Marie Brennan is the author of the LADY TRENT series and before that the ONXY COURT secret history fantasy series. Alyc Helms is best known for the MISSY MASTERS superhero urban fantasy trilogy set largely in San Francisco. These two accomplished writers are long time friends who collaborated on this year’s second world fantasy The Mask of Mirrors. Both writers live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they agreed to give us an interview about their new series, worldbuilding, conventions and fashion.
A personal note, I’ve met Brennan and Helms at a California convention, and as you know, I loved this book. I’m delighted to be able to offer this informative, wide-ranging and fun interview.
One commenter with a USA or Canada mailing address will get a copy of The Mask of Mirrors.
Marion Deeds: You mention in your Afterword that the seed for this series came from a role-playing game. Will you expand on that a little?
Marie Brennan: The challenge will be not expanding on that a lot instead!
Ages ago, Alyc ran a few sessions of an RPG campaign that never really got off the ground. A few years later, I said that what I’d like for my birthday was to play in a game (instead of GMing one). I was thinking of a birthday one-shot . . . but Alyc, being an over-achiever, revived that previous campaign with a mix of old and new players, and that’s still ongoing now.
During the course of this, we started coming up with a side plot for my character that didn’t really involve the other players. We didn’t want to bore them with watching the two of us do our own thing, so we decided to collaboratively write a scene for that side plot. Which turned out to be so much fun that we wrote another one . . . and then some more . . .
. . . and when we saw we’d written something like fifty or sixty thousand words of fiction for the game, we said, “hey, should we write a novel together?”
Originally we were brainstorming ideas for a new project, making lists of tropes we each like and so forth. But after a while, I looked at that list, then looked at what we’d written for the game, then suggested to Alyc that maybe the obvious answer was to file the serial numbers off the game stuff and make a novel out of that. It works well because the core of what we were writing is the interactions between a handful of characters and how their relationships change and grow, so we were able to build a new world and a new plot to house those elements and have it feel properly like its own thing.
MB: The answer to this very much grows out of how the book got started. For those game scenes, everything was in Ren’s point of view (because she’s my PC), and I wrote her thoughts, actions, and dialogue, while Alyc wrote all the NPCs. Of course it wasn’t as clear-cut as that makes it sound, because we divvied up things like environmental description and often wrote short bits for each others’ characters, plus there was lots of coordination over chat about where the scene was going and what the underlying logic for a given action might be.
So when we started writing the novel, it was only natural to use the same approach. Ren is still primarily my character, while Grey and Vargo are Alyc’s, and then the other characters kind of get handed back and forth depending on the scene: if Ren’s talking to Donaia, then Alyc writes Donaia, but if it’s Grey talking to her instead, then Donaia ends up in my hands. Occasionally one of us will write a scene totally on our own, but that’s usually when it’s a single character doing something that doesn’t involve a lot of interaction, so not much chance for back-and-forth repartee. And as we’ve gotten more comfortable with the story, we’re also a lot more willing and able to write across the dividing line — plus we’re constantly tweaking and revising each others’ text. So with the final product, while there are specific bits where we know for sure which one of us wrote it, the novel as a whole is such a mosaic that you really can’t find the seams anymore.
MD: That’s fascinating. This is a follow up but it’s mostly to satisfy my own curiosity; who writes the fashion?
Alyc Helms: We knew clothes were going to be as important as Ren’s ability to lie in making her con believable, especially because Ren’s got a secret weapon — her sister, Tess, who is a brilliant designer and seamstress (and even has a bit of magical ability in the sewing department). So early in the world development phase, Marie and I collaborated on brainstorming the clothing styles by making lists of looks and shapes we like from different eras and cultures, and then refining those down to the silhouettes that form the backbone of fashion for the two main cultures (Liganti and Vraszenian). With that, we could figure out ways that Ren, with Tess’ help, was pushing fashion forward as a way to convince people she was a cosmopolitan foreigner from the fashion center of the world.
I’ve done a bit of costuming for theater and historical re-creation, so I ended up taking those ideas and sketching them out, then patterning them out to make certain they worked on a construction level (and also so I’d know what challenges Tess would run into). I can’t recall the details now, but I know there was at least one design idea around the sleeves that just didn’t work in execution, so I ended up modifying that.
MD: I think I know right where that might have been in the book!
AH: As for the actual descriptions, that usually ends up being me because the visuals are so strong in my mind. I especially have fun describing draping, layering effects, embroidery, and other modifications of the fabric because I think that can have a stronger sensual impact when written out than just describing clothing pieces and colors. The impact of the fashion should be more than just visual. I want readers to feel the pile of the velvet under their fingers, hear the whisper of a lace overlay as it slides past the satin underneath, move with the weight and drape of the skirts of the Rook’s coat as he fights a duel. I want the clothes to feel lived in; I want our readers to want to live in them.
