Interview with Bradley P. Beaulieu (THE DRAGONS OF DEEPWOOD FEN)
The author of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, Bradley P. Beaulieu’s novels have garnered many accolades and most-anticipated lists, including two Hotties – the Debut of the Year and Best New Voice – on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, a Gemmell Morningstar Award nomination for The Winds of Khalakovo, and more. Brad’s influences include J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Guy Gavriel Kay, Glen Cook, and C. S. Friedman. He adores cooking, yoga, and currently lives in Racine, WI with his wife, kids, and a smattering of pets.
Welcome to the Hive, Bradley. Congratulations on your new series The Book of the Holt, which starts with The Dragons of Deepwood Fen. Firstly, can you tell our readers a little about it?
Thanks for having me! And sure, I’d be happy to.
The Dragons of Deepwood Fen is the opening book in my new epic fantasy series. While the book is indeed epic and the cast fairly large, the main protagonists are Lorelei Aurelius and Rylan Holbrooke.
Lorelei is an extremely sharp and intuitive inquisitor in service to the empire. She’s also agoraphobic, which presents some interesting problems for her along the way. Rylan, meanwhile, is the bastard son of the Imperator, the leader of a vassal state known as the Holt. He’s also a thief out to right the scales of injustice in the Holt. Lorelei’s dogged determination and Rylan’s sneaky ways meet in spectacular fashion when they both try to unlock the mystery of why Aarik Bloodhaven, the leader of a group of freedom fighters known as the Red Knives, decides to meet with the Hissing Man, the ruthless head of a religious cult known as the Chosen. The Knives and the Chosen have always been sworn enemies, so why are they suddenly making nice?
The answer, Lorelei and Rylan soon learn, may have dire consequences. As Lorelei digs deeper, Rylan becomes the focus of her investigation, but even as their game of cat and mouse begins in earnest, both see that Lorelei’s home city of Ancris is under threat, and that what they do next will have massive implications on the empire, the Holt, and the world.
In the end, Dragons is a story about the hidden costs of power, both to those who seek it and those it’s used against. I felt like Rylan, a thief from the Holt who led a privileged life, and Lorelei, a smart young woman in a place of power, were the perfect characters to explore those facets of the story. I can’t wait for you to meet them.
Your book is set in a secondary world in the mountain city of Ancris. What kind of world/city can we expect to enter?
The story has a Roman-style empire that shares power between five ruling quintarchs. The quintarchs rule from five different capitals, and Ancris is one of them. Empires being what they are, Ancris is rich in money, resources, culture, and, above all, influence.
The Holt, on the other hand, is a vassal state. Though it has some independence, it’s beholden to the empire in many ways. The empire throws its military weight around and draws resources from the Holt, leaving only scraps, which has led to no end of strife between the empire and those who want true independence for the Holt.
In many ways, Dragons is a story about “empire,” of the haves and have nots, a story of domination and oppression and what tipping the scales too heavily toward one side can lead to.
While readers will find excess and riches in Ancris, the Holt is more down to earth. They embrace the forest and the land itself much more than the empire does. Those differences are reflected in everything, from architecture to fashion to the dragons they ride.
Can you tell us more about the Church and the Red Knives, what sort of conflict do they pose?
The relentless oppression I mentioned above led directly to the formation of the Red Knives. They’re a group of freedom fighters (and the remnants of the old ruling class) who want true independence for the Holt, and they’re aren’t afraid to use violence to attain it.
The Knives are one of the greatest threats to the empire, which makes their alliance with the Chosen seem very strange indeed to Lorelei and Rylan. The Chosen see the empire as being in service to the goddess, Alra, not the other way around. As such, they want to replace the quintarchs with a true theocracy and, like the Red Knives, do not shy from violence.
The two groups should be enemies. And for centuries they were! So what changed? That question is what Lorelei and Rylan (from different angles and using very different methods) hope to find answers to.
And the dragons? What kind of dragons will we be meeting?
There are two types of dragons in the world: radiants and umbrals. While radiants gain unique powers from the bright sun, umbrals are nocturnal and gain their powers from the dark sun. While neither type is inherently good or evil, centuries ago, the empire, hoping to win a war against the Kin and gain control of the Holt, declared their own radiant dragons to be “righteous servants of Alra” and the umbral dragons used by their enemy wicked pawns of the trickster god. It led to no end of misery. Umbral dragons were hunted, nearly to extinction, and those who bonded with them were killed.
Something that grew from this that I didn’t really expect was that, because of the empire’s unrelenting propaganda, dragons and their basic types became a sort of shorthand for the haves and have nots, the righteous and the wicked, the mighty and the powerless. It was a neat twist that I played on quite a bit as the story progressed.
A wrinkle in this concept is that the Empire controls dragons through the use of special stones called crops and fetters in a process known as binding, while the Red Knives embrace an ancient custom of bonding with dragons. It was another differentiator between dragonkind and those who used them, and led to a lot of interesting interplay between Rylan, Lorelei, and their mounts.
Can you tell us about any other significant characters? Did you have a favourite POV you particularly enjoyed writing?
Rhiannon is a druin-in-training at an abbey in the Holt. She’s a powerful magic user in her own right and the daughter of Morraine, an extremely powerful druin who was hung by the empire when Rhiannon was young. The druins of the Holt know many ancient secrets, among them ways to bring the dead back to life. That’s precisely what Rhiannon’s uncle, Llorn, hopes to do with Morraine.
