For the last few years, writer Andrew Rowe has been exploring the fictional realm of Venaya through the novels in his Arcane Ascension series. But with Crystal Awakening (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), he’s getting some help from fellow fantasy writer Kayleigh Nicol. In the following email interview, Rowe and Nicol discuss how this collaboration came to be, what inspired and influenced this progression fantasy saga, and their plans for expanding the world of Venaya even further.
Andrew Rowe, Kayleigh Nicol
I’d like to start with some background. Andrew, what is your Arcane Ascension series about, and what kind of world are those stories set in?
Andrew: Sure. The Arcane Ascension series focuses on Corin Cadence, a young man who enters the Serpent Spire — a colossal spire filled with monsters, traps, and treasure — to earn an attunement. Attunements are magical marks supposedly gifted by the goddess of the towers, Selys, to anyone who proves worthy. These are the primary source of magic on the continent of Kaldwyn, where this story takes place, and extremely culturally important.
People enter the spire through different gates and for different reasons. Corin’s entry for an attunement is a part of his cultural coming-of-age into adulthood, but others enter through a Climber’s Gate, either to search for treasure, or to seek the top of the spire, where they believe they will meet with the goddess herself to be granted a boon. There are many stories of brave heroes accomplishing this goal, but precious few in recent history.
Corin’s entry into the tower is the first step into a journey to discover the fate of his brother, Tristan, who disappeared into the Serpent Spire five years earlier and never returned. While most — including Corin’s family — believe that Tristan must have perished by failing his Judgement, Corin hopes to either find his brother alive…or eventually reach the top of the spire, where he can ask the goddess to restore his brother to life.
Arcane Ascension takes place on the world of Venaya, along with many of my other books. It’s an extremely magic-heavy setting, with each continent having different methods of earning magical power, and occasional characters crossing over to wield strange foreign sorceries in lands beyond their own. Kaldwyn in particular has a high degree of magical technological development, with most technology analogous to the early 1900s, but generally powered by magic rather than mundane means. There are trains, early firearms, typewriters, and enchanted communication devices — as well as things our world hasn’t yet developed in some areas, such as powerful weather shields on certain cities and highly advanced magically-assisted diagnostics and medicine.
And then what is Crystal Awakening about, and how does it and the rest of the Shattered Legacy series connect to the other Arcane Ascension books?
Kayleigh: This series happens sometime in between Andrew’s Weapons & Wielders series, and his Arcane Ascension series. Each book of the Shattered Legacy series is intended to take place almost entirely within the different spires of Kaldwyn, so while it’s a good idea to be familiar with the setting and the magic system, there’s no need to read all of Andrew’s other books to enjoy the story of Shattered Legacy. (But you should read them anyway!)
In the previous question, Andrew shared a bit about Kaldwyn and the soaring spires that grant people the ability to use magic called “attunements.” While Arcane Ascension follows a young hero just beginning his journey by venturing through the Judgment Gate of the Serpent Spire, the characters of Shattered Legacy are experienced climbers who enter the spire through the Climbers Gate in order to earn treasure and rewards for overcoming the challenges presented to them.
Crystal Awakening, as the first book of the Shattered Legacy series, sets up the basis for the rest of the series, including a mysterious entity that sends the climber team on a quest across Kaldwyn. But first, the team must adapt to its new team members and work together in order to ascend to the next level of the Tortoise Spire in Dalenos. Featuring an exciting array of new and powerful attunements as well as a diverse cast of characters, Crystal Awakening should be seen as an accompaniment to Andrew’s multiple ongoing series.
As I understand it, Andrew, you asked Kayleigh to pitch you an idea for a book or series of books set within the Arcane Ascension series. Why did you want someone else to write something within your fictional universe, and why did you want Kayleigh to be that person?
