With Shadow Sun Seven (paperback, Kindle), science fiction writer Spencer Ellsworth, continues the Starfire trilogy he began earlier this year with A Red Peace, and will conclude February 27th with Memory’s Blade. But in talking to him about this sci-fi space opera, and the series as a whole, he revealed that he didn’t write these novels as quickly as they’re being released.
To begin, what is Shadow Sun Seven about, and how does it connect chronologically and narratively to the rest of the Starfire trilogy?
Shadow Sun Seven is about a caper through the guts of a space tick. Because…I’m gross. The purpose of said caper: to rescue a prisoner who knows secrets that could undo the reign of John Starfire, which began in A Red Peace.
The first book was all chase. Jaqi, our ne’er-do-well smuggler, was running from Araskar’s division of soldiers. But in Shadow Sun Seven, you get to see our heroes fight back, make some dirty deals, and sneak around, steal stuff, lurk in disguise, and fight, of course.
Shadow Sun Seven, and indeed the rest of the Starfire books, are science fiction novels. But is there a subgenre, or combination of them, that you feel best describes these novels?
You could probably call them “space fantasy.” On one end of space opera, you have something like The Expanse, where the science is rigorous and whatever liberties are taken are very carefully hedged about with real science that makes the Epstein Drive or the ring gate seem plausible. On the other, you have Dune, where spice makes you go faster-than-light.
I tend to be more Dune than The Expanse. I do try to make the books at least plausible on the surface. There’s a handwavium explanation for artificial gravity, for telepathy, etc. But these are books with memory-stealing swords, sun-sized spiders, and giant air-sucking space ticks. Why? Because it’s cool.
As you mentioned, there are space bugs in these books. But the covers also depict bug-shaped space ships. Which reminds me of some sci-fi books from the ’80s. Were any of those old school sci-fi books an influence on Shadow Sun Seven and the rest of the Starfire series?
I am just a hair too young to have bought the classic midlist paperbacks off a grocery store spinner rack, but I did read a ton of science fiction when I was younger. My editor thinks I write like a young Samuel R. Delany, which is a huge compliment, so I read Nova and Babel-17 while I was working on the books because I had never actually read early Delany.
I concluded that I wasn’t anywhere near Delany at his peak, but that was a nice compliment my editor gave.
Anyway, to answer you: the main place I recall seeing bug ships was in the Shi’ar stories in X-Men comics. Comics are a huge influence on me. I just love the way X-Men could deal with some very real, dramatic situations and also have aliens and evil firebirds and magical romps.
In a similar vein, do you think there are any writers or specific books that were an influence on Shadow Sun Seven, but were not an influence, or not as much of an influence, on the first book, A Red Peace, or the third, Memory’s Blade?
I leaned heavily on the tone of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books [The Lies Of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and The Republic Of Thieves], which always feature a wonderfully complicated heist. Even though they’re fantasy, they’ve got the heist-piled-on-heist and tongue-in-cheek tone I was going for.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games you feel had an impact on Shadow Sun Seven?
I binged Firefly, especially the heist episodes, while writing Shadow Sun Seven. I wanted to get the feel of a good caper, since this is a story about a prison breakout. Saga and several other space opera comics were also huge influences, while Star Wars: The Clone Wars shaped some of my thinking about the cross soldiers, since I watched that series wondering why the cloned soldiers all went happily to their doom.
The third and final book in the Starfire trilogy, Memory’s Blade, is slated to be released on February 27th, which is three months after Shadow Sun Seven and five months after A Red Peace. Did you write all three books in rapid succession, and this prompted your publisher, Tor.com, to put them out the same way, or did you write the first one a while ago and they just waited until all three were done before putting them out?
The second. I wrote A Red Peace with only a very loose outline of the second and third book, and I couldn’t quite find the vehicle to move the story forward at the time, so I sent A Red Peace off and let the ideas marinate. I was worried when the deal came through; writing on commission is a different headgame from writing purely for fun.
But I got there after about four months of major blockage, in which I wrote huge beginnings to Shadow Sun Seven and deleted them continually. I had to relax, and let out the part of my brain that is still a little kid bashing toys together.
In writing Shadow Sun Seven, were there any instances where you decided to do something that necessitated going back and changing part of A Red Peace?
Not really, oddly enough. I had caught a few inconsistencies in the editing process for A Red Peace, but really, I read the first book over and over the entire time I was writing the second. The problem was more in picking up the characters where they left off. You have to give characters closure at the end of a book. Then you have to figure out what will throw them into crisis again. It’s a little bit painful, like you are punishing the poor guys again.
How about writing Memory’s Blade; did anything in that ever prompt you to make a change in Shadow Sun Seven?
Yes! No spoilers, though. I changed…things. You’ll just have to read all of them and see if you can figure it out.
So then do you think people should wait until all three are out and then read them in a row, or do you think there’s a reason people should read other things in between?
They can be enjoyed on their own. Imagine a series of movies. Ideally, you’d want to watch them in a row. But if you go a couple of months without rewatching one, you’ll still be able to pick up on some of the things that happened in the last one.
Finally, a few months ago, when we talked about A Red Peace [which you can read here], I asked if there had been any interest in adapting that book, and thus this series, into a movie, TV show, or game. At the time, you said, “There has been interest. That’s about all I can say until things happen.” Has anything changed on that front?
Nah, but you never know… Hollywood is all “yes we’re very interested” and then you wait to hear something and…nothing. Who knows, we might get surprised by a massive movie deal. Just because I presumed it might not happen. That’s how it works, right?