Read FBC’s Review of “The River Kings’ Road”
Read FBC’s Review of “Heaven’s Needle”
Liane Merciel’s The River Kings’ Road was an impressive fantasy debut, but the author really took things to another level in the sequel, Heaven’s Needle, which is one of my favorite books of 2011. Fellow FBC contributor Mihir Wanchoo had a similar experience after reading the two novels, and immediately approached me about interviewing the author. Considering the interesting emails I’ve exchanged with Ms. Merciel, I thought this was a great idea and thankfully she agreed :) So continue reading to find out more about Liane Merciel, the novels of Ithelas, the future of the series, the author’s thoughts on tie-in fiction, her fascination with prions, and much more...
Q: Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finding a publisher, how you ended up with Simon & Schuster, and anything else you’d like to share about yourself?
Liane: I've been fascinated by stories for as long as I can remember. In the beginning I was satisfied with stories about anything, as long as I got lots of 'em (my poor cousin just about lost her voice every time she had to babysit me, because I would not go to sleep until she told me “just one more” story. And then one more after that, and after that...), but somewhere along the line it turned into a more specific fascination with fantasy and horror. Tolkien and Stephen King get most of the credit (or blame) for that; they were both warping my mind from second grade onward.
My path to publication was the one outlined in all the standard advice: sell a couple of short stories, finish a novel manuscript, query a bunch of agents, sign with the agent who seems like the best fit, pitch a bunch of publishers, sign with the publisher who offers the best terms.
Q: If I’m not mistaken, Liane Merciel is a pen name. Why did you decide to use a pen name and what are the reasons for choosing this particular pseudonym?
Liane: I went with a pseudonym mostly on account of the Very Serious Day Job. The legal profession is still pretty conservative in a lot of ways, and as I don't plan to give up practice anytime soon, it seemed prudent to leave a little distance between identities.
As for this particular name, I picked it mostly because I could sign it without looking like a total doofus. My cursive is a thing of sadness.
Q: “The River Kings’ Road”, the first novel of Ithelas, is a straightforward medieval epic fantasy book, while the sequel, “Heaven’s Needle”, is a much darker fantasy-horror hybrid. Why the drastic shift between books?
Liane: It just felt like the way that each story needed to be told. RKR is about mostly ordinary(-ish) people who brush against the fringes of magic; HN is about mostly extraordinary(-ish) people who throw themselves into the supernatural.
The first time through, I just wanted to see if I could write a novel; I'd never done it before, and there were a lot of totally new craft-things to learn. The second time, I got a little more ambitious, so the story got bigger and the magic came closer to center stage. I tend to think that magic works best when it's eerie and unsettling, so putting more magic in a story tends to make it darker. Not always, but often . . . and that's how it worked out this time.
Q: Even though “Heaven’s Needle” is set in the same world of Ithelas as its predecessor, both novels are self-contained. What made you decide to write standalones in an overlapping world instead of a continuous story and why did you decide to focus on Bitharn and Kelland who are the only returning characters from “The River Kings’ Road”?
Liane: Fear of commitment. Mine, and readers'.
Handling a continuous story seems too difficult. It's all I can do to finish a single standalone novel. While multi-book epics are my favorites to read, actually plotting and completing one myself is much too daunting. Maybe someday I'll be up to it, but that day is definitely not now.
I'm also hesitant to ask that great a commitment from readers. While I hope people will finish one book and want to read the next, I don't want to demand it. Linked standalones seemed like the best compromise: the familiarity of a known world and recurring characters, but a decent sense of closure at the end of each one.
As for why HN focused on Bitharn and Kelland . . . well, that was the big loose thread left dangling at the end of RKR. I pretty much had to address it, or risk getting lynched by all three fans I had back then.
Q: “Heaven’s Needle” concludes with a number of issues left unresolved including the Thorns’ interest in Duradh Mal. Will these issues be resolved in the next Ithelas novel?
Liane: Maybe! I don't like talking too much about things that aren't yet written — once the story's told in summary, I lose the urge to retell it for real. But yes, the question of what the Thorns wanted in Duradh Mal is something I plan to address, if and when there's another Ithelas book. I'd like to do at least one more, I think, but at the moment I don't have a contract for more books in the series. So we'll see. That's an open question right now.
Q: Well hopefully readers will get to see that third Ithelas novel! So if you’re not writing that, what are you currently working on?
