Red Sister – An Interview With Mark Lawrence

red2bsister2bcoverThis is shaping up to be a very strong year for fantasy, with books I am highly anticipating like City of Miracles, Oathbringer, and Tyrant’s Throne coming out. One such book that I have been incredibly impressed with is Mark Lawrence’s debut of a new series, Red Sister. A take on my favorite trope, magic schools, it was a amazing read from start to finish and I can’t wait for the sequel. While I wait patiently for the next book, I got a chance to talk with Lawrence a little bit about his newest work. While he is infuriatingly, and understandably, tight lipped about the second book – he answered a number of my questions about his writing process and Red Sister. Enjoy!

Why nuns? Not that there is anything wrong with nuns, but they were never a fantasy character I thought of much before Red Sister – something that the book has definitely changed about me.

I’m no good with “why?” questions. Because! I guess at some point I decided it would feature a “school” of some sort, then that it would be an all-girls institution. I’ve know people who were taught by nuns at girls’ schools. So nuns.

Something I would love to know more of is what determines if someone is full blooded or not? I initially thought it had to do with being a “pure” blooded hunska or marjal, but that doesn’t seem to be the case as there are people who are multi blooded. Can you elaborate on this?

I tend only to offer what’s in the books in answer to questions. It’s noted in the text that it’s possible to be more than a half-blood in two or more of the races, so clearly it’s not a description of the percentage of whatever blood you carry as >0.5 + >0.5 = >1. It’s simply a description of how much of the power/ability/potential of that race you have. And I guess if it were easy to know what determines that then they wouldn’t need child-takers testing random peasants, they would know from the parents, heritage etc. In our own genetics many regressive traits such as ginger hair will crop up seemingly at random.

What inspired you to make this new world instead of continuing with your Prince of Thorn’s and Fools universe? What made you choose to start something new instead of build out more of that world?

I grow bored. Not easily, but after a while. I very rarely get to the end of any long series I read. I don’t want to write one. It can be commercially sensible to stick to a winning formula, but I don’t have the heart for it. And any series is always an exercise in diminishing returns, if not creatively then in terms of readers. Book 9 will always have fewer readers than book 8.

What have you learned from your previous two trilogies that you applied to Red Sister?

Nothing? With the exception of some basic elements learned long before I wrote any of my published work I’ve never experienced writing as the kind of thing where you learn new skills. When I ice skated I used to go forward, and then I learned to skate backwards and I had a demonstrable new trick. Writing doesn’t feel like that to me. I can’t cite a single writing-thing that I have learned in the last decade.

One area I really felt you stepped up your writing in Red Sister was in the combat. Was there anything you did differently to write, or prepare to write, these sequences?

I never prepare to write. I just write. And no. To me the only difference is that most of the combat described is weaponless, and much of it involves one or more people who can move with extraordinary speed. The physics remains constant and so fights, from the point of view of someone who can move and think much faster than we’re used to seeing, have their own flavour. There are a number of what I call slow-mo descriptions which were fun to write.

Red Sister has a unique take on the emotion of anger. In so many fantasy books, it is always regarded as something that will get you killed. What made you decide to take rage in a different direction in this book?

I don’t think the book has a particular take on it, but certainly Nona is at odds with the idea that fighting is most effective when you are serene and in total control. I guess that just came out of her character. And it’s anger that starts most fights … you’d think it would at least be useful during them.

I know you are a big proponent of Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, (we have it coming up in our workflow thanks to your recommendation). Are there any other books, recent or past, that you would recommend?

I really liked The Girl With All The Gifts, but it hardly needs my patronage with huge sales and a film out. The Vagrant by Peter Newman has a lot of originality and I really liked it. It may break rather too many conventions for some readers, but it’s certainly worth a look.

How do we get you to do a signing tour in the US? Do you have any recommendations for bribes or should we just start mailing you miscellaneous things until you come to NYC?

I don’t travel. It wouldn’t take any bribes, just the opportunity. I was asked to an event in London with Robin Hobb this month. I would have loved to go. But I have a very disabled child to look after and carers are incredibly hard to arrange.

http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/i- dont-travel.html

The Waking Fire – An Interview with Anthony Ryan

25972177The Waking Fire was my number three choice for books in 2016, so it is safe to say I enjoyed it. Thus, when an opportunity to talk to Anthony Ryan about his story and world arose, you can be sure I pounced on it. I got to speak with Anthony about why and how he created this new fantasy classic, and he provided me with some of the best answers of any author I have spoken with. If you are curious about my review for the first installment of his new series you can find it here. If you want to read the additional things Anthony has to say about his creation you can look below:

With both The Waking Fire and City of Blades this year, I am really digging the early 1900’s fantasy feel of The Waking Fire. What made you want to choose this particular setting compared to the more traditional fantasy time period? Or what was your general inspiration for the story?

I knew I wanted to write something about dragons but didn’t want a cod-Medieval setting as it didn’t really fit the themes I wanted to explore, particularly politics and economics. A post-industrialised setting seemed to offer the most opportunities. The 19th century is a period that offers a great deal of story fodder for a writer; competing empires, enormous technological and geo-political change as well as recurrent revolutions and shifting social norms. Making dragons the central component of the economy of such a world enabled me to tick all the boxes I wanted to tick.

How did you balance the different types of stories (spy, adventure, military) between Liz, Clay, and Hilemore so well?

It’s always best to write what you love so I was careful to choose three of my favourite genres when assembling my cast of characters: the spy story for Lizanne, military adventure for Hilemore and the western for Clay. I also made sure the different story types were interconnected so it seemed plausible that all three could play out in this world. The idea of the Blue trance – in which characters can communicate telepathically across huge distances – was key to ensuring the book doesn’t come across as three separate stories in one.

Who was your favorite character to write of the three? Who was the most difficult (and why)?