Andrew: Arcane Ascension has been a collaborative setting for years, but not in this format. I created the setting for tabletop role-playing games in the 1990s, then branched off into running live-action role-playing games in the setting starting in the 2000s. Even in the earliest stages, I was collaborating with friends on ideas for the world. I’d bounce ideas off of Mallory Reaves, one of my most frequent collaborators and a fellow writer. I’d get other advice, as well as artistic help for character designs and continent maps, from Rowman Noel Williams (now Lead Narrative Designer for Sprocket Games). And once I got into running a LARP, I worked closely with these people and numerous others on writing rules and lore documents, as well as actually producing the live-action games. And as time passed, others began to run games in my universe, including Emily Lawrence, an award-winning narrator that we were lucky enough to hook into being one of the narrators for this very novel. So, in many respects, this setting has been a collaboration right from the start, and it continues to be now.
As for why I approached Kayleigh, it’s pretty simple: I loved her writing style for Sorcerous Rivalry, the first book of her own Mage-Born Chronicles, and thought she’d make a great fit. She does a great job of writing magic-user characters, as the title implies, and that’s hugely important. She’s also very character focused, and good at writing an engaging and dynamic cast.
Kayleigh, when Andrew approached you with the idea of writing a story or stories within his Arcane Ascension series, what not only made you want to do it, but also made you think you were the right person to do it?
Kayleigh: Ha! I don’t know about the right person, but I was certainly honored and excited to be asked. Right at the start, Andrew told me he was asking other authors to contribute to his expanded universe and that I wouldn’t be the only one. Honestly, I am excited to see what the other authors come up with for additional expanded universe content.
What really excited me about collaborating on a series with Andrew was the ability to combine two of my favorite activities: writing and video games. I’ve always pictured the continent of Kaldwyn as the world map of a video game, and the soaring spires like classic dungeons, full of monsters, traps, and puzzles. The magic system is somewhat akin to the class system you would find in any MMORPG, like World Of Warcraft, except with a greater variety of class types, weapons, and combat styles. Even before Andrew asked me to contribute to his world, I was picturing it as a video game and wondering which attunement I would want to have, if I could choose. Would it be more fun to be a Summoner, or a Shapeshifter? What spire would I want to climb and why? Since these were questions I was already asking myself, it was an easy transition to make up characters to explore this rich world of possibility.
If there was one thing that made this opportunity feel “right” for me, it was the inclusivity that Andrew had already established in his world of Arcane Ascension. Diverse representation is deeply important to me and my writing, especially in regards to LBGTQIA+ characters in fantasy stories that aren’t driven by romance. While I have only ever read a few video game inspired books (or LitRPG books), I often find this representation to be lacking, but in Andrew’s world, not only are characters with different sexual orientations, gender expressions and unique relationships accepted by society, the religion on Kaldwyn actually includes a nonbinary deity. It’s amazing to see that much representation, and then to be invited to bring even more of those themes into the world was like a dream. Between the excitement of the setting of the Arcane Ascension universe and seizing an opportunity to provide more diverse stories in this genre, the choice to participate ended up being an easy one.
So then where did you get the idea that ultimately became Crystal Awakening and the Shattered Legacy series?
Kayleigh: The idea mostly came from what I wanted to see more of in Andrew’s world: I wanted more epic battles, I wanted more magical attunements, and I wanted even more complex and intriguing characters to navigate the trials and travails of the spires. Mixing all of those things together adds up to one epic dungeon crawling adventure.
Once we had the basic premise, Andrew and I exchanged ideas back and forth via email, figuring out the broad details that would help me narrow down the beginning of this series. We had to choose a starting spire, which meant picking a country of origin for the characters, as well as the attunements typical to that spire. Then we had to find a compelling reason for the team to consider leaving the spire they were most familiar with. It was actually Andrew’s idea to give the team an epic quest as the reason for traveling from spire to spire, and developing that quest actually defined a large chunk of the over-arching plot for the series. Crystal Awakening is a combination of what I wanted to see in Andrew’s world combined with Andrew’s epic quest idea, making this a truly joint effort.
And Andrew, what was it about Kayleigh’s idea that made you think it was right for the Arcane Ascension series?
Andrew: That’s a really easy one. Her spire-climbing focused narrative was what I originally envisioned the focus of Arcane Ascension to be, back when I first concepted out the idea for the story. Arcane Ascension evolved into a hybrid between a tower-climbing story and a magical university story, with Corin learning magic to reach the point where he could work on climbing the spires — but I still loved the idea of a group of adventurers focusing on climbing as the central narrative. And that’s exactly what Kayleigh pitched, so it was an easy sell. It’s also an element of the setting that fans want more of, so I think they’re going to love this series.
