Interview with Michael R. Miller (SONGS OF CHAOS)
Hailing from Scotland’s wet and wild west coast, Michael enjoys writing stories as sweeping in scope as the ancient landscapes he grew up in. His writing is known for rich character arcs, tight pacing, and layered magic systems, creating an epic tale all ages can enjoy.
Michael is also ‘that guy’ who enjoys – well, enjoyed… – discussing the mad fan theories of Game of Thrones even more than the books or show, and knows more about World of Warcraft than is probably healthy.
Welcome back to the Hive, Michael! Tell us about your Songs of Chaos series, where should readers start and what can they expect?
Readers or listeners should start with Ascendant, which is book 1. It’s about a servant boy who defies society to save a blind dragon from death and rises to become a dragon rider.
They can expect to find a timeless dragon rider fantasy, written in a way that all ages can enjoy it. Seriously I’ve got readers as young as 10 all the way into their 70s.
While it is timeless and makes use of a lot of tropes, I bend some, freshen others up and avoid the ones I don’t like. There is no chosen one. No prophecy. Our main character, Holt Cook, isn’t destined for anything. His ‘superpower’, so to speak, is his compassion in an active choice he makes to save a blind dragon’s egg. In return he’s punished for it. Over and over, he’s punished for it. A lot of his character work is fighting to stay good and keep striving to do the right thing despite this and despite the horror in the world.
If people enjoy Ascendant, they can grab a free novella from my mailing list (in ebook and audio) which acts as a perfect bridge between books 1 and 2.
What made you want to write a series about dragons?
Back in 2018, I figured we hadn’t had a big follow up to the Inheritance Cycle. That seemed odd to me. A yawning gap in many readers hearts. A great dragon rider epic always has its place and I wanted to try my hand at it.
I clearly wasn’t the only one. Ascendant released in September of 2020 and since then there has been a rise in new dragon rider stories. It’s been my good fortune to have been at the starting line for this latest ‘wave’.
You’ve described Ascendant as a ‘study’ of the ‘hero’s journey’ story archetype. Can you tell us more?
My first series, The Dragon’s Blade, was an unusual premise. It didn’t fit neatly into a category and there weren’t obvious comparisons. As such it was harder to sell, at least initially. It’s really a redemption story which is quite different from the hero’s journey.
So, when I began Songs of Chaos, knowing I was aiming for a classic, timeless epic, the heroes journey seemed the natural starting point. Because I’d had an uphill battle with Dragon’s Blade, the challenge was to do the reverse. To write the most trope filled story I could, yet still make it work; still make it feel fresh and new. I tried to understand the required beats, boil them down to their essence, and then, as Sanderson says, set out like a chef to make something tasty out of it.
You don’t need a prophecy, so there is none. You don’t need a ‘chosen one’, you just need the hero to choose themselves (even if they didn’t seek what befalls them later). You do probably need a mentor – I like that dynamic a lot so that one stayed.
The result, I hope, is something very familiar but also strange. Your expectations are knocked a bit off centre but not so much as to be turned around and left dizzy.
And what can you tell us about your particular hero, Holt Cook?
Holt Cook was never supposed to amount to more than following his father in becoming a Cook. The world they live in is plagued by a cyclical existential threat in the form of the scourge (think White Walkers + Zerg + Darkspawn from DragonAge). Each society has become very rigid to survive the scourge. They are military command and control economies with everything setup to ensure the armies are ready whenever the enemy rises.
Holt’s dad is the Head Cook to an Order Hall of dragon riders. Holt’s grown up surrounded by the riders, being in awe of them and dreaming of how fantastic it must be. He has daydreams of becoming more than he is, but he isn’t resentful of his place. In his own small way, he wants to help and to do the best job he can. He’s a hard worker. When he discovers the dark side to the dragon riders and the Order at large, he grapples with this tremor to this world view but his good nature fights through. Despite having every reason to become so, he does not fall into cynicism.
As a Cook’s apprentice he is handy in the kitchen. Cooking and cooking magic is a big part of the magic system in SoC, something which Holt delves into due to his own pride and love for the ‘role’ he was supposed to take on before the plot hits him like a hammer.
A story featuring dragons must surely also have a magic system; how does yours work and did anything in particular inspire it?