I didn’t really have a favourite for this one, all the characters have their pluses and minuses. Clay is a thief and occasional murderer but also brave and fiercely loyal to his friends. Lizanne has her selfless moments but she’s also a cold-blooded killer when the need arises. Hilemore is the most admirable of the three, at least on the surface, but he can be a bit of a stuffed shirt and he’s steeped in a military/conservative outlook. On the whole I think Lizanne presented the biggest challenge because she has the biggest emotional journey.

The dragons of your world are varied and interesting beyond simply being “giant fire lizards”. Were you inspired by specific animals or other sources when you were writing the various species of dragons?

There’s a reason why you can’t keep crocodiles or Komodo dragons as pets (unless you’re mad of course). Reptiles have often struck me as one of the purest examples of nature’s indifference, they kill when they’re hungry and display none of the traits humans find so endearing in fellow mammals. Although I was keen to reflect this in conceiving the drakes, presenting them as real world wild animals rather than anything mystical, it would have been boring if they were just mindless killing machines. It also made for another level of interest to the plot if the humans were to discover that there was a great deal more to the animals they had been exploiting for centuries.

Can you give a brief rundown of how you envision the Ironship Trading Syndicate and the Corvantine Empire? Will we be seeing them more fleshed out in the second book?

The template for the Ironship Trading Syndicate came from the British East India Company of the 18th-19th Century which operated its own army and navy in controlling much of the Indian sub-continent. At the height of its powers this company was probably the richest single entity on Earth, outstripping the governments of the day. Therefore it wasn’t too much of an imaginative leap to conceive of a scenario in which companies like this had simply taken over in the wake of a socio-economic upheaval. I conceived the Corvantine Empire as a bulwark against the rise of corporatism. In some ways it’s of a mix of Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia, being both territorially ambitious and decadent to the point where it’s constantly beset by revolt and internal division. We’ll be seeing more of the internal workings of the Syndicate and a lot more of the Corvantine Empire in the second book.

What did you learn from writing your earlier series. The Raven’s Shadow, that you applied to your work on the Draconis Memoria?

My planning and editing processes have become a lot more efficient as a result of writing the Raven’s Shadow books, however, the actual writing itself never seems to get any easier. I think the main lesson I learned is the importance of deadlines – no book ever wrote itself and making sure you deliver on time requires constant and regular effort.

Without giving away spoilers, where does the second book in the Draconis Memoria take us and what are some of the themes?

Revolution is a much more prominent theme in the second book (which is called The Legion of Flame). The characters will be journeying far and wide so we’ll be seeing more of the world beyond the continent of Arradsia, we’ll also learn what the White Drake has in store for humanity and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that it’s not good.

One of my desires from The Waking Fire was to hear more from Hilemore, will he be getting a larger part in book 2?

Hilemore has a prominent role in The Legion of Flame but his overall screen time is about the same as in The Waking Fire. It looks like he’ll have an enlarged role in book 3 though.

Do you think there will be any additional perspectives in the future books, or will you be sticking with our three current leads?

There is one additional point of view character in The Legion of Flame who we’ve met before, but I won’t say who because it’s a massive spoiler. Clay, Lizanne and Hilemore are all back though.

What are you reading in your spare time right now, and do you have any current recommendations of things you have read recently?

I recently finished The Mirror’s Truth, Michael R Fletcher’s sequel to Beyond Redemption which more than lived up to its predecessor – neither are for the faint-hearted though. I also just completed Max Hastings’ The Secret War which is an excellent history of espionage and codebreaking in World War II. Currently, I just started The Judging Eye by R Scott Bakker and Reel History by Alex von Tunzelmann, an often hilarious comparison of Hollywood versus real history.

It is a common refrain of fantasy writers that they “don’t read fantasy”. Is that the case with you, and if not what other fantasy writers would you recommend, personally?

I do still read fantasy but think it’s important to explore other genres as well as reading non-fiction. Fantasy writers I enjoy include the already mentioned Michael R Fletcher and R Scott Bakker, whilst the works of KV Johansen and Django Wexler were a recent happy discovery. I’ll also probably read anything by Mark Lawrence, Robin Hobb, China Mieville and the late great David Gemmell.

The Burning Isle – An Interview With Will Panzo

burning-isle-coverRecently I had the pleasure of reading one of the more interesting debuts this year, The Burning Isle by Will Panzo. In a stroke of luck, I actually got to meet Will (he was lovely in case you were wondering) at New York Comicon. I got the chance to talk with Will about his new book and ask a panoply of questions about the future of the series. I was sad to discover that it was not the first part of a trilogy, but a standalone. Although there will be additional books in the world and with the same characters. If you are interested in The Burning Isle, or have read it and want to find out more, check out our conversation below:

 

How has your time as a Comic book writer influenced your writing of fantasy? What are the key strengths, weaknesses, and differences between the two formats for you?

I was an editor at Marvel comics for a few years. I worked mainly on the X-Men family of books, which was a huge thrill for me as the X-Men were my favorite characters growing up. In terms of direct influence, I always appreciated how fearless and boundary pushing comics could be, particularly mainstream superhero comics in their formative years. Pick up any issue of Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four run and you’ll find a dozen ideas in there, each worthy of their own story. I try to emulate some of that fearlessness in my own writing, but aside from that, comic book writing and prose writing are so fundamentally different it’s hard to compare the two.

The Burning Isle feels like it could be larger than a trilogy by the end. Do you have a set number of books planned out?

The Burning Isle is a standalone story. The book I’m working on now takes place in the same world, but in a different location. Cassius is one of the main characters in the story, but not the only main character/ I’m writing it in such a way that you won’t need to have read The Burning Isle to read this new book, but if you have, they’ll be some deeper layers to the story. If possible, I’d like to continue writing books this way, as standalones that together deepen the lore and scope of this shared world. I don’t have a set number in mind. But I have the rough idea of three to four more stories.

Do you think revenge stories are more difficult that other plot types?

