “definitely sex” (regardless of what else they would include in that category). Which makes it all the more surprising to consider that, in the City, Donvin and Rashillia would likely not call what they did in the passage above “sex.”

Sex, for those of us who live in the real world, is largely about genitals and bodies and grunt-n-thrust. Most other “sex adjacent” activities are called foreplay. 

Sex to people in the City is not about what you do with your genitals (or whatever part of the body those particular nerves have been rerouted to), it’s about intent.

So how does the City define “sex”?

The quick, simple answer is that most people in the City, most of the time, regard sex as any activity which is primarily about orgasm. Not necessarily having an orgasm, mind you, but activities that play with orgasm—either inducing orgasm or causing some or all of the people involved to want orgasm but be denied. (When you live for centuries, and have access to almost unlimited biomedical nanotechnology, you can come up with some pretty innovative spins on orgasm denial.)

That near-unlimited biomedical nanotechnology kinda makes focusing on intent rather than genitals necessary, because when you can change your body at will, it’s not always obvious what bits are or aren’t genitals in the first place (which is one of the reasons that bowing is the usual mode of greeting between non-lovers, rather than shaking hands).

A small jeweled drone of blue crystal zipped over their heads and then just as quickly darted away. A moment later, Fyli appeared, resplendent in an elaborate dress of shimmering blue fabric that hugged her outlines, slit up both sides and descending to a deep V in front and back. Mahree crawled on hands and knees beside Fyli, nude except for metal manacles around her wrists and ankles, all connected to each other with lengths of heavy chain that clanked as she moved. She wore a wide collar of metal around her neck. Streaks of rust clung to the edges. A broad metal band of the same rusted metal encircled her head, covering her mouth. A chain ran from it along her back to metal plugs in vagina and ass, held in place by more chains that ran between her legs and wrapped around her hips. She gazed silently at Kaytin as they came near.

Fyli sat gracefully beside Kaytin. “Good afternoon!” she sang. “Are you glad you didn’t make a bet with me after all? I bet Mahree is wishing she’d done the same.” She slid her hand under Mahree’s breast. Mahree shuddered and moaned.

“As often as Mahree bets against you,” Kamra said, “you’d think she likes to lose. Or maybe she’s just slow to learn.”

“Yeah, about that,” Vekol said. “How come you locked all her useful bits away? What’s the fun of that?”

Fyli ran her fingers through Mahree’s hair. “I modified her body last night. Didn’t I, darling?” She stroked Mahree’s nipple. Mahree trembled violently, moaning. “If you lot want to play with her, I’m sure I won’t mind. And whether she minds, well, isn’t important.”

“How did you modify her?” Kaytin said.

“I rerouted the nerves from her clit to her nipples,” Fyli said. “Both of them.”

—from Book 4 (Unyielding Devotion), due out Fall 2023

We’ve explored the idea of bodies so radically altered, the concept of “genitals” doesn’t even apply. In Book 5, still untitled, there are musical performers who have no genitals whatsoever, but their skin is highly sensitive to sound vibration—so sensitive that the act of performing creates pleasure so intense it’s almost a single non-stop, continuous orgasm. (You can find out more about this when Book 6 publishes, most likely some time in 2025. Stay tuned!) There’s a lot to think about here: if two people wearing these bodies perform together, are they having sex with each other, even though they aren’t touching? We think the answer is ‘yes,’ for the same reason that if one person in the real world is wearing a remote-controlled vibrator with someone else at the controls, they’re engaged in sexual activity with each other even if they’re not touching. 

For those of the City, performing whilst wearing a custom body like that is having sex; but what Donvin and Rashillia did was more like cuddling, because they had no intent for greater pleasure than people in the real world might get from, say, kissing; and without that intent, it isn’t sex.

Focusing on the intent rather than on body parts opens, we think, opportunity to think about sex in ways that are a lot more nuanced than the ways people typically think about sex. It instantly answers questions like “is it possible for two women to have sex?” (yes, of course it is!) and “does it count as sex if we only do oral?” (yes, of course it does!).

So what’s the point? Why talk about any of this? Who cares what “counts” as sex?

Different societies do tend to put the line, even if it’s a fuzzy line, in different places, and those lines help shape how those societies think about sex and sexual relationships. Even what counts as an erogenous zone varies from culture to culture.

In the real world, a lot of people draw the line in a lot of different places. We don’t want to suggest that everyone defines sex only in terms of a penis entering a vagina, or has difficulty understanding that two women can have sex.

And similarly, we don’t want to give the idea that everyone in the City thinks of sex only in terms of playing with orgasm. Sex is complicated, and the line between ‘sex’ and ‘not sex’ is fuzzy. (Is an erotic massage sex? Sexting? Mutual masturbation? Solo masturbation? Voyeurism?)

In the City, not everyone plants the flag in the same place, either. Not everyone would define sex solely in terms of focus on orgasm, and some people doubtless would call what Donvin and Rashillia did “sex.”

How we think about sex, and what it means to us, matters, because the way we think about sex helps draw the borders of how we think about consent and agency. In the real world, we are a lot more permissive about doing things like making children hug or kiss people they might not want to be touched by right now—even distant relatives that the child might not know or even have met before—because we think of “consent” as something almost uniquely tied to sex, and hugging a relative isn’t sex. Therefore, we don’t see making a child hug someone they don’t want to hug as a violation of autonomy.

The residents of the City have a much broader idea of “sex” than we do, but they also have much broader ideas about agency, and are far more concerned with protecting agency. Demanding that a child hug someone they didn’t want to hug would be seen as a consent violation in the City (and the City does protect the autonomy of children as well as adults, to a much greater extent than we in the real world do). Even though it’s not sexual in the slightest. Residents of the City understand that sex is only one area that consent applies to.

