Forty years after launching the Kencyrath novels with 1982’s God Stalk, author P.C. Hodgell is planning to end this epic fantasy series…just not yet. In the following email interview, Hodgell discusses what may be the penultimate installment, Deathless Gods (paperback, Kindle).
author portrait by R.O. Hodgell
For people who haven’t read any of the Kencyrath novels, what is this series about, and what kind of a world do these stories take place in?
Well, the series as a whole is about a lot of things: growing up, learning responsibility, finding a place in society, arboreal drift, gods, demons, haunts, and the occasional bad-tempered rathorn (think of a carnivorous, armor-plated unicorn who accidentally blood binds himself to you while trying to have you for lunch).
A further word of warning: these novels have a complicated backstory, upon which I am still working.
The basic premise is that there are many dimensions called The Chain Of Creation that overlap each other on a series of threshold worlds.
Long ago, an outside force known as Perimal Darkling invaded The Chain and has been eating its way up link after link ever since. It can be seen as a cancer on reality, or as malignant entropy, or as a soul-devouring demon. Life and death become confused under its shadows. So do the animate and the inanimate. Spreading out from individual threshold worlds, it feeds on the souls of each dimension in turn as manifested by its native deities.
Thirty millennia ago, one of these gods bound together three native races — The Kendar, the self-styled Highborn, and the cat-like Arrin-ken — into The Kencyrath to fight the encroaching shadows. On the eve of battle, however, the Three-Faced God abandoned its chosen people. Thus began their long retreat from threshold world to world down The Chain, sustained by their concept of honor and by a belief that their god will some day return in the form of three special individuals embodying Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, known collectively as the Tyr-ridan.
The current stories start on the world of Rathillien, at the end of The Chain. The Kencyrath is finally beginning to fall apart thanks to past treachery, corruption among the Highborn, and long-thwarted hope — this, just as the Tyr-ridan appear.
My main character, Jame (short for Jamethiel Priest’s-bane), discovers to her chagrin that she is destined to become That-Which-Destroys, if someone doesn’t kill her first. Trained by Kendar, she has a strong sense of honor, but also a background as an unfallen darkling (a long story in itself) that makes her doubt her own nature. Around her, events just keep happening. Some things, she comes to realize, need to be broken, but which? First, though, she has to work out the nature of divinity on Rathillien and how her people can defend it. Otherwise, this last world will fall and all of creation with it.
And then for people who have read the other Kencyrath stories, what is Deathless Gods about, and when does it take place in relation to the previous book in the series, By Demons Possessed?
Deathless Gods begins a few days after By Demons Possessed ends, at the randon muster at Gothregor and the graduation of Jame’s class of cadets.
The Kencyrath is starting to fall apart at the seams. In order to obtain the supplies needed to survive the coming winter, Kencyr mercenaries are contracted to the Seven Kings of the Central Lands for the first time in thirty years. However, someone has betrayed the secret clause in the contract that would prevent the kings from ordering rampant bloodshed as they pit their hired troops against each other.
Also, Torisen gets a somewhat unhinged message from his war-leader, Harn Grip-hard, who has gone on ahead to the Central Lands capital of High Bashti. Jame volunteers to check on him. This lands her in an ancient part of Rathillien which she has never visited before (nor has the reader).
High Bashti has its own pantheon of gods based on who among the recently dead patricians has the most believers. Jame sees some similarities here: e.g. faith creates reality and the soul is connected to the body, so that the test of a true god is that his or her corpse doesn’t decay. More is learned about the nature of divinity on Rathillien.
Also, High Bashti is the home of the Shadow Guild, whose assassins killed most of the Knorth ladies thirty years ago, but under contract to whom?
And why does Harn lose control every time he sees the queen’s obnoxious son?
There are contests between the mercenaries of various houses, a return of the Burnt Man, and possessed Kendar.
The question remains, who really threatens the Kencyrath? The Commandant puts his finger on it at Karkinaroth: not the ones we feared.
When in relation to writing the other Kencyrath books did you come up with the idea for Deathless Gods, and what inspired this book’s story?
I felt that there were themes that needed to be developed before the final novel, notably what was going wrong with the Kencyrath. In a series this long, there are a lot of loose ends that have to be tied in somehow before the end. Also, I had left a big chunk of Rathillien unexplored. And there are secrets there yet to unearth that would be hard to get at any other way, particularly in regard to the Shadow Guild. Initially, I thought this would be the beginning of the final novel, but there turned out to be too much story and too many loose ends for that.
As for inspiration, I did a lot of research on ancient Rome and Athens. High Bashti is an old city, more so than Tai-tastigon which is essentially medieval. I wanted a new flavor here, and a new link between the Old and New Pantheons.
It sounds like Deathless Gods, and the other Kencyrath books, are all epic fantasy stories. Is that how you see them?