I’ve always loved revenge stories. There’s a part of me that can’t help but root for someone on a quest for revenge, even though I know that quest never ends well. There are certain difficulties inherent in a revenge story though. It can be hard to portray someone as sympathetic when their driven by the need to settle a score. Revenge is a dark quest, and it takes a toll on those who seek it. Fortunately, I like stories with morally ambiguous characters and there feels like a groundswell movement in the fantasy world towards those types of stories right now. So it seems the perfect time to tell this kind of story.

We only spend a brief time with Cassius at the Isle of Twelve. Will we get to learn more about his time at his magical school in future novels?

Absolutely. The masters of the Isle of Twelve are nothing if not cruel. They don’t forgive, they don’t forget. The manner in which Cassius left the school was a great insult to them, an insult they’ll seek to remedy by any means necessary. Cassius knows the masters will stop at nothing to hold him accountable and he’s certain a reckoning is in his future.

Cassius’s rune magic is one of the best parts of the book for me, what was the inspiration for the system?

There were two, sort of, abstract ideas that I wanted to incorporate in the magic of this world. First, I wanted Rune magic to be a relatively recent magic development that borrowed from older traditions, while also greatly upsetting those traditions. Antioch is a kind of fantasy version of ancient Rome. And we know Romans often appropriated and modified aspects of other cultures to suit their own needs. They took the idea of democracy but discarded the parts they didn’t like, added their own ideas and made Roman Republicanism. They took the phalanx, modified it, and made a professional army that conquered half the world. They stole the Greek pantheon and recast them to reflect Roman values. If magic had existed in the ancient world, Rome would have appropriated it and bent it to suit Roman needs. That’s exactly what Antioch has done.

Secondly, I wanted magic to be a commodity. A thing that could be traded and sold. That’s where the gems came from. I liked the idea that if you defeated a spellcaster in battle, you could reach down, pluck his gauntlets off his body and, in an instant, have all of his power at your fingertips. Literally. I really liked the idea that magic was a product instead of something esoteric. It makes it a little more crass, a little more street level, and allows for magic users to be unlike the wizards and sorcerers we’re used to.

One of the strongest things that The Burning Isle has going for it is the complicated and delicate political situation you have designed that is balanced on a sword point? How did you plan out and create this criminal ecosystem?

The novel’s structure borrows from stories where a mysterious stranger arrives in town, finds it controlled by two rival gangs and plays them against one another for fun and profit. We see this in Sergio Leone’s western A Fistful of Dollars and Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. There are other elements to my story though, particularly the revenge angle, which required some more depth to the political structure. And given that this is a novel, instead of a movie, I had some time to elaborate on the world a bit and explain how we came to have an island ruled by rival crime bosses.

In order for criminals to openly steal control of an island like Scipio, there hard to be a power vacuum, because a functioning government isn’t going to let that happen. In asking why government doesn’t function in Scipio, I came up with the idea of a city with no laws, but one purposely designed that way so that the seedier, but still profitable, activities that a lawful society doesn’t want to tolerate could be contained in one place. Once I had that nailed down, I had to figure out how these two particular bosses came to power and what drove a wedge between them. Without spoiling too much, I came to a solution that involved the subjugation of the island’s native population, which also incorporated the Antiochi legion present on the island, as well as laying the groundwork for our revenge tale.

What are your personal favorite fantasy authors and books, and did you draw any inspiration from them for The Burning Isle?

I’m a huge fan of Robert E. Howard, who is most famous for his Conan stories, although he wrote much more than that. I also love Michael Moorcock, Glenn Cook, David Gemmell, Fritz Leiber, George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Richard Morgan. This list can go on and on.

In writing, I think you draw inspiration from everything you’ve read, consciously or unconsciously. It’s probably easier to connect the dots from me to some of those names than it is to others, but they’re all there. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if I hadn’t read each of them.

In addition, what are your favorite comic books?

I think everyone’s favorite comics are the ones they grew up reading. For me that was early nineties Marvel superhero stuff, with the X-men at the top of that list. For me, Wolverine the way Larry Hama and Barry Windsor-Smith wrote him will always be the real Wolverine.

As you get older though, your taste tends to change and you seek out more complex stuff. It’s easier to name creators than it is individual titles, so I’ll just say I really enjoy Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction. Also I’m a little late on this one, but I recently discovered Jonathan Hickman’s work on Fantastic Four and New Avengers and thought it was great. But right now I’m reading his Black Monday Murders and it’s pure genius.

An Interview With The Queen of Blood Author – Sarah Beth Durst

I got the chance to meet Sarah Beth Durst at the Brooklyn Book Festival earlier this year where she was doing a panel with Robert  Jackson Bennett and N. K. Jemisin. After reading her fantastic new YA book (review here), The Queen of Blood, Sarah was kind enough to field some of my many questions about her writing process for the book and the future of the story. The transcript is below, enjoy:

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I loved your decision to both give women something special, and keep men equally important in your story. What was your thought process when handling gender differences?

Creating a world is all about making decisions. You choose the fabric of your society. More than that, you choose the threads that comprise the fabric — the threads that determine the color and strength of the weave. One of the earliest decisions I made for the world of Renthia — one of the threads that I chose — was to make men and women equal. It was a very deliberate choice. I wanted to create a kind of utopia… if you ignore all the bloodthirsty nature spirits who want to kill everyone.

The Queen of Blood focuses on the importance of hard work in a word full of the naturally talented, what influenced you to make your protagonist a hard worker instead of inherently gifted?

I didn’t want to write a Chosen One story. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love Chosen One stories. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy, read Harry Potter at least five times, and am still waiting for Merriman Lyon to show up and tell me I’m one of the Old Ones. But for THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, I wanted to write about the one who isn’t picked to save the world, the one who isn’t qualified to be a hero, the mediocre student who has to work hard to even be on the same playing field as her peers. Daleina lacks the innate skill and talent necessary to be a queen, but she is determined to protect her family and save her world.