MD: The Liganti magical system, based on astrology, is markedly different from the Vraszenian world view. Did one of you take the lead on the descriptions of the numinatria? How did that process develop?
AH: Because it was central to her character in the game, Marie had already done a lot of work on pattern, our divinatory card system, so I took point on numinatria (and then later developed the astrology out of it). It also made sense for me to do the main work there because Vargo — the PoV character who knows most about numinatria — is in my ‘stable.’
I based numinatria on real-world concepts around magical geometry and numerology. I think it was on a Thursday that Marie loaned me A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe by Michael S. Schneider, and by the end of the weekend, I had a five-page document laying out all the metaphysical meanings and associations of the numena (the numbers 0-10), and the basics for constructing numinata (geometric arrays that channel power for a variety of effects, depending on what numina were used in their creation and where they are placed in relation to each other in the array.
MD: I wondered if sacred, or magical, geometry played a role.
AH: As we got further into drafting, we realized that astrology was becoming important enough that we needed more than a bit of handwaving for that, so I sat down with the refined numinatria doc and the calendar we’d created for the world and worked out an entirely new in-world system for the astrology as well as astrological charts for most of our main characters — or, in Ren’s case, several because she collects birthdays like she collects names.
MD: Marie Brennan, you wrote five books in the MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT series. What kind of adjustment was it to shift to a multi-POV book?
MB: Looking across all my work, I actually seem to have a Thing for writing books with dual protagonists. It’s true of the DOPPELGANGER duology, and the ONYX COURT books (sometimes with a couple of additional minor points of view), and in a slightly unequal fashion of the WILDERS series. But yeah, I spent about five years doing a single-pov approach for the Memoirs, and then the perspectives for Turning Darkness Into Light are weird because of how that book is constructed. It made me rusty! And this is the first time where I’ve really gone in from the start and said, okay, we’re weaving this fabric out of a bunch of strands at once. A lot more calculation went into deciding how often to have each viewpoint, and whether a given scene would work better as seen by Character A or Character B. It’s a lot to juggle!
MD: In the Vraszenian culture, threads, spinning, cutting and weaving play throughout the book as a theme, magically, socially and emotionally. Did you decide on that element going into the story, or did it emerge organically?
MB: I did just use a weaving metaphor a moment ago, heh . . .
The answer is sort of both at once. From the start of the process, we knew that we wanted to have a divinatory card system be central to the worldbuilding and to Ren as a character, so we needed to name that deck. After pondering a lot of possibilities, we settled on “pattern,” because of the association with fate.
About five seconds later, the textile metaphor had, well, woven itself into countless aspects of the setting. It’s all over the place in Vraszenian religion, folklore, clothing, idioms — even the fact that Nadežra is on a delta fits in, because of the sort of braided imagery of the river’s channels. So we decided on one bit of it at the outset, and then the rest was very much organic growth.
MD: The Mask of Mirrors wraps up the immediate problems set out at the beginning in quite a satisfying way. It leaves plenty of unanswered questions and potential risks. Is this series a trilogy? Without too many spoilers, what can we expect coming up?
AH: Because we started with a solid idea of the emotional journey of the story, we planned out from the beginning for this to be a trilogy. We also had a pretty good idea of how and where to end each installment so that it would stand on its own and solve the immediate problem, while revealing deeper issues and building up to a satisfying conclusion when taken together. There are a lot of things that are only hinted at in passing in the first book that won’t get a payoff until the third book. We try not to put too much emphasis on those so as not to frustrate readers or make them think we’re going to answer a question we aren’t ready to answer, but we think it will make for a fun re-reading experience once the whole thing is done. We don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but we have a good idea on a lot of it. We know where we’ve been, and we know where we’re going.
As for what readers can expect, Marie has a quote, “The second book of a trilogy is for kissing.”
MB: Yeah, I got that from Sarah Rees Brennan (Brennans unite!) on Twitter.
MD: Full disclosure, I stole that and used it recently.
AH: For us, this means emotional development and deepening for all kinds of relationships — though… also for romantic relationships! Some secrets come out, some new secrets need to be kept. I think we at least double (possibly triple?) our caper quota from the first book, and we have so many fun moments where people at odds with each other are forced to work together.
We enjoy tormenting our characters, but it’s for their own good in the long run.
MD: Or it’s for our good, at least. If this isn’t a spoiler… Letilia is a character we hear a great deal about. She doesn’t take up that much of the word count, but she is vivid. Will Letilia ever make an appearance in this series?
MD: I thought that was going to be the answer. When can we expect the second book?
AH & MB: November 2021! We don’t know the street date yet, but it’s scheduled for just ten months after the first book.
MD: Alyc, back in the old days when we could meet face to face (2020), you and I ended up at the same booth at FOGCon, with the vendor who made aluminum jewelry. You asked her a lot of questions about aluminum, which I think was for a magical metal that appears in the series. Tell us a little bit about the research you did for this. Actually, that might be a question for both of you.
