I got an email from a good friend who’d read both Flames Over Frosthelm and the prequel, Traitors Unseen. Having just finished Traitors, the prequel, he was interested in the themes and ideas that get introduced in Traitors, and wondered how many of them carried over into Flames, which was written earlier but takes place ten years later. I thought my letter back to him might be interesting for folks, so I’ve included a lightly-edited-for-clarity version below.
I also talk about the difficulties in writing about heroic law enforcement members in a fantasy setting while in the real world we’ve had our eyes opened about police overreach and our racial blinders and privilege challenged by the many brave protestors around the country.
SPOILER WARNING: There are some spoilery things here about all three Inquisitors’ Guild books – nothing that would ruin the experience of reading the stories, but some plot points are revealed and discussed. If you want to avoid all spoilers, don’t read on.
Hi, XXX –
Thanks for reading, and for all of your interesting insights. It is very weird writing books with cops as the heroic main characters now (albeit weird fantasy detective cops). This was a pretty short book, so I didn’t have time to get deep into many issues, and of course I wrote it back in January and released it four days before George Floyd was murdered, in a different world. At least some of the cops in the story are dreadfully corrupt, and the others are (I hope) appropriately outraged and betrayed by that corruption, which I hope is true in the real world (but it can be true in Frosthelm even if it’s not true in the U.S.).
My early readers for drafts of Traitors didn’t think I had provided enough motivation for the bad guys – that they were kind of stock – so that was one of the things I added more of on the rewrite. I didn’t have room for much of it without making the book a lot longer, so it makes sense that it seemed a little rushed. I thought it would be more interesting if they had a semblance of a philosophy, a legitimate beef with the Prelate, and a more interesting motivation rather than just “UNIMAGINABLE POWER!” as so many cheesy villains have, but maybe I didn’t give it enough space to develop.
The connections between this book and Flames Over Frosthelm was an interesting area for me to work on, because obviously they’re reversed in time compared to when I wrote them. The setting and some of the characters overlap (both Cheliaux and Denault are in Flames, and of course Sophie and the Prelate Jeroch are in there too). I had the basic structure of the city and the Guild and the auguries to work with from Flames, but I wanted to do more of a thriller story than a swashbuckling magic adventure for this one, so I was aiming for something more taut and tense. I tried to expand on the Guild practices and structures a little, and to imagine how they’d respond to accusations and internal betrayal, and I also added a good bit on the city and how it was laid out and run, although with the limited space of a novella, I couldn’t do a lot of rich worldbuilding. I also wanted this one not to focus on the Augur’s pool so much, although it’s mentioned. It would have been very hard to tell a new story here in a prequel and then have all of it echo into the Flames book, which I wrote before knowing this one would ever exist.
So, there are some things that I wish I could go back and mention or add to the Flames book now that I’ve written the prequel. One example would be the younger inspectors there would probably know of Denault’s adventure here and comment on it, although it is ten years before, so maybe it’s OK that they don’t talk about it – the young seldom focus deeply on the past, right? Sophie could have mentioned it at some point, though. If you did go back and read Flames again, there’s a good bit of corruption in the city there too, and Jeroch’s in on it, so he’s consistently a morally questionable leader – that carries over. And the nobles in that book are schemers and plotters, so that connects too. And Emerra Denault stands up to the evil Count Marron in the first scene he’s in, so she’s still scrappy and brave ten years on.
You asked about the rings, and whether they exist in Flames. I came up with the rings as a neat plot twist here, about halfway through writing it, and of course they’re not in Flames because I wrote that earlier. The Augur and other characters in Flames should know that it’s technically feasible that the pool can be blocked, even if the rings have been collected and destroyed or banned by then, which is what I imagined happening. They don’t mention it, though, obviously because I hadn’t made that part up yet. The perils of prequels!
They do talk about how the pool isn’t always reliable, though. That’s always been a challenge in these stories – the pool is a very useful tool and would make detective work really easy, so I keep having to limit its power or its use, or separate the characters from it, in order to make for a more suspenseful story that depends on the characters’ insights and brains. If I keep writing these books, that will probably be in the drinking game for Frosthelm – drink a stiff belt whenever the pool is compromised or blocked or unavailable or rendered useless. Maybe it can be like the perennial meetings with Q in Bond movies, or the companions in Doctor Who, or tachyon radiation in Star Trek – so overdone and silly that it feels familiar? I don’t know. I’m winging it here.
I did go through the sequel to Flames (The Outcast Crown) this week, and I had to rethink a number of scenes to make the cops there (who are the heroes) be more principled and thoughtful and not willing to overstep even in small ways. That was a challenge, because I had imagined Boog’s character as a little more impulsive and physical, but that would be a difficult and potentially terrible thing to write about for a law-enforcement character in this new era, and where I want him to come across as a good man learning to be a better man, I don’t want him to do anything close to something hateful or triggering.
The main characters are more or less pure and heroic, but in the early drafts, when they talked about the difficult things they had to do as part of their jobs, they were using some of the same language and the same justifications as bad cops do today, so it felt pretty uncomfortable, even though I thought their motives were solid and just and the justifications more or less made sense to me. I’m a lot more nervous about the book than I was a few months ago. I didn’t really run into that with Traitors, because Emerra is so powerless and so screwed, and she isn’t functioning as a cop for nearly all of the story. I’ll be interested (if you read Outcast Crown) to see if you think I’ve done OK. The scene with the carpet thief in Flames would probably sound a little bad now – they jokingly threaten him with some serious penalties beyond what he deserves, which seemed funny then and is less so now.
In terms of developing a stronger system of justice as the arc of Frosthelm continues, I saw what I did here in Traitors as consistent with the later Guild in Flames, so much so that most of them are horrified when they’re forced to abandon the Marron investigation there, and keep it going anyway. They’re taken over by Marron, but then they rebel and foil his plans, so I saw that as a group of people mostly dedicated to doing things the right way and for the right reasons, which is different in this prequel, where things are more ambiguous and corrupt. And of course the motivating events that Crenn experienced were in a time where things were even worse. So I see a longer-term arc from before Traitors, when things were really bad, feudal-style bad, to Traitors, when there are more rights and legal protections, making things better in some ways, but where there’s still a lot of corruption and intrigue in the city that has permeated the Guild. In Flames, where the Guild is pretty clean, the nobles are still scheming and ruthless, but there they involve the corrupt or oblivious Prelate, which makes their plans legal at least (if not smart or principled or good).
I actually wrote a good bit in the sequel (the new one, Outcast Crown) about immigrants and racism directed against them, experienced through a naive entitled white guy’s perspective who starts to understand it better and act on his new understanding. In some ways that might have had more resonance in 2017-18 than it will now with the country focused on policing. It was challenging for me to do, and a risk, I think, if people think I’m way out of my lane and hate it as they did American Dirt earlier this year, but I thought it was worth trying.
Thanks for the thoughts – I really appreciate you reading the book and talking about it – that’s the most fun part of this.
One question – did you like Hollick or not? There’s been a pattern in early feedback, and I’d like to see if it holds.