Exclusive Interview: Darksoul Author Anna Stephens
Given its name and that it’s a dark fantasy novel — grimdark, even — it’s not surprising that Anna Stephens has been asked if her novel Darksoul (paperback, Kindle) is connected to the Dark Souls video games. In the following email interview, Stephens not only explains that no, it’s not — it’s the second book in her Godblind trilogy — but also how games, movies, and movie soundtracks inspired this fantasy tale.
To begin, what is the Godblind trilogy about, what is Darksoul about, and how does Darksoul connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book in this series, also called Godblind?
In essence, the Godblind trilogy is about exploring the human condition when it is pushed to extremes. How do people react when everything they know and love is threatened, their very way of life, their freedom and their religion taken away from them?
The trilogy follows the fates of several characters on both sides of a religious war that is being fought to impose one people’s ideology on another. To clarify, the Mireces people worship the Red Gods, and the Red Gods have decreed that it is time for their dogma to be universal. The king of the Mireces, Corvus, and the high priestess Lanta, known as the Blessed One, lead the invasion of the country of Rilpor to subjugate its people and wipe out worship of the Gods Of Light.
The trilogy has a medieval setting and the technology level is comparable to that — so trebuchets and catapults, swords, spears, bows, etc. It should be noted that women fight alongside men, an event that has occurred throughout our world history, though I suspect it will never be reported as widely as it was practiced.
The events in Darksoul pick up two weeks or so after the ending of Godblindand concern the siege of Rilpor’s capital city, the increasing desperation of attackers and defenders to bring the war to a conclusion, and the overt meddling of a variety of gods in the affairs of humans.
Where did you get the idea for Darksoul, how did it change as you wrote it, if at all, and when in relation to writing Godblind did you come up with the original idea?
I had the idea for the overarching narrative story way back in the mists of time when I was writing the first drafts of Godblind. I always knew the ultimate ending of the trilogy, and I thought I knew the outline of Darksoul. It turns out, however, that I did not…or at least that the narrative I proposed wasn’t complex and satisfying enough.
As a result, I went through two very heavy rounds of editing with my publishers in which the plot changed quite dramatically. The main elements I’d planned on from the start remain, but much of the sub-plot and movement of the characters around these main elements is different. It was a complicated and at times heart-breaking process, but the book is far superior as a result, so I can’t — and don’t — complain. Much.
Darksoul, like Godblind, is a grimdark fantasy story. But are there any other fantasy genres, or combinations of them, at work in this story as well?
I didn’t set out to write a grimdark book or trilogy. As far as I was concerned, the trilogy is epic fantasy on the morally grey side of the fence. My publishers believed it fell in the grimdark category and marketed it as such, and I am perfectly content with that.
The biggest thing about grimdark is that it defies clear definition. Everyone has their own parameters for where it starts and ends. For some people, my work doesn’t fall under the grimdark moniker and for others it does. What I can say is that it deals with war, conquest, good and evil, thoroughly unlikable villains, and morally grey heroes.
There are also elements of romance, though it isn’t a romance novel, and definite elements of military fantasy simply due to the nature of the first two books covering the events of a war.
In your bio, it says you have “a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate and is no stranger to being punched in the face, which is more help that you would expect when writing fight scenes.” Does that mean this trilogy has some martial arts aspects or influences?
Ha! Yes, I have been punched in the face — and many other places — a lot over the years. It really hurts.
There are no overt martial arts aspects as in named techniques or spinning backfists or the like, but there’s an awful lot of toe to toe punch ups, grapples when fighters lose their weapons or are disarmed, and a lot of close fighting with knives as well as longer weapons.
My karate background has, for me, been invaluable in writing these scenes. There are a variety of approaches to writing fights and large-scale battles, from the third-person omniscient looking down on a battlefield from above and noting the flow of the combat to the up close and personal third-person limited — or even first-person — in which you can taste the blood and smell the death. When I’m writing a big battle, I like to use a mixture of omniscient and limited, to see the flow from the point of view of the commander on a hilltop directing his troops but also the grunt in the front line dodging jabs from a spear.
When I close in on a moment of individual combat, I like to make it as realistic as possible. For me this means walking through the fight scene — literally walking through it, blocking, stabbing, parrying, spinning, etc. — from the perspective of both combatants to make sure the fight works. I then write each step and jab so that, hopefully, people can visualize the entirety of the fight.
Karate has also taught me how to put in small, innocuous movements in the run up to a fight that other trained fighters will recognize: a shifting of weight onto the balls of the feet, for instance, or sliding one foot backwards to center the balance.
For me, it all adds a layer of realism to the scenes that might otherwise be missing. I’ve also recently begun training in Italian longsword to better understand how to write sword fights.
Speaking of influences, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Darksoul but not on Godblind?
If they did, I suspect it was subconscious. Personally, I believe Darksoul is a better crafted book than Godblind, which is both because I’m a better writer now than I was then, but also due to input from my agent and editor and one invaluable — ex-army — beta reader who helped me clarify a couple of points of tactics.