So Rhiannon is our window into the machinations of the Red Knives, but she was also quite fun to write because she’s an innocent soul who’s drawn into these world-changing events by her ruthless uncle.
Azariah and the Hissing Man are two more POV characters. While Azariah is the public face of the Alran Church in Ancis, their illustra, the Hissing Man is the leader of the Chosen. The two work in concert to see the Chosen rise to the top of the empire’s power structure (which would necessarily mean toppling the current leader, Quintarch Lucran).
The Hissing Man in particular was fun to write because, while Azariah has to take care and keep the Church’s public persona in mind, the Hissing Man and the Chosen have no such restrictions. The Hissing Man is an utterly ruthless character because of it.
But then Azariah discovers that the Hissing Man is hiding secrets from him. Those secrets may upend both their plans, but Azariah isn’t sure he can let it go—the secrets are to do with his son and the real cause of his death many years ago.
If you were transported to Ancris, how would you fare? Which of your characters would you make an ally with to help you survive?
I’d love to visit the Holt. It’s this massive forest (like, Amazon Forest big) that is sentient in a way. The primary trees in that forest (known as citadels) are ginormous, towering a thousand feet in the air and connecting to one another via bridgeboughs. More interesting is that they’re actually a colony tree, like our own Pando. They remember the things that happen within them. It’s part of what led to “the Book of the Holt,” a collection of visions extracted from those trees.
Now, while I’d love to visit, I’m not sure I’d fare well there. The Holt is a dangerous place. I’d ally myself with Rylan for sure. He’s a dragon singer. He could teach me how to bond with dragons. I could get a dragon of my own! (Now, I just need to think of a good dragon name…)
How did it feel to start a new fantasy series after finishing Song of the Shattered Sands? Was it hard to say goodbye to that world and it’s characters and venture into something completely new?
I poured a lot of myself into The Song of the Shattered Sands, so it was tough to let it go. But at the same time, I’d been itching to write stories in a different world for years. So by the time I actually got around to diving into Dragons, I was ready. And it was great fun. I really enjoyed the brainstorming phase, building out the world, the characters, their stories. It’s the actual writing that’s most painful!
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
I used to dread editing. Now I adore it and it’s the actual writing process that’s the most difficult. Why? Because during the writing, I know I can’t get things perfect, but I refuse to endlessly edit while I write. I leave as much as I can until the first draft is done, and I do that largely because I don’t actually know the full, complete story until the initial draft is complete. It doesn’t make sense to edit until I know that much!
What that means is that by the time I type “The End,” I have a ton of edits built up. They weigh on you as an author, those edits—they do for me, anyway—so that by the time I’m ready to edit, I’m READY TO EDIT, if you take my meaning. The next draft is a release of that weight. I wouldn’t call editing enjoyable, precisely, but it’s very, very satisfying to get that first big edit done.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover and both your UK and US covers have the same eye-catching focus on the dragons whilst also being very different from one another! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
I helped choose the scene in the US version and provided feedback on the sketches and finals. I had less involvement in the UK version, but I was definitely included and provided what feedback I could. They’re two distinct feels for sure, and while I prefer the US version, I recognize there are distinct differences in the approach to book covers in the US vs the UK.
The two readerships simply like different art styles. It’s natural, I suppose, but it threw me for a loop when I started seeing the (often very stark) differences in art direction between the two regions. I’m grateful to have a partner in Head of Zeus who’s plugged into those differences and can create a cover that will appeal in their markets.
Can you tell us how many books are planned in The Book of the Holt series? Any teasers for the sequel to The Dragons of Deepwood Fen which you can share?
As I mentioned above, the Book of the Holt is an actual book in the series. It contains visions recorded by Rygmora, the dead mother to Morraine, Llorn, and Aarik. That she recorded those visions in the first place was what led to her death, but the book lived on and has had a great influence on things as the story opens.
As we head into Book Two, the characters grow eager to know more about Rygmora and how she was able to coax visions from the citadel trees. Lorelei, in particular, is fascinated by it. It will become a gateway in future books to learning the truth about the past, but Lorelei, Rylan, and the gang better hurry, because war is on the horizon.
The series is currently projected as four books.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual or in person events our readers may be interested in?
I love to cook, and what I’ll often do is making something fancy when a book comes out to celebrate. I’m not sure what I’ll do this time, but probably something feels (maybe even tastes?) medieval. Boeuf bourguignon? Coq au vin? Cornish pasties? I’m sure I’ll figure out something. (And now, of course, I’m hungry. Thanks a lot!)
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
My books often include court politics, and The Dragons of Deepwood Fen is no exception. I portray these major threats to the existing world order, but I try to keep things human by making the main characters heavily invested in the outcome. My hope is that the main gang—Lorelei, Rylan, Rhiannon, et al.—come across as real people with real concerns that sometimes (and sometimes don’t!) align with one another. I want them and the world to feel like they live beyond the pages of the book.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thanks for having me! And for those who decide to give The Dragons of Deepwood Fen a try, I hope you enjoy!
The Dragons of Deepwood Fen is out today from Head of Zeus! You can pick your copy from Bookshop.org