Dragon rider stories usually feature a ‘bond’ between the human and dragon. Usually the human gains magic through this connection. However, it struck me that this is very one sided. What does the dragon get out of it? Why would dragons be willing to form such connections without getting something out of it.
In SoC, the dragons hold magical cores (there are different types of magic, but we’ll leave that to one side for now). Through the bond, the human can perform breathing meditations to ‘Cleanse’ and then ‘Forge’ the dragon’s core. This creates a purer, denser bond, growing the dragon’s magical power. Thus, the origins of bonding make sense. Dragons must choose to join the Order, and some will do so because they’ll be more powerful than their wild kindred.
This setup allows for some dragons to have less than… ideal motivations…
As a cool note, the breathing techniques used by riders is directly inspired by physiotherapy exercises I’ve learned as part of my treatments of Cystic Fibrosis. CF patients need to do physio to keep their lungs clear to prevent infection and deterioration. Thus ‘Cleansing’ was born. Bringing some of this experience also helped to inform the portrayal of the blind dragon, Ash. How he thinks about living with his disability and what others think of him comes from my own perspective.
There is so much going on with the magic system/s in SoC I can barely scratch the surface here. There are ranks of power with the riders, taking inspiration from Xianxia. There is spiritual power which goes alongside these rank ups (this is the juicy character arc stuff). There is cooking lore where different meats empower different types of magic. The cooking system blends into an alchemy system for elixirs. There’s a strong black smithing magic component in how the riders create their weapons.
If you like magic systems on the harder side, you’ll really love SoC.
You’ve listed the Eragon series by Christopher Paolini as an influence, but do you have any other influences on your writing?
Tolkien and Martin – if you can envision that middle ground between those two peaks that’s where I like to hang out. Sanderson and Will Wight. Wight’s Cradle series in particular helped me to refine the magic system. What you see in SoC was always there just half-baked and lacking the key, easy to understand terminology Cradle provided. Joe Abercrombie’s work has helped inform the darker POV character in the series.
Bernard Cornwall’s ability to write clear, gripping action has been very influential as well (or I hope so!)
As a self-published author, you have to encompass many roles yourself: what aspect of self-publishing do you find the most difficult? Alternatively, which have you enjoyed the most?
The most difficult thing is getting visibility for your work and being taken seriously. Things are a lot better than they were back in 2016 but these core issues remain.
I enjoy having the control. I’m the sort who would feel much more stressed to not know what’s going on, not being able to make the decision etc.
Are there any fellow self-published creators whom you’d love to collaborate with?
I’d love to do a collab with Phillp C. Quaintrell / Ryan Cahill. We’re all so busy and write such big books I’m not sure how we’d ever get the time to work on something, but we can always dream.
What is your process for choosing a cover for your book? Do you have a clear idea of how you want it to look, or do you give your cover artist full creative licence? (The covers for Songs of Chaos are GORGEOUS!)
Thank you! Credit goes to three artists Yigit Koroglu (Ascendant), Randy Vargus (Unbound and Defiant) and Ralph Lomaton (Last Stand of the Stone Fist.)
I construct a brief which gives the tone we’re aiming for. It has references to pieces of armor etc. if appropriate, but after picking a color scheme and the ‘vibe’ I let the artists use their better instincts to suggest compositions. We start with sketches and hone it from there.
It’s all down to the talent of these amazing artists.
This one is just for fun and is one of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: other than a dragon, because presumably that would have been your obvious choice, which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
If one could ride a phoenix, I think that would be really cool. All that fire will come in handy and then if they should happen to die, they’ll be reborn from the ashes.
Can you tell us about a great book you’ve read recently? Any hidden gems?
I am currently reading an ARC of Taran Matharu’s dragon rider book coming out in April! Dragons. Griffons. Intrigue. It’s going to be an excellent addition to this renaissance of dragon rider stories!
I believe it’s on pre-order right now if you wanna go check it out.
What’s next for you, Michael? What do you currently have in the works?
I’ll be working on Songs of Chaos book 4 and then book 5 so I’ve got the next few years ahead well mapped out. I have the kernel of an idea for what comes next, but I’ll let that simmer away in the background for now.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope they come away with a genuine connection to the characters and feel a tingle of the same spark which my own favorite books lit inside of me.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Michael!
The first three books of Songs of Chaos are available. Check out Michael’s website for more information and to order your copies!