If I've learned anything in my 30-something years on this planet, it's this: the gods mess everything up.
AMONG THE FALLEN is the second book in the Godserfs series from Angry Robot and author N.S. Dolkart, the first being SILENT HALL. This is epic fantasy at its most divine, and N.S. descended from a thunder cloud to speak to me about the new book.
SG - SILENT HALL was your debut novel. Had you written any before that?
NS - Before Silent Hall, I had written a more lighthearted fantasy heist called THE KINGMAKERS, though I'll want to change the title (among other things) if I ever do get it published. The Kingmakers was very fun -- there were assassins and thieves and a knight cursed with the inability to lie, and there was this wonderful land where things operated by fairytale rules instead of high fantasy ones and it screwed everything up. Highly recommended; would write again.
SG - Religion takes a big role in this epic fantasy. What ideas and themes were you hoping to tackle?
NS - There's a theme common to all mediterranean-area religions and to many others besides, which is that godly attention is not something you want. Gods are big and scary and unpredictable, and they can turn on you in the blink of an eye. This is true in ancient Egyptian mythology, it's true in Greek and Roman mythology, and it's true in the Bible too. There's a point in Exodus where God randomly decides to kill Moses without any explanation, and it's his wife who has to save Moses by subjecting their son to a sudden and bizarre circumcision ritual. There's a moment where God threatens to slaughter all the Israelites and make Moses the patriarch of a great nation, and Moses has to talk God down. So a big part of my worldbuilding is re-introducing readers to a world where none of the gods are predictably benevolent. Appeasing gods is a huge part of people's lives, and though it will inevitably become routine for some, behind all the ritual and routine is the primal fear of being punished, harshly, for reasons that nobody can quite be sure of.
Plus there's the issue of having your god potentially lose a battle against some other god, and then you're screwed.
So starting from that premise, there were a few theological questions to answer: if the gods are so powerful and at the same time so frequently in conflict with one another, how come they don't just go slaughtering their enemies' worshippers right and left? I answered that early on with what I called the Fingers in the Mesh analogy, but not every question is so easy to resolve. Take, for example, this age-old question: if gods can grant prophecies and make plans and schemes that go well into the future, how can there be room for human agency? That's not the kind of question you answer, that's the kind of question you explore. I do a lot of exploring.
SG - What can you tell us about the characters?
NS - They're all in some ways archetypal, but none of them stick to the script:
The classic fighter who trained all his life for war turns out to be too emotionally sensitive for that kind of brutality, and struggles to find something better to do with his life.
The guy who's most invested in being The Hero has a legacy of domestic violence to overcome, and that's an ongoing lifelong struggle, not something he can resolve through some big epiphany about how violence is bad. I believe in that kind of struggle. I think any time we try to fundamentally change ourselves, our success is bound to be qualified by little failures (and sometimes big ones) all along the way.
It's a similar story of exertion and failure with my cowardly backstabber -- he has to come to terms with who he is at the same time as he tries to improve himself.
The brainiac who wants to become a wizard has to decide how much she's willing to take advantage of her friends (and her enemies) in order to get what she wants. Her role model / mentor is a bit of a psychopath, so she knows that that rabbit hole goes down pretty freaking deep.
Maybe my favorite character is Bandu, a girl raised by wolves. Her conflicts with civilized society lead to some great moments, and she's my only main character who has complete confidence in both her abilities and her desires. That leads her to occasionally make some pretty poor life choices, but she also has the determination to make it work for herself.
SG - This is the second in the series. Can we expect another?
NS - Book three is set to come out next summer, assuming I write it on time!
SG - Favorite scene in the book you can talk about?
NS - Possibly the scene where one of the main characters thinks he's really excelling at intrigue (and at theology, since everything in this series comes back to theology), but then he's easily outwitted by an elderly woman. It's especially delicious because he's so damn proud of himself until the moment he realizes he's been outmaneuvered.
I think as an author it's so easy to fall into the trap of having your heroes and your villains be the only people with any real agency. So I take great satisfaction in having written side characters who can hold their own.
SG - Angry Robot has a consistent lineup of great titles. What else made you decide to publish with them?
NS - The nanobots they injected into my bloodstream made it very risky to deny their requests. There were some other factors too: 1) They function at a very high professional level, and punch well above their weight. 2) They have a very good reputation, and came highly recommended by my agent. 3) They offered me a 2-book contract with an option for more, and I was very excited to get to write a second book since I was so in love with the setting and characters from Silent Hall. It can be heartbreaking to have to give up on your plans for a sequel (as I had previously discovered), so it was awesome to know that I would be allowed -- nay, required! -- to write a Book Two. And now that option for more has been exercised, so I get to write Book Three!
SG - What's the best writing advice you ever received?
NS - Put more of your background and experience into your writing. I started out very insistent about just writing straight fantasy with no deeper message, and I was pretty good at it, but I've found much more success and satisfaction now that I've embraced the idea of writing fantasy that speaks to who I am. "Write what you know" is way too vague to be useful, but when my college professors said my fiction would be better if it drew more upon my heritage, they weren't wrong.
I'm not sure this is the best advice for all writers, mind you. But it was for me, and I'm glad I eventually got around to taking it!
AMONG THE FALLEN is available now!