Madeleine Nakamura: A Sense for Storms and Puzzles

Conspiracy, comas, a totalitarian regime, magic, mean dogs, and more.

5 mins read
author sitting on stairs
Author Madeleine Nakamura grew up in the 'dena and now prowls the darker depths of imagination. Photo: David Torralva

Madeleine Nakamura is a young, fourth generation, Japanese-American author of the debut inclusive adult fantasy novel “Cursebreakers,” published by Red Hen Press in September, 2023. 

Nakamura grew up in the Pasadena area and says that she gets some of her best inspiration…“through playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends.” The elements and structure of TTRPGs – puzzle-solving, negotiation, chases, and combat – are present in this story of two troubled heroes, Adrien and Gennady, who move through a perilous and paranoid dystopia that Kirkus Reviews describes this way:

book jacket
Cursebreakers jacket art.

“Nakamura’s treatment is nuanced and thoughtful, avoiding a veritable minefield of harmful stereotypes to deliver genuine characters with heart. This is a society that openly accepts queer people; Adrien is gay, as are the members of his network. Additionally, Adrien’s and Gennady’s conditions – coded as bipolar disorder and autism, respectively – are integral to the story.”

And more praise:

“An absorbing meditation on curses and blessings, martyrs and saints – and a rare fantasy that recognizes that the mind is more mysterious and more vital than any spell. It is writers like Madeleine Nakamura who are going to bring us all into the next age of the world.” – Brian Conn, author of The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblems for the Perilous Season

“Adrien’s narration was vivid, prickly, and compelling, and I loved the world she built around him, especially the beautiful names and terms, but also the institutional history of Pharmakeia and Curia (and Chirurgeonate), with the occasional, tantalizing glimpses of the wider world. And I admired the way she hung the plot together on the dual armatures of that institutional history and Adrien’s deeply flawed character.” – Katherine Addison, author of The Goblin Emperor

From her opening page, the author plunges us into her forbidding demimonde that is at once medieval and contemporary. A curse is spreading over the massive city of Astrum in the form of a collective coma, idiopathic, origin unknown.

painting of dogs
Raches take down a wild boar in Barthelemy d’Eyck’s medieval painting. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nakamura’s dark yet rollicking tale begins with the narrator’s prophecy of an ill omen in a driving rainstorm, as the magician-professor Adrien accidentally bumps into a soldier in the terrorizing command known as the Vigil. The ferocity of the soldier’s black uniform is matched only by the viciousness of his rache, an ancient breed of scent hound whose name also happens to mean “revenge” in German.

Nakamura describes the beast this way: “Strange animals, neither wolves nor lions, ill-tempered to a one.”

Musing on whether the solider will run him through with his saber or simply push him into the river, the narrator, feeling the sparks of electricity prickling and flashing around his hands, says, “One of the advantages of my affinity for lightning is a sense for storms.”

We connected with the author last week and asked her about writing, her Asian identity, and the issue of mental health and art. She comments that, because she is a fourth-generation Japanese, she has not encountered the same cultural conflicts and pressures experienced by many Asians and Asian Americans who are newer to the West. But there are other challenges.

She says, “Readers and people in publishing do make assumptions about me and my work based on my name and appearance. Being visibly Asian contributes to people in the literary scene not taking me seriously sometimes.”

“It happened every now and again when I was in the process of refining and seeking representation for the first couple of novels I wrote that I would encounter strange comments regarding my race,” she said.

“Someone in a writing workshop would ask why I wouldn’t choose to make a fantasy setting I had created more Asian. ‘Aren’t you proud of your own heritage,’ as if I owed it to them to perform being Asian American in a way they found artistically appropriate. Then, later, and contradictorily, I would be advised to use a pen name to prevent readers from being put off by seeing an Asian last name and making assumptions about my book.”

“It seems as though a lot of readers, agents, etc., are only interested in something an Asian person writes or an author who belongs to a marginalized community in basically any way if the author is willing to commoditize their identity. They’re often not willing to outright say that you and your work are unmarketable. Instead, they’ll demand that you spin your identity for them so they can justify you as having some sort of niche appeal to a certain audience. Then they portray this demand as them being very concerned about ‘championing diversity,’ which is only a mask for some very basic prejudices.”

“Any form of storytelling is inherently political to some degree.”

Madeleine Nakamura

“Then there’s the much more universal problem that people don’t take me seriously and often feel free to be dismissive and condescending. I’m a short woman who doesn’t look white. It’s tremendously unpleasant to meet another writer at a convention, for instance, and hear all the respect vanish from his tone once he turns away from the white person he was speaking with previously.”

We asked how the experience of successfully writing and publishing “Cursebreakers” affected her process. Nakamura responded, “I kept my expectations nonexistent so that I’d be thrilled if the book succeeded by any measure. I think that’s the best strategy. The reviews have been great overall, which has been a wonderful bonus, and I could barely believe the Kirkus star. I feel more confident now that I do have something to offer that many people out there enjoy.”

“The idea of navigating the publishing industry further in the future doesn’t seem any less difficult, but at least it seems conceivable now. It’s been so motivating to hear from kind people who felt strongly about Cursebreakers.”

We mentioned that, according to many, Octavia Butler wrote about sci-fi as a thinly veiled way of writing about the various “isms” which confronted her: Black writer, Black woman writer, Queer Black woman writer. We asked Nakamura:  Is “fantasy” an allegory in any similar way for you?

“Any form of storytelling is inherently political to some degree, even if only a little, and I do try to examine some social topics in my writing,” she said. “However, I wouldn’t say that I use fantasy as an allegory for these things. If I’m going to write about sexuality or disability, for instance, I tend to just write about them directly. The settings I create may be fantastical, but I don’t have any taste for veiling real-life ‘isms,’ as you put it, in fantasy elements.”

“It’s important to say that there are ways to use allegory beautifully and effectively, but there is also a lot of media out there that insists on doing it badly. If a writer tries to evoke a real-life system of oppression by using people with dangerous magic powers or a species of immortal elves, the allegory breaks down quickly—because it assigns a genuine reason to the oppression.”

Yes, there’s always  But please check with local booksellers Kinokuniya Bookstore in Santa Anita (626-446-1236), Barnes & Noble, Glendale (818-545-9146), and your favorite indie like Vromans in Pasadena for a copy of Cursebreakers.

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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