Even with the City’s broader definition of ‘sex,’ there are still edge cases. (There are always edge cases, because humans are good at finding those niches that very few other people considered before, that’s part of what makes us fun!) If you’re giving someone a foot massage that neither of you think of as sexual, but they have an orgasm (when neither the giver nor the recipient expected it), is that sex? It’s a gray area. There’s no way to define a bright clear line between sex and not-sex. But we think it’s interesting to explore different social topologies around sex.

So are we any clearer about what sex is, and what sex isn’t? Not really. Humanity tends to be just a little too complex and nuanced (and, quite frankly, creatively kinky) for any one definition to apply to everyone. We picked a particular element to plant our flag on because so much of the City revolves around pleasure—sexual and not—that really, any place you planted that flag would have been somewhat arbitrary. 

But hey, this is porn. “Sex is when you play with orgasm” sounded like a good enough shorthand to us, no matter what many denizens of the City would get up to.

What about you? What do you count as sex?

Pre-orders for the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, open soon! This novel will also be available in audiobook form, narrated by the fantastic Francesca Peregrine.

New to the Passionate Pantheon? You can get a sense of the world from the short story This Light Becomes My Art, available on the Passionate Pantheon blog (Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3).

Sexual Pleasure, Sexual Skill

Image: Mattia Ascenzo

You may be (very much not) surprised to hear that we talk about sex, and the ways people engage in sex in both the real world and in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, on a fairly frequent basis. As we compare and contrast the two, we noticed one major difference, and it becomes immediately logical the moment you think about it even a bit.

In the real world, multiple studies aimed at examining differences in gender approach to casual sex have arrived at the same conclusion: Women are less likely to accept offers of casual sex than men are.

This might seem obvious. In fact, it’s so universally assumed to be true that Sigmund Freud argued, and some people still argue, it’s a fundamental biological difference between men and women. Something to do with hormones or ideal mating strategies or whatever else is the latest evo-psych theory du jour—wired, in other words, into our very DNA, as much a part of the differences between men and women as ovaries or facial hair. (Which, if you pause to think a moment, clearly aren’t necessarily as set in stone as many people like to believe either, but since when has that ever stopped an evo-psych theorist?)

That seems implausible to us, to put it mildly. It seems to us that sociological differences between men and women (starting from the fact that men who have casual sex are admired as ‘studs’ whilst women who have casual sex are castigated as ‘sluts’) might be pretty powerful disincentives for women to say yes all by themselves. Culture is a powerful tool for developing unconscious assumptions, after all. 

Just look at how historically, women were often portrayed as more prone to giving in to the flames of irrational lust, and more likely to lead men astray, where men have been perceived as more rational and less prone to giving into the temptations of unreasoned passion. Consider how many of the mythological creatures and divine beings associated with lust and sexuality were portrayed as female.

But there’s also another part of the equation, and it’s even simpler than biology or DNA or reproductive strategies or social double standards.

Women who have casual sex are just less likely to have a good time than men are.

At least, that’s the conclusion of a 2022 study by Terri D. Conley and Verena Klein, appropriately titled “Women Get Worse Sex: A Confound in the Explanation of Gender Differences in Sexuality,” and sadly behind a paywall (if you happen to have a copy, we’d love to read it!). It’s also the conclusion of a WebMD article about casual sex as well.

Women are, in other words, likely to get the raw end of the deal when they have casual sex. They bear more of the risk but are less likely to have a good time. Is it surprising that doesn’t really seem like such a great offer?

Ah, but what if that wasn’t true?

What if we lived in a society where most people were skilled at sex and invested in a lover’s pleasure, where there was no (or almost no) risk associated with sex, and where sex carried absolutely no social stigma?

The result, we think, might be interesting.

In the City, men and women are about equally likely to offer, and accept offers of, casual sex.

Wait, hang on, let’s take a step back.

In the City, the distinction between ‘men’ and ‘women’ isn’t really all that clear-cut. Citizens in the City can change their bodies at will. Want a body different from the one you grew up in? No problem! Want to change your body for a party tomorrow night? No problem! Want breasts and a prehensile cock? No problem! Want multiple sets of genitals? Hey, if you can figure out how the anatomy works, you do you, just hop in a medpod and dial up what you want.

So already, it gets a bit hard to talk about differences between ‘men’ and ‘women.’ Those terms barely have any meaning in the City as it is. And when sex has no shame or stigma—indeed, it’s part of the civic and religious structures of the society you live in—there’s no social pressure for people who wear one type of body not to have sex whilst people who wear a different type of body are praised for having sex.

One of the things the two of us recently found ourselves musing—because, of course, we often muse about the worlds we create together—was that if a person from the real world were to be transported abruptly to the City (and can we just say ‘yes, please!’ to that idea?), the average sexual encounter with an average person in the City would quite probably be…well, a lot of fun.

A typical person with average sexual skill in the City might very well be in the top one percentile of sexually skilled lovers in the real world. An above-average lover in the City, perhaps in the top one tenth of one percentile. Even someone who in the City might be regarded as a rather uninspired (although maybe not going as far as mediocre) lover would probably be pretty sexually savvy by real-world standards.

A lot of people in the real world settle, we think, for some pretty pedestrian sex.

It’s not just that people in the City live in a society that attaches no shame or stigma to sex, though of course that’s part of it.

It’s not just that people in the City live for hundreds of years, so have plenty of time to up their game, though that’s part of it too.

