Mirah Bolender’s urban fantasy novel City Of Broken Magic (paperback, Kindle) has been described as being like a magical version of the movie The Hurt Locker. But in the following email interview, Bolender admits that she hadn’t seen that movie when she started writing this story.
Photo Credit: Troy Freund
To start, what is City Of Broken Magic about?
City Of Broken Magic takes place in an alternate world. Hundreds of years ago, during the high age of magic, a group called the Magi tried to sabotage magical weaponry, and in the process started an infestation of monsters that threatened to destroy all life in their country. At the time of the story itself, the remaining humans have locked themselves up in walled city-states for their protection. Infestations are tracked down and destroyed by teams called Sweepers, who wield magical weapons.
The main character, Laura, lives in the city Amicae, where the Sweeper department has been reduced to two people — Laura and her workaholic boss Clae — and the city itself falsely claims immunity from the monsters. The Sweepers basically have to work with one hand tied behind their backs to destroy the monsters they come across, all while trying to avoid the local mobs, corrupt businessmen, and the threats of their government, all while on a shoestring budget.
Where did you get the original idea for City Of Broken Magic, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you were writing it?
The first draft is completely unrecognizable. Chapters one and two were spawned from a prompt in one of my writing classes, “a day on the job,” and incorporated a slew of details like footnotes a la House Of Leaves. Readers will be glad to know that the footnotes were discarded in draft three, yet they left small but bizarre impacts on the storyline.
City Of Broken Magic is a fantasy novel. But are there any subgenres of fantasy — or combinations of them — that describe this story better?
The broadest, most accurate genres I know of are “secondary world” and “urban fantasy.” The technology is caught somewhere between steampunk and dieselpunk.
Now, in your bio, it says you are, “a lifelong traveler [who] has traveled and studied overseas, most notably in Japan, and these experience leak into her work.” How, if at all, did your time in Japan influence what you wrote in City Of Broken Magic or how you wrote it?
The travel that most impacted City Of Broken Magic was my trip to Italy with my Latin class back in high school. While I couldn’t nail grammar or sentence structure, Latin caught my imagination: Amicae and all the accompanying cities in the story are Latin words, and when it comes to atmosphere, my agent first thought the setting was in an Italian-inspired area.
On the other hand, Japanese features as a language in the story and is heavily used by the Magi mentioned in the summary. My experience in Japan influenced smaller details of the setting, like the description of rain and distance of the clouds. It’s not really Japanese, per se, but it was something that distinctly struck me while I was there.
There’s been some fantasy stories lately that have a strong Asian influence, most notably R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War and JY Yang’s Tensorate novellas [The Black Tides Of Heaven, The Red Threads Of Fortune, and The Descent Of Monsters]. It doesn’t sound like City Of Broken Magicis one as well, though.
I wouldn’t place this as Asian influenced. It’s a conglomeration of influences and doesn’t adhere to a specific location. By all means, if readers are looking for fantastic Asian-inspired works, then The Poppy War and Tensorate novellas are wonderful places to go.
As long as we’re talking about other authors, are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on City Of Broken Magic but not on anything else you’ve written?
I can’t put a finger on any specific author or work that didn’t have a broad influence on me. A lot of things I write have similar threads going through them, so even if it doesn’t seem like it on the surface, if I read something and am inspired, then it travels through all of my work.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you think had a big impact on City Of Broken Magic? Because this story has been likened to the movie The Hurt Locker.
I have a lot of influences, but some of the ones that seem like they’d have the most impact didn’t actually get any input in the story. For example, I’d never seen The Hurt Locker until my editor pointed out the similarities; it’s helped me direct and define how I engage with it now, but during the drafting process it wasn’t an influence.
With literary work my inspirations are broad, but when it comes to other media, it’s easy to get a visual or a single line stuck in my head and have that come out onto the page, sometimes years later. One of the really obvious visuals in City Of Broken Magic was from a video game. Back in the days of the Gameboy Advance, I had a copy of Boktai, where the main character fought vampires with a solar gun. Clae and his magical guns are a holdover from that.
So when it came to describing how the sweepers in City Of Broken Magic would diffuse stuff, did you look into how real bomb disposal technicians work, did you instead base it on stuff you’ve seen in movies…?
Everything was made up. I never even thought of the monsters as “bombs” until my editor pointed it out, instead thinking of them as a malicious infestation that needed to be uprooted or beaten into submission. It’s not as easy as cutting a wire or stopping a clock, because this time the “bomb” has its own way of stopping you, and it’s not a single detonation but a series of disasters if you can’t outwit it. When it comes down to it, the problem of infestations is that they make a nest out of things that aren’t properly cared for, so it’s the root itself that needs to be addressed — remove the habitat and the monster can’t survive — but the monster knows very well how that works, so it’ll be twice as nasty to anyone trying to remove it. That’s why I chose the route I did.
Now, City Of Broken Magic is the first book of a series you’re calling the Chronicles Of Amicae. What can you tell us about this series in terms of titles and release dates and whatnot?
Chronicles of Amicae is planned to contain three books. I’m still working on those, so release dates and titles haven’t been confirmed yet, but I hope to get that information soon.
As you know, some people wait until every book in a series is out, and then they read them all in a row. But is there a story-based reason why you think people shouldn’t do this with City Of Broken Magic? Or that they should?
As a reader, I think reading one by one is a better way to go. Sure, if you read all the books at once you have the complete story in one sitting, but the details start to blur into each other. It’s not as special. If you’re reading the books as they’re coming out, it feels like more of an experience. I have fond memories of Harry Potter releases: the buildup, the anticipation, the parties on release night, the thrill of getting your hands on that book at long last, and being able to look forward to more. I don’t expect another Harry Potter anytime soon, but it gives you the opportunity to savor the story instead of experiencing it for an instant and moving on.
Something else I wanted to ask you: Amicae is kind of close to “America.” Am I reading too much into this?
Actually, Amicae derives from a Latin word for friend — I wanted a little irony in the name, to contrast with the events unfolding there.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced City Of Broken Magic. Has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game based on the Chronicles Of Amicae series?
To my knowledge there’s been no interest so far.
If it was up to you, what would you like it be?
I’d probably go with a TV show, if only a short one. Movies can try to fit too much material in too short a time, and video games tend to be tied to specific platforms, so a TV show could take what length and material it wanted while remaining available to the most people.
And if that happened, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
At the risk of sounding crazy, I don’t really have any actors picked out, or even a defined appearance for my characters. They’re sort of like fog people in my brain. So long as they have the specified traits — Clae’s coat, Laura’s ponytail — then they could be any shape or size and I’d still be thrilled with them.
As an aside, if it were made into a video game, I’d go for a turn-based RPG. It’s fine to run around an open world with a sword swinging in a large radius, but if you ask me to aim at something I fail so badly.
Finally, if someone enjoys City Of Broken Magic, what fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that? And let’s make things interesting: The Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones, and the other super obvious choices are off-limits.
If I were able to recommend a single novel, it would have to be A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. It also has a more modern-ish setting, with a fantastic set of characters, a great magical system, and a darker undertone.