Read an excerpt from Someone You Can Build a Nest In, 2024’s squelchiest cozy fantasy

“Creepy, scary, sad, and squelchy” aren’t words that seem to go well with “cozy fantasy,” “sapphic romance,” or “dark comedy.” But Nebula and Locus award-winner John Wiswell blends all those elements into his debut novel, Someone You Can Build a Nest In. One of Polygon’s most anticipated science fiction/fantasy novels of 2024, the book, now on shelves, centers on a shape-shifting monster. Shesheshen haunts her local town, Underlook, until she connects with a human woman whose gentleness surprises her. Smitten, Shesheshen plans to show her love by implanting parasitic eggs in her crush object.

Polygon recently spoke to Wiswell about what went into the book — about writing neurodivergent characters, how his own disabilities helped inspire and enliven Shesheshen, and what he learned from Martha Wells’ Murderbot.

But he also shared a chapter of the book with us. Read on for an excerpt of Someone You Can Build a Nest In, as Shesheshen, freshly wounded from a fight with a new batch of monster-hunters, heads to town to claim a few human victims and recover.

Image: Astra Publishing House

The citizens of Underlook were vultures. All trade routes from east and west had to cross the isthmus — that one little land bridge. With so few wild animals to eat, Shesheshen had to attack caravans that crossed the isthmus, seizing their meat and leaving behind useless lamp oil and pink salts and high-thread-count undergarments. Underlook then descended and divvied up the spoils, such that even the most mediocre of their children wore britches and capes meant for monarchs. People had trouble proposing marriage for all the gemmed rings clogging up their fingers.

And they never once thanked her for it.

In her optimistic youth, Shesheshen had prowled these streets and selected the right person for her meal. Using different bones for each visit to the town meant she never looked identifiable, and was seldom suspected by the locals. If she acted like she had money, vendors went out of their way to normalize her presence. She could spend an afternoon pretending to enjoy ale while she shopped for a loan shark or a cruel sheriff. There was a sophisticated pleasure to terrorizing and devouring someone who thought they were above everyone.

A good predator was also a reminder, she thought.

After their assassination attempt in her own lair, Underlook clearly needed a reminder.

Blueberry helped carry her much of the way to town, until the smell of society grew too strong and threatening for her. The bear dumped Shesheshen off before waddling north, behind the shadows of pines.

Underlook lay at the very center of the isthmus, the only place to shelter on the route between mainlands. Shesheshen circled Underlook to enter from the town’s east end, where the poorer classes lived. This entrance to town was always less strictly guarded. The sheriffs mostly serviced the west and north parts of Underlook, where moneyed people lived. It was the older families that clutched most of the wealth, even though it was harvested by the laborers. What the laborers got out of it that kept them from eating the rich, Shesheshen didn’t understand. She was a mere monster.

She fixed herself up before entering the town. Leftovers from the gold-plated Catharsis Wulfyre gave her two reasonably solid legs, so people wouldn’t be suspicious of her gait. She had a full skull and most of his jaw. She squeezed the bones up, forming a head-like structure, holding the bones in place with all the spare tendons available. The rosemary poison left her epidermis gray, but plenty of humans had ashen complexions, and she covered herself in the red riding hood and cloak. This could work.

In morphing her body, she had to be careful of her chest. The wound was worsening still, and merely jostling the crossbow bolt hurt so badly that her hands spasmed around their bones.

Wounded and undernourished, she needed to concentrate and not let her human guise slip. She didn’t need townsfolk getting suspicious. Smoke streamed out of chimneys on the west side, like so many bowls of dust overturned and spilling, except spilling in the wrong direction. Its form was unintentional art. Smoke always struck her as beautiful; it sprawled, resisting form, like she longed to do with her body when a hard day’s hunt was over. The chimneys sent swirls through the murky orange of sky’s dusk. That was usually a sign that the humans were inside for the night, yet there were relatively few visible through the windows of the squat homes.

Underlook’s outskirts were less populated than usual. There wasn’t a single person at the entrance to town. She’d expected to be greeted by at least a couple people competing to rent her a room for the night.