It’s not even that people in the City can, and frequently do, freely change their bodies on a whim, so have the experience of having sex in multiple bodies with many different sets of genitals, though that also plays a role.

It’s that people in the City are often formally trained, usually in the context of religious training, in the sexual arts.

And not just in sexual techniques. A lot of folks make the mistake of assuming that sexual skill is about learning how to move your tongue or how fast to thrust or how and where to kiss and stroke. Which kind of misses the point, because people are different, and have different tastes and different subjective experiences of sex.

The thing that makes you good at sex isn’t knowing how to move your tongue, it’s knowing how to pay attention: how to read your lover’s responses, how to see what gets them hot. It’s also openness and communication—not just telling your lover what cranks your motor (although that’s important), but learning how to hear your partner talk about what cranks their motor, without fear or judgment. How, in fact, to encourage them to talk about it.

“She is one of the loveliest Fountains in my time as a priest of the Quickener. Would you like to pleasure yourself with her?”

“Is that allowed?”

“Yes. It is one of the nice things about being in his service.” He laughed at Marisem’s expression. “Not until you learn to read the signs, Initiate! You must take care not to allow the Fountain to reach ecstasy. When you have learned to do that, you may perform your duties in whatever manner you choose.” His fingers strummed Terlyn’s clit. “You’ll learn to read a person’s body very well. You may also be called upon to excite the Fountain during days of heavy worship, which means you will learn how to touch a person to evoke excitement again even after an orgasm. There is a reason we who serve the Quickener are in such high demand as lovers.”

—from The Brazen Altar

This ability to pay attention is one of the keys to being a good lover:

Rainshadow read Yaeris’s body with an uncanny knack bordering on telepathy. She took note of every slight quiver during her patient, methodical exploration, until it seemed she knew how to touch Yaeris better than Yaeris herself. Yaeris soon lost track of how many times she’d come, as she drifted into a fog of pleasure, carried away by long, slow, gentle orgasms, so different from what Euryale had given her. The orgasms blended into each other until Yaeris floated beyond awareness of anything except Rainshadow’s hands and lips and tongue.

She came back into herself some timeless time later, guided by Rainshadow’s body on hers and Rainshadow’s voice in her ear. When she opened her eyes, the shadows in the tent told of a sun that had moved noticeably in the sky. “Ah, there you are,” Rainshadow said. “Did you enjoy yourself?”

Yaeris stretched and discovered she was no longer bound. “You are extraordinary.”

—from The Hallowed Covenant

Hear that? Extraordinary. High praise indeed.

In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we’ve created a world where sex is ubiquitous, an ordinary and accepted part of casual social discourse—yet the part of sex we want to highlight, the part of sex that makes the act of sex extraordinary, is connection. Sex, even casual sex, is best when it’s connective—when the people involved pay attention to one another deeply, and invest in the experience of their partners.

In all of the novels, characters wonder why the AI gods they’ve created demand worship through sex. The answer is complicated, and nuanced, and every character who asks receives a different answer (perhaps we will write about that in the future!), but ultimately, the answer is connection. Connection to each other, to your community, to the gods, even to oneself. Sex is best when it’s connective, even when that connection isn’t expected to endure past one encounter.

In a society where that’s a baseline standard, perhaps casual sex might become a more appealing proposition for everyone.

The Literary Roots of the Passionate Pantheon

Image: Rabie Madaci

Mark your calendars! On April 23, 2022, Eunice and Franklin will be presenting a live-stream of the start of a new Passionate Pantheon novel. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel but don’t know how to get going, or you’ve wondered how co-authoring a book works, or if you’d just like to see the birth of a new book, show up! Bring questions! If you’re really really lucky, Eunice may pull out the chocolate eclairs! (Franklin is very onboard with this idea. Eunice is very onboard with chocolate in general.)

Ahem. Anyway…

With a new novel on the horizon, we recently took a step back to talk about the literary roots of the Passionate Pantheon. They’re unusual novels, to be sure, with feet in many different worlds.

By now many of you probably know the origin of The Brazen Altar: Eunice and Franklin met at an orgy in France in 2010. At another orgy in Lincolnshire in 2018, we decided to write together. Franklin wrote the opening paragraph of what would become The Brazen Altar on Eunice’s naked back, and thus the Passionate Pantheon was born.

But that doesn’t tell you a lot about why the books look and feel the way they do. Where did the inspiration come from? What influenced them stylistically? What inspired the world of the Passionate Pantheon, beyond Eunice’s sexy imagination (and inability to let a good wank alone, if you know what we mean)?

Terry Pratchett coined the term “white knowledge” (a play on “white noise”) to describe “the sort of stuff that fills up your brain without you really knowing where it came from.” In other words, the cultural and mythological equivalent to white noise that forms the largely unconscious background to every literary reference you catch, every little nerdy in-joke that thrills the heart when you notice it.

This is what we mean by white knowledge—the cultural myths and ways of viewing the world that float around your deepest subconscious, built over years and decades by the people and media around you, until it becomes hard to see the reality beyond the lens of story itself. We are the storytelling ape, and we tell ourselves all sorts of stories about how the world should work—how justice and morality works, how society works, how people work. 

What we’re trying to do here is to be conscious of our own white knowledge. We’re trying, you might say, to pick out the individual threads that make up the tapestry of our own inner worlds.

Part of our aim in writing these stories, like all good sci-fi, is to wonder “What are we missing? What doesn’t have to work like that? What is the lens, and what is the deep dark forest where the wolves were hunted into extinction centuries ago?”