AH: So… funny you should mention that. It was a bit of exploratory questioning at the time, because it was an idea without a home. Prismatium is the magical metal in the series, and the transmutation is, to quote one of our scholarly pedants from the book, ‘an arcane and lengthy process, one of the great master works of numinatria. It is not something that may be accomplished overnight in a slum.’
Originally I was just interested in the anodization process that vendor was using, but as we spoke, it occurred to me that it could be interesting to have a problem come up with counterfeit prismatium (forged is such a loaded term when you’re talking about faked metal). It’s not an idea that worked for book 1, but it’s something we’re keeping in mind for later in the series.
Honestly, a lot of research works out that way for me. I definitely do dives on topics I need to know for a story (as with numinatria and geometry), but more often, story and plot ideas come from research I did on an entirely unrelated project.
MD: I was delighted by the use of language, and the different linguistic roots of the Vraszrenian language compared to the Liganti. How did you decide on the languages, and what challenges did that present?
MB: Oh, is my brain fiddly about languages. Alyc can vouch for how picky I get over making sure the names feel right — it took ages to settle on “Vraszenian,” for example.
AH: Sometimes names come to us, often we struggle. It took forever to settle on ‘pattern’ for the divinatory card system, but once we decided on that, so much worldbuilding came out of it.
MB: This does stem a bit from the game, because Ren’s various names and pseudonyms are so integral to my sense of the character there was no hope of changing them for the book. She’s Arenza Lenskaya, so we needed a Slavic linguistic style for the locals, and she’s also Renata Viraudax, so we needed something Latin-based, too. As we built out the world, we added Seste Ligante as the Italianate offshoot of Seteris — they’re a bit to Seteris as the U.S. is to Britain, in terms of the latter being seen as the older, more respectable country. That’s why the classical nerds among our readers will recognize that the names of the noble houses, like the Traementis and Indestor, are specifically Latin-styled rather than Italian, even though the nobles themselves are Liganti.
Once that decision was in place, I spent some time working out the exact rules for each language, so that Vraszenian isn’t quite the same as Polish or Czech or whatever, and Liganti draws on some of the dialects and cousin languages of Italian, so that you get names like Sibiliat that wouldn’t sound quite right in Rome.
AH: I’m less finicky, which helps me be the brainstormer. My approach is to spit out a bunch of names that follow the phoneme rules Marie set up and hope one of them sticks for her (or, more often, she fiddles with it until she gets something she likes).
MD: With the pandemic, most if not all of the conventions and SFFH-themed events have migrated online. You have both still been participating. What do you think the future of conventions might be, in our new environment?
AH: I’ve attended a few of the online conventions at this point, and I was particularly impressed by the work done by SFWA for the Nebula Weekend (especially because that was back in May and they had, like, a month to put it together?) and FiyahCon this fall.
MB: Flights of Foundry was another excellent one, and all the more impressive because of how fast they pulled it together this past spring.
AH: While I don’t think virtual cons can provide the social experience of face-to-face cons, I think they can actually be stronger for engagement and attendance for things like panels and programming. In addition, virtual conventions make it possible for people to attend and participate who might not be able to go to in-person cons, whether for economic, accessibility, or other reasons. I think anything that broadens equal access for a wider portion of the community (or even opens up access beyond the usual con-going community) is an excellent thing, and I hope that we see virtual cons continue to be developed as a robust space after in-person events resume.
MD: One thing we like to ask as Fantasy Literature is, “What is your favorite beverage?” The question includes all beverages, non-alcoholic and alcoholic alike. And if one of you says, “Vraszenian chocolate,” I will understand completely.
MB: Guilty as charged! Although I’ve become a tea-drinker more recently, my real vice has always been hot chocolate. That is absolutely an aspect of myself that I drew on for Ren.
AH: The spiced chocolate was born out of my love for Mexican hot chocolate, but Marie is a lightweight when it comes to spicy (in the capsaicin sense of the term) foods, so in order to have it appeal to her, we had to take out the chili. So I’d say put it back in for my favorite form of the drink.
However, my actual favorite is tea. I have a few that I rotate between depending on my mood, but the one I’ve been returning to for going on a decade now is a really smoky lapsang souchong. It tastes like sitting in a camp chair in the early morning of a camping trip and cradling a hot mug in your hands while you drink in the dew-damp ashes of last night’s beach bonfire — in tea form.
MB: We did at one point look at the book and realize how often we’d been slagging on coffee. Then we made ourselves give some sympathetic characters a liking for the stuff, so that readers wouldn’t think we hate coffee-drinkers!
MD: I thoroughly enjoyed The Mask of Mirrors, and I’m looking forward to the subsequent books! Thank you both for your time and your imaginations!