Thursday, April 27, 2023

Interview: Kate Elliott, author of Furious Heaven

 Kate Elliott is a science fiction and fantasy author who has been writing novels for over 30 years. With works ranging from the epic fantasy to space opera, she is known for interesting characters, intense worldbuilding, and often, doorstopper length writing. Today, Paul Weimer asks Kate about Furious Heaven, the second novel in her space opera Sun Chronicles, following Unconquerable Sun, which shares all of those virtues and then some.

What's the pitch for Furious Heaven? 

The same as for Unconquerable Sun: Gender swapped Alexander the Great, in space. But much bigger in plot, worlds, theme, consequence, and word count. It reflects the expansion of Alexander’s actual life in ways no one, at the time, could have predicted.  

Furious Heaven, being a sequel to Unconquerable Sun, is a middle book in a series. How has the writing of this been the same, and different than other series that you have done? 

My goal with each of the three books of this trilogy has been, and continues to be, to shape each individual volume as if it is a standalone. Unconquerable Sun completes several of its major plot threads and, I believe, ends at a satisfying point. If I’ve done my job right, the reader will feel they’ve read a complete story and ALSO wish to read more.

Middle volumes are peculiarly hard. It’s important, in my opinion, to avoid “adding more beads onto the string” -- that is, just to add more incident without complicating or expanding on the original elements of the story. A middle volume can add layers, unexpected twists and outcomes; it can deepen the characters and guide the reader into new landscapes and unknown dangers only hinted at in book one. That’s how I worked with (for example) Shadow Gate (Crossroads), Cold Fire (Spiritwalker), and Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives), which are all second volumes in trilogies that make the story bigger and show the reader new places and new conflicts.

With Furious Heaven I specifically wanted to do my best to make the story readable by someone who hadn’t read book one, while also having it build on what had come before. This meant finding a way to open the book as I would if it were my first look into the world, while concurrently reminding the returning reader of the things they recalled or liked about the characters and situation. It’s important to re-introduce the reader regardless, even if the story continues from a cliff hanger, because in many cases there will have been a break since they read the first book. A middle book needs to get the reader’s feet under them as quickly as possible before it charges ahead, but it does need to offer that grounding.

In addition, given the publication gap between book one and book two, and the likely gap coming for book three, I wanted the book to come to a close at a place that would leave the reader feeling they had gotten many things they wanted, and could manage the wait. So no cliffhanger but rather, I suppose, implicit promises about what lies ahead.

The book was challenging to write, very complex, and, in the end, really rewarding.

You have a number of new POVs to go with the ones introduced in Unconquerable Sun. How did you decide on picking them, especially Apama, given their position vis a vis the Republic? Are there POV shifts in other series you've read that have done this well?

Apama first appears in book one. She may seem like a minor character in book one but that’s simply because I needed to spend more time with Sun and her Companions. I always knew Apama’s role would expand in book two, as it does. She’s my absolute favorite gender swapping in the story, although not in the way people may think.

In book one I wanted to keep a tight hold on the number of POVs: Sun (and Hetty) and Persephone as the major POVs with Zizou and Apama as secondary POVs. The story’s focus is on the Republic of Chaonia. Even Apama’s side story, in book one, is focused on the republic for plot-relevant reasons I won’t go into here in case a reader hasn’t read book one and doesn’t want spoilers.

Book two expands the story. Because I knew how big the canvas was going to get, I decided not to limit myself to the original four (five, if you count Hetty, which one should, although one could argue that Sun and Hetty’s POVs are the same--one soul in two bodies). I had to decide how many POVs to add, while also not overwhelming the reader with too many POVs.

In the end I made two choices.

The first choice was to add Makinde as a secondary recurring POV because I needed a viewpoint into locations and battles where I knew Sun couldn’t be. His POV is very structured and deliberate in terms of the choices I made about when and how I used him to reveal information and events. He’s also funny, and of course he is accompanied by Dozer.

The second choice was to create “interludes” that would follow a single POV for a single episode, and then not return to that POV (even if that character might recur in the story). These interludes bridge gaps of time or distances so I don’t have to say “four months passed.” They also allow glimpses into how wide ranging the consequences of Sun’s actions become. When the POV remains tight on a central figure or figures, it can be hard for the reader to see the ripples and the debris. I wanted to bring into view the consequences of the great campaign in the worlds it touches and among the people who live through it, for good and for ill.