This, too, is a gift from Sir Terry Pratchett.

One early reader of The Brazen Altar said something along the lines of “it’s like the Culture, but even more hedonistic.” That’s not far off the mark; there’s a lot of Iain Banks’ Culture novels in the Passionate Pantheon, in the sense they’re both set in far-future societies that have transcended scarcity, where there’s no such thing as money (in the Culture, there’s a saying, “money is a sign of poverty”), where people live long lives (centuries, if they like), where there’s no disease or war, and where pleasure is considered good and proper as its own end. The Culture novels aren’t the only sci-fi series that has these elements, but there is a strong resemblance to the Culture’s specific flavor of these elements in the Passionate Pantheon.

There are differences, of course. We don’t see any spaceships in the Passionate Pantheon novels. In the universe of the Passionate Pantheon, faster-than-light travel isn’t a thing. The characters arrived on our world on slower-than-light generation ships, after a long fall through the inky void. The people who started the journey from Earth knew they would not live to see the journey’s end. They did it not for themselves, but for the sake of their descendents.

Iain Banks famously said he set most of the Culture novels outside the Culture because it’s hard to write a story where there’s no conflict and people live lives of peace and prosperity. We set our stories within our post-scarcity society, partly because we think there are plenty of stories to be told within the backdrop of peace and prosperity, but partly because there were topics that we could only really explore to their fullest in the context of that ability for our characters to make almost totally unconstrained choices. 

What you’ll notice, though, is that the Passionate Pantheon stories aren’t Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. They don’t follow the cycle of the classic monomyth—the sheriff or lone ranger doesn’t ride in from out of town to save the day, Neo doesn’t discover that all reality is a lie when he’s yanked out of his existence into the real world to take part in the unending secret war against the machines.


The stories we tell are more akin to coming of age stories, explorations of characters finding their place within and among the society they live in. The first three novels (The Brazen Altar, Divine Burdens, and The Hallowed Covenant) follow characters becoming Sacrifice to their chosen AI gods, reaching the highest level of prestige among their peers. The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, centers on characters who aren’t highly placed in their society, who don’t earn the recognition and admiration of their peers for attaining high status.

In a sense, though, the stories we tell really aren’t science fiction. Well, they are; they’re set in a City with molecular nanoassemblers, medical pods, radical longevity, antigravity float fields, shield generators, strong AI, and fusion power. Thing is, we’ll never discuss in the text how these things work; they’re all backdrops for the stories, since we both believe good stories are about people, not technology. (We know how it all works, of course, we’re just not telling you. Buy us some chocolate eclairs, though, and we might consider it!)

Rather, in many ways, the people of the City are a modernist reinterpretation of the fey from mythology…but the fey as they see themselves, from within their own society, not as they are seen by human outsiders. We’ve written about this before: the characters of the Passionate Pantheon are reinterpretations of the fey, humans seen through a glass darkly, an exploration of what we might become if we were granted the powers from those old fables.

In that sense, then the Passionate Pantheon stories draw upon the narrative archetypes of the old fairy stories—not the kinder, gentler fairy tales for children (well, the adult conception of children anyway—actual children love a bit of gore and blood), but the wild fey, the dangerous fey. The fey for whom names have power, beauty is a foundational virtue, a promise is a sacred thing (the upcoming novel The Hallowed Covenant explores in depth what happens if you break a promise in the City—or at least one of the Cities—and how the City handles transgression and wrongdoing without police or even a codified set of laws), and you and those around you will live for centuries.

So we use a setting that calls back to the Culture novels, with narrative structures that derive from ancient stories about the fey. But that’s not all you’ll find in the Passionate Pantheon gumbo!

We use the stories in the Passionate Pantheon, particularly the darker even-numbered books, to hold up a mirror to modern society. In that sense, the stories are a bit like the Discworld books (of which we’re both huge fans), though we don’t do it quite the same way Terry Pratchett does. (But then, who can?)

Our social commentary is far less text and far more subtext. We explore themes of consent and agency in a society which has inverted modern-day social taboos about sex and volence—where violence is casually accepted but sex is a forbidden topic in the real world, sex is a normalized part of social interaction in the Passionate Pantheon, but they regard violence with uneasy horror.

We use this inversion as a literary mirror to confront ideas about self, agency, consent, and coercion: why do people in the real world regard, say, sex work with a degree of horror they don’t apply to boxing, for instance? Why is it considered acceptable for people to sell access to their bodies to receive a beating, but not an orgasm?

Whilst we’d never try to compare ourselves to the inimitable Pterry, we do, like he did, use the Passionate Pantheon as a vehicle for looking at some things in the real world that make us go “hmm.”

Of course, in addition to these three major influences we mentioned here—the Culture novels, Discworld, and old fairy tales—there are a countless myriad of other elements and inspirations we didn’t mention that came before us and influenced the way we write. Hopefully we will also bequeath some small measure of the same to those who come after us. This is a cycle that could—no, will—continue as long as humans exist.

We draw inspiration from all over. No creator is an island. No literature stands alone; all stories draw on universalities of the human condition. There are endless ways to mix the gumbo, though, and this is our particular flavor. Not only that, it is the particular flavor that we, as writers in combination, and at this particular stage of our lives and our writing careers, have produced in this specific setting. If or when each of those elements changes, the flavor will change a little again. Every extra bit of knowledge or experience is another ingredient in the pot. 

If you’re interested in writing, you too will have your own special pot, with your own unique, yet culturally flavored, style. We’d love to know what your influences are, if you’d like to share that with us.

