anghara (anghara) wrote,

Marie Brennan's fabulous new book is out!

My friend and extraordinary storyteller Marie Brennan is releasing the second in her Onyx Court series of books, "In Ashes Lie", right about... NOW. So you can go out and pick it up for your summer reading. I chatted to her about things just after she came back from a research trip to London (she does SERIOUS research into history for these books!) and here's what she said:

1) "Midnight Never Come" started a series of books about the Onyx
Court - when you wrote that, did you plan on a whole series or did the
whole thing evolve once you finished "Midnight"? How many books do you
think the series might span, now that you've thought about it?

One of the first questions my editor asked was whether Midnight was a
stand-alone novel. My answer was a definitive "yes." The story I set out
to tell in that book ended in that book.

. . . but obviously I've gone on from there. The spark came when someone on
Livejournal asked what a faerie counterpart to Queen Victoria might be like;
my brain jumped sideways from that to the creation of the Underground during
her reign, which gave me an idea for a Victorian-era sequel. It didn't take
long after that to come up with seedlings for seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century books, too. But I haven't made a liar of myself, either;
Midnight *does* stand alone, in terms of plot. So, I hope, will all of the
sequels. You'll get extra enjoyment out of reading them all in order, of
course, as characters and places and situations recur, but the fact that
they all take place a hundred years or so apart means they're almost
completely plot-independent of one another.

There will be at least four volumes, since there are two completed and two
contracted at the moment. I don't know yet whether I'll stop there, or add
two more, one during the Blitz and one in the modern day. I like the idea
of bringing the series up to the present, but first I'd have to think of
actual concepts for those books.

2) History was wide open after "Midnight Never Come" - what drew you
to the world of "In Ashes Lie"? What did you find to be the hardest
thing to write about in "Ashes"?

What drew me to it was a big ol' flaming beacon: the Great Fire of London in
1666. That event was a hell of a spectacle, just waiting to be unleashed.
But four days of London burning down aren't enough for me to base a whole
novel on, and so I backed up to cover a much larger span of time. The book
actually starts in 1639, and cuts back and forth between the English Civil
War and its subsequent complications, and the four days of the Fire.

Which is the answer to your second question. The hardest thing, hands-down,
was the politics of the Civil War and subsequent years (the Commonwealth,
the Protectorate, the Restoration, and so on). The political situation was
nightmarishly complicated, in ways that are really tough to translate into
fiction; we like our narratives to be polished and symmetrical, and that
period was anything but. Wrestling it onto the page was like wrestling a
kraken, and my characters do speak briefly for me when they realize they
don't like *either* side in the fight.

3) In your extensive - and seemingly very organized - research for
these books (I recall two trips you blogged about, perhaps there was
another I don't remember...?) you cover a lot of ground. Was there
ever something in particular (that you can talk about) that fell into
your lap by pure serendipitous accident when you weren't looking?

Constantly! To pick an example from Ashes: I originally visited Ham House
simply because it's a pretty well-preserved example of a seventeenth-century
manor house (though it's been altered some since then). While there,
however, I discovered that Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and lady of
the manor, was a Royalist conspirator who nonetheless maintained a close
friendship (and maybe more) with Oliver Cromwell. She and her house both
ended up in the novel.

The guides I have on my research trips are always providing me with tidbits
I never would have picked up by other means. That's why I've made a trip to
London for every book in the series so far, and plan to come back for the
Victorian one next year.

4) These are deliciously complex books, and they deal with an underlay
of real history. Do you outline closely or does your fictional story
organically wrap around the historical backbone and produce things you
didn't quite expect?

More the latter than the former, though it varies from book to book.
Midnight mostly just takes place in a historical period, and only
occasionally touches on specific and well-known events like the Armada.
Ashes, however, deals much more directly with the upheavals of the time. So
the second book began with something like an outline for the mortal half of
the story, and then I figured out how my characters would interact with
that, and how I could interweave the faerie plot into it all. But there are
always things I don't expect: I am not and never have been the sort of
writer who knows my entire story before I put it on the page.

5) What drew you to this loving in-depth relationship with English
history in the first place? What made you decide to pursue it?

This actually has to do with the role-playing game I ran, which formed the
basis for Midnight, and to a lesser extent the rest of the series. In
brief, I knew the game would cover roughly the period 1350-present day, and
the only two places in the world where I knew that history at all well were
England and Japan. Since none of my players knew much about Japan, England
it was.

Which is hardly the romantic answer readers may have been expecting. But
there *is* romance; any period or place I read about in detail becomes
something of an intellectual love affair. (I'm very polyamorous in my
nonfiction relationships, I must admit.) English history is very accessible
to me and a lot of my readers, since the material's mostly in our native
language and the customs are the ancestors of things we live with today.
That means I can easily get at all the odd little quirks and twists that
take it from "boring dates in a textbook" to my favorite description of
history ever, "a cross between a soap opera and a disaster movie."

6) What do you think the strengths of historical fantasy are? How do
you feel about tweaking actual history a little (or a lot) to fit your

There's a whole range of approaches for historical fantasy, depending on how
much you're tweaking. Naomi Novik, for example, is doing a kind of
alternate history -- what if dragons were real all along? -- whereas these
are more secret history, trying to slip my own narrative into the cracks.
Because of that, my personal tactic is that I try to tweak the actual
history as little as I can; if I know a fact, I don't contradict it (though
I may be contradicting things I never read about). The whole point, in this
series, is to make it feel as if maybe that's really what happened, and you
just never knew.

Either way, the great strength of historical fantasy is that you get to play
the invented off the real. It's like doing a retelling of a fairy tale, or
writing urban fantasy; the tension between what you start with and what you
make up creates a distinct pleasure for the reader (one hopes).

7) What's next for you?

Another Onyx Court book, this one set in the mid-eighteenth century. Think
tricorns, long coats, and the advent of tea-drinking, plus alchemy and
science and Halley's comet.


More about the author:
Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly
pillages her academic fields for material. Her short stories have sold to
more than a dozen venues. More information can be found on her website,

Links: (i.e. website) and (LJ).

Go forth and enjoy. If you like complex and richly folded narratives, real characters who jump off the pages, complicated relationships and dramatic times... Marie Brennan and the Onyx Court are waiting for you.
Tags: guest blog

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