An oppressive regime has been overthrown and the city's citizens are finally in power. Yet all is not well. The people are starving and many call for violence against their enemies. And when the seditionist leader Aceline is murdered, the trail leads to a conspiracy in the shadows . . .
Our friend Rjurik Davidson returns next week with The Stars Askew, the second novel in his electrifying Caeli-Amur series, following 2014's Unwrapped Sky. Prepare to re-enter the ancient city with its warring families, fearsome minotaurs and philosopher-assassin Kata by hearing Rjurik gamely take on our five questions, below.
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1. The Stars Askew is the sequel to the fantastic Unwrapped Sky: how do you set up the story in the new book?
Unwrapped Sky is about the buildup to a revolution in a fantastical city. The city is somewhere between Ancient Rome and St Petersburg in 1917. It’s filled with minotaurs, and revolutionaries, and artists and philosopher-assassins and weird technology. But a revolution is more than a single event. It’s also a process. New people get into power and they realize, “Damn, we didn’t think about that” and “Oh oh, that’s not going as we expected.” I’m always interested in the ironies of history. William Morris once described “how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” Or to put it another way, I’m interested in good people doing bad things for good reasons.
So The Stars Askew starts with just this moment. One of the leaders of the revolution is murdered. The question is, who is to blame? Is it the enemies of the new world, or does the murderer come from one of the revolutionaries? Needless to say the new leadership is split between those arguing for a greater repression against their enemies and those who thing that repression will undermine the very things they fought for.
2. Sequels typically raise the stakes for the characters: what do our heroes face this time round?
Again we’ve three characters.
There’s Kata, the philosopher-assassin, who is on the trail of the murderer. She’s flanked by her minotaur friend Dexion and has adopted the little street urchin Henri. This leads her into the dark heart of things and she is forced to face just who she is, really. Is she prepared to step forward and take full responsibility for the part she plays in events? Will she finally abandon her fear of loss and attachment?
Maximilian awakes with the joker God Aya in his head. He had downloaded Aya from the library in the sunken city in Unwrapped Sky and the God wants him out. He discovers that there’s one way of ejecting Aya and that requires a visit to the Sentinel Tower, where Aya’s lover lived her last days. So Maximilian leaves Caeli-Amur and head into the wilderness to find this ancient and lost tower. Along the way, he has to finally work out, who is he? How important is he – his identity – in history. He has to face his own ego.
The final character is Armand, the conservative patrician and lover of animals. He heads to the Imperial city of Varenis to raise an army so he can return and crush the rebellion. Things do not go as Armand planned, but I best not share too much of this narrative, which I’m particularly proud of.
3. Did you face any particular challenges in writing a sequel?
The book is written so it could be read as a stand-alone book – new readers should be able to pick it up and not worry too much -- though obviously there’s backstory covered in Unwrapped Sky. The main challenge is this: how do you write history and historic events through the eyes of only three characters? There’s a certain contradiction between the individual psychological novel and events made by thousands of people. From what perspective do you describe a march? What influence does one person have in a revolution? It’s an interesting challenge.
4. What influences did you draw on to create the world?
Our influences are all a mélange of things from all of our life. I love ancient Rome, I’m particularly interested in historical moments when there seems to be no really good path to take. I love the way James Ellroy writes crime novels, where to solve the crime (in my case, the murder of the revolutionary leader) means to uncover the real structure of things, the real power relations. I live weird fiction and science-fantasy (Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection was important to the invention of the world). I also love the work of Victor Serge, who wrote the poem from which the novel’s title comes. He was interested in the ironies of history too. There’s so much more probably, in the depths of my unconscious, too.
5. What’s your top writer’s tip?
Read beyond your comfort zone. If you’re into SF read realism. If you’re into horror read romance. Read the classics. Read avant-garde novels. Read essays and poetry. Read history and sociology. Read what you don’t like and try to work out why people like it.
Bonus Question from Laura Lam: What science fiction future would you want to live in: Star Trek’s, Star Wars’, The Culture, or something else?
Certainly The Culture: Iain Banks’ version of utopia is close to mine and it’s also pretty fun. There’s so much possibility there and the spaceships with the ridiculous names are pretty cool. You get to go visit our rotten little capitalist worlds too and see our strange destructive vitality. Though, you know, who doesn’t want to rescue, or be rescued by, Princess Leia?