The shrines were vacant, too. Every street in Underlook had at least one shrine, gazebo-like structures where traveling priests gave speeches and where locals drew their prayers on the walls. At the bottom of the walls people drew little line segments for the “gods below” who helped humans in their endeavors, while other people drew the same line segments for the “gods above” at the tops of the walls before the ceiling, asking for protection from the endeavors of others. These god marks invoked the myriad nameless gods for aid, drawn in ink, or chalk or charcoal, or whatever paints people got their hands on. Travelers from all countries patronized these shrines.

There were no gods in the shrines she passed, at least not visible ones. Gods never showed themselves to humans even when they dumped miracles on them, which Shesheshen thought was wise. If humans got used to the presence of gods, they’d probably hunt them for profit and glory and other nonsense, just as they did to monsters. Gods were smart to keep a light touch.

But where were all the people? Someone should have been drawing godmark prayers in a shrine tonight with her out there lurking.

Somewhere in town, someone knocked out rude sounds on a piano. Drums rumbled in next, and voices slurred their way through what sounded like five parts of a three-part harmony.

Shesheshen followed the musical sounds for street after street until locals staggered straight into her path. Two men accidentally tripped each other into the mud. They hooted like bulbous owls, then started laughing and splashing each other with it.

The sounds of human activity were coming from Underlook’s town hall, a renovated barn. The massive double doors were left open so people could mill through freely. A bonfire crackled in the center of town, and the town hall’s doors looked like hands warming themselves over the glow. Several humans scaled the doors to sit atop them, tooting horns and wailing on bagpipes.

So many people danced that the sheer tonnage of twirling made Shesheshen nauseous. There was so much heaving flesh, so many desperate breaths and spasming arms. Alcohol was everywhere, in the hands of dancers and onlookers alike. Around the bonfire children split pint glasses of bitter and played dice on the cobblestone paths.

She walked toward the barn doors just as a throng of humans thrust their glasses into the air, foam sloshing over the rims and to the ground. What were they celebrating?

All she knew was they were celebrating in the direction of an oblong, gray puppet. It had a dragon’s jaws and wolves’ paws and several kinds of wings sewn onto it. The ugly toy was carried by several gawky teenage girls, and at the blow of a whistle, they hurled it onto the bonfire. It wilted like so much demonic lint.

Among the logs of the fire, the blackened remains of several more toys burned. It was as if the whole party had been in favor of getting rid of toys they couldn’t sell.

Was this a holiday she usually hibernated through? It was miserably noisy for her tastes. She shifted her ear canals to be narrower and blot out some of the sound. One thing she didn’t understand about humans was how they could think with so much stimulation around.

Merely trying to concentrate around all of this made her juices trickle out around the crossbow bolt. She groaned and leaned against the town hall for a moment. She was so close. Food was dancing all around her.

The worst thing about this holiday was that everyone was here. No matter where she went in this square, people moved in groups. If she attacked anyone, the entire town would catch her. Then she’d be the next thing tossed onto their bonfire.

Someone asked her, “Pretty sight, isn’t it?”

She swallowed, despite not having an entirely formed throat. It was an abrupt reminder to get her vocal passages in order. Internally, she demanded herself to focus.

She asked, “Pardon?”

“I meant you, but the bonfire’s not bad either. Drink?”

It was a man of decent proportions, as best she could tell through his wool vest and trousers. He had a pale honey complexion. Jeweled rings were braided into the long blond hair that fell over his eyes, so that they glittered when he nodded. It must have been fashionable. Otherwise, the obstructed view would make it too impractical to bother maintaining. He smiled at her as if he expected gratitude for the view.

He carried two mugs of dark wine, one in each hand. He stretched one out to her, which she declined by sinking further inside her cloak.

She said, “I’m not thirsty.”

Did her voice sound human enough?

It did for him, since he took a slurp out of both his mugs at once.

“Don’t turn down wine in Underlook. My family brings in the best from every part of the world.”

“I’m not an enthusiast for the offspring of grapes.”

The man chortled. “Oh, you’re something else. What do you like?”

