Exclusive Interview: “Ebony Gate” Co-Authors Julia Vee & Ken Bebelle


What was it that Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, Part III? “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

It’s a sentiment that Emiko Soong can relate to in Ebony Gate (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), a new urban fantasy novel by writers Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle.

To find out what Emiko was out of, and is now back in, and why — and, y’know, what inspired and influenced this story — check out the following email interview with Julia and Ken.

Julia Vee Ken Bebelle Ebony Gate The Phoenix Hoard Series

Julia Vee (Photo Credit: Nicole Gee Photography), Ken Bebelle (Photo Credit: Ann Dang)


To start, what is Ebony Gate about, and when and where does it take place?

Ken: Ebony Gate takes place in contemporary San Francisco. Emiko Soong is a former assassin in self-exile from her family. She finds out that the ties she thought she had severed have actually been intact the whole time, when a death god shows up at her doorstep, holding a blood debt incurred by her absent mother. Emiko must close a gate to the underworld, with her brother, her city, and her soul hanging in the balance.

Who came up with the idea for Ebony Gate?

Julia: We had wanted to write a contemporary fantasy for a while, but “make it Asian,” and when I was at the Superstars Writing Seminar in Colorado Springs in February of 2020, after several phone calls with Ken, I started drafting it. It started with our hero Emiko waiting at the buffalo paddock in Golden Gate park, stalking a Japanese yeti. I then ended up at a writing retreat in San Diego in March of 2020, and getting down about 30k words before the craziness of pandemic lockdown. Ken and I were talking daily, sometimes twice daily during this drafting and ideation. We use Google Docs, and the revision notes say Ken started the worldbuilding document March 12, 2020. He built the entire backstory of the 9 Sons Of The Dragon and the origin story of this ancient race of Jiaren that our protagonist comes from.

Julia, where did you get the idea from, what inspired it?

Julia: Ken and I were reading a lot of urban fantasy. We talked about “wouldn’t it be cool if” the protagonists were Asian or Asian-American, and fighting monsters from East Asian myth.

And Ken, what was it about Julia’s idea that not only made you think it would be a good story, but one that you’d want to help write?

Ken: I didn’t know this back in 2020 (at least, not consciously) but Julia and I are huge world-building nerds. And I think that is what drew me into Julia’s initial premise for the story, the fact that I could feel the unexplored depths of this world. The idea of building out a secret society in San Francisco was both very familiar, and also gave us a lot of empty canvas to fill to our heart’s desire.

So, is there a reason you set it in San Francisco’s Chinatown as opposed to New York City’s or Los Angeles’? Or, for that matter, a town in China?

Julia: San Francisco is the first city I fell in love with, and even though we considered other cities (Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai), because we both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, it felt right to set Ebony Gate in a place we knew so well.

Ken: Emiko’s story is also a parallel of our own diaspora experience, and setting it in the same environment where we went through all that was perfect.

As you said, Ebony Gate is an urban fantasy story. But it sounds like it could be a silkpunk one, too.

Julia: While I defer to Ken Liu for all things silkpunk, I would agree that the aesthetic we imagine in the Lóng Jiārén homeworld is nature-based, with the difference being that rather than plants, we focused on gems and stones.

Ken: I definitely channeled a lot of vibe / energy I get from my favorite urban fantasy series while we were writing. In my heart, Ebony Gate is urban fantasy.

Ebony Gate has been likened to Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series. What books do you guys liken it to when telling people about it?

Julia: Honestly, I had read none of those books at the time of drafting. Prior to drafting Ebony Gate, I had been reading a steady diet of Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, and Neil Gaiman. I also had the opportunity to take classes from Jim Butcher on craft, and he is truly an inspirational instructor who helped me so much. After that, I found myself working steadily through the Harry Dresden backlist. When it was time to query, I read my copy of Jade City and understood why Ken loved it so much. There really were very few novels we could compare Ebony Gate to for querying and I remain forever grateful to Fonda Lee, Cindy Pon, Ken Liu, and all those early East Asian fantasy novelists who paved the way for a book like Ebony Gate to be published.

Ken: I love, love, love the Green Bone Saga and the Dresden Files. I would say that they both influenced how much I enjoy worlds that are built with a lot of depth. Fonda Lee’s books in particular opened my perception of what a fantasy novel could be, populated with Asian characters and a unique magic system.

That answers the question about literary influences, but what about non-literary ones; was Ebony Gate influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because Jonathan Maberry said it was, “Doctor Strange meets Shang-Chi,” while the press materials say “John Wick meets Shang-Chi.” Though this just makes me wish John Wick, Doctor Strange, and Shang-Chi would all meet up somewhere. Maybe get some burritos or something.

Julia: We were absolutely influenced by John Wick. I couldn’t get over this underworld within the city and their economy of the gold coins, and their secret code of conduct. I love secret societies. We absolutely wanted our worldbuilding to have the feel of a secret world alongside our own, with ruthless individuals who had their own code of conduct.

