M.A. Carrick (Alyc is on the left, Marie is on the right)

M.A. Carrick (Alyc is on the left, Marie is on the right)

M.A. Carrick is the pseudonym of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, who write THE ROOK AND ROSE trilogy. Both writers are well-known individually, Brennan most recently for the LADY TRENT series, and Helms for her urban fantasy/dragon/superhero MISSY MASTERS books.

Alyc and Marie set aside some time to talk to me about their second book in the series, The Liar’s Knot, upcoming projects, and the naming of fictional dogs.

One commenter with a USA mailing address will get a copy of The Liar’s Knot. 

Marion Deeds: The trivial question first. Era Donaia Traementis has a wolfhound, a noble beast with a formal name nearly as long as his pedigree. Which of you decided the dog’s nickname should be “Meatball,” and why?

Alyc Helms: Ah, some of these things are so hard to recall. I think that was me? Marie handles most of the serious names. I take the ridiculous ones.

Marie Brennan: Both of his names were definitely your work! I know because I remember loving them when I saw you’d put them in the text. “Lex Talionis,” his official name, is a great nod to the fact that the Traementis have a reputation for getting revenge (it means “the law of retaliation”), while “Meatball” is much more fitting for his status as a favored pet.

MD: Marie, you quoted another writer as saying, “Book Two is all about the kissing.” There is kissing in The Liar’s Knot, but more generally, the book spends a lot of time exploring all the relationships. As you were writing it, did anything emerge from that process that surprised you?

MB: Yes, I got that line from Sarah Rees Brennan (no relation). And I take it in exactly the sense you use here: relationships more broadly, rather than just the romantic sort. Book One of any given trilogy sets up the characters and their situation; Book Two is where you get the chance to play with those and deepen their impact.

As for surprises, I think most of them — at least for me — came from the minor characters. I was just chatting with a reader on Twitter who loves Meppe, a guy who was originally nothing more than a walk-on role in one scene, but we got attached to him and worked him back in later. I also wound up being very amused by Rimbon Beldipassi, who only gets mentioned in passing in The Mask of Mirrors.

M.A. Carrick The Liar's KnotAH: I’m still thinking about names from the first question, because Meppe and Beldipassi are both two amazing (but also slightly ridiculous in the best way) names that Marie contributed.

Anyway, the other thing I tend to bring to the table is the ship goggles. It’s not so much that I ship any of the characters canonically or romantically, more that when I’m noodling around in my non-writing time, I’m usually thinking about the characters’ relationships and how to deepen them, enrich them, or make them more fraught and tense if that’s what we’re looking for.

For me, the surprises came with characters (especially some of the secondary ones like Giuna, Tess, and Sedge) speaking out and standing up for themselves in ways that we didn’t plan, but that developed naturally from who they are, what they’ve experienced, and how they’ve grown.

MB: I know the scenes you’re thinking of, and yeah. It’s important to us that this isn’t the kind of series where it’s All About the Protagonists, with everybody else just serving their stories. Our secondary characters have their own agency and agendas, too.

MD: That came through clearly and one of the things I loved about the book. Since you mentioned Giuna, she is the sole surviving biological child of the Traementis house, and in the first book she came across as sheltered and insecure. In The Liar’s Knot, Giuna seems to be coming into her own, standing up to an adversary and fighting for Ren in the best noble tradition — by using gossip. Do you see Giuna as a possible example of a New Generation of Liganti nobles in the city?

AH: Giuna has had an opportunity that a lot of her peers don’t have – to experience *relative* poverty and social ostracism and to feel like an outsider in a place where she might expect to belong. She also has Ren as an influence and a role model during a time when Giuna is coming into her own, so she’s duckling-imprinted a bit for both good and ill. I’d say she’s less an example of a generational shift and more an example of how broadened experiences and empathy can break down social divisions on an interpersonal level. You need an avalanche of those moments to break down the divisions and inequalities on a structural level, and (sadly) Nadežra’s new generation of Liganti is not made up of Giunas.