I wanted to write a story about someone whose true magic is her determination.

What is your favorite kind of spirit and why?

Overlooking the fact that they would want me dead… I like the air spirits. Daleina flies on the back of one that looks like an oversize ermine with bat wings (think Falcor but more vicious), and I loved writing those scenes. Granted, I would almost certainly be sick if I were flying on one — I can’t even handle roller coasters — but I enjoy imagining it sans the nausea.

I loved seeing tree villages of the protagonists homeland, but will we get the chance to explore the other countries in your world and do they differ significantly in how they live with the spirits?

Yes!  We’ll definitely see some other lands in future books (especially book three).

The relationship between spirits and humans is the same across Renthia: the spirits want to kill the humans, and the humans don’t want to die. But there’s variation in what type of spirit is dominant in each country. Aratay is filled with mostly tree spirits, who have created massive forests of trees the size of skyscrapers. To the north, Semo has a lot of earth spirits so it’s a land with sky-piercingly huge mountains. In the east, Elhim is dominated by enormous glaciers. And so forth. Renthia is a world of extreme natural beauty, thanks to the spirits.

Were there any books you drew from as inspiration when writing The Queen of Blood? In particular when crafting your magical school?

One of the coolest things about writing fantasy is that you can build on all the literature that has come before. You can take the tropes (such as the Chosen One or the magic school) and really play with reader expectation by either using or subverting those traditions. So while I didn’t craft my world based on any other book in particular, I did shape it with the knowledge of Hogwarts and Pern and Narnia and Tortall and Valdemar and other worlds.

I think all books are written in conversation with all other books. So I’d have to say my inspiration was everything I’ve ever read.

Did you intentionally make friendship a key theme of the book and if so why?

Nope. That arose naturally. I knew from the beginning that Daleina (the idealistic student) and Ven (the banished warrior) would have a student-mentor kind of friendship, rather than a romantic relationship, and I knew that Daleina would have classmates, but I never specifically sat down and said, “Let’s write about friendship.” It evolved on its own. I think it’s important to leave enough space in the creative process for that to happen.

Do you read fantasy and Science Fiction yourself and what are some of your favorite books?

It’s pretty much all I read. I know, I know, it would be good for me to read more broadly, but I love fantasy and science fiction so much! As it is, my to-read stack is so tall that if it fell, it could crush a small mammal.

Some of my favorites are Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce, The Belgariad by David Eddings, The Martian by Andy Weir, The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson, and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.

What are you hoping to bring to the book in the sequel? How will it expand on the story so far?

Book two, THE RELUCTANT QUEEN, adds a new point-of-view character, Naelin, a middle-age woman with immense power who doesn’t want to use it because she’s afraid that if she does, she’ll die, and she doesn’t want to leave her children motherless. At their heart, these books are about power: who has it, who wants it, what you do with it, and what it does to you.

An Interview With Joe Zieja, Author Of Mechanical Failure

26850100With the end of 2016 starting to loom overhead, I have turned to all the books I have read this year to start composing my top 10 list (expect it in early November). While reviewing my preliminary candidates, I noticed very few of them were new authors this year. However, I decided to reach out to the author of one of the stand out successes I read this year and see if he would tell me more about what went into his book, Mechanical Failure. The author, Joe Zieja, was kind enough to reply to my questions and give some insight into the humor and futurism of the Epic Failure Trilogy. My original review of Mechanical Failure can be found here, and the interview is below, enjoy!

 

What made you want to go into writing after all this time as a voice actor?

This question is hilarious! I have been writing far longer than I have been a voice actor. In fact, I only discovered voice acting in 2013, after which, for some bizarre reason, I experienced a lot of success and quit my government job. In fact, Mechanical Failure was written before I switched careers. Publishing is just a bit slower than advertising and other media. To be clear, there’s no “instead of” here, for me. I’ll be doing both as long as both industries will let me.

Do you see yourself writing more serious sci-fi, sticking with comedy, or a combination of both in the future?

This is such a tough question. Prior to MF, I wrote mostly serious fantasy. I would love to do so again, now that my writing chops are a bit better and I’m starting to build a reputation. I’m locked in for at least 3 books in the Epic Failure series, and have some spinoffs in my head, but I’ve never been known to do one thing for very long. It’s likely I’ll branch out again, and it’s also likely I’ll cry when people pigeonhole me into humor for the rest of my career.

Does military life really have as many difficulties as Mechanical Failure implies?

The military is literally the largest, most violent bureaucratic organization in the world. It is bizarrely equal parts “FORGET RULES AND JUST FIGHT THE ENEMY” and “I am going to ruin your career because you failed to wear a reflective belt at sunset while walking along the road.” So, yes. The difficulties that come with a military career are unique, strange, and very often revolve around reflective clothing. But that’s not to say that it’s all bad. The goal of MF was not to paint a bad picture of the military as much as it was to lampoon it a bit.

The depiction of what food was like in the military in your novel was eye opening. How much did your own military experience reflect this?

Well in some ways it depends on what you mean here. Is food sometimes strangely gourmet? Yes, though that’s really not much of the case these days. Is food sometimes protein cardboard? Absolutely. I modeled  the Sewer Rats off of MREs, which are absolutely disgusting most of the time and absolutely delicious when you are in survival school.

In Mechanical Failure, the main character suffers under a seemingly incompetent superior. Was this taken from personal experience, or were you tapping into the “I hate my boss” zeitgeist?

I pulled some of those conversations with Admiral Klein directly from conversations I’d had or overheard with general officers in the air force. The conversation about colors of bars in the intelligence briefing? Oh yeah. That happened to me as a lieutenant. Klein was more of an amalgamation of the bad qualities of several leaders than it was a caricature of a specific person, though.

What was the hardest part about writing Mechanical Failure?

Probably reigning in some of the silliness. I tend to get on a roll and suddenly my humor is a little bit more toddler-esque.

