J. Kathleen Cheney discusses Selkies, Sereia (Sirens) and Mating – oh baby

July 3, 2014 Author Feature, Giveaway, Guest Post 36

by J. Kathleen Cheney

Selkies, Sirens (Sereia), magic, mystery and murder all in a beautiful historical fantasy setting of Portugal 1902! J. Kathleen Cheney is here today to tell us about these amazing water based fantasy species.


The Seat of Magic

My review of Book One: THE GOLDEN CITY

I’m currently reading THE SEAT OF MAGIC and enjoying it immensely!

Enter to win The Golden City and The Seat of Magic below!


My current books are set in an alternate 1902 Portugal. For those of you who don’t keep track of geography, Portugal is almost all coast line. And as such, the people in my alternate Portugal deal extensively with peoples from the sea: selkies, sereia, and otterfolk among them.

Now the last time I visited this blog, I talked a bit about my selkies. (My hero, Duilio, is half selkie.) Today I’m here to talk about Oriana, my sereia heroine.

(What is a sereia? you ask.)

To start out, sereia is merely the Portuguese word for siren. Nothing fancy. Unlike selkies, however, sirens are a confusing lot. In some mythology, they’re part fish. In some, part bird. Some mythology has a finite number of them, while other mythology doesn’t. Plus, there are numerous creatures with other names who seem to be close relatives, confusing the issue.

Because I didn’t have a definitive idea of what a siren should be, I had to pick which path I wanted to follow with my sirens. And so I took my cues from Portuguese literature. In an epic poem (The Lusiads) from the 1570s, Luís de Camões weaves a tale of the 1499 voyages of Vasco da Gama, and therein describes an island where the sailors came across ‘sea nymphs’ bathing and, believing the women were a gift from Venus, took advantage (euphemism). Later in that poem, one of the sea nymphs is actually called a siren. Thus that epic poem became my basis for the world my sereia inhabit.

Even now my sereia live on the same mysterious islands, worried that humans will come back in numbers. There’s no mention of fish tails in the poem, so I happily avoided that. (Personally, I think the fish-tail model of mermaid is fraught with bio-mechanical problems. Portuguese fountains, at least, seem to show ‘mermaids’ with two separate legs, so I felt safe going with that.) Also, there was no mention of male sereia in the poem. Do they even have males? And if so, why did the poem not mention them? I had to figure out exactly how procreation would occur among these people.

(Why is that important? you ask.)

Well, that’s important because if we have a sereia romantically involved with a human-ish male like Duilio, the readers might want to know if they could procreate. Because I’ve written the third book (although it won’t be out until 2015) I know the answer to that question. I’m the author. I have to know.

My sereia have certain fish traits:

Gills that allow them to breathe water and create the reverberation that is manifested in their magical call; they have skin patterned like fish from about the waist down (a form of protective coloration which allows them to mimic large predatory fish such as tuna); and webbing between their fingers which allows them to sense vibrations in the water. In order for them to breed true (even if they breed with a human, as happens in the epic poem), I decided that the fish traits pass intact from mother to daughter. If, however, the half-sereia child is a son, then he loses the gills and webbing, although not all the coloring. (I suspect a geneticist would shoot giant holes in this scheme, but that’s the explanation I came up with, and I’m sticking to it!)

(And why don’t we see the sereia males in that poem? Huh?)

Well, sereia males are rarer in my world. The ratio is two females to every male, and therefore males are fought over. Because there are fewer males, females have to court them rather than being courted as they would in most human cultures. And once they capture the male, it’s the male’s job to stay home and take care of the house and children. The females, because they have the magic, are the ones who do all the work and defend their homes. Therefore, when the sailors originally came across the sereia on the island, they didn’t realize they’d come across a hunting party–only females. The males were hidden away safely at home.

Oriana is the product of a culture where males are “sheltered” in much the same way that human women were in the past–as in no education, working only at home, and not having a vote in, well, anything. Where she’s from, women are in charge.