So then how did the writing process work?
Kayleigh: Well, for this first book, I pretty much wrote the whole thing and then sent it to Andrew for corrections after it was complete…which we both realize was the wrong way to do things. I had to make a lot of changes, most of which centered around the magic system, and some of those changes impacted various plot points and even character traits, which was a lot of work to correct, and a lot of wrinkles to smooth. We came up with a new plan for book two, and I think it’s working much better so far. I’ll write a few chapters at a time, then share them with Andrew so he can offer corrections and suggestions to keep the magic system and the details of the world / religion / politics aligned with his other works. After I make any necessary revisions, I’ll write the next chunk of chapters and send them over. That way, I don’t go down the wrong path for too long and end up having to make full-book corrections again this time.
Crystal Awakening sounds like it’s an epic fantasy tale. Is that how you’d describe it?
Andrew: You could definitely categorize it as epic fantasy, but there’s a better term: progression fantasy. Progression fantasy is a recently-created term that refers to fantasy series that specifically focus on characters training and improving as a major part of the focus of the story. It’s not enough to just have characters passively getting better, which is a common theme in a vast swath of fantasy books. Progression fantasy is where a huge part of the character’s time is spent on working toward getting better at something, typically magic or combat, and generally with clearly quantifiable improvement — either relative to other characters or, in many cases, with a clearly quantifiable power scale of some kind.
Crystal Awakening is obviously not the first book either of you have written. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that you each feel a big influence on Crystal Awakening but not on anything else you’ve written?
Andrew: Not really. On my end, this story draws from the same general inspirations that Sufficiently Advanced Magic did. It simply has a clearer focus on the tower climbing aspect, which was inspired by things like the first SaGa game (Final Fantasy Legend in the United States), Tower Of Druaga, the Darm Tower in the Ys series, the Ancient Cave in the Lufia series, the manhwa Tower of God, etc.
Notably, none of these are books. Most of the books I drew from for inspiration for Sufficiently Advanced Magic were for the magical school side of that story, whereas the dungeon crawling was almost entirely influenced by RPGs, manga / manhwa, and anime. The lack of dungeon crawling / tower climbing novels in the western market was a part of why I wrote it in the first place. Sure, there were things like Forgotten Realms novels, Dragonlance novels, etc. that included elements of dungeon crawling, but very few of the ones I was familiar with had mega dungeons as a major focus of the story. (There’s probably some Undermountain novel stuff in the Forgotten Realms, and that’s similar, but I’m more familiar with that from gaming than novels, too. But I digress.)
What about you, Kayleigh?
Kayleigh: Is it a cop-out to say that Andrew’s books had a big influence on Crystal Awakening? I’m sure it is, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
As far as influences go, I would say that Tamora Pierce, the author of Song Of The Lioness, Wild Magic, and a great many other series, has had the greatest impact on both my writing style and my passion for reading and writing fantasy specifically. Song Of The Lioness was one of my earliest introductions to the fantasy genre, and I was instantly in love with the world, the magic, and her kickass cast of strong female characters. There are many authors I admire, but Tamora Pierce sparked my interest in writing and fantasy, and to this day, I have probably read and reread more of her books than any other author.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Andrew already mentioned some…
Kayleigh: Probably the most obvious influence would be video games. I play a lot of games. If there’s one specific influence, though, I would have to call out World Of Warcraft for the party system used to tackle instances, or dungeons. I played World Of Warcraft for about ten years, so it probably influences my writing in ways I don’t even recognize, but I definitely chose attunements for my characters based on the class types that make up a good dungeon party. There always has to be at least one healer, but you also want to build in a bit of redundancy in case something happens to them, so at least one hybrid class is good to have — someone who can deal damage during a fight, but also has the awareness to know when they need to step in and aid the healer. Then of course there’s the tank, or the person who acts as a shield for everyone else and takes the heavy hits. Tanks protect the rest of the team by keeping the enemies focused on themselves, allowing the damage-dealing classes to fight without fear of drawing fire. The damage-dealers can often be a mixed bag, but I like having at least one melee damage dealer in addition to a ranged damage dealer. Hybrid classes are always fun to add to the mix because of their flexibility.