Of massive epic stories I’ve read recently enough to recall well, I think both Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty (The Grace of Kings) and Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga (Jade City) do an excellent job with multiple POVs. They mostly follow specific key characters but also deftly drop into the heads of secondary characters exactly when that perspective is needed.

Persephone remains my favorite character outside Sun herself, but it's hard to stare at the Sun long. I felt she bore different narrative weight than in the first novel. How do you use middle novels to develop the meat on the bones of her and other characters? Are there novels you've read that do that particularly well?

Persephone is always following the narrative plan ordained for her, and the reason why her POV, alone of all POVs, is in first person.

Book one really provides a basic introduction to the world(s), the characters, and a sense of the plot. Everything expands in book two, including the character depth --at least that is obviously my intention and hope. I want readers to feel they understand the main and secondary characters even better by the end of book two.

In addition, life experience alters people. Sun and her crew are all young in book one: in their early 20s, what we would call “fresh out of college.” People deepen and mature as they age. In addition, the intense experiences they live through in book two will naturally have an effect on people’s outlook, moods, understanding, and goals. So the book has to represent and reflect that as well. I’m not a fan of stories in which people undergo massively intense and traumatic experiences and seem not to change at all or have any reaction or lingering effects. One of my goals in Furious Heaven was to start showing that slow process as well, often unremarked or ignored, but real.

In the case of Persephone, she only tells us what she wants us to know, so it’s important to read between the lines and look for the things she isn’t telling us.

I’ve recently read the first six books of the Marcus Didius series (Silver Pigs), by Lindsey Davis, about a retired soldier turned private eye in ancient Rome. Davis does a good job of feeding us a bit more about our hero with each book, so with each subsequent volume we get a better sense of him, his relationships with others, his strengths and weaknesses, and an idea of how he will probably approach the various problems he’s confronted with. That kind of slowly expanding character development is, in my opinion, key to retaining reader interest in a long running serial like a mystery series. If you know everything there is to know about the character in book one, and nothing about them ever changes, then plot alone rarely is enough to keep readers engaged. Or at least, it isn’t for me as a reader.

What non fiction books did you read to inspire your world and your characters? 

I have read a lot of history to build the world of Sun and her Companions. Instead of deluging you with a long list, I’ll share six books that have been crucial in influencing how I approached the world(s) and people.

The memoirs and histories of Alexander’s campaign written at the time have survived into the modern day only in fragments. Therefore, the four main classical accounts of the Alexander history date from the Roman era, when they still had access to those now-fragemented and missing histories from Alexander’s time that are now lost to us. I mostly follow Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander because I like it. My edition of choice is The Landmark Arrian edited by James Romm and translated by Pamela Mensch.

Carol Thomas’s Alexander the Great In His World is honestly a fantastic world building tool whether or not a person is writing about Alexander. Thomas situates him by describing various elements of the world he was born into, the landscape, the societies, and the people he knew, and how he fit in with those elements. It’s a great way to understand how any given person emerges from the landscape they live in.

China In Ten Words by novelist Yu Hua (To Live, The Seventh Day, Brothers) is a set of essays about modern China. These astute essays helped me think about how most societies are in a constant back and forth between what they want to say they are and how they are to really live in. 

Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Neptune’s Inferno are both histories by James Hornfischer that examine, in close detail, two specific naval battles in the Pacific Theater during World War 2. To reconstruct the battles he used first hand accounts as well as interviews he himself conducted with (by now elderly) survivors. These two books offer insight into the chaos and terror of battle as well as the courage and determination of those who fought. 

Popular science book Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili gave me a lot of food for thought. Among other things, it influenced how I describe the Riders.

What's your favorite detail, worldbuilding element, or filip that you introduced into this world in Furious Heaven?

There are so many Easter Eggs in this book, and I love them all, especially the obscure ones. For the purposes of this interview I’ll highlight how much fun I had turning commonplace proverbs and sayings that mention everyday animals into commonplace proverbs and sayings that mention dinosaurs in the place of the original animals.

You have a wide range of books written, and you once did a "boy band" comparison of your books. How would you classify Unconquerable Sun and Furious Heaven in that rubric?

You’re referencing this post, the one pinned to top of my (inactive) blog:

Here’s what I said about the Sun books: “This is the show you don’t want to miss!”

Thank you, Kate!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.