Imagine finding a human male and dragging him back to that kind of culture. It’s a scary proposition, and possibly a deal breaker. Not many human men would put up with being treated the way women were in 1902. So for Book 3, Oriana has to hope and pray that she’s found one who will…

J. Kathleen also guest posted for me previously:
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Guest Post: The Things the Writer Isn’t Telling You (Even When We Want To)

J Kathleen Cheney

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, “The Golden City” is a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). TWITTER | FACEBOOK | WEBSITE | AMAZON | BN | POWELLS

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Tabitha (Pabkins)

When I'm in the zone I can flip book pages faster than the eye can see - screaming "More Input!" I'm a book, yarn, & art supply hoarding goblin who loves to draw, make toys and craft all sorts of creepy cute things. My current habit is to listen to audio books while I'm arting it up!
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36 Responses to “J. Kathleen Cheney discusses Selkies, Sereia (Sirens) and Mating – oh baby”

  1. Faye @ The Social Potato

    Oooh, 1902 Portugal. That actually caught my attention than the sirens and stuff, because I am so interested in historical stuff, especially this part of the world. I know some about Spain, but rarely about Portugal. I’d read this for that, even if it’s historical x fantasy.

    As for sereia males, that’s kind of interesting. It’s basically a reversal of the “traditional” roles. I’m still a bit wary about that, but I’ll check it out 🙂

    Thanks for the highlight! o/
    Faye @ The Social Potato recently posted…ARC Review: Dissonance by Erica O’RourkeMy Profile

  2. kim { Book Swoon }

    Oh my gosh! Have I been in a black hole or what?! I’ve missed seeing this series and I usually love water-based fantasy stories. Plus, its set in an alternate 1902 Portugal. I’m drooling here. I’m part Portuguese – so this is a Must Read for me. I may be part sereia since our family originates from the Azores (those mysterious islands the sailors like to visit and sirens are know for.) LOL 🙂
    kim { Book Swoon } recently posted…Book Review: Meet the Earl at Midnight by Gina ConkleMy Profile

  3. Mogsy

    I am going to read book two soon – I’m hoping we will be seeing more of the sereia and their culture. I find male to female ratio and how that has affected their society to be pretty fascinating!

  4. Jessica @ Rabid Reads

    Interesting post, Tabitha! I’m always interested in sea creatures in books (b/c really? Who knows what could be hiding in the deeps of the ocean?), and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this series. Not sure how I feel about the specific gender roles though. I get that traditional gender roles are being turned on their head, but I don’t really like the idea of roles designated by gender regardless of who ends up with what responsibilities.
    Jessica @ Rabid Reads recently posted…Question – Are There Books That Should NEVER Be Adapted For Screen?My Profile

    • Tabitha (Pabkins)

      Well it’s actually rather nice because you see the roles so differently because of the Sereia culture and the Portuguese culture and Duilio and Oriana trying to find a happy middle ground that will satisfy both of them and their cultures.
      Tabitha (Pabkins) recently posted…Review: Sinner by Maggie StiefvaterMy Profile

  5. Kirsty-Marie

    Heeey, females courting the males, now that’s more like it. It’s fascinating though to see different variations of mythical creatures, I know they’re always slightly different in different cultures and that, (not that I know much about selkies or sirens anyway) but still, a lot to take in.
    Kirsty-Marie recently posted…Review: UnweptMy Profile

  6. Danya @ Fine Print

    Psssh, the best thing about SFF is that you don’t have to worry about pesky things like geneticists and the potential scientific holes in world-building. Hello, SELKIES! That’s what’s really important around here. Plus I love the fact that this series is set in Portugal – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set there before.
    Danya @ Fine Print recently posted…Review: God’s War by Kameron HurleyMy Profile

  7. Leanne @ Oh, the Books!

    Ooooh a book about sirens! And historical portugal! I’m on a huge paranormal kick lately (mainly PNR and urban fantasy) so this is right up my alley… although to be honest I’ve always loved paranormal anything. Sirens are a great diversion from all the vampires, shifters, and fae I’ve been flooded with lately, especially ones based on centuries-old, NON-English poems! Definitely putting these in a priority wishlist. 🙂

  8. Jan

    I just finished The Golden City. I love the setting, the fantasy aspects, the characters. I’m definitely looking forward to reading The Seat of Magic soon! And I love the covers of these books. It’s so fun to read the Ms. Cheney’s comments about the process of creating these books.
    Jan recently posted…Review: Fuzzy Nation by John ScalziMy Profile