Your next book is Communication Failure, how will it differ from Mechanical Failure or will it be more of the same?

Well it is a continuation of Rogers’ (and the Flagship’s) storyline, so you can accept a similar experience for sure, with a vastly expanded cast of characters and “world.”  Rogers will probably try to fix things. It will probably go wrong. It will hopefully be funny.

What are some of your favorite fantasy and sci-fi books? Are there any you drew inspiration from (other than presumably Starship Troopers and Catch-22)?

My favorite spec-fic books really run the gamut from Robin Hobb to Patrick Rothfuss to Brandon Sanderson and Sofia Samatar, to name a few. As far as inspiration, Catch-22 was definitely in there because it was one of my favorite books that I didn’t read until I was in the military. It so firmly reflected some of my thoughts on the military that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. One of the strangest things I get though is that people compare my work to Pratchett. Confession? I’ve never read one of his books.

Which character in Mechanical Failure do you identify with most other than Rogers?

Probably Deet! I mean who doesn’t identify with a obscenity-repressed, walking kitchen-aid droid who is hated by all of his peers?

The Divine Cities – An Interview With Robert J Bennett

Recently I had the pleasure to read the fantastic novel City of Blades by Robert J Bennett. The review can be found here but the short story is that the book managed to surpass expectations and live up to the quality established by the first novel in the trilogy, City of Stairs. In the wake of finishing the book, I managed to corner Robert J Bennett and ask him some questions both about the series as a whole, City of Blades, and the upcoming final book City of Miracles. While City of Miracles is awhile off, our discussion only served to raise my anticipation. Enjoy!

It seemed like just about every character in City of Blade were living examples of different ways people can respond to experiencing trauma. Some of the characters seemed to pick better or worse methods to deal with their pain but no one seemed particularly healthy. Do you have a character who you think handled it best without giving away too many spoilers?

Not really. I think the success of dealing with trauma is one of those things that is tremendously hard to quantify or qualify. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist in any way, nor do I have any background in mental health of any kind, but for the world of THE DIVINE CITIES, trauma is ever-present and undeniable both for the people and the cultures. It’s almost a physical part of the landscape, in some ways.

So I don’t think that, for these stories, there’s any approach you can take that can just make the historical trauma go away, or offset it, or negate it. For these people and these places, this trauma will always be there. I think the hard part is accepting that it is trauma, that it is pain – that the things that happened to them actually happened. These people will always have their pain be a part of them. The question is whether they will allow it to define them. They can grow to be something more than their pain and their scars. But that pain is not going away.

It seems as if technology is continuing to progress at a rather rapid pace both in Saypur and on the Continent. Do you plan to continue with this pace of development in City of Miracles, or do we have a good sense for where the technology of the times is at the end of City of Blades?

Yes. The next book, City of Miracles, takes place 13 years after City of Blades, so quite a bit has changed in that period. The entire series takes place over the course of about twenty years, so to put it in a more familiar context, the characters are going from a culture with the technologies of 1910 and advancing to those of about 1930 or so. This is part of an ongoing theme in the story: the idea of cultures in flux, and how cultures deal with huge shifts in power – which technology, or dead gods, tend to bring about.

Not many fantasy authors choose an older, retired, amputee as their main character. What made you decide to focus on Mulaghesh in City of Blades, and how do we get other authors to see the light?

When I wrote her for the first time in City of Stairs she was just a ton of fun, and when it came time to write the next installment in this world, it seemed inevitable that it’d be her. She, Sigrud, and Shara all form something of a triad in City of Stairs, so we get to follow them throughout the world’s evolution. Mulaghesh was the right character for this one, because while Shara intends to propose change in Stairs, it would be Mulaghesh who would be the executor of that change.

But it was also just an interesting idea for me. The older I get, the less interested I am in youth. I wanted to write someone upper-middle aged – the period at which a person tends to have the most influence – and look at someone with a lot of experiences and a lot of regrets, someone who’d believed things and had those beliefs get challenged and was still trying to figure it all out. It’s something of a John le Carre trope – the melancholy romanticism of the aging field operative. Old enough to have learned a sort of desperate compassion, but not quite so old that it’s been ground out of them. Except he usually writes about men, not women.

What was your inspiration for the books, or more specifically what inspired you to write a tale about the aftermath of oppressor’s becoming the oppressed by their former colonies, and the guilt that comes from both sides?

I was vacuuming at the house one day – I tend to have my best ideas when cleaning house – and Prisoner of Zenda was on the TV on TCM. It’s a fun adventure tale about a British man who goes on vacation to the fictional European country of Ruritania, where he happens to have a strong resemblance to the king, and hijinks ensue. Anyway, I was vacuuming, and I thought, “I bet it’d be very difficult to be an ambassador to a balkanized, fractured place like that, where every region has their own rules” – and that made me think.

So I thought, “Okay. So we have an ambassador to this country – Eastern European, maybe, very male, very macho, very stark, very dour, lots of furs and horns on the walls and so on. What sort of ambassador would most clash with them? Who would be the most out of place, as an ambassador?” And I just thought, “Well, naturally, a highly educated, Southeast Asian woman.” And I don’t really know why, but that just seemed to work.

But then I thought, “Okay. So. These fictional nations. They don’t like this ambassador. They can’t like her, of course, because that’s boring. But they can’t just dislike her because of who or what she is. What greater reason can there be?”

And the answer came back, right away, “Because her country killed all their gods.”

And that was that.

You touch on a wide variety of topics on twitter. I’ve noticed over time that these occasionally find their way into your books. Are there any topics you are yet to explore in depth that you’d like to?

Almost all of the wonkish things that I really want to talk about in conversation are naturally the things that get cut in my books. I touch on it very occasionally, but only when it’s plot-relevant, which, to be frank, it rarely is. I’d love to describe in detail how an at-large electoral system can lead to wild inequality, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t produce any cinematic explosions.

