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Exclusive Preview: Motheater by Linda H. Codega

An Announcement and Excerpt
Exclusive Preview: Motheater by Linda H. Codega

In a startling and nuanced queer fantasy set amid the beauty of an Appalachian mountain, the last witch of the Ridge and a newcomer investigating the coal industry must choose sides in a clash between nature and development that’s been 300 years coming…

After her best friend died in the coal mine that employs half of Kiron, Virginia, Benethea Mattox sacrificed her job, her relationship, and her reputation trying to uncover what’s killing miners on Kire Mountain. When she finds a half-drowned white woman in the dirty mine slough, Bennie takes her in because it’s right—but she also hopes this odd, magnetic stranger can lead her to the proof she needs. 

Instead, she brings more questions. The woman called Motheater can’t remember her true name, nor how she ended up inside the mountain. She knows only that she’s a witch of Appalachia, bound to tor and holler, possum and snake, with power in her hands and Scripture on her tongue. But the mystery of her fate, her doomed quest to keep industry off Kire, and the promises she bent and broke have followed her 150 years into the future. And now, the choices Motheater and Bennie make together could change the face of Kire itself…

Editor Sarah Guan on Motheater

I knew, the moment I finished reading Motheater as a submission, that I had to bring it to Erewhon. At a glance, the book combines so many of my favorite elements of speculative fiction: charismatic but unreliable narrators, nature personified as a character, mysteries across multiple timelines, unlikely allies (and romantic pairings), and witches. Then, as I peeled back the layers of this story, I found a complex, angry, hopeful ode to a unique place and people – and a compassionate examination of the systemic issues irrevocably changing a community that Linda knows and portrays so well. 

If you care about the environment, read this book. If you care about labor rights, read this book. If you just want a beautiful, bittersweet story of queer witches caught between a rock and a hard place (literally), read this book. It's been such a joy working with Linda on this unique, brave project, and I can't wait to finally shove it into everyone's hands! 

Linda H. Codega on Motheater

Motheater became novel-shaped during many, many hikes along the northern parts of the Appalachian Trail. The plot was divined from notes jotted down on the backs of trail maps and napkins, and parsed from the misspelled phone notes I typed while surrounded by mountain laurel and red-tailed hawks. Motheater, the witch, has been a voice I've failed to exorcise for over a decade, ever since I moved out of Virginia and found I had left part of myself in the Tidewater and Blue Ridge. 

Working with Erewhon on this weird, queer, folkloric book has been exactly what I wanted from a publishing partner. Sarah Guan is a deeply considerate reader and incisive editor who has taken Motheater, asked, "What do we do to make this feral creature worse?" and loves her anyway. She is someone who gets the core tensions at the heart of this story and encourages me to drive them further into the narrative. I truly cannot wait for this maddening little witch to become everyone's problem.

An Exclusive Excerpt from Motheaters

Two seconds after walking up to Miss Delancey's Tarot and Palm Reading, Bennie knew that she was going to regret this. 

Next to her, wearing her threadbare dress and refusing to put on shoes, Motheater peered at the neon light in the window suspiciously. Her disastrously held together outfit wasn't a good look anywhere, but especially not in Kiron. 

"I can’t help you if I ain’t all of myself," Motheater said, her voice tinged slightly petulant. "But I don’t think no decent Neighbor would tart her work like this."

"Vikki Delancey is the closest thing Kiron’s got to a witch," Bennie said, resolutely ringing the doorbell. "I don’t know anything about Neighbors, and right now this is the best I can do."

That seemed to placate her, and Motheater moved to stand next to Bennie. She examined the doorbell and then pressed it herself. 

"Stop that," Bennie muttered, batting Motheater's hand away. "You'll annoy her."

"It's like a piano key." Motheater justified herself. "It's not magic."

"No, a doorbell isn't magic—" 

"It doesn't even sound like a bell."

The door swung open, and the two young women were face-to-face with Delancey. She was a tall, thin white woman with blonde hair wrapped up in a scarf. Delancey pursed her mouth as she looked at them through bifocals, quickly undoing the magnet at the bridge and dropping the pieces, letting them hang like leaves on a vine. 

Bennie could feel Motheater's hackles rise. Some shift in her shoulders betrayed her, gave her a stance like a wounded creature. Delancey might have noticed the expression on Motheater’s face, because she turned quickly to Bennie. Her mouth softened. 

"Ah, Miss Mattox." She smiled, and Bennie wanted to throw herself into the gutter. Her last desperate attempt at using ‘magic’ had led her here, and she hadn’t come away with anything other than a lighter wallet. "Something I can do for you, dear?"

"I'm here with..." Bennie paused, watching Motheater warily out of the corner of her eye. "A friend. She'd like a reading if you have the time."

Motheater, thankfully, did as she had been coached and nodded. "I'd like to see my future if you can offer it."

There was something about the way she said it, Bennie thought, earnest and disbelieving at the same time. Like she knew prophecy could happen, but was sure it couldn't happen here. 

"Of course, dears, come in." Delancey gestured them inside, then led them through to the back parlor. Money, apparently, was more important than finding properly dressed clientèle. "Did you find your last reading helpful, hon?"

"Yeah, super insightful," Bennie plastered a fake look of gratitude on her face, widening her eyes. "Thank you." 

The real answer was no, but she had come a few months after Kelly-Anne’s death, on the verge of breaking up with Zach, lost and looking for… well, anything. It was the same reason that she had been driving along the creek that morning. One more vain attempt to find a hint, a clue, something to help her figure out what the fuck White Rock was doing in that goddamn mountain.

They never recovered Kelly-Anne’s body. There was no trace of her at all. It was a modern mining operation—how could a woman just disappear? 

Delancey smiled as they walked into the parlor, and Bennie was relieved that she seemed satisfied with the half-assed praise. The room smelled of stale incense; while it stung Bennie's nose and almost made her cough, Motheater didn't seem to notice, looking around the room with a critical eye, measuring the worth of the woman by the cheesy decor and gem collection.

Motheater sat and Delancey swept around the small table.

"Your accent is unusual," Delancey said, sitting and arranging her skirts. She pet the velvet table cover delicately, her chipped manicure a sickly shade of violet that matched her sour smile. "Where are you from?"

"Here," Motheater said, staring at the woman. Bennie, annoyed that she was relegated to the vinyl-covered furniture, sat on the arm of the couch, angled towards Motheater. Over Delancey's shoulder, Bennie could see a kettle beginning to boil over, the cap left off. She almost wanted to mention it, but the irony of a forgetful psychic might push Motheater over the edge entirely. 

"From the mountains?" Delancey asked, picking up her tarot deck and shuffling it. 

From her vantage point Bennie saw Motheater smile. She looked like a predator. 

"Yes. My family lived there."

"Well, not many of your folk left anymore," Delancey muttered, still looking at their cards. 

"Not many at all."

"Been there a long time?" 

"A very long time." Motheater grinned. 

Linda H. Codega is a nonbinary hiker and sailor who collects tattoos, dice, and ’70s punk records. They are a Hugo-nominated first reader with Strange Horizons and an award-winning entertainment journalist with bylines at io9, Polygon, and Reactor. Currently, they write for the independent tabletop roleplaying game news outlet, Rascal, which they co-founded. They live in between a mountain and a river in the Hudson Valley. Find them online at lincodega.com and @lincodega.