We hope you’ll join us on April 23 as we start a new pot going. The fifth book will delve deep into parts of City life we haven’t explored yet, including family, childhood, and death. Come along with us! The writing is a fun ride.

On Sonder and Writing

Image: Daniel Hehn

Sonder (‘son • der), n

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

— John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Have you ever found yourself walking down the street or sitting in a coffee shop and been struck by the sudden, dizzying realization that the person who just walked past you—the person you saw only as a vague blur, and will likely never see again—is a complete human being, with a life just as complex as yours? With joys as rich, and sorrows as deep, as those you love and know intimately? And that to them, you are the vague blur barely glimpsed from the corner of the eye?

Weird, huh?

We share a world with nearly eight billion other people, and yet, despite that (or perhaps because of it!), we can sometimes have trouble remembering that all those other people are people, with their own dreams, ambitions, goals, hurts and heartbreaks, fears and hopes…all the things that go along with being a person. When the numbers get so big, people become abstracts. At its worst, that leads to tragedies, or even atrocities. 

Eight billion people, eight billion stories, all of them just as rich as yours. Humbling, isn’t it?

Our last few essays about the Passionate Pantheon novels have all been on rather meta topics, and this one is no exception. We didn’t entirely intend for this to happen, but as our books have trended more towards the philosophical, so too did our thinking about the world of the novels, and in particular how we (and you!) as readers interact with the culture of the Passionate Pantheon as people who still have to live in the real world. 

There is a reason we recently got to thinking about sonder—really!—and it has to do with the novels, our approach to characters, and the reason we accidentally started working on the sixth novel in the series before we had even started the fifth. (As the kids today say, we accidentally a book.)

In the first Passionate Pantheon novel, The Brazen Altar, we meet (briefly) a minor character who appears on stage only to give one of the protagonists ritualized oral sex.

She didn’t have long to wait. The door opened with the same eerie noiselessness. A man entered, bare-chested, dressed in a simple loincloth of red and blue. A small round drone made of gold metal elaborately ornamented with beautiful traceries of silver and blue followed him in. 

Kheema’s eyes traveled down his smooth, clean-shaven body. He wore his long brown hair tied in a ponytail with a gold ring. His pupils were two tiny black dots in a field of orange. As her eyes moved downward, she realized that the loincloth was cut in front in a deep V, exposing an erect cock. It, too, was entirely hairless.

He smiled beatifically. A musical voice sang out from the tiny drone. “Greetings, Potential! I am Novice Hassen. I have been assigned to help you with your recitation. It is an honor to meet you.” The man bowed.

Kheema squirmed in her restraints. She was acutely, embarrassingly aware of how exposed she was, splayed wide open in front of this man, dripping with need, nothing hidden from view. She was also aware of his arousal. Her gaze lingered on his erection. Her body flushed. Her head filled with carnal thoughts of bodies entwining.

He knelt on the padded bench between her legs, hands clasped behind his back. “It is time to begin the recitation,” the drone sang.

Kheema tried to summon the memory of the words Janaié had coaxed from her body with her fingers. Her skin tingled with desire. “I—I—” She closed her eyes. “In the beginning was the Darkness.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Hassen said. He leaned forward. The tip of his tongue flicked against Kheema’s swollen clit.

That’s it. That’s why Hassen exists in the context of the novel: he gives the protagonist oral sex while she recites the litany of the City’s history. He speaks through a drone, not through his own vocal cords. There’s a reason for that…and it’s probably not the reason you expected.

Hassen, when he isn’t performing his duties teasing the main character while she struggles to remember the Litany, is a historian and a linguist. His area of specialization is psycholinguistics, and his sub-specialty is historical psycholinguistics. When he’s not going down on a bound Potential, he spends a lot of time searching the few historical records that remain in the City’s archives, trying to understand the language spoken by the colonists who first fled Earth-That-Was, and tease out how that language may have shaped their views of the world around them.

He chooses to speak through a drone because as an adult, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to hear and reproduce the sounds that exist in a language you didn’t grow up with. (Think how Japanese speakers struggle with the English l sound, or how English speakers encounter difficulty with the Hopi gḥ or Sanskrit Ṛg, which English speakers tend to pronounce something like “rig”.) Hassen has found a way to circumvent this problem: he can learn the language, and then use the drone to ‘speak’ sounds that don’t exist in his native language.

Of course, being able to speak when his mouth is occupied makes his role as the giver of ritual oral that much easier, which is the role we see him in, but it’s not all there is to him. It’s not even the most important thing about him. For him and the temple, it’s merely an incidental fringe benefit, no matter how appreciative of his tongue Kheema is.

Hassen, by virtue of the fact he speaks through a drone, can also make sounds the human vocal apparatus can’t do at all. He is, in the entire Passionate Pantheon series, the only human ever to take part in ‘drone choirs,’ the songs drones sing to mark sunrise, sunset, and the passage of important moments. (Even if only crudely and with little true understanding of the deep complexity of their melodies. It would take him many lifetimes to truly learn, even with many hundreds of years per lifetime.)

Drone choirs themselves also don’t appear in any of the novels (so far). A character in the fourth novel, Lanissae, mentions them in passing, but that’s it.

So a minor character who appears in only a few sentences in the novel has a rich life off-screen, one that involves the rather remarkable accomplishment of being the only human ever to participate in something that also occurs off-screen.

He has a life beyond his appearance in this one room, in this scene. In this world, he briefly brushes up against a future Sacrifice, and it’s a pleasant and fulfilling moment for him but it’s not life changing. If asked to name the things that are important to him, he wouldn’t even think to pick his duties with the Potentials as a major part of his life. In another book, he could have been the protagonist, and Kheema the passing blur.