He said it like he was offering. Her innards gurgled, bile and other juices swelling up and seeking more fat and protein to digest. The telltale ache along her spine suggested she was already digesting herself for strength to fight off the rosemary poison.

Still, it was probably inappropriate to ask this man for a hundred pounds of beef.

Trying to sound interested, she asked, “You like to fetch things?” “Trading and shipping are my family business. We keep things safe from all the bandits.”

She knew better than that. There hadn’t been bandits in the isthmus in years. “Your family is important to Underlook?”

“If it wasn’t for the Baroness and families like mine, Engmar or L’État Bon would’ve conquered the isthmus long ago. This is technically an unincorporated barony you’re standing in. Every nation wants to swallow it. People like my family keep it safe.”

So he was a defender of the town. She almost groaned. “Oh. You’re private military?”

The man choked on his own wine. “Hardly! Nothing comes through this town without my family’s stamp. We are one of the trade houses that keeps commerce moving. L’Étatters want sheepskin shoes made in southern Engmar, and northern Engmars want Al-Jawi Empire steel. Everything flows through us. Everyone’s interest in our business keeps us free. I’m doing one contract right now. Do you know how to make a fortune selling whistles?”

Shesheshen said, “I did not think there was much money in whistles.” Whistles had never been much on her mind. She minded the singing crowd, and how she and this man were isolated. He maneuvered around her, like he was trying to get her into the privacy of the alley adjacent to the town hall. That might work out for her.

He said, “From your accent, you’re from Boletar?”

“Not quite. I’ve heard of it.”

She had not. It did not matter.

“It’s a dot on the map between L’État Bon and the Al-Jawi Empire. Well, the Boletars have never heard of whistles. They think they’re the height of music. So our company arranges for all the whistles the Engmar islanders don’t want anymore to travel, and we trade them for a killing. Engmar is in the middle of another one of their civil wars. Famine is terrible out there. They’ll sell anything we ask for, at whatever price.”

A husky brown-skinned woman in poofy yellow pantaloons flew past them, tossing a wooden carving onto the bonfire. The whole town square cheered for her as the flames engulfed the crudely hewn image of a wyrm. Shesheshen’s new drinking buddy cheered along with everyone else. Shesheshen clapped slowly, to hide that she didn’t have as many fingers as she wanted.

She shied toward the man with the inconvenient hair and asked, “What are they celebrating?”

The UK cover of John Wiswell’s novel Someone You Can Build A Nest In, showing two robed figures standing together in a green forest, pointing upward at the spires of a distant village above them Image: Hachette UK

He set one of his mugs aside and smirked down at her through a thin mustache. “I knew you were from out of town. One of the travelers from the highway? You picked the perfect night to come in. Stick with me. I won’t let any of them fleece you. It’s going to be an expensive night.”

“Why is that?”

Either he didn’t hear her, or he didn’t care. He said, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Roislin.”

“It’s going to be a pleasure, Madame Roislin from out of town. Call me Laurent.”

She was going to have to socialize. Reading what humans wanted from each other was so much easier than when those attentions were directed at her. That’s how things had gone wrong with Catharsis Wulfyre and his hired killers. Better to get this man to focus elsewhere and talk about the town.

“Laurent,” she said, like a name was an incantation to get annoying people to do what you wanted. She gestured to the drunks spinning around the bonfire. “What is all this?”

“This is the town monster.”

“The town monster?”

“Don’t get worried. They killed her today. One of Baroness Wulfyre’s children and two professional monster hunters.”

She moved an arm under her cloak, touching the crossbow bolt still lodged inside her. “And they killed her?”

“That’s what everyone is saying. No way a sleeping beast could stand up to three grown killers. The Baroness’s son is a wyrm slayer himself. He’s killed so many corrupt lords and beasts in L’État Bon. I figured you were one of his starry-eyed admirers and followed him from there.”

The drums meant something new. All the chattering, all the excited hoisting of lovers into the air, all the pudgy children playing games outside past bedtime were draped in the same ugly veil of context. If she wasn’t slowly succumbing to poison, she would’ve felt a chill.