I listened to a fairly specific set of album soundtracks during the writing of Darksoul though, and it’s entirely possible they may have had an impact on me writing more cinematically. In particular, I had The Lord Of The Rings trilogy soundtracks and the Gladiator soundtrack on almost constant repeat. Make of that what you will.
Aside from those albums, are there any other movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on Darksoul?
Possibly The Two Towers, thinking about it. It didn’t occur to me until after Darksoul was published, but almost the entire novel is set during a siege and apparently that’s pretty unusual. There is, of course, Legend by David Gemmell which covers a siege, and then there’s The Two Towers and Helm’s Deep, which in the film takes up a massive chunk of the plot…as it should, because it’s amazing and epic.
I might have been channeling some of that when writing Darksoul, especially as, like I said, I listened to that soundtrack a lot. And I do mean a lot.
And how often when you’ve told people that you were calling this book Darksoul did they say, “Oh, like the game? That’s game’s tough.”?
It does get mentioned quite a bit. Someone asked me if it was a tie-in book based on the game and was quite disappointed when I said no.
When it comes to games, I have a terribly addictive personality — I once got told off at work for playing Tetris on my phone during a meeting — so I don’t actually play them anymore. I quite like watching other people play them, but I don’t indulge myself. If I did, I can guarantee that I would never get another book finished ever again.
Now, you’ve already announced that the third book in the Godblind trilogy, Bloodchild, is slated to be released in the summer of 2019. But is that really the end of the story? I ask because you also write short stories, and I’m wondering if you were planning to write any connected stories, or had already?
I’ve been working on the trilogy for a very long time, so the thought of saying goodbye to the world and these characters is genuinely upsetting. I’ve currently got a couple of short stories in print based on a new character and a new world, the mercenary captain Syl Stoneheart, who has a series of very bad days, but I also have a long short story set in the Godblind universe that’s coming out in Unfettered III through Grim Oak Press in March 2019.
Other than that, I have an idea for a novella set in the same world but prior to the events of the trilogy, and there is always scope for bringing secondary characters to the forefront and writing their continuing stories.
For now, I’d like to work on something completely different, but I think there’s a distinct probability that there will be more Godblind stories in the future.
As you know, some people wait until all three books in a trilogy are out, and then they read them all in a row. But is there any reason why you think someone should read it now instead of waiting? Or that they should hold off until all three books are out?
I would say if you’ve got the first two then read them. The brilliant thing about books is that you don’t need to just read them once. The same way you play your favorite game more than once or watch your favorite movie more than once, you can read a book more than once. So buy them, read them, and then read them again to prepare for the third one being published.
There’s no story-based reason not to read Darksoul now. Godblind had a big cliffhanger ending, but Darksoul doesn’t. This section of the story is very much wrapped up. Of course there’s more plot to come — a lot of it, and it’s dark and bloody and glorious — but it doesn’t have the same “oh my godI can’t believe she finished the book there” ending that Godblind does.
Earlier I asked you about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced Darksoul. But has there been any interest in adapting this series into a movie, show, or game?
Unfortunately, Hollywood is too busy remaking existing films to look at epic fantasy novels that would translate extremely well to screen. So as yet I haven’t had any interest.
If there was, do you have a preference?
I think the books would translate well to the screen though because I try to write cinematically, with an eye to movement and space and color, particularly during epic fight scenes. And because there isn’t a huge element of magic or monsters, there wouldn’t be a massive green screen budget to worry about either, so the books would suit both film and a smaller TV production.
And if that happened, who would you like to see cast in the main roles?
My ideal run down for a film or TV version is Diego Luna [Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] as Crys, Wilson Cruz [Star Trek: Discovery] as Ash, Michelle Gomez [Doctor Who] as Lanta, Hannah John-Kamen [Ant-Man And The Wasp] as Tara, Danny Glover [Predator 2] as Rivil, Viggo Mortensen [The Lord Of The Rings] as Durdil.
I could actually go on, so you can tell how much I’ve been daydreaming about this…and I’d want David Cronenberg [A History Of Violence] as the director, because I love his spare, quite austere directing style. He’s also worked with Viggo before, so that would be perfect.
The list is too long for me to really go into my reasons for each choice, but suffice to say I’ve put a lot of thought into this and there’s something about each actor that really speaks to the character I’ve paired them with, whether that’s a quiet dignified competence and technical skill (Viggo), a smart-mouthed rebelliousness (John-Kamen), a capacity to make hard decisions (Luna) or an aptitude for crazed ambition (Gomez).
Finally, if someone’s enjoyed Godblind and Darksoul, what fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for the third book to come out, and why that?
I’d say anything by Robin Hobb if you want to go dark or go home. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is excellent military fantasy with strong myth and magic elements. Anything by Jen Williams if you want something that’s dark but with high levels of snark and humor. The Dragon’s Legacy by Deborah Wolf is lush and vivid fantasy with a non-European setting.
In fact, to make it easier, there’s a link over on the Fantasy Hive (a great resource for people looking for new authors and books) which lists 15 grimdark authors, of which I am honored to be one. You can find it here.