We’ve heard so much about Saypur through characters reminiscing, but have seen very little of it so far. Will we get a chance to see Saypur “in person” so to speak?

Yep. In City of Miracles, Sigrud gets to swing by Ghaladesh, as well as Shara’s ancestral estate. It does not go well.

Your original creatures are incredible and a highlight for me in your novels. Is there anything that influences their creation or do you just pull them from thin air?

I just make ’em up. Usually I try to make it so that their nature or behavior is thematically appropriate – the appearance of the sentinels, for example, accentuates that their entire being is now devoted to hostility.

When writing The Divine Cities series, did you plan out the entire story at the start or have you been writing them as they come? You have mentioned that this is the last book in the trilogy, but is it the last book in the world? Do you know what you are doing next yet?

It’s probably the last book in the world, for the foreseeable future. Most of this has been unplanned. Blades and Miracles were planned side by side much closer than either was to Stairs. I sort of think of it as having one child, then waiting about five years or so, and then having twins. They are all related, but two of them are much more entangled.

At the same time, though, Miracles is proving to really be more in conversation with the first two books than I’d anticipated. A lot of minor characters from Stairs become major characters in this one.

What other fantasy writers, if any. have been influential on your work? What are some of your favorite fantasy novels?

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was the book that most influenced Stairs: this idea of a lost era, wherein the impossible was possible, only no one really understands how it worked anymore – that was a real influence on me. Beyond that, I have a few fantasy novels that I’ve loved as a young person, but when I revisit them, I’ve found them somewhat wanting. I’d rather leave my good memories intact rather than spoil them.

The concept of personal choice and responsibility comes up time and time again in your novels. Along those lines, if you could have one superpower what would it be?

I bet I could get a lot of crucial legislation passed if I had mind control powers, or something similar to what Kilgrave had in Jessica Jones. Only instead of, like, raping women, I would use it to get a carbon tax.

The Greatcoats – An Interview With Sebastien de Castell

I had the privilege to trap one of fantasy’s most underrated authors, Sebastien de Castell, in a conversation the other day. In it he revealed some interesting tid bits on both his Greatcoats series as well as his new upcoming novel, Spellslinger. For those of you who have read the novels, hopefully this gives you some more insight into the series. For those of you that have not, I hope it inspires you to pick it up. My reviews for the first three books in the series can be found here and here.

You have talked about your inspiration here for The Greatcoats, but I have not seen you mention The Three Musketeers despite many parallels. Did this classic tale provide inspiration for the story?

I think you might just be the first reviewer to notice my avoidance of mentioning The Three Musketeers when asked about inspirations—well spotted!

While the Greatcoats books deal with some of the same themes as Dumas—about friendship and honour and daring—my own writing style is very different, and in fact much more influenced by Noir writers and some of the New Wave sci-fi and fantasy writers like Roger Zelazny than by Dumas or Cervantes.

More importantly, though the Greatcoats series is set in a late-Renaissance fantasy world, like most writers, my stories are ultimately about my time and the issues I see around me rather than about harkening back to some earlier era. I suspect that was just as true for Dumas, writing in the early nineteen hundreds.

On a related note, what are some of your favorite fantasy novels?

The truth is, I don’t read that much fantasy anymore. For some reason it interferes with my writing process. One of my excuses for this is that I think that it’s good for fantasy authors to read outside the genre and bring some of that to fantasy fans to both keep things fresh and grow the field. But it’s equally true that I’m simply too analytical when reading fantasy these days and it interferes with my enjoyment.

That said, I could pretty much always pick up a Robin Hobb book and enjoy it, and the same is true of Steven Brust. For fans of Dumas, by the way, Brust’s Khaavren Romances (the first of which is The Phoenix Guards) are a very well-regarded and genuine tribute to Dumas’ Three Musketeers.

With your three protagonists, Falcio, Brasti, and Kest, it seems like it would have been tempting to go with multiple points of view as opposed to just the one following Falcio. Why did you decide to go with just the one?

I tend to write in first-person because, for me, it feels closest to the heart of the character, and with the Greatcoats, the drama comes not just from the swashbuckling but from knowing exactly what Falcio’s thinking and feeling at the time. I had originally thought of writing a trilogy in which each of the books was told from the perspective of one of the three characters, but I think that would have felt jarring for the reader. Falcio isn’t just the main character—he’s our eyes and ears into the world and his perspective is what gives continuity to the twisting, shifting events of the story.

One of my favorite things about The Greatcoat series is that the greatcoats are never really the strongest, smartest, fastest people in the room. Instead they focus on the law and doing what’s right and it gives them an angle that feels fresh at least to me. Was this intentional or just a side effect of making them traveling lawmen?

The Greatcoats is very much a swashbuckling adventure series—an expression of my own love of that style and sensibility. But the problem with “swashbuckling” (which I define as trying to solve a problem with daring and style) is that it tends to give us unbeatable characters. When those characters lose, the reason is usually pretty weak (I mean, why did character X suddenly lose that fight when we’ve seen him win twenty other ones against bigger odds?) This is why it’s so hard to keep a swashbuckling adventure series fresh. With the Greatcoats, I needed there to be weaknesses in the characters that even they tended not to see—but which the reader could—so that when they do lose, it’s for believable reasons.

The other reason for the way the characters behave is that, for me, anyway, heroism has to have some fundamental purpose. If it’s just about “beating the bad guy” then it’s not heroism at all—it’s just fighting enemies. So one of the issues that perennially troubles Falcio, Kest, and Brasti is why are they getting into this fight, and will it do any good even if they win? In fact, a good deal of Saint’s Blood involves Falcio being challenged on that very question.

I saw that you announced your plans for Spellslinger, a YA fantasy novel about an aspiring new mage. Do you have any plans for other adult fantasy series outside The Greatcoats universe?

That’s a great question—one I wish I could answer.

