Justin Travis Call "...You Need to Give the Reader Opportunities to Pause..."
The writer explains how his novel developed over a period of years after a lifetime love of reading and how, as an author, you balance making demands on a reader while simultaneously taking care of them
To read this day and age, you have a plethora of choices. Truly as readers, we live in the golden age of fantasy. Never before has the world of writing been as accessible and wide-reaching as it is now. With that comes separating the wheat from the chaff for yourself. You need to find what motivates and inspires you as a reader and latch on to that. I love a good quest novel, or a well-written coming of age adult fantasy, a la The Belgarion or The Kingkiller’s Chronicles. The difficulty with this type of story is that a writer needs to have the ability to skirt the line of juvenile themes while not being a juvenile novel. Enter Justin Travis Call’s new book, Master of Sorrows. The first novel of the tetralogy, The Silent Gods. Recently, I talked in-depth about the brilliance of this novel, and how it does exactly what I am looking for as a reader. How it is engaging, robust, heartbreaking, and most importantly presents themes for Annev (the main protagonist) in a way that allows him to grow as a character in a review for Grimdark Magazine. You can find my review here. However, I have an excellent opportunity to interview the author himself.
For the uninitiated, could you tell me a little about Master of Sorrows?
Master of Sorrows is a dark epic fantasy that follows the traditional tropes of the epic fantasy bildungsroman, but which turns most of those tropes on their head. Instead of being about the hero fated to save the world, for example, it is the origin story for the series’ Dark Lord … though you won’t see much darkness in this first book (at least not on behalf of its protagonist). The novel itself follows the story of Annev de Breth, an adolescent attending a secret academy that trains its students to steal magic artifacts. It’s a sort of anti-magic school story (though there is still plenty of magic to be had there), and its students are mostly taught skills in martial arts, thievery, and magical identification. Students who excel at those skills and pass the right tests are allowed to become Avatars of Judgment – warrior-thieves sent on missions on behalf of the Academy. Those that fail their tests must remain in the village and serve as stewards to their betters; they also aren’t allowed to get married, which is particularly irksome for Annev since he’s become infatuated with the headmaster’s only daughter.
The twist, though, is that the academy and the surrounding village are prejudiced against people with magic and people with deformities – and Annev has both, which makes him twice cursed. Hiding those particular qualities while simultaneously excelling at the academy is both paradoxical and improbable … yet Annev endures. How and why, I cannot say without revealing too much of the book, but you’ll see a lot of familiar tropes amidst an unfamiliar setting, including a churlish old wizard, several school competitions, an enchanted forest, magic wands and other artifacts, plus some witches, demons, and shadow assassins mixed in for good measure. If I’ve done my job right, it should feel both classic and modern, nostalgic yet fresh. It also has elements of Grimdark, which has been very popular in recent years, but it borrows those grittier themes without abandoning the hopeful outlook that is often associated with traditional epic fantasy.
One of the great strengths of Master of Sorrows is character development and backstory. Could you tell me how you developed the backstory for Sodar? Is he based at all on a real person?
I knew very early on that I wanted to include the trope of a wise old wizard guiding my protagonist, but putting Sodar and Annev in a village full of people that hate magic presented some interesting challenges. That affected some of his personality and backstory (his preference to be secretive, for example), but much of the rest was shaped around events that I had already plotted for the series, including its history and mythology. Having someone that knew Annev’s family history was essential, as was his proficiency in magic and religion, but I had to strike the right balance between eccentric scholar, ascetic monk, devout priest, loving guardian, stoic warrior, and churlish wizard. Pulling all those pieces together wasn’t that hard in retrospect, but doing it so that he felt both classic and fresh was a little tricky. He’s simultaneously exactly like all the old wizard stereotypes you see in fantasy novels (Belgarath, Gandalf, Allanon, Merlin) … but he’s also different. More flawed in some ways, weaker in terms of magic, too, but he’s got the characteristic spark that makes all wizards seem both dangerous and all-knowing. He’s also a bit mischievous (like Belgarath) but without being overly stern.
“Hiding those particular qualities while simultaneously excelling at the academy is both paradoxical and improbable … yet Annev endures.”
As for whether he is based on a real person, I can’t rightly say except that his banter with Annev is largely reflective of my own banter with both my father and my oldest son. We have a good relationship, but it inevitably slides into a mentor/student conversation once we get going on a topic we feel passionate about – and I tried to instill that same sort of “absent-minded professor” qualities into Sodar’s character.