MB: No generation is going to be homogenous, no. But it does matter who’s going to be leading when the reins of power get passed along, and at the rate she’s going, Giuna might well be one of those people.

Of course, it helps that some of the worst people among her generation are going down in flames, on account of being connected to the plots of the bad guys…

MD: Which is very gratifying! And speaking of young women coming into their own, Arkady Bones is quite the community organizer! Which of you writes her? And can we expect to see more of her in Book Three?

MB: She is all Alyc’s creation! As in, I think I’ve written about three lines of dialogue for her in the entire trilogy. (Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how it feels.) I just don’t quite have that gear in my head, the one that’s so entertainingly vulgar you can’t really do much besides laugh.

AH: I think we share more of her than that, but it’s true that I delve deep into my 12-year-old psyche to come up with some of her most iconic moments. She’s a bit of a balancing act, because she’s a lot of show and bluster, but if you think too deeply about her situation and the situation of the kids she protects, it’s really kind of terrifying and tragic. We touch a bit more on that in Book Three — that for all her power, Arkady is still a street kid trying to stay safe in an adult world — but never to the point where Arkady loses her shine. Because she doesn’t want anyone calling her weak, she doesn’t want to be defined by what she’s not, and she will put a fist in your biscuits if you even think about feeling sorry for her.

The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. CarrickMB: “Fist in the biscuits” is the kind of line Alyc comes up with and I can’t…

MD: Prismatium is clearly a fantasy metal, but did you need research to determine what its properties were and how they functioned?

AH: We didn’t want to get trapped too deeply in science for something that is magically transmuted and serves a more symbolic function than a physical one, but I did spend some time researching alloyed metals and histories of alchemy. I watched way too many videos on creating bismuth crystals at home, and I spent an hour or so quizzing a jewelry booth vendor at FOGcon about anodization processes and how one might go about counterfeiting and detecting counterfeits.

MD: I remember that.

MB: Beyond that, we don’t delve into it much, no. A metallurgist could probably draw conclusions about its, I don’t know, ductility or tensile strength based on how we say it gets used, but I didn’t think about that until I was literally typing this answer. And I’m really just grabbing hold of words I vaguely remember from high school science class, heh.

MD: A subplot in both books so far has been a civil engineering project both Ren and Vargo are working on — to magically cleanse a polluted arm of the Dezera river. Somewhat to my surprise, I have become nearly as invested in this project as I am in the main plot. Will we see more of this plot element in Book Three?

MB: Oh, we know that’s one of the threads that has to pay off before we’re done. It won’t be the central focus of the book, but it definitely shows up at a couple of points. We really like having that element in there, because clean water matters a lot for people’s health, and yet it’s something you don’t often see mentioned in fantasy.

AH: Though one thing we walked back a bit is a deeper dive into what can happen when you don’t have clean water. It wasn’t even so much about sparing our readers a disease outbreak scenario. Given recent events, we didn’t want to put ourselves through that.

MD: Speaking as a reader, thank you for that! If a streaming platform were going to serialize THE ROOK AND ROSE, who would you fan-cast as your principal characters?

AH: There’s a bi-racial Canadian actress named Jessica Parker Kennedy whose photos I’ve used when drawing Ren (especially when she’s in her role from Black Sails, since that’s roughly the period we’re writing in). I could also see Zendaya doing it. She’s got the charisma for it, and she’d rock a Black Rose get-up. I’m struggling to answer this question beyond that because these days I almost exclusively watch C-dramas and K-dramas, and that’s the wrong non-white ethnicity to pull from for Ren, Grey, or Vargo.

However, if we were to cast Chinese actors… I could see Dilraba Dilmurat as Ren (bonus – she’s of Uyghur descent), Zhang Binbin as Vargo (he plays the best bad boys) and Wang Kai as Grey (that jawline. That voice. Guh.)

THE MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENTMB: Given that our ideas about Vraszenians braiding their hair came in large part from the amazing wigs they have in some Chinese fantasy dramas, that wouldn’t be inapt! (The rest of it came from me having long hair that’s usually braided.)