I had never read a single issue of Shang-Chi, and the movie came out after we had gone out on submission with Ebony Gate. (I have since read a lot of Shang-Chi because I am huge fan of Alyssa K. Wong and Gene Luen Yang.) I did read Dr. Strange in the ’90s, as well as Cloak & Dagger. I can see how a reader could get that same feel from our world of this secret society of well-trained fighters who had their own realms and mystical means of transport, much like Kamar-Taj. Bonus, there is also a magical library system in our world, which also is a place of discovery for Stephen Strange.

Ken: John Wick was a definite influence, just in our first build of Emiko and her general bad-assery. Some characters at the beginning of a series are just learning how things work, but we definitely wanted Emiko to be an expert in her field, prepared for whatever hairy situations the world is throwing at her.

The secret society of assassins is another theme we took from the movie, the idea of this whole group of people moving alongside normal vanilla humanity, but operating by a wholly different set of rules and social mores. Emiko then has to balance herself on the tightrope between those two worlds.

Now, you’ve already said that Ebony Gate is the first book in The Phoenix Hoard Series. How many books will there be in this series, and do you know what the others will be called and when they’ll be out?

Ken: Book two is titled Blood Jade, and is currently in revisions to be turned into our editor. It is set in Tokyo, and slated to be published summer of 2024, with the final book in the trilogy anticipated summer of 2025.

What was it about this story that made you think it couldn’t be told in just one volume, and needed however many volumes it needs?

Ken: We crafted so much depth into Emiko’s world, we knew that even with a satisfying ending for Ebony Gate, we were going to leave enough loose ends to keep the story going.

Upon learning that Ebony Gate is the first book of a trilogy, some people will decide to hold off reading Ebony Gate until all three books are out. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?

Julia: I’m not a fan of cliffhangers. We definitely wanted to deliver a strong finish, satisfying in its own right for our readers.

Earlier I asked if Ebony Gate had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Ebony Gate would work as a movie, a TV show, or a game?

Ken: I would love to see Ebony Gate adapted as an animated series. When I write, I visualize what I am writing as a movie in my head. An animated series would come closest to what I’ve already seen in my head. (Trust me, it’s amazing!) Between all the different settings, the magic, and the myriad monsters and ghosts, I think animation best bring all of it to life.

Julia: In my head, Ebony Gate plays out as a graphic novel and an animated series. I absolutely loved Arcane, and animation seems like the perfect way to showcase the magic system and worldbuilding.

So, if someone wanted to adapt Ebony Gate into an animated series, who would you want them to cast as Emiko and the other main characters, and why them and not Simu Liu, Keanu Reeves, or Benedict Cumberbatch? And yes, I know Emiko is a lady, but Cumberbatch has range, and Keanu is oh so pretty…

Ken: I’m going to throw our narrator’s hat into the ring to voice Emiko. Natalie Naudus recently finished the audio book recording for Ebony Gate and her rendition is amazing.

Julia: For Fiona Tran, I would love to dream cast Shannon Dang, and for Freddy, I hear John Cho circa Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle.

What if someone wanted to make it into a game?

Julia: My gaming life ended somewhere after Infocom, Pools Of Radiance, and Kings Quest IV. I do love card games and back in the fourth edition days I enjoyed Magic: The Gathering. But I defer to Ken on this.

Ken: Other than continuing to play Magic: The Gathering, my gaming ended a while ago as well, around the era of Doom and Quake. But I do watch over my son’s shoulder as he plays Valorant and Overwatch. Overwatch in particular seems to take a lot of care in their storytelling, even if that aspect isn’t represented in the game play. I would love to be able to play the different Dragon talents in a fighting game like Overwatch. It would clearly focus more on the White Tiger school, with talents like Dragon Limbs, and the Azure Dragon school, with talents like elemental control and ghost masters. Blizzard? Are you listening?

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Ebony Gate?

Julia: We wrote this book purely for entertainment and to give folks a big world to immerse themselves in. If it resonates with their experience of being an outsider and learning to walk in two worlds, that’s a bonus.

This book also has no profanity and is not spicy.

Julia Vee Ken Bebelle Ebony Gate The Phoenix Hoard Series

Finally, if someone enjoys Ebony Gate, what similar kind of fantasy novel of someone else’s would you each suggest they check out while waiting for Blood Jade to come out?

Julia: Ken and I are Leigh Bardugo fans. I’m about to start Ninth House because I cannot resist a secret society. I absolutely loved Holly Black’s Book Of Night and would recommend it to fans of contemporary fantasy with innovative magic systems. For readers who love martial heroes, then I’m going to suggest S.L. Huang’s Water Outlaws.

Ken: Read the Green Bone Saga! Then, for another urban fantasy series that plunges you eyeballs deep into a city, read the Rivers Of London series by Ben Aaronovich. Better yet, listen to the audiobooks and lose yourself in Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s excellent narration.



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