In the following email interview about Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), author Kate Heartfield discusses what inspired and influenced this video game-connected novel…as well as how it’s not the only time she’ll be exploring this interactive universe.
Photo Credit: Robert de Wit
To start, what is Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy about, and when and where does it take place, both in relation to our time and the Assassin’s Creed games?
The novel begins in 1851, and follows two characters — Pierrette Arnaud, an equestrian circus performer, and Simeon Price, a British soldier — as they try to prevent a dangerous weapon designed by their mutual friend, Ada Lovelace, from falling into the wrong hands. It spans a little more than a decade, and is mostly set in Austria, England, and France. The closest game, in terms of setting, is Syndicate, but all the events of The Magus Conspiracy take place before Syndicate begins.
And is there any connection between Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy and Aconyte Books’ other A.C. novels: Matthew J. Kirby’s Geirmund’s Saga, Yan Leisheng’s The Ming Storm, Elsa Sjunneson’s Sword Of The White Horse, and Yan’s upcoming The Desert Threat [out October 4, 2022]?
One of the first things I did when I started writing was to get copies of the first three books you mentioned, and they’re all great. They’re connected in the sense that they’re all working within the same canon, but there is not much overlap of settings or characters. Aconyte is publishing a mix of novelizations of Assassin’s Creed games, new stories about established characters, and totally new original stories with new characters set in the Assassin’s Creed universe — and The Magus Conspiracy is in the last category.
Where did you originally get the idea for Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy? What inspired it?
It began with assassinations, appropriately enough: the rise of political assassinations and attempts against heads of state in Europe after the Revolutions of 1848. In the Assassin’s Creed universe, there are two factions locked in a very long struggle, so I started by asking myself how those assassinations would have figured into that alternate history. I was also interested in how the political changes of the day interacted with military culture, and with the arts and popular entertainment. So I have my soldier, and my acrobat. And affecting all those changes was the development of technology, which is why the visionary Ada Lovelace is a major presence in the novel.
And is it safe to assume that Pierrette is an acrobat as opposed to a singer or actor or some other kind of performer because being skilled at acrobatics is more helpful when you’re an assassin than, say, being able to hit a high note or inhabit the role of King Lear?
Funnily enough, there are a couple of characters in The Magus Conspiracy very fond of quoting Shakespeare. Now I want to write a thespian Assassin…
But yeah, it was definitely fun working Pierrette’s skills into this story, and the skills of her circus colleagues.
So how familiar were you with the Assassin’s Creed games when you agreed to write Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy?
I was quite familiar with the games, as I’d played a few myself, and I’d been in the room while my kid or my spouse had played others, so all told, I’d at least seen parts of nearly every game. I’ve played Syndicate through to utter completion, and it’s my favorite so far. I just love the setting of London in 1868, and the gameplay (especially the grappling gun and carriage combat), and of course the main characters, the Frye twins.
Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy sounds like it’s a historical fantasy novel. Is that how you’d describe it?
It’s a bit tricky to define. It’s most solidly a historical thriller. One could call it alternate history (though I think all historical fiction is alternate history in some sense, but that’s a whole pub conversation…). A speculative element does exist in Assassin’s Creed, and it’s technically more science fiction than fantasy in its worldview, I’d say, but some of the science is indistinguishable from magic. The Magus Conspiracy doesn’t lean very hard into the speculative aspects. My other novel published in 2022, The Embroidered Book, is more overtly historical fantasy; it posits that Marie Antoinette and her sister Maria Carolina were secretly magicians.
Now, Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy is your fifth novel or novella, but the first that takes place in someone else’s fictional universe. How hard was it to give up a certain amount of control, to have people who could say to you, “No, we’d rather Pierette not to that”?
I wasn’t sure myself what to expect. But it was a really fun, supportive, collaborative process. I had the basic structure of the setting and the lore, but within that, there was a lot of room for me to come up with a story that interested me, and the writing was no different than for any other book. There’s a bit more approval involved in tie-in fiction, of course, but it never felt constrictive.