I’ve got some castings in my head, but they all date back to the tabletop RPG that gave rise to the ROOK AND ROSE series, which means they don’t reflect the ethnic division between Vraszenian and Liganti that the story has now. So I don’t tend to share those, because it honestly feels like white-washing our own narrative.

MD: For Book Three, you created a regular newsletter, in which you provided metrics about each section or chapter. What inspired you do to that? How difficult was it to maintain?

MB: It’s a new iteration of something I used to do when I was drafting the ONYX COURT books, starting with Midnight Never Come. At the time I had a number of writer friends who progress-blogged the novels they were working on, and I felt like doing the same. The hook I hung it on was the Player-King’s speech in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead about stories being made of “blood, love, and rhetoric” — which I process as conflicts, characters and their relationships, and ideas and themes — so I rated each update based on which of those three was dominant, and also referenced one bit of “authorial sadism” in that section. These days I’ve added “authorial amusement” and the word count of the draft.

MD: I loved “authorial sadism.”

MB: It’s not terribly difficult to maintain, though by the third book of the trilogy it does become a challenge to say anything meaningful that won’t also be a spoiler.

AH: This one is all Marie, though the progress blogging is something she’s been doing since Book One — mostly for my entertainment.

MB: Not just yours… but yes, that too.

MD: And now for something completely different. Are you two planning to attend any in-person conventions in 2022? If so, which ones? What are your thoughts about in-person conventions going forward?

MISSY MASTERS by Alyc HelmsAH: I’m very much in the ‘wait and see’ mindset. We pulled out of going to World Fantasy in Montreal last year because international travel was too difficult, and at the time we made the decision (mid-August, I think?), conditions were still a little uncertain. We decided it was safe enough to venture to Worldcon in Washington, DC, in December… just in time for the omicron outbreak to hit. It ended up not affecting us personally or having much impact on the convention generally, but we spent most of our non-programming time holed up in our room out of a not-necessarily-excess of caution.

I’ve lost family to Covid, and I know people struggling with long-Covid to the point where they can’t work, so I’m back in the ‘wait and see’ mindset. Both The Mask of Mirrors and The Liar’s Knot are award-eligible this year, but short of the long-shot of getting nominated for something, I don’t know if the risk is worth it.

MB: I was hoping to attend Boskone in person this February (it would have been my first time there!), but unfortunately I’ve had to withdraw from that; I’ll only be doing virtual programming with them. I do hope to get back to in-person conventions, though. There’s a lot to be said for the virtual kind, in terms of being accessible to people for whom the expense or physical strain of travel is a no-go, and some of them have set up their programming to cover a broad swath of time zones for attendees around the world… but in-person cons have an energy and a serendipity that the online experience can’t replicate. So each has its strengths, and it will be great to have both going forward.

MD: I’m sure you each have individual projects you’re working on. What would you like us to know about those?

he Night Parade of 100 Demons: A Legend of the Five Rings Novel MB: Thanks to a collision of publishing schedules, I wound up with three books out in 2021: the first two ROOK AND ROSE books, and then The Night Parade of 100 Demons. I’ve also got an ongoing Patreon, New Worlds, that might be of interest to anybody who really likes the worldbuilding in the ROOK AND ROSE series; it’s all about worldbuilding in speculative fiction, and upper-tier patrons have been getting behind-the-scenes essays on how and why Alyc and I have made the setting decisions we have.

AH: We’ve finished the first draft of Book Three and are in revision-land, so my mind is a fertile prairie of ‘Wooo, free time! What’s next?!’ It’s a question I haven’t answered yet, but there’s a lot of noodling around going on up there.

MD: Thank you for your time, and thank you for creating this delightful series!

Readers, I’d like to direct you to Bar Cart Bookshelf where they’ve created not one, but two specialty cocktails in honor of the books in THE ROOK AND ROSE series: Vraszenian spiced chocolate and The Black Rose.

One commenter with a USA mailing address will get a copy of The Liar’s Knot.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.