I have a file on my computer that currently contains 44 different novel and series concepts. Some of them have sample scenes, some are outlines, and some are just vague descriptions of an idea. Some of the ideas are fantasy series, some are mystery, a couple of sci-fi, horror, one historical romance (in my defence, I only came up with it because one of the early test covers for Traitor’s Blade looked like a romance novel), and a few straight literary.

Right now, my focus is on making the Greatcoats into the best possible series it can be—something I’ll want to re-read twenty years from now. I want the same for Spellslinger, which has the added challenge that it’s intended to reach both a YA and adult audience. There’s also discussions going on about what happens next in the world of the Greatcoats. So, when I think about all that, it’s hard for me to internally commit to a whole new fantasy series. I don’t want to write repeats of my previous work, so it might be important that I write a few things outside the genre in order to keep my own brain stretching.

Your writing is some of the best humor I have ever read. Does this have to do with your natural author’s voice, or is it something you pushed for in The Greatcoats? For example, will your new series Spellslinger have a similar humorous element and tone?

Part of it just comes from my family background where saying something clever and witty was akin to a competitive sport around the dinner table. But with the Greatcoats the humour is something integral to the main characters—it’s how they deal with the horror around them and the chance that this time one of them could die.

Spellslinger has some of that humour but not in quite the same way. Kellen is sixteen, he’s not as experienced and he’s not as sure of himself. In some ways it’s more fun for me because the humour is more spontaneous and unexpected.

You announced that the 4th Greatcoat novel, Tyrant’s Throne, will be the final about these characters. Yet, as I have read through Saint’s Blood I can’t help but feel the story is getting bigger and more interesting with each book. Would you consider making more novels with these characters or is Tyrant’s Throne the definitive end?

There are discussions…stay tuned.

Falcio’s title is The King’s Heart, what would yours be?

Alas, my friend, that is a secret that goes with me to the grave.

Ruin And Writing – An Interview With John Gwynne

511cb7dyv2bl-_sx324_bo1204203200_It is an unfortunate fact of life that there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything. Due to this, every time a reader makes a ‘best of’ list there are invariably going to be some gems that slipped through the cracks simply due to time constraints. This year, Ruin falls into that category. Ruin is the 3rd installment of The Faithful and The Fallen, a quartet by the author John Gwynne. For those unfamiliar, the series is an alternate take on the ‘hero’s journey’ trope. John uses his fast paced writing style and massive cast to create an original and thrilling epic that makes something new out of a tried-and-true story. The Faithful and the Fallen is considered by many fans, myself included, to be an underrated gem. Thus, it is with immense pleasure that I had the opportunity recently to speak with John about his writing style and his future plans. Enjoy!

 

  • One of the best things about The Faithful and The Fallen, to me, is your deconstruction of the “farm boy with a destiny” fantasy trope. I love how you have taken it apart and were able to breathe new life into the story. What was your inspiration to create the new take on this plotline?

 

I’m really pleased that you’re enjoying Corban’s journey. There is something in his story that is very nostalgic, a harkening back to classic fantasy. I grew up on epic fantasy. I clearly remember my teacher gathering up the class and reading from ‘The Book of Three,’ book one of The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. I was 7 or 8 years old, and I loved it. After that it was a slippery slope of Hobbits and dragons, magic rings and giant spiders, minotaurs and Holy Grails and swords in stones…

I loved the hero’s journey. When I began writing ‘Malice’ I wanted to try and capture some of that nostalgia, but I also wanted to merge it with more modern sensibilities where there is a lot of grey in between the black and white. So I tried to write a character that could potentially become a hero, but through his own choices, his own internal struggles and code, his own sense of family and friendship and what courage and cowardice meant to him, rather than some pre-ordained ‘royal blood’ type of predestination. It’s a story where choices matter.

  1. The cast of The Faithful and The Fallen is gigantic. I am extremely grateful to you for your character keys at the start of the books, as it really helped me to remember who everyone is and where they left off. Why did you decide to go with such a large set of characters instead of focusing on a smaller cast?

 

I wanted to write something that felt epic, where the fate of the world was at stake, not just a case of border disputes and who gets to be be king or queen. So the Faithful and the Fallen has different levels, ranging from personal disputes as small as bullying right up through border rivalries to a conflict that threatens all human life. I tried to choose POV characters that would best be able to tell the different threads of the story, which just seemed to keep growing for a while, and as many of these POV characters were situated in different realms the world around them kept on growing and filling out. There did come a point where I thought ‘whoa, this is too big!’ so I trimmed it back, removed whole realms, kings and queens, merged some characters and trimmed sub-plots.

Now it doesn’t feel that big to me, but I think that is probably because it’s my baby, a world in my head!

 

  1. I really enjoyed your shorter chapters and punchy narration while reading the series. I have seen some criticism of the books, namely that some readers feel as though they do not get enough time with each character. I personally felt it made the story move more quickly and raised the excitement. Was this writing style intentional for the story, or something that sort of just happened?

 

That’s really a case of my own style evolving, and becomes more apparent as you move through the series. When I was writing I was aware that with a large cast the pacing can feel slow, so I made an effort in each chapter just to tell the story, tell the event, let the character do what they needed to do, then move on to the next character POV. I think this has managed to keep the story and pace moving, but it can sometimes feel like POV chapters come and go too quickly, and if you add to that a large cast then there is a risk of the reader forgetting threads. I suppose it’s down to the reader’s preference. Writing’s one big juggling act! Plot, pace, character, world-building, keeping them all moving forward. I do prefer to write in shorter chapters, and without even realising it I will start to feel a bit twitchy if a chapter is dragging on. I’m glad you like it.

 

  1. I am very excited for (I believe) the conclusion to The Faithful and The Fallen next year with Wrath, your 4th installment in the series. Do you currently have any plans to do more in The Faithful and The Fallen universe, or do you have plans for any new series in the future?