That happens with many of the ancillary side characters. We’ve talked before about Ortin, a minor character with a scar who appears in a couple of scenes in Divine Burdens. We know why he has a scar (a very strange and unusual thing indeed in a world with nearly unlimited biomedical nanotech), and a few months back we set out to write a 3,500-word short story about why he has that scar.

Those 3,500 words bloomed into a 40,000 word novella, then we started finding interesting threads of other lives that wound through and around his, which we really wanted to explore as well. So we started writing about that, too. Soon we realized that this story needs to be an important part of the sixth novel, which is set in the same City as the second novel, about twenty years before the events of Divine Burdens.

We do plan at some point to write a short story about Hassen. His research touches on some really interesting bits of the City’s history. Life in the City is a little like life in the Church in 19th century Britain, in the sense that being a clergyman was just a job, it wasn’t the whole of what you do the way we think of it today—many clergymen were also scientists, mathematicians, writers. Hassen is a novice of the Temple, and has duties he performs as part of that role, sure…but he’s also a researcher and historian, and those are just as important to him as his liturgical roles.

 With a pinch of luck, the short story we tell about him won’t blow up into a novella too! (We make no guarantees, apparently we cannot be trusted not to accidentally a novel.) Of course, once we realized that the 3,500-word short story about Ortin’s scar had blown up into the seed for a book, we set it aside, because writing the sixth novel in the series before the fifth is just plain silly. (Though we will have a head start on book six, given we’ve now written close to 50,000 words of it!)

Sonder applies to fictional characters just as well as real people. The minor characters live in our heads and take up space in our thoughts, just as much as the protagonists do. Ask us a question about one of them and odds are, we’ve probably got an answer for you.

We know their histories, their motivations, their intentions, their joys and pains. For us, one of the things we seek to do when we write is convey a sense that the world is fractal: you can zoom into any part of it, any tiny detail (Ortin’s scar, Hassen’s drone) and find there a whole story waiting to be told. (And sometimes those stories hammer on the inside of our eyelids as we sleep, demanding to be told. Who are we to refuse?)

Now that we’ve set aside the sixth book, we’re really looking forward to the fifth. We’re itching to get started on it because, as the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett put it, our usual reward for finishing a book is that we get to start a new one. We’re putting a moratorium on that, and discussions about the book plot, characters, worldbuilding, etc, because we want to start that totally from scratch on a livestream where people can join us and ask their own questions, give their own thoughts, maybe add to the discussion.

We’ve picked a date we want to do this livestream—April 23, 2022, at 11AM Pacific/2PM Eastern/7PM GMT. Maybe if it gets enough interest, we might even consider doing it a few more times! 

Whether you’re a fan of the Passionate Pantheon series and want to get a behind-the-scenes peek, or you’re just interested in learning how to co-author a book remotely or start writing a novel, we hope we’ll see you there…and feel free to bring questions! Sign up on our mailing list for notifications before it happens! 

Erotic Science Fiction vs Science Fiction Erotica

Image: stanciuc

The first four Passionate Pantheon books are wrapped up! Books one and two, The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens, are in stores now. The third, The Hallowed Covenant, publishes in a few months; the fourth, Unyielding Devotion, is out next year.

This feels like a good moment to chat about the direction the series seems to be taking.

When we started writing the Passionate Pantheon novels, we thought of them as science fiction erotica. In fact, that’s how we described the books: far-future post-scarcity science fiction theocratic erotica.

Or, if you like being provocative like us, scifi porn. (Although ‘porn’ is generally associated with the visual stuff and ‘erotica’ is usually assumed to be written, we tend to use the terms interchangeably in private. There is an undeniably classist, elitist element to that split—written erotica as somehow superior, classier in some way, whilst ‘porn’ is considered crass and crude and ‘lower class’. Well, that’s a load of rubbish and we refuse to subscribe to that newsletter, thanks. Anyway, back to topic and off this soapbox!) 

With the third book, something happened. The novel started shifting from science fiction erotica to erotic science fiction—and that became even more apparent in the fourth.

So what happened? And what’s the difference between the two?

Let’s tackle that second question first. 

The difference comes down to: when your wordcount is getting perilously close to “we’re not writing War and Peace here, we need to cut it down”, what do you cut? If your answer is “some of the worldbuilding and philosophical exploration”…hurrah, you’re writing erotica that is set in a scifi world. If your answer is “some of the sex scenes”…congratulations, you’ve just set course for sexy scifi. Basically, it comes down to ‘what is your priority?’—is it the sex or the worldbuilding?

We discovered that our answer to that question has been gradually changing over the last year. Considering that we originally set out to write porn together…that was a deeply weird mental switch to happen, simultaneously and without prior intentions, to both of us at once.

The first two novels are basically coming of age stories, they’re just coming of age stories set in a world of radical longevity where sex permeates nearly every aspect of social, civic, and religious life. Sex is woven into the fabric of the City in a way that touches nearly every facet of every person’s existence. The first two books lay out a foundation, and starting with the third, we begin to build much more complex stories atop that foundation.

But something weird happened with The Hallowed Covenant: as we wrote, we found ourselves cutting sex scenes in order to make room for more exploration of the society and technology and philosophy of the City. What are the gods? What do they look like? What does it mean to be an avatar of a god? How do civic celebrations work? In a post-scarcity society with no police and no law, what happens when people do wrong? How is the process of atonement handled? 