Liane: At the moment I'm writing a tie-in novel for Paizo's Pathfinder roleplaying game, using their campaign setting of Golarion.
Q: Could you tell us more about the tie-in novel and what drew you in particular to the Pathfinder universe?
Liane: Sure. The story I'm doing is set in Nidal, a nation that has spent centuries in thrall to dark powers. Ages ago, when a meteor struck the world and blotted out their sun, the ancient Nidalese faced the threat of total annihilation. Without a sun, they had no grain, no grass for their horses, no wood to burn for fuel in that long lightless cold. They chose to survive by striking a bargain that damned all their descendants to eternal servitude.
That's what's given in the campaign background. As soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted to explore what that history might mean for someone born into that world. How would their culture develop? How might people rebel in small (or not-so-small) ways? How might the higher-ups try to induce their obedience? These are all background questions, but the story arises from them.
And that's what drew me to Pathfinder, more or less. (Well, that and they asked me, which helps!) There are just so many stories crammed into every corner of Golarion. The game designers have a remarkable gift for making their world as tantalizing to the imagination as possible.
Q: To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of tie-in fiction myself, and I know a lot of people who read fantasy and science fiction aren’t either. What are your thoughts on this matter?
Liane: You know, this has always struck me as a sort of weird prejudice within the genre. (I'm not picking on you, promise, just sort of thinking aloud here.) Like, we're all nerds already for reading SF/F, right? And I've always been pretty open about being influenced by RPGs early on, as have a lot of the writers in my age/career cohort. So why's it different when a project is formally a tie-in work rather than nominally original fiction?
Example: Let's say a great writer, somebody we all agree is fantastic, like GRRM or Daniel Abraham or somebody, took on a tie-in project. Let us further say that the tie-in was for a property that was similar to their most popular original works (so let's pretend like GRRM is writing swords-and-castles fantasy in this hypothetical, not, say, military science fiction). Let us further say that there weren't any major creative constraints on the writer. (I haven't done a lot of tie-in so I don't know whether this is standard, but Paizo sure hasn't put any hobbles on me.)
Would you read this project? I sure would, because I think those writers are awesome and I really like that particular subgenre and I'd be pretty interested in seeing what they did with it. In my mind, a good writer is likely to produce good work, whatever the subgenre.
Q: You mentioned GRRM and Daniel Abraham. Are these authors you would personally like to see write tie-in fiction, or are there other writers and universes that would be a dream come true for you?
Liane: Well, like just about everyone on the planet, what I'm really itching to get my hands on is A Dance With Dragons (less than a week to go! woo!!). But in a perfect world, all writers would be able to write whatever their hearts desired, and if that happened to be tie-in work, it would be judged by the same standards as the other stuff.
Q: Besides tie-in fiction, is there any other genre or format (film, comic books, videogames) that you would be interested in trying one day? If so, what and why?
Liane: Maybe videogames. It's pretty old now, but I love Baldur's Gate II (and spend way too much time backstabbing illithids when I'm supposed to be on deadline). Immersive, interactive storytelling works pretty much the same way whether it's on paper or in pixels, and getting to play with that toybox seems like it would be a lot of fun.
Q: Going back to the Ithelas novels, if Pocket decides to pass on the sequel, would you regret the choices you made with “Heaven’s Needle” (making it a standalone, fusing horror and fantasy, new characters)? Also, would you be interested in shopping any Ithelas sequels to another publisher?
Liane: Nope to the first. Maybe to the second, but shopping sequels to a new publisher is a tough sell. Hopefully I never have to make that decision.
Q: The magic system you created for Ithelas is based on theology with powers granted to disciples through the blessings of gods. What are the influences behind this magic system, and if there is a third Ithelas novel, will readers get to see more of the pantheon?
Liane: RPG magic is one influence. Historical conceptions of magic are another. In just about every society that believes in magic, the role of spiritual guide is synonymous with that of spellcaster. Religion is magic; belief in the divine almost always means belief in miracles. Prayer, for most people, is a request for divine intercession and/or thanks for divine blessings.
So one of the questions that interests me, in fiction, is what happens when religious magic is real and true and experienced as a part of daily life—but still restricted to a priestly caste and out of ordinary people's hands. What does that do to faith? To heresy? There are lots and lots of questions floating around in there, and they make interesting fodder for plots.
