On the surface, D.J. Butler’s new novel In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy (paperback, Kindle) looks like a Conan-esque adventure story, and sounds like an epic fantasy tale. But as he explains in the following email interview about it, there’s actually a bit of science fiction in this story’s foundation.
I always like to begin with an overview of a novel’s plot. So, what is In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy about, and in what kind of world is it set?
Palace is a thriller. Our heroes, Indrajit Twang and Fix, meet because they’re both hired by the risk-merchant Holy-pot Diaphernes to bodyguard an opera singer whose life Diaphernes has insured. When assassins try to murder the singer, Indrajit and Fix and the opera star find themselves hunted across the city, and increasingly drawn into a dark plot involving some of its most powerful people.
Palace is entirely set in an ancient and decadent city and former Imperial capital, Kish. The city sprawls atop a mound within which are the ruins of multiple previous incarnations of the city, which have piled up on top of each other over the millennia. Kish is ruled by its seven great families, whose heads are the descendants of seven chief Imperial servants who seized power when Kish’s last emperor died. The city’s functions are all auctioned out to the families, who carry them out like Roman tax farmers, squeezing more money out of the population through their tasks than purchasing the contracts cost them, employing jobber squads to do the heavy lifting.
Kish is aesthetically influenced by Star Wars, and in particular by the Mos Eisley Cantina scene of A New Hope. The world of Kish is inhabited by a proverbial Thousand Races Of Man, some widespread and numerous, others pocket races dwelling in single canyons or villages.
Where did you get the original idea for In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy and how did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
The original idea was the setting. I wanted a setting that would be good for gaming, and the Thousand Races Of Man is an idea that allows each player in an RPG, for instance, to create not only his own character, but his own species. Similarly, the idea of the Auction House and jobbers essentially running the city that is a heap of dungeon upon dungeon just begs for adventurer player-characters to come explore Kish, and have a nearly limitless range of adventure opportunities. And, for the same reasons, Kish is a great setting for multiple authors to work in…we’ll see what comes to fruition, but I definitely have aspirations to include other writers.
Wait, so was In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy originally going to be a game?
Yeah, in the very first instance, I was thinking about homebrewing a pen and paper role-playing campaign in the Kish setting. I was going to use GURPS, only I never really liked the GURPS magic systems, so I planned to use ICE’s Spellmaster for the magic — I’d let players or species buy Spellmaster spell lists to use as skills, with bigger casting penalties the higher level spell you wanted to cast from the list. I made a lot of notes to that end, but at the time I wasn’t actually gaming, so it never went anywhere.
I still might go that route, actually, since I do have a gaming group now, though right now we’re deep in an epic RuneQuestcampaign and playing a little Warhammer on the side.
So why did you decide to make Indrajit Twang a poet as opposed to a troubadour or an oral storyteller or a historian with a really, really good memory?
Indrajit Twang is the oral poet of his people, which means he’s a troubadour and a poet and a historian, as well. I’m interested in the many mental gulfs that separate us from our ancestors, and in reaching across those gulfs as a way to understand our own humanity better, and to become human in the same way they were. We humans lived in oral civilizations for tens of thousands of years before we ever learned to write — all we have left of orality is a few transitional works, like the poems of Homer, and late examples of oral poetry from societies that were slow to adopt industrialization, and fragments of oral traditions in mythology, written down by literate people like fossils. I wanted to write about a thinking man who was not illiterate, as we commonly think of the term, but pre-literate.
I also like jokes about writers. It’s probably self-indulgent, but this set-up gives me a character who can mock writers and writing, and in doing so possibly score some good points.
It sounds like In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy is an epic fantasy tale, while the cover art has me thinking it’s fantasy in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian stories. How do you see it?
Well, the characters think they live in a fantasy land, in that they experience magic. They are, however, mistaken — everything that they perceive to be magic is, in fact, weird biology. So really, the genre is something like pseudofantasy thriller, or maybe sword and planet. Again, the characters don’t know this, but they’re living on our planet, in its remote future, after a (long-forgotten) gene war split humanity into myriad races.
In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on this story but not on anything else you’ve written?
Yes, in a couple of ways. The Tales Of Indrajit And Fix are heavily influenced by Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd And The Grey Mouser, and also by Joe Lansdale’s Hap And Leonard books. They’re buddy stories about thugs who are better than thugs. Indrajit and Fix are also descended from the old Thieves World stories — low fantasy tales about thugs who are less corrupt than the city that surrounds them.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of those have a big influence on In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy?
Aesthetically, as I was saying earlier, they’re influenced by Star Wars — not just in the explosion of sentient species, but also in, for instance, the naming conventions. Some characters in Palace have Indian or Ugaritic names, but names like Grit Wopal and Thinkum Tosh are pure Star Wars flim-flam.
As I mentioned, In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy is not your first novel. And unless I’m mistaken, most of your books have been parts of larger sagas, such as the City Of The Saints quartet and your Rock Band Fights Evil series.
I have actually written both stand-alone books and long sagas. Rock Band is a series of novellas, telling a long story, but City Of The Saints is really a single medium-long novel (150,000 words) broken into four parts.