On the flipside, was there anything good about not having total control?
Tell me to write a story and I’ll stare blankly for half an hour. Tell me to write a story about a woman holding a lantern peering through a window, and I’ll have 500 words on the page in no time. Sometimes, having a few touchstones to work with can spark creativity. And it was great to work closely with my editor, Gwendolyn Nix and Marc Gascoigne, on the outline as well as the draft.
As for the writing of Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy, are there any authors, or perhaps specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on this novel, but not on anything else you’ve written?
The only thing I can think of is that Lord Byron kept sneaking into it, even though he’d been long dead by the time the novel begins. He had a big influence on the period, so I suppose it’s natural that he’d have a big influence on the book.
I also had other literature of the period in my mind, particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
And how about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy? Y’know, besides the Assassin’s Creed games, of course.
I happened to be watching Peaky Blinders at roughly the time I wrote the novel, and while there was no deliberate borrowing, I’m sure that influenced the scenes set in Birmingham.
I also listened to a particular playlist, as I do with every novel I write. The one for The Magus Conspiracy included a lot of traditional soldier’s songs and anti-war and anti-recruitment songs. And also, a lot of Pogues songs for some reason.
The Magus Conspiracy is, of course, inspired by the Assassin’s Creed games. Do you think it could work as an Assassin’s Creed game?
It would be a bit of a challenge because of the span of years and the several different settings, but I think it could be done. I’d love to be able to play a mission with Pierrette in the hippodrome. There’s also a scene set in the British Museum that I would love to play.
Now, before I let you slip into the shadows, or jump off the roof into a rather conveniently placed pile of hay, I want to ask you about your Alice Payne series. In the interview we did for Alice Payne Arrives, you said, “Two books are all that I have planned for now [but] I’d be happy to write more.” Did the readers respond well? Because I really liked those books.
Ah, thanks so much for saying so. I was really pleased that those novellas had some award nominations. And readers responded well, but not well enough to warrant my publisher offering me another book in that series. I did write the duology to be complete, knowing that I might not return to it. So, not much has changed there. I still have a vague idea for what I might write next with those characters, but I don’t have any immediate plans to do so. I have too many other projects on the go. But maybe one of these days.
Because of your Alice Payne novellas, and your other books, you have fans who might consider reading Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy even if they’re not into the Assassin’s Creed games. Do you think someone unfamiliar with the games will enjoy Magus, and, more importantly, understand it?
I was very keen to make sure that The Magus Conspiracy could be understood and enjoyed by someone who had no idea what Assassin’s Creed even is. So I’m definitely happy if readers come to it from my other work, and I think they’ll find it’s as much as a “Kate” novel as anything else I’ve written.
Then, on the flipside, what do you think fans of the games will get out of reading Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy?
I’ve been really gratified by the reaction of Assassin’s Creed fans so far. They do appreciate getting a few sly references that other readers won’t, or understanding them on another level. I think one of the things that fans have appreciated so far is that the novel really explores the philosophical underpinnings of the games, and I worked hard to fit it into the overarching storyline so that it would feel organic within that universe.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy?
The one thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that the news is out that I’m writing the sequel! Assassin’s Creed: The Resurrection Plot will be out in 2023 from Aconyte. The Magus Conspiracy stands alone pretty well, but there are a few plot threads that the sequel picks up, and readers will encounter some of the same characters.
Finally, if someone enjoys Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy, which of your other books would you suggest they read while wating for The Resurrection Plot to come out?
We’ve already talked about my two time-travel novellas, Alice Payne Arrives and Alice Payne Rides. Alice Payne, the main character, is a highwaywoman who has to solve the mysterious disappearance of a carriage she’s just robbed. They’re similar to the The Magus Conspiracy in terms of pacing, and have a similar approach to exploring the sweep of history. And those novellas also feature a long war between factions, which seems to be a recurring motif for me (there are also secret factions in my novel The Embroidered Book).