In Unyielding Devotion, we expanded on those ideas: How is the process of handling transgression and wrongdoing handled in a dark City? How does the City find a place for people who don’t fit in? What do the people of the City do when they aren’t having ritualized kinky group sex? (Unyielding Devotion is the first book with major protagonists who aren’t highly placed in the religious hierarchy of their chosen religion, who don’t become Sacrifice to their chosen gods.)

For book five, which doesn’t even have a title yet, we’re planning a deep dive into some things we haven’t touched on at all yet.

How do families work? How do you raise children in the City? If you have radical longevity and can live as long as you want, even if that’s centuries, how do you choose to die, and how is death handled? What role do the City’s AIs and drones play in raising and educating children? What do families with children even look like, and how does that affect the physical layout of homes with children? How are young adults who’ve barely taken their first adult name (for clarity we should note that this typically refers to 30 to 50 year olds) different from, say, 250-year-olds? When everyone generally has the body of a 20-year-old unless they decided they didn’t want to for aesthetic reasons, how does that affect the difference in the way you would interact with a young adult versus an experienced elder? How would you even tell?

The short answer to many of these questions (except the ones about children, naturally) is ritualized kinky sex. Sex touches nearly everything in the Passionate Pantheon. Even the civic structures around transgression and civil justice are handled through ritualized kinky sex.

But we couldn’t help doing a much deeper dive into some of the more technological and civic aspects of life in the City, and writing stories with far more complex narrative structures. There was just so much to explore! As we did so, we started recognizing that shift from science fiction erotica to erotic science fiction. (Fear not, these are still very porny books…there’s a lot of sex in them, much more than you’ll find in most written erotica, simply as a consequence of how the world works.)

Faced with the choice between exploring the world in a scene that doesn’t involve sex and keeping a sex scene, we’re leaning more and more often toward cutting the sex scene. That just became unmistakable over time.

In fact, we recently tried to write a 3,500-word short story about a minor character from Divine Burdens that blew up into a 40,000-word novella…and that was after we cut 3,039 words of sex we felt didn’t contribute to the story. Which means we cut a number of words almost equal to the total number of words we’d originally planned for the story.

In The Hallowed Covenant, you’ll find plenty of sex, especially in the first third of the book. But you’ll also learn more about what the gods are, find out a lot more about how the civic structures of the City work, learn more about the City’s important festivals…the setting for the Passionate Pantheon has always been extraordinarily complex, with a lot of nooks and crannies we simply didn’t have room to squeeze into the first two novels.

The benefit of moving to erotic scifi, of course, is that you can explore these topics that typically wouldn’t have a place in erotica. How often does porn talk about the philosophy of religion (and no, we’re not including ‘sexy nun or kinky priest’ porn in here!) or about the complexities of family dynamics in a communally based post-scarcity society? (If you know any good examples, please do throw us suggestions, by the way. We’re always up for more deeply philosophical porn!)

We have a ton of ideas we plan to introduce in the fifth novel…and we want to invite you along for the ride!

For Book 5, we’re planning something really unusual. (Fitting, because our writing process is also unusual.) We’ve had countless people ask how we work together, and countless more ask “how do you even write a novel, anyway?”, and one of the rules of good writing is “show, don’t tell,” so…

Beginning in April, we want to live-stream the start of Book Five. That means you can ask questions, see the conversations we have before and as we’re developing a book, and see how the story changes from concept to final printed book. If it goes well, we might even consider making this a repeated event.

Whether you’re a fan of the Passionate Pantheon series or just interested in the process of how co-authorship works, or you simply want to write a book but don’t know how to start, we hope you’ll find the live-stream interesting. We’re just starting to plan it, so watch this space for more details!

What’s in a Name…and How Do You Pronounce It?

Image: Etienne Girardet

Names have power, especially in the City. Names are intimate, names are personal, names are expressions of the self.

The people of the City have a much more intimate connection with their names than most people in the real world (usually) do. Adult names in the Passionate Pantheon novels are always self-chosen; when a person chooses to become an adult, the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by a naming ceremony where that person takes their first adult name and announces it to the community. A person who has undergone some major life event or grown in a significant way might also sometimes mark the occasion, and the transition from old to new, with a public ceremony where they take a new name. As you have probably guessed, this means that people will often gather more names over time, each one a representation of important moments in their history.

We’ve talked before about how names in the Passionate Pantheon work, and where they come from, with a detour into the language of the Passionate Pantheon (tl;dr: we come up with names by either taking modern-day names from the real world and applying linguistic drift to them, so for example Donovan becomes Donvin or Ashley becomes Ashi, or we invent them using what we know about the way the language sounds, such as Janaié or Calaïas).

However, we haven’t talked much about how the names you’ll see in the novels are pronounced. With the first two novels now out, the third coming out soon, and plans in the works for an audiobook (very early days, all hush-hush, don’t tell anyone yet, it’s a secret!), we figured…maybe it might be time to do something about that. Time to produce a pronunciation guide, before the confusion sets in.

Pronunciation in the Passionate Pantheon

The language spoken in the City is quite unlike Romance or Germanic languages. The world of the Passionate Pantheon is a second-generation colony, settled by a slower-than-light generation ship launched from an earlier colony that was itself settled by a slower-than-light generation ship launched from Earth.

A lot was lost during those two journeys through the vast cold dark. The first-generation colonists, the ones who left Earth and whose descendents would later go on to find the planet of the Passionate Pantheon, left in a hurry (that’s a long story, and we’ve talked about writing it one day, though it would not be a Passionate Pantheon story). They spoke a wide range of pan-Asian languages, most of them mutually unintelligible. The language of that colony ship started out first as a pidgin and then acquired its own grammar and syntax, becoming a creole at the intersection of all those languages. It developed further, as languages do, on the first colony, then gained yet more complexity when a group of colonists left that world to make a new home for themselves. Along the way, they created the first AIs, the kernels that eventually would grow into the gods of the Passionate Pantheon.