 

‘Wrath’ is the final installment in the series. I finished writing it in November 2015. It is with my editor now and is due for publication towards the end of 2016. Finishing it was a very bittersweet experience; wonderful to be writing scenes that I’ve imagined for so long, wonderful to see the end of story arcs that have been in my head for many years, and also wonderful to see a villain or two finally get their comeuppance! But it was also sad, saying goodbye to characters and story.

I am writing something else, though. It’s a trilogy, set in the same world, the Banished Lands, but around a hundred years or so after the events of Wrath. I don’t want to say too much as I wouldn’t want to give away events from ‘Wrath.’ I’ll just say that the central character is a winged berserker named Rae, and that there will be warrior-angels, nomadic, bow-wielding tribesmen, giants, monsters running amok, and demonic serial-killers. Oh, and of course, plenty of betrayal. Book 1 is due for publication in 2017. The working title of the series is ‘Of Blood and Bone.’

Thank you again, John, for taking the time to talk with me. I have marked my release calendar for 2017 and greatly look forward to reading Of Blood and Bone. In the meantime, Ruin is here to tide fans over as a very solid continuation of a series that was already quite good. For those of you who have been waiting to pick up your copy of Ruin, I suggest you stop waiting. In addition, if you haven’t read The Faithful and The Fallen and are looking for a new take on the hero’s journey, I highly recommend you pick up book one, Malice, and give it a read.

Rating: Ruin by John Gwynne – 8.5/10

Maps: A Discussion with Brian Staveley

The Map for The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Written by Brian Staveley. Drawn by Isaac Stewart.

Maps – They are one of the most basic elements of fantasy books and something almost everyone enjoys. I had the extremely good fortune to chat with the incredibly talented Brian Staveley, author of The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire, about what he thinks maps add to fantasy books. We discussed two questions:

  1. What is the goal of a map in fantasy?
  2. Do maps make a promise that the author should do their best to keep?

To begin, I want to take a moment to acknowledge both Brian Staveley and Isaac Stewart’s work on the map in The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. The map’s level of detail, variety of terrain and accuracy of scale are all impressive and effectively brought this fantasy world to life. When I asked Staveley if his map was something he put a lot of work into, or if he was just a naturally gifted cartographer, he replied:

“I’m a fool for maps. I refused to use the GPS — I have a road atlas instead. Whenever I go somewhere new, I need to look at the map. My sport of choice over the last decade or so has been adventure racing — which involves finding your way from place to place using a map and compass. Given all that, I was pretty invested in the map-making for my own world, and I spent a lot of time as I write actually using that map. I’m constantly calculating things like ship speed and Kettral speed and horse speed over all different sorts of terrain in all different conditions. If the events of the book don’t fit the map, you’re breaking the promise you made to the reader.”

But why is a map so important to get right? In my opinion, it feels like a map’s purpose is first and foremost to anchor the reader’s immersion in the new world. It is the key to understanding locations and quickly grasping fundamentals in a book such as going east is harder than going west. It allows the reader to see for themselves that there is a river to be forded and helps get into the mind of characters. A map is also important because it makes topography permanent. When there is not a map, authors have a lot more liberty with locations because terrains can be changed and altered. However, when you have a map, suddenly landscapes become permanent and cannot change to make journeys easier to write. A map makes a world more real and less able to bend to the writer’s whim.

Turning to Staveley’s point of view on the primary purpose of a map, he commented:

“I think a map does a few important things. The first is the most prosaic: a map makes things easier on both the reader and the writer. The old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words seems to dramatically underestimate the worth of maps. I’d put a good map somewhere around ten thousand words. Any book worth its salt can stand without the map, but the map allows a writer to convey a wealth of information very efficiently. More, it puts most of the geographical information in the same place. Instead of asking the reader to stitch together two dozen passages scattered throughout the novel in order to get an accurate sense of the world, the map puts all that information in the same place.

So that’s what a map does literally. Metaphorically, however, the map is a promise to the reader. It’s no coincidence that almost all fantasy maps come at the start, before the text itself, rather than in an appendix or afterword. The fantasy map promises that the book contains a new world (or an interesting version of a familiar world), one that is rich, varied, and fully imagined, and that the world will be explored over the course of the story to follow.”

But, then I ask, does a map promise more than just new world? I would argue that some authors are too aggressive in their scope and map out entire worlds that they have no intention of exploring in their novels. In some cases, I believe that it can leave the reader frustrated and unfulfilled to see large areas of land that are never mentioned and never explained, doomed to fade into descriptions like “that area to the north that we know nothing about.” Should authors feel obligated to shine light on every corner of their map? When I asked Staveley his thoughts on the matter he said:

“In making my map, I wanted to create a world with enough scope to tell this story, and other stories to follow. While we won’t explore the whole thing during the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, we’ll get a good look at almost all this terrain in the next five years or so. I could have waited until I got to those stories to expand the map (and, indeed, I’ve left room for expansion to the south and east, and over the pole), but I wanted even the small references I make in this trilogy (to places like Freeport, for instance) to fit with other tales to come, tales that might actually be set in Freeport. That meant I had to imagine this entire section of the world in one go.”

I think Staveley makes an excellent argument for large sweeping maps with unexplored land. I think he also shows there is a difference between leaving white space for future books and making an overly large map simply to shock and awe. Does that mean that authors cannot expand maps? Of course not. Series like Blood Song by Anthony Ryan and Half a King by Joe Abercrombie do a great job expanding their maps as their stories progress, and it works incredibly well for them. However, there is something to be said for an author who shows you their entire atlas at the beginning of their story and gets you excited about every single river, valley, mountain range and kingdom you are going to explore and visit. Regardless, maps are important. As an author, you should give a map the time and attention it needs to be a visual representation of your novel. As a reader, you should pay attention to these beautiful works of art because a good map will make you appreciate every mile on a road.

P.S. I want to give special credit to any author who takes the time to provide mini-maps of cities. Huge sweeping maps of the world are less useful if a novel spends 90% of its time confined behind some walls.