While there isn’t a new Assassin’s Creed game this year, there’s plenty of sci-fi history for fans of this series to enjoy regardless, including the Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection, an upgraded remake of the second, third, and fourth games; an an eponymous movie that’s stars Michael Fassbender (X-Men Apocalypse), Marion Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises), and Michael K. Williams (The Wire). But for those who enjoy the games for the story, the most interesting addition is Assassin’s Creed Heresy (hardcover, paperback, digital), a new novel by Christie Golden, who, coincidentally, also penned the Assassin’s Creed: The Official Movie Novelization (hardcover, paperback, digital). Though in talking to Golden about both Heresy and Novelization, it doesn’t sound like she’s tired of traveling back in time to kill people.
To start, what is Assassin’s Creed Heresy about, and how does it connect, both chronologically and narratively, to what’s happened in the games?
The story focuses on what happens when our main character — Simon Hathaway, master Templar and the new Director of Historical Research at Abstergo Industries — decides to experience his own ancestor’s memories through the Animus technology. He learns more than he ever bargained for about both the Assassins and the Templars. And that knowledge puts him in great danger.
In terms of the plot, did Ubisoft come to you with this idea, did they just ask you to write an Assassin’s Creed novel and you came up with this idea, what?
I knew that Ubisoft wanted to focus on the Templars and examine what really motivated them. They wanted them to be more than the “villains” they come off as during the game. I got together with the team in Montreal and we brainstormed for a few days about what historical era appealed to me, and whether it would be a good fit for the line. One of my suggestions was Joan of Arc, which had, to my rather great astonishment and pleasure, only been briefly mentioned in the game’s lore. Once we decided on that, the idea of heresy — and what that could mean, and what we defined it as — came almost immediately.
This is not the first Assassin’s Creed book you’ve written. You previously penned Blackbeard: The Lost Journal, a companion to Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag that was basically Blackbeard’s diary, and the Assassin’s Creed Unity: Abstergo Employee Handbook, which is a fake handbook for the characters in the modern parts of the games. How was writing Assassin’s Creed Heresy different?
Those two books were a tremendous amount of fun to write, and I’m grateful for the opportunity as it led directly to Assassin’s Creed Heresy. They were more, as you say, companion books where, while the story was important, their primary purpose were to showcase the brilliant art and clever inserts. Heresy is a novel, and I really do think of it largely as a historical, as so much of the book does take place in Joan of Arc’s time.
The Assassin’s Creed games always try to be historically accurate. How much research did you do in writing Assassin’s Creed Heresy?
A ton. I pored through so many books, so many websites. The last time I wrote a historical fantasy was fifteen years ago, and the options for research are so much better these days. That actually took up more time than the writing. As you say, the games are known for their accuracy, which is one reason I respect the franchise so much. While Ubisoft has a historian on staff, Maxime Durand, who was extremely helpful, I certainly wanted to do my homework as well, and it’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of doing too much research. Much of what I learned wasn’t included in the book, which is pretty par for the course with research. You need to do it for yourself, and it informs every word, even if the reader doesn’t realize it. I was fortunate in that there are records of both her trials, so a lot of what I have Joan saying are her own words.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest or best thing that your research added to the story? Like was there something that really changed the plot around for the better?
Two things stand out, and I have to be careful because I don’t want to be too spoilery.
One thing is that overall, the more I learned about Joan, the more her story seemed to fit almost seamlessly into the Assassin/Templar version of history. It was positively uncanny. I would read about something she is reported as saying or doing, and just get absolute chills.
The other thing is I came across something that involved not just Joan, but the Knights Templar. There’s a place where their paths crossed. I seized onto that and didn’t let go, and it turned out to be a major thread of the story, complete with a nice little mystery for the reader to figure out. And it’s so exciting because the elements are all right there.
Were there instances where you wanted to do something in the book but couldn’t because it would’ve conflicted with history?
History isn’t always well paced. Had I just been writing this as a story, I’d have it structured differently for maximum reading pleasure.
What about times when you wanted to do something but the Ubisoft people were like, “You can’t do that…and I can’t tell you why”?
I’m under NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] for most of my projects now, which means that I’m able to be told pretty much whatever I need to in order to make the book the best it can be. And when you start out with everyone on board with everything you’re doing, those conflicts happen a lot less.