What does that have to do with names?

Names in the Passionate Pantheon that aren’t derived from real-world names with blurring applied to them—names like Janaié and Calaïas—frequently contain long vowel chains, which you don’t normally see in Western European or North American names.

In Romance or Germanic languages, the presence of multiple vowels usually indicates modification to a sound: if you see a name like Keith, the -ei vowel chain simply reminds you that the e is long. The name “Keth” would be pronounced with a short e.

In Passionate Pantheon names, this isn’t the case. Each individual vowel is often pronounced independently, which is quite different from the way Western names work.

Let’s look at Calaïas, for example. Confronted with a name that looks like “Calaias,” a Western reader might scratch her head and end up saying “kal-ACE” or “kal-ICE,” or perhaps “KAL-iss” or “KAL-yiss.”

We tried to offer a bit of a hint with the diaeresis; as with, say, Brontë, it suggests there’s something special about that vowel; “Brontë” is pronounced with two syllables, BRON-tee, not a single syllable with a long O, BRōNT.

All the vowels in Calaïas are voiced: kal-ay-EYE-ass. The same applies to Janaié: it might look to Western eyes like jan-EYE or perhaps JAN-ee, but it’s a three-syllable name: jan-eye-AY. (Yes, we’ve considered going all JRR Tolkien and including an appendix with a pronunciation guide, but really, who publishes porn with pronunciation guides? Who would read porn with a pronunciation guide? [Ed note: Eunice puts up her hand.])

This holds true even for people who live outside the City, in the ‘Wastelands’ beyond the shield dome. A character who appears briefly in Divine Burdens, Taín, pronounces his name with two syllables, TAY-inn, not one, TANE.

To be fair, the names in the Passionate Pantheon novels are more approachable than some real-life (if rare) British names, like Cholmondeley or Featherstonehaugh (pronounced CHUM-lee and FAN-shaw, respectively, though the latter can also be pronounced FEE-sən-hay, FEER-stən-haw, or FES-tən-haw, according to Wikipedia. Notice how none of those versions are possible to arrive at by spelling out the name letter by letter, and none of them are similar to each other. That’s English for you…). Welsh is even more brutal if you’re not familiar with the rules of written Welsh: Dafydd is pronounced something like Dav-i-th, or /ˈdævɪð/ in IPA. So it certainly could’ve been much worse.

Once you pick up the rules for pronouncing names in the City, they’re fairly consistent and easy to say. They’re unfamiliar-looking to English readers, but there is an underlying logic. More logic than in many current English names, let’s be honest. The same logic applies to consonants, too: Tsimbar, a protagonist in Unyielding Devotion, pronounces his name TSIM-bar, not SIM-bar. The consonants are all voiced.

Western Names in the City

So that’s the way names that don’t have roots in real-world words work. But what about other names, like Donvin or Ashi? How did we end up with names derived from contemporary Western European and North American names? That goes back to the history of those first generation ships. The one which became the ancestor of the ship that landed on the planet that we now find ourselves exploring was the very last ship to leave the Earth-That-Was—the last, remaining, final, desperate attempt to get as much of the population out as possible. 

Thing is, the majority of people on that ship (crew included) didn’t even speak English. 

So what happened? How did these names stick around when English, and all the other Germanic and Romance languages, burned themselves out in the vast pool of the pan-Asian languages spoken around them? 

Names stick around when languages die. There were some Anglos in the crew. Not many, but enough. People cling to the names of their ancestors, their grandparents and great-grandparents, in memory of the people they admired—even as they lose the language they spoke. 

Most immigrant families with children have personal experience of that. Eunice may, haltingly, speak a little Cantonese still, but the next generation is unlikely to speak any. It takes active work and effort to maintain that knowledge—it takes energy that most immigrants would rather use to build a new home for themselves and learn the vagaries of a different culture. By the time that first generation ship landed on that first planet, English was gone. But the remnants of those names stuck around, and sometimes other people heard those names and replicated it, or at least evolved it. And over time, some spread through the population. When the majority of people have multiple names, you end up with plenty of opportunity to try on an unusual name. And make no mistake, those Western names were exotic and unusual—that’s why they didn’t drift quite as much as the more common Asian names, and so remained just about recognisable, if you squint. There’s plenty of Asian names that drifted too, they’re just harder to spot because a living language drifts much further than a dead one.

(Of course, this is the Watsonian, in-universe interpretation. The Doylist view is that we used those names because we, as native English speaking authors, were more familiar with the linguistic drift that would be likely to happen to names in English, so that’s what we used. But that’s boring, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you much rather have the more complex, thought-through explanation?)

So if some of the names look a little familiar, you’re not imagining it. There are names in the Passionate Pantheon that carry a little bit of the history of a desperate population’s journey to a new homeworld, even if time and distance have worn down the edges a little.

The other names, the ones that will seem awkward and a bit hard to approach to many of our native English speaking readers: There’s a reason, we promise. We’re not just making the names difficult to make them difficult. The novels are porn, yes, but they’re porn we have put enormous thought, time, and attention into.

The first two books plant some seeds that grow in the later books. As the series goes on, you can expect to see a lot of this detail and complexity start to emerge. We’ve both really enjoyed the work we’ve put into these books, and we hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them. Even if the names are sometimes hard to pronounce.

Trust us, it’s worth the effort.