She said, “They’re celebrating because the hunters killed the monster?”

Laurent cocked a neatly manicured brow. “That’s what the party is about, yes. You sound skeptical.”

“I guess I am a little skeptical.”

“Well, so am I.” He lowered his voice, until it required effort to hear over the crowd. “I’ve got a little secret. It’s something few in Underlook know.”

Now chills fell over her despite the poison. Did this human man recognize her? Was he going to identify her in public, in front of the embarrassing murder fire?

Her wig nearly slipped off her churning flesh, and she fixed her hood to cover it up. As she did, she looked around for an alley where she could drag this human man. Pretend they were kissing and snap his neck. It was her only way out.

The alcohol on his breath assaulted her eyes as he said, “There’s no such thing as the monster.”

“There isn’t?”

The human Laurent sucked wine from his thumb. “The Wyrm of Underlook is a hoax. After the Baroness left Underlook for better locales, the town elders cooked it up to scare off foreign invaders — and to spook travelers. Then those travelers stay in the well-lit town, and they buy garlic and rosemary and holy symbols. They spend out the nose to protect themselves from their imaginations.”

She peered at his throat from under the ends of her hood. It looked soft.

She asked, “People will jump at anything for a profit, won’t they?”

The human Laurent fixed his vest, propping his thumbs under the sheepskin collar. “That’s what I’ve always said. I’ve lived here for half my life and I’ve never seen one hair from this legendary wyrm’s hide. Sometimes someone winds up missing in a town of four thousand heavy drinkers, and they say it must be a monster. It spares the parents to believe a lie, and…”

He twirled a pinky. She took it as a possible sign he wanted her to finish his thought for him, so she said, “It helps the economy.”

He said, “You’re catching on, Madame Roislin.”

These were emotions she didn’t know how to carry. There was the insult of having her death celebrated when she wasn’t even dead. When she was, in fact, amidst them all right now, and only out here because they’d sent killers to fail in her home.

But this? To be dying from the poison of those assassins, and while looking for emergency food to survive the injury, to be told by a drunk rich boy with inconvenient hair that she had never really existed? Now their songs made unkind sense to her. This revelry was a kind of fear, for hatred was the fear people let themselves enjoy.

Never had she imagined such a thing. Humans were so creative in their disappointments.

An uninvited hand found her shoulder. It was Laurent’s, firm flesh and gripping her like she was prey. She made sure there were enough bones in her shoulder to keep up the illusion, to fool his hand. His hand was unwanted, but it wouldn’t be his hand for very long.

“Sire Laurent, from around here, was it?”

“That’s it to the syllable, Madame Roislin from out of town. You’ll want to remember my name.”

She touched her chin. “Do you have a place around here?”

“It’s in a two-story over on the west side. I let the staff off for tonight.”

“I somehow guessed you were from the west side.”

“Feel like some privacy, Madame Roislin?”

“That I do, Sire Laurent.”

He raised a brawny arm — he might have more meat on him than she’d originally believed — and crooked his elbow. It was one of those gestures humans sometimes made as an offer of courtship. She thought she was supposed to hold onto his elbow. It would actually be convenient, given how faint she was feeling. They’d fix that soon.

Dancing waned into erratic commotion from around the bonfire. People hurried to the path on the opposite side of the town square, many of them joining in the nonsense shouting. They shrieked in what Shesheshen assumed was another of the consensual oral horrors that humans called music.

She had no interest in seeing what effigy of herself they burned this time. Instead she looped an arm around Laurent’s and knocked herself against his hip. “Lead away.”

“What’s going on over there?” he asked, rising onto the tips of his polished shoes to see over the flames. Shesheshen wrapped her other arm around his elbow, hoping to weigh him down. They were already late for supper.

“Give me a minute, woman,” he said. He raised his voice at someone on the other side of the fire. “Florian, what’s the story?”

He pushed her aside, the hairy knuckles of his hand brushing the wound under her cloak. If the pain hadn’t surged through her body, she would have bitten his jugular out right then and there. Instead she shrank against the town hall’s exterior wall, trying to keep her body from convulsing. Was the tip of the crossbow bolt piercing through her back now? She couldn’t tell.