Now, along with all of the games, there’s also an Assassin’s Creed movie coming out on December 21st. You wrote the novelization of the movie, Assassin’s Creed: The Official Movie Novelization. Which, like Assassin’s Creed Heresey, is available as a paperback, digitally, or as a special hardover with extra stuff from the movie and an in-game code. Given that you were writing that book as they were making the movie, how different is the book from the movie?
They’re two completely different books, and I think two very different reading experiences as well. There is a major character who appears in both the movie and the book, so that was a lot of fun to play with, and I set up a few nods to the movie in Heresy. There’s also a few very subtle references to our friend Simon in the novelization, which tickled me to be able to write. I would, however, definitely think that, after meeting Simon and his companions in Heresy that a lot of the moral issues and experience of the Animus would have a great deal of extra resonance. Also, the “voice” of each book is uniquely its own. There’s a lot of dry humor in Heresy around Simon, and a lot of very open-hearted emotion with Joan, whereas in the novelization, I tried to capture the tones of the movie: cool, almost cold in some cases, and wild, fierce action in the history parts of it.
As you were writing the Assassin’s Creed: The Official Movie Novelization, did you fill in any blanks in the story that the filmmakers either added to the movie or said they wish they had thought of themselves?
Alas, I have no idea what the filmmakers thought of the book. I always like to think that I’m able to come up with a thread, or a scene, or some bit that they would say “Whoa, that would have been cool!” But of course, a film needs to stand on its own…novelizers like myself get to enhance it, though, and that’s a delight.
Going back to Assassin’s Creed Heresy, there’s two versions of the book: a regular paperback, and a hardcover edition that adds interviews with you and Brand Content Director Aymar Azaïzia, along with a code that will unlock some secret Assassin’s Creed stuff for gamers. Whose idea was it to do the two different versions?
That was Ubisoft’s idea and I think it’s a great one. What’s interesting is that the price of both are standard; the paperback and the hardcover are priced as paperback and hardcovers usually are. Except this time, if you get the hardcover, you also get the extras. I think it’s going the extra mile.
So, do you think the story in Assassin’s Creed Heresy would work as a game?
Maybe? There’s a lot going on that doesn’t lend itself to a game, and a lot of character interaction that could slow the pacing. But the Joan of Arc, er, “arc,” could be pretty awesome.
What about as a movie or TV show?
Ha! Now you’re talking! I think this would make a great movie.
If Assassin’s Creed Heresy was made into a movie or TV show, who do you think they should cast as Joan Of Arc and Simon Hathaway?
I vote for Tom Hiddleston [Loki in the Thor movies] as Simon, for sure. He looks similar to how I envision the character, he’s British, and he’s a marvelous actor. Simon grows a lot during the course of the book.
As for Joan…it’s important to remember just how young she was, only sixteen when we first meet her, only nineteen when she was burned as a heretic. So I think it’d be great to have a talented newcomer be introduced in the role.
Another important role is Gabriel, Simon’s ancestor, who travels with Joan and who is about her age. And of course, I’d love for Jeremy Irons to reprise his role as Alan Rikkin [the role he plays in the Assassin’s Creed movie].
Having now written four Assassin’s Creed books, have you thought to ask Ubisoft if you can write one of the games?
I’m always keen to expand my skill set, and writing for video games would be a blast, but that’s not been on the table. Not yet, anyway.
Finally, if someone enjoys Assassin’s Creed Heresy and the Assassin’s Creed: The Official Movie Novelization, and they’ve already read Blackbeard: The Lost Journal and the Assassin’s Creed Unity: Abstergo Employee Handbook, which of your other books do you think they should read next and why?
I have a book coming out next year that’s a rerelease of a novel I wrote fifteen years ago under the pen name of Jadrien Bell. It will be reprinted by WordFire Press under my own name. It’s called A.D. 999 and it’s a historical fantasy set in Britain of that year. The basic premise is that Lucifer has found a loophole, a way to delay Judgment Day, so that his reign never ends. He liberates the Norse god Loki and enlists his aid, and the only ones who can stand against them are a young monk with a withered arm and a pagan witch-wife. I think those who enjoy history in their fiction will love this one.