Calidus Varin, a member of an ancient order of elven demon hunters, has lived in the shadow of his master, Tullius the Black, for the better part of a century. Varin coasts on their combined fame, earning a reputation for recklessness, a taste for wine and women, and an irresistible inclination for boasting about his precious few exploits.
When a routine hunt on the city’s outskirts demands the execution of an innocent child, Varin is forced to reconsider his master’s teachings (and sanity). By delaying the execution and investigating a subsequent rash of inexplicable demon infestations, Varin stumbles upon an apocalyptic conspiracy that leads straight to his temple’s doorstep. Everyone he knows becomes suspect. His life—and the lives of his friends—are thrust into mortal peril.
Faced with the sudden arrival of a cunning Imperial magus, Varin enlists the aid of his closest friends: a wizard, a forest spirit, a skilled huntress, and a goddess. He also might have made an alliance with the creatures he’s sworn to dispatch. As the city threatens to sink into the abyss, Varin must fight to protect the city he loves—or die trying.
In preparation for its release back in 2015, my significant other presented with me a series of questions about the work. A little awkward, right? If you’d like insight into the process of writing Blood and Masks, or to get an idea of its themes and content, you can find all of it below. As a fun note, the book’s cover art is pulled straight from a scene in the book. As in, that’s a piece of art that is a part of the narrative. If you want to know what’s up with it, buy my book!
Where did you get the idea for Blood and Masks? When did you start writing the project? Were there earlier incarnations?
It’s difficult to nail down where I got the idea. This will be my first published work of fiction, so it’s the final product of a long string of ideas extending all the way back to when I first became interested in writing at all. I’ve wanted to write fantasy for years. Little by little, I came to understand what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, what I thought was cool and what wasn’t, and I built up the kind of world I wanted to see in the fantasy genre. In that long process, I found the thing that most grabbed me, and I ran with it.
I think I wrote the first words that would become Blood and Masks and by extension the Neva Cora series around five years ago. None of those words exist anymore. They were not good words and you wouldn’t want to see them. Writing this story turned into a learning experience for me and I spent most of that five years just reaching the point where I felt comfortable in my process and comfortable with my ability to write a narrative someone might actually want to read. Given I started in my early 20s, my process back then was all pop and fire and not much lasting substance. While that’s a lot of fun, it doesn’t make a good story. I finally finished the writing process a little over a year ago, eventually reaching the point it went into revisions and editing with my awesome editor, Jennifer Anderson.
Elves are awesome. Duh.
In all seriousness, the appeal of using fictional fantasy races is, to me, the ability to explore the human condition but different. Humans do not live for centuries or millennia. Well, what if they did? How does that change their perspective? At what point does age cease to matter? How does it change the way they view death? What can a dedicated person accomplish in that much time? Do they get bored of it all? How much power and influence could someone accumulate in a millennia if they set their mind to it?
I think we can all say we aren’t the same person we were ten or twenty years ago. Ten or twenty years from now, we could probably say the same thing about our present selves. If we lived for centuries, would there come a point where our identities are wholly unrecognizable from who we used to be? What is that point? How does that change their relationships? A lot of people in the real world have a hard time shedding guilt from past mistakes. What happens when you need to live with that for hundreds of years?
Exploring what it is to be elven is exciting to me. In some ways, they would be very human. In others, they wouldn’t be human at all. It’s all about perspective. An elf wouldn’t find their existence unusual or incredible. Humans would.
The Neva Cora setting seems to have a lot of Roman inspiration. Why?
My reasons are twofold. One, I’ve felt that many fantasy authors pull from real world ancient/classical cultures for elves anyway. I’m just a little more straightforward about it. Certainly, they don’t live in a carbon copy of Rome, but the inspiration is hard to miss. I actually pull from Mediterranean cultures in general, but the Roman influence is strongest in the city of Neva Cora itself.
The other reason is the Roman inspiration fit my goals. The genre of Urban Fantasy is typically reserved for stories set in the modern day – but Blood and Masks possesses many aspects of that genre. Portions of the city of Rome were densely urban with city features we often believe are newly modern. No, Rome didn’t have modern skyscrapers, but they had apartment buildings. They had sewer systems. They had public services and a form of social services. Those things aren’t necessarily unique to Rome in that period of history, but it’s something often forgotten about their civilization. I find that amazing. I’m using that setting, that inspiration and aesthetic, to try telling the equivalent of a modern urban fantasy story in an ancient, fantastical place.
The history of Rome as an entity is also ripe for politics beyond Kings, Queens, and rights of inheritance (not that I don’t enjoy those stories). Rome has been a village, a kingdom, a republic, an empire, a splintered empire, and an empire that moved its base to Byzantium which later became Constantinople only to finally be conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Depending on how you want to split hairs, or if you want to be clever just for the sake of it, it could be said the Roman Empire didn’t truly fall until the early 1900s. My point being: Rome is a part of history (among many) not often explored in fantasy despite being ripe for all sorts of stories.
Your protagonist is a demon hunter. What makes that compelling?