In addition to World Of Warcraft, I also need to credit the Zelda series, particularly in regard to dungeon design. World Of Warcraft dungeons are largely focused on combat, either with groups of small monsters, or with one or more large monsters. Zelda dungeons are more likely to be a mix of combat, puzzles, and traps, which to me seems more representative of what you might find inside of one of the soaring spires of Kaldwyn.
As for movies and TV shows, it’s hard for me to call out any as having had specific influence on Crystal Awakening, but I do draw inspiration from almost everything I watch. Just like Andrew, I’m a big fan of anime, particularly the shonen genre for the action and adventure, but I also love the mellow slice-of-life style stories seen in Free, Haikyuu!!, and Yuri On Ice. In fact, part of the reason I chose to begin the story of Shattered Awakening at the Tortoise Spire of Dalenos is because the setting draws inspiration from Japanese culture, making it a familiar place for me to begin. As far as influences go, I definitely designed some of my characters’ hairstyles after anime characters.
As we’ve been discussing, Crystal Awakening is the first book in the Shattered Legacy sub-series. What can you tell us about this series?
Kayleigh: At the moment, we’re working towards a set number of books and hopefully that number won’t change significantly. The plan for the overall series is to limit each book to a specific soaring spire, which means cutting out a lot of travel time in between locations. I intend for each book to take place 90% inside a spire, so the first book is dedicated to climbing the Tortoise Spire, and future books will take place in the Serpent Spire, the Tiger Spire, etc., respectively, so there is a planned end point to the series for now. I’m hoping to be able to complete a book a year until the series is finished, but that’s assuming everything goes according to plan.
For some people, Crystal Awakening is going to be the first time they’ve heard of the Arcane Ascension series. Andrew, do you think it’s a good place to start exploring it? And I mean specifically a “good place,” not “the best place.”
Andrew: Absolutely. Especially if you’re more interested in seeing veteran adventurers focusing on a dungeon crawl rather than a weak-to-strong academy narrative. You’ll get the context you need to understand the setting through both an introductory section on the magic system before the story starts and with bits and pieces being revealed organically throughout the narrative. It’s meant to be a solid new entry point for readers.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Crystal Awakening and the Shattered Legacy series?
Andrew: The first book is really a prologue, at least to me. This is going to be a long and powerful series, but you should expect the first book to be more focused on establishing the cast and characters and their motivation. Don’t think of this as having traditional trilogy pacing, since it’s designed to run a lot longer than that.
Kayleigh: I’d like to second Andrew’s point about Crystal Awakening being the beginning of a series that sets up the quest that sends our team of climbers to the other spires around Kaldwyn. For experienced progression fantasy readers, this definitely breaks the mold of character growth as these climbers do not begin at a baseline of zero and get stronger, but rather they begin at the standard level of most professional climbers and continue to grow beyond that point. I should also comment that Andrew called out a few of the battle scenes of this book to be a little more graphic than fight scenes in his other books, so some readers might consider this to be a little grittier than the Arcane Ascension and Weapons & Wielders series.
Finally, if someone enjoys Crystal Awakening, Andrew, which of Kayleigh’s books would you suggest they read next and why that one, and Kayleigh, same question for you about Andrew’s oeuvre.
Andrew: Oh, well that’s pretty straightforward: pick up Sorcerous Rivalry, it’s fantastic.
Kayleigh: I think Sufficiently Advanced Magic is the perfect place to start. The reader follows Corin as he completes his Judgment within the Serpent Spire and begins his magical education at the Valian academy. Since it’s a school setting, it explains the entire magic system as well as the local religion, politics, recent history and more, giving the reader a very solid foundation for the rest of Andrew’s series. It’s not all classroom lectures, however: there are exciting duels, enchanted items, and a deep mystery that keeps the plot moving along steadily. And it’s a big book, so readers can really sink their teeth into it.