I would call them epic if only because of their massive backstories and my attempts to include social, historical, cultural, and religious elements. But they also have elements of humor and horror. The latter has become easier as I age than the former, or so it seems. Also, they are bildungsroman in that all three major characters (Jame, Torisen, Kindrie) are young people growing from abused childhoods into a (somewhat) loving adulthood. I qualify that because both Jame and Tori still seem to me somewhat stunted. First, all three have to learn how to deal with each other after a rough start.
Deathless Gods is the 10th Kencyrath novel and 11th book overall.
Yes, Deathless Gods is the tenth novel in the series. As for the other book you mentioned, the short story collection, Blood And Ivory, I should point out that not all of those stories are still canonical, especially the early ones. It took me awhile to figure out where I was going.
Are there any writers or stories, that had a big influence on Deathless Gods but not on any of the other books?
I always turn to history and folklore when I’m looking for ideas. The lay-out of High Bashti, for example, is based in part on maps of classical Rome. So I’d say I’d say Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius The God, and the PBS adaptation of the former. Other books I found useful were Tony Perrrottet’s Naked Olympics, A Walk In Ancient Rome, and The Ancient City. Oh yes, then there were also Mary Renault’s novels about the lives of actors and the theater in Classical Greece. Her Mask Of Apollo is one of my favorites.
Earlier you alluded to Deathless Gods setting up the final book in this series…
I try to give each of these novels its own plot arc, but they do build on each other. My current thinking is that #11 will be the last one, but the story does go on from there, at least in my mind, so who knows? Right now, I want #11 to tie up as many loose ends as possible (hey, I’m 71. How much longer can I do this?).
So then if each of these books are somewhat self-contained, do you think Deathless Gods would be a good place for someone to start reading the Kencyrath series, or should they start somewhere else?
I really would suggest starting with God Stalk [the first novel]. Granted, it’s probably the most idiosyncratic of the novels, but everything builds on it, for those readers who can stand to leave Tai-tastigon. Some critics hated me for that and said that it would kill the series. On the other hand, I hear from some readers that they revisit the entire series each time a new installment comes out. (Personally, I don’t like to re-read old work, and often turn to my Live Journal followers to fill in details that I’ve forgotten.)
Hollywood loves makes movies, TV shows, and games based on fantasy novels. Do you think Deathless Gods and the Kencyrath series could work as a movie, show, or game?
I can’t answer for games, not knowing any, but I think the novels would make a good series of movies or a TV show. Each novel could be an individual film (as with Harry Potter), or a season (as with Game Of Thrones). In both cases, there are both individual story arcs and an over-all plot that should be satisfying to follow. It would probably have to be simplified throughout, though, a real challenge for any screen-writer.
And if someone wanted to adapt Deathless Gods into a movie or show, who would you want them to cast as Jame, Tori, and the other main characters?
Oh boy. People ask me this, and my mind goes mostly blank. The actors I like best are either too old or dead. Of the current crop, I could see Benedict Cumberbatch [Doctor Strange] as Tori: he portrays the right combination of strength and vulnerability. A young Diana Rigg would make a great Jame. When I was growing up, she was my role model in The Avengers. [Planet Of The Apes‘] Roddy McDowall gone white-haired as Kindrie? The Three should bear a physical resemblance to each other. After all, age and gender aside, Jame and Tori were often mistaken for each other until he grew a beard, and their cousin Kindrie is a sort of washed-out version of them both.
Another suggestion: you didn’t mention anime. I can easily see all of these characters and settings as lush animation. Rich colors. Intricate details. Sensuous lines.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Deathless Gods?
Well, maybe that I started in one direction and found myself suddenly swerving in another. That’s the danger of not working out a complete summary to begin with, something I’ve never done before. But then I wouldn’t have found my way. The Commandant says it best: “All of this time, we have worried about the lost clause that would protect us against our paymasters here in the Central Lands, but we were looking in the wrong direction. The contracts that really matter are between a lord and his people, between Kencyr and Kencyr.”
Lastly, if someone enjoys Deathless Gods, they’ll probably go back and read the rest of the Kencyrath books, if they haven’t already. Once they’ve done that, though, they’ll probably want something short and sweet. So, what similar kind of fantasy novel or novella of someone else’s, which is also a stand-alone story, would you suggest they read next?
I would suggest a collection of Fritz Leiber’s short stories. They may seem a bit out dated now, but Marc and Jame in God Stalk are my take on his Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser series, when I was first trying to figure out how to be a novelist.
I subsequently met him at a worldcon reading, one of his and one of mine. For the latter, he came in late (after the knight in full plate armor: clank, clank, clank), and seemed to fall asleep. Afterword, though, he wrote a nice review in Locus. So I didn’t put my god to sleep after all.
On a more modern note, anything that Patricia McKillip writes is well worth reading. Ditto Diana Wynne Jones.