Ah, sorry. Anyway, is In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy the first book in a new series or a stand-alone tale, and why is it whatever it is? You referred to The Tales Of Indrajit And Fix earlier.
Yeah, the series name is The Tales Of Indrajit And Fix, which includes some short stories written about the characters. But Palace is entirely self-contained as a tale, [though] it is written to be followed by sequels, each of which will be a self-contained thriller in the same vein. I have an existing epic fantasy series, The Witchy War, and although I might in the future engage readers in another such extended story, I don’t want to tax readers’ patience by snaring them in multiple such series at once. For the same reason, my Hiram Woolley novels (co-written with Aaron Michael Ritchey; book one is The Cunning Man) are stand-alone novels in a loose series.
So then what are you plans for this series?
This book is a single-book contract, which means that how many books there will ultimately be in the series depends entirely upon popular reception. Think of the Walt Longmire Mysteries or the Jack Reacher novels, or the Hap And Leonard stories. It’s not an accident that I’m naming thrillers here — Palace is a thriller, and its sequels will be thrillers, for all that it looks like a mash-up of Thieves World and Star Wars. There’s no epic fantasy-style dark lord, no sword of truth that must be reclaimed; there are just these two guys, trying to make in a dirty world without becoming too dirty themselves.
Speaking of books that are part of a series, and your Witchy War series, you have a new book in that series, Serpent Daughter, coming out on November 3rd. For who haven’t read any of these books, what is the Witchy War series about, and in what kind of a world is it set?
The Witchy War is an alternate history / epic fantasy. It tells the story of Sarah Calhoun, who goes down to the Nashville fair with the other Calhoun family young’uns and has to dodge Imperial army officers who want to kidnap her…because it turns out that Sarah is the secret daughter of the dead empress, Mad Hannah Penn, and her uncle, the living emperor, wants her killed as a threat to his wealth and power. The series is about Sarah’s attempts to recover her mother’s wealth and the power of her father, who was the Lion of Missouri, king of one of the seven Moundbuilder kingdoms of the Ohio, as well as find and rescue two siblings she never knew she had.
Her enemies include not only her usurping uncle Thomas Penn, but also Thomas’s dark master, the Necromancer Oliver Cromwell, and a strange being called the Heron King, who may just be the god of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and who has just changed from his peaceable incarnation Peter Plowshare into his dark and vengeful aspect, Simon Sword.
And then what is Serpent Daughter about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, Witchy Kingdom?
Serpent Daughter picks up shortly after Witchy Kingdom, with the same set of characters. Having exhausted herself by overusing her magic in the service of her kingdom, Sarah is now dying. The other six kings of the Ohio may be able to save her with an ancient rite that will transform her into an angelic being, but only if they can be brought together under the nose of the forces of the Pacification. In the meantime, Nathaniel Penn undertakes a quixotic quest to heal his uncle Thomas, and the shattered leadership of the Lightning Bishop’s Conventicle tries to forge a new alliance with the Anakim, the red-headed giants of the north.
Given their close release dates, is it safe to assume you wrote In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy and Serpent Daughter either at the same time or concurrently?
Oh, no, I wrote Palace a year before I wrote Serpent Daughter. Palace in some ways is a reaction against The Witchy Warbooks. I wanted to write shorter, with more economy of character, and tell a complete tale in one book. But it felt good to get back into The Witchy War afterward. I like long-form storytelling, and I like the way The Witchy War books delve into the hidden things of the real world, by building on real-world texts and history and people and music. So the two series are very different, which is not to say that someone who reads both might not find persistent themes.
Going back to In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy, I asked earlier if that story had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy into a movie, show, or game?
Well, I have a Hollywood producer who’s a friend and we talk. We haven’t ever yet gotten to the stage of writing a pilot, but I send him all my books and there are ongoing conversations. I also have a couple of friends who are gaming entrepreneurs, and one of them has had his people write up a treatment on Palace. So I’m not saying there’s anything specific in the works…but games and TV shows are always possible.
If In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy was going to be adapted into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Indrajit, Fix, and the other major characters?
Oh, man, I’d love to see it as a streamed TV show, with each novel making one short-ish season. The challenge here is budget; the most common race of man on the scene, the local Kishi, look like human beings we know (think of the Dravidian peoples), but others are insectoid, or lavender and long-snouted, or blue-skinned and four-armed, or giant frogs. Indrajit himself is described has having a bony nose-ridge and eyes set far apart on his head, giving him great peripheral vision, but no depth perception. If the filmmaker wanted to capture that aspect of the stories, you’d need an effects budget.
And if someone wanted to make it into a game?
Palace would make for a terrific role-playing game setting. Given a reasonably flexible RPG rules set — say, Savage Worlds or Fate or GURPS — it would be lots of fun to play a Jobber band that one week had to collect taxes and the next was tasked with protecting a seasonal sacred procession and the third was ordered to rescue a kidnapped nobleman. No standard elves and dwarves in sight, everyone playing their own made-up race, and the fantasy gaming gets refreshed by an injection of cop show / thriller / spy novel goodness.
Finally, if someone enjoys In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
If you like fantasy detective novels, try The Cunning Man (and next year its sequel, The Jupiter Knife). For longer, epic fantasy, read Witchy Eye and sequels. And if what you really like