It was lucky the lout hadn’t been paying attention or he might have noticed she had no ribcage inside her. He didn’t even notice the stab wound he’d bumped. What was so interesting to him, anyway?

Two of the newcomers to the bonfire stood infectiously still in their chain mail. Their stillness spread to the people around them, leaching their cheer and replacing it with concern on their faces. The bonfire was awful to make out facial features by, and the din of the crowd’s chatter made it difficult to hear exactly what the newcomers were saying.

Then Shesheshen saw the half-mask hanging from one of the men’s necks. It was part armor, part breathing apparatus. She’d seen several monster hunters wear that kind of gear when they came after her. This man had modeled this very mask in her lair this morning.

It was Rourke, with a shoulder helping prop up his young partner Malik. The monster hunters had made their way into town. Shesheshen didn’t need to hear what he was muttering to know that the news was about to break.

“Florian!” Laurent yelled near Shesheshen’s side. “Florian, what are they saying? Get your deceptively supple ass over here.”

Three people bellowed in unison, “It’s still alive!” Someone said, “What?”

Another yelled, “The wyrm is alive and walking around! It could be anywhere.”

Perhaps Florian was one of those voices, or one of the many more people who repeated the same news in their own personalized shrieks. Laurent started toward the bonfire. For someone who didn’t believe in her existence, he looked abruptly ashen. His skin almost matched hers.

With as much composure as she had left, Shesheshen scratched at his shoulder and said, “Sounds like gossip about that monster we both know isn’t real. Come on. Don’t you have a house you want to show me?”

Her scratching on his shoulder made him tense up, and he paused. The corner of his mouth suggested a grin. Laurent said, “It’s a loft. You’ll love the bed.”

She asked, “Do you ever eat in bed?”

“You’re from out of town. You won’t believe what I do in bed.”

That was enough to get him walking toward the adjacent alley. Thank his good gods for abandoning him, he was going to lead her home by darkened pathways.

“We thought she was a little girl,” went Rourke’s voice. It was his crackling accent. “Because she hid most of her body.”

“In what?” asked a high-pitched voice. “Horns? Fur? I heard it has quills like a porcupine.”

“It was… it was…”

She recognized that voice and stammer. Without looking to the bonfire, she knew Rourke was processing something. His eyes could’ve cut holes in the back of her head. At his side, Malik was pointing straight to Shesheshen.

All those gossiping, anxious people had been loud since the moment she set foot in town. Why did they have to go quiet at this one moment?

“A red cloak! It’s her! Right there!”

Reflexively she formed a few tentacles from the flesh on her neck to clutch onto her hood, like holding onto it would keep her safe. She despised attention.

Laurent stopped in the middle of the street, and his hand went to her shoulder. “What? You all know the monster’s a hoax. She’s a beauty. This isn’t a beast. Is this the mouth of a beast?”

Shesheshen tried to duck into an alley, but it was too late. The handsy rich man grabbed her hood and yanked, so that it came free in full sight of the murderous locals and their bonfire of effigies. Everybody got a look at the gray tentacles sticking out of her face.

The only solace she had in this night was the sound Laurent made as he soiled himself.

Then it was time to run.

John Wiswell is on tour in support of Someone You Can Build A Nest In throughout the summer. For dates and cities, check his blog page here.

The cover of John Wiswell’s novel Someone You Can Build A Nest In, showing a grinning black shadowy figure in a pointed witch’s hat looming above a small female figure in red light, holding a lantern and surrounded by red tentacles. This version has the title and author’s name.
| Image: Astra Publishing House

Someone You Can Build A Nest In

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Shesheshen has made a mistake fatal to all monsters: she’s fallen in love. Badly hurt, she’s found and nursed back to health by Homily, a warm-hearted human, who has mistaken Shesheshen as a fellow human. Homily is kind and nurturing and would make an excellent co-parent: an ideal place to lay Shesheshen’s eggs so their young could devour Homily from the inside out. But as they grow close, she realizes humans don’t think about love that way.


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