I have seen Master of Sorrows compared with Name of the Wind, in terms of quality of writing and story creation, which is high praise indeed. Are you a fan of Name of the Wind, and has any of Rothfuss's writing influenced you as a writer?
I still get a thrill every time I see people make that comparison, though it’s difficult for me to justify it at times. Rothfuss uses much more poetic language than I do (I lean more towards the Sanderson school of thought there and just try to convey the story as precisely and clearly as possible without drawing attention to myself as the narrator/author) – but I love Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles and I delight in the comparison nonetheless. I’ve thought about it quite a bit, though, and I think the two biggest reasons people make that comparison is because of our world-building and protagonist’s motives. For both Rothfuss and myself, we’ve spent decades building up the lore and mythology of our worlds, so when we tell our stories you know you’re in the hands of an author who is intimately familiar with the world he’s describing. You feel grounded in ways that other novels can’t achieve because they can only hint at things they don’t know, while Rothfuss and I are hinting at the iceberg beneath the ocean’s surface. We know its depths and we know (most of) its contents, and we’re eager to get that onto the page as fast possible. At the same time, though, we know a good story takes a while to tell well, and we don’t mind spinning a long yarn to get there (especially if the payoff is good). So we’ve both go that slow burn quality going for us. We show the world and the protagonist’s character through interactions with people, places, and events and we try to let the story speak for itself. Some people really love that style of storytelling (I do, which is why I love Name of the Wind), but other readers will find that style too slow for their personal tastes. That’s perfectly fine, but I hope the readers who do appreciate that style find their way to our books because they really are about savoring the epic fantasy experience. Less about the destination and more about the journey.
A good example of all that is Kvothe’s three missions:
(1) his search for the Chandrian,
(2) his quest for Denna, and
(3) his present-day self needing to find some kind of redemption that will restore order to a messed up world.
We don’t get ANY of those things in Books 1 or 2 of the Kingkiller Chronicles … but we get closer to their resolution and Rothfuss lovingly sweeps his reader along toward each of those ultimate goals. As frustrating as that may be to some readers, it’s really an experience you get to savor. Very bittersweet.
My goals with Annev are no different. I’ve told readers from the very beginning that he’s on the path to becoming this world’s Dark Lord, but I’m not going to give them that resolution till the end of the tetralogy (afterwhich, I’ve got two more distinct character arcs planned for Annev). There’s also some supernatural forces that are trying to capture or destroy him, plus the odd prophecy or two about him being both a savior and a destroyer. Throw in a bunch of fantasy tropes that I plan to tease and twist (warring gods and civilizations, wizards and thieves and political intrigue, etc.), and you’ve got a lot of expectations to play with: (1) Annev becomes the Dark Lord, but (2) Annev is probably still the hero of the series (that’s why he’s the protagonist, right?) – and (3) the Silence of the Gods is probably going to end (that’s why the series is called The Silent Gods). Few people understand exactly what that means or what it will entail, but it involves a lot of conflict and a lot of intrigue and Annev is at the center of all of it.
I think there are also three other expectations readers have while reading Master of Sorrows specifically … but since I subvert some of those expectations, I won’t spoil them by naming them here.
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
One thing I was very cognizant of during my first book was getting the beats of my story right so that (a) readers didn’t get too much of an infodump at any one time, and (b) they weren’t breathlessly racing towards the end of the novel without ever getting a chance to pause and reflect on what had just happened. My first draft was not very kind to readers in that respect (the scriptural epigraphs that introduce Parts 1-3 of my book were all served in one fat chapter at the beginning of the book, which made it really hard for casual readers to get to the main story). I broke that up pretty early in the revision process, which made the book much more digestible, but then I tried to apply that same methodology to the action in the book. I wanted things to start off relatively slow (let people become familiar with the world and the main character), but I also wanted there to be some early stakes and some fun action chapters (hence the stealth test in the Academy’s nave, the encounters with Fyn and his fellow bullies, and the multiple chapters covering the action during the Test of Judgment). You can’t just string scenes like that together one after the other, though, so you need to give the reader opportunities to pause and contemplate the wider world and the main character’s motives. That’s especially important when the bulk of the book’s action takes place over the course of three or four days.
“At the same time, though, we know a good story takes a while to tell well, and we don’t mind spinning a long yarn to get there (especially if the payoff is good). So we’ve both go that slow burn quality going for us. We show the world and the protagonist’s character through interactions with people, places, and events and we try to let the story speak for itself.”