Demon hunters, known as minari to the elves, are an order of warriors that have existed as long as anyone can remember. In the world in which Neva Cora exists, “demon” is a catch-all term for creatures, monsters, and other beings that dwell in the plane where they had been banished by the gods a very, very long time ago. Demons are bastards and like escaping their prison. Sometimes they have mortal help. Sometimes they don’t. The minari stand against them. They’re wardens, hunters, judges, and executioners all in one package. They span all cultures, all continents, all nations. Minari are the world’s apex predators. Their only governing body is themselves. No one joins the order without being hand-chosen and trained by a master who has, himself, gone through that process. You need to prove yourself as having some exceptional value before you even get a shot at it. And once you’re in, there’s no way out but to die.
What I feel makes the minari compelling is exploring what type of person would sign up for a job like that and why. How does someone become a member of this order? Who signs up to die? Do they stand on duty or honor or is it something else completely? The minari order is one of ancient legend and stellar reputation, but its members are still individuals, each with their own reasons for doing what they do. It’s a heroic calling, but can be grim, hard work. That’s part of what we look at with Varin. He isn’t always on top of his game. His master is highly critical of him and for good reason. If he’s kind of a screwup, what makes him exceptional? Did he deserve his place in this order? What makes him tick? And, as the author, it’s a lot of fun throwing big, nasty monsters at Varin and his friends to see what they do about it.
Your protagonist, Varin, is an interesting man surrounded by equally interesting women. Why?
For one, I’ve just always enjoyed writing women. I’d go as far as to say I prefer it and I always have. Even when I was younger, I found myself gravitating to stories about cool ladies. It’s a pleasure to write them. The setting for the Neva Cora series has both men and women in a variety of roles and positions and that was never an active effort on my part, it just felt right to me in the creative process. It made sense.
I’ve heard the adage “don’t write women, write people” quite a few times. I used to feel that was solid advice, but I think I’ve grown out of it. How a character identifies themselves in terms of gender, or masculinity/femininity, is absolutely a part of making a character real. I think too many people see masculinity and femininity as a one-or-the-other situation. Personally, I see it as a gradient. There are extremes on either end, there’s a point where the two meet, and there are vast swathes of overlap. An interesting cast has characters that fall on many points on that gradient. That’s what I wanted and, during the writing process, it happened organically.
There are men who are warriors. There are women who are warriors. There are women in politics. There are men in politics. In the part of the world in which Neva Cora exists, how you identify barely matters. That includes gender, sexuality, creed, and so forth. You are who you are.
This is your first novel. Will there be more? Is this world bigger than just Neva Cora?
There will absolutely be more. How much more, and how quickly, depends entirely upon the support of those who pick up my work and enjoy it. My productivity is limited to how much time I can spend writing fiction compared to how much time I must spend finding funding elsewhere. If you decide to pick up Blood and Masks and enjoy it, the best thing you can do for me is tell your friends about it. That’s the best thing you can do for any author. Authors live and die by word-of-mouth.
I hope to continue writing in the world of Blood and Masks, but this story has closure. It’s a contained work. If you’re afraid to invest in the first book of an unfinished series, don’t be. The book ends and, I hope, you will be satisfied by it.
The world is bigger than Neva Cora for sure. There are many stories I want to tell within the world that take place in many different locations. I’ve previously posted a short entitled Blackwater here on my blog. Posting it was a bit dangerous because it’s wholly unedited and not an indicator of a finalized product, so keep that in mind if you read it. All of the fiction shorts currently available on my blog are rough first drafts and not finished products. Blackwater is one item on my list. Blackwater is set in a part of the world that’s the more typical western European sort of thing. Blood and Masks mentions a few other world locations in passing – they’re totally on my radar. If you read the book, come back here, and the Oases mean anything to you, I’d love to take you there.
What are some of your writer inspirations, or other writers you look up to with your work?
Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels always stuck with me and exist as proof that the fantasy genre can support works that blend traditional fantasy and urban fantasy. His “The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature” is also dead-on:
All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ‘em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ‘em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.
There are things I like and things I don’t like. I’m going to write the things I like. If someone doesn’t like those things, that’s okay. If there’s someone who does like the same things, fantastic.
Brandon Sanderson is an inspiration for a few reasons. One, his work ethic is ridiculous. That man is a robot. Every time you blink, he announces a new book. Second, he doesn’t rest on his laurels. He’s always trying something new, something creative. He publishes giant tomes and small, easily digestible fiction in equal measure. I’ve read people say they’re tired of Sanderson novels because every one of his books has some brand new magic system … but that’s actually super awesome? He’s always trying something else. Lastly, he supports young authors. I absolutely watched his lecture series during the process of creating Blood and Masks.
There are plenty of other authors I love, but the last one I would cite as inspiration is Sam Sykes for his marketing mojo. Buy his book. Mine, too. Please.
If you had to pitch why people should read this book, what would your reasons be?
I think it’s pretty good. It isn’t shit, at least. I think “it isn’t shit” is pretty high praise from the artist regarding his or her own art.
If that isn’t a good enough reason, Blood and Masks has been described as “elves in Rome fight Tinkerbell and then a conspiracy happens.” It isn’t an inaccurate description.
If that still isn’t a good enough reason, it only costs $2.99 and there’s sex in it. Bargain.