The use of a pantheon is mostly a way of making conflicts more concrete. It's easier to externalize evil if you have an actual God of Evil (or several such gods). It doesn't actually make anything simpler, it just opens up the world to starker contrasts of good vs. evil. Which I think is fun, personally.
And yes, if there is a third book, at least one new god(dess) will be key.
Q: In your biography, you mention that you grew up in an army household and traveled a lot including Germany, South Korea and several different parts of the United States. It’s safe to say you were probably exposed to a lot of different cultures and mythology. How much of this helped shape the world of Ithelas?
Liane: Not a lot, actually. I was a preteen for most of those years, so my understanding of culture and mythology was pretty simplistic. Mostly what I got out of the travels was an impressionistic view of what different environments looked, smelled, and sounded like—and what it's like to spend your life on the road, never settling anywhere for long. No surprise a lot of my characters are nomads, I guess.
Q: What do you think of the covers for “The River Kings’ Road” and “Heaven’s Needle”? Did you get to provide any input?
Liane: I really like that the cover artist went to such pains to include small details from the stories. I did get to provide some input, but I am not an artist, so my commentary was pretty limited in both cases. For HN, I asked that the castle in the background look like "something off a heavy metal album." I am delighted they actually did that.
Q: That’s cool that you were at least able to provide input :) Moving on, the reactions to “The River Kings’ Road” were quite varied. How did you deal with such diverse opinions of your book and do you let readers’ feedback influence your writing?
Liane: Mainly I learned that it's a real bad idea to read reviews if you need to be productive anytime within the next few days. SF/F fans are not, as a group, big believers in sugarcoating.
Reader comments do influence my writing, but it's usually comments in more general discussions that have the biggest impact. The publication cycle is so long that by the time I'm getting feedback on one thing, the next one's already either done or so far in development that even if I wanted to change stuff, I can't. But general comments definitely do shape things. I remember that when I was tinkering around with the ideas that would eventually coalesce into HN, I read a discussion thread—either on Westeros or SFFWorld, I'm not sure which anymore—asking "why is the church always the villain?" And I thought: "that is a really good question. Why IS the church always the villain? Why don't I make the church a force for all that is good and righteous in the world? At least for this round, anyway." So I did!
Q: Interesting. So you once commented that you are a sucker for stories featuring prions. Where did this fascination come from and what stories have you read that features prions? For instance, have you read James Rollins’ “Amazonia”?
Liane: Prions are just incredibly neat. And creepy. And neat! And creepy!
Consider: a microscopic, unthinking, essentially inanimate bit of matter—there's some dispute as to whether prions even count as “alive”—that has the power to warp flesh into its own image. It destroys the host's personality, memories, even his ability to understand what's happening to him . . . and then, as a crowning indignity, transforms the host's brain and body into replicants of the parasite that killed him. And it's impossible to treat, virtually impossible to destroy. The idea is just completely horrifying to me.
So, naturally, I used it.
I actually have not read much fiction featuring prions, unless you count Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero. I read (and loved, and was mentally scarred by) Richard Rhodes' Deadly Feasts, and that was pretty much all the horror I needed right then in my life.
Q: What else do you like to read? Any favorite authors or books you’d like to share?
Liane: I'm a big believer in the idea that reading widely is the first and most important step to writing well, so I try to read a little bit of everything—or as close to that as I can manage. Good, bad, it doesn't matter, it all has something to teach.
Lately, though, I've mostly been reading about dogs. I got pretty seriously into dog rescue this year (we're actually picking up another foster dog later today) and it has been an education. You think SF/F partisans are rabid, take a look at the arguments around Cesar Milan (the Dog Whisperer) sometime. Makes the perennial Jordan/Martin/Goodkind flame war look like a love-in hugfest.
But I'll put in an off-topic plug for some of my favorite dog books: Patricia McConnell's The Other End of the Leash, John Bradshaw's Dog Sense, and Suzanne Clothier's Bones Would Rain From the Sky are all excellent and well worth reading for anyone who wants to go beyond the training basics into why and how we bond with dogs. And, in a roundabout way, they all explore what it is to be human in relation to creatures that decidedly are not . . and that's a question that fantasy explores in its own ways as well.
Q: In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share?
Liane: Buy a book! Adopt a dog! Watch HBO's Game of Thrones! And don't forget to floss your teeth.
More seriously: Thanks for having me (and for being so patient with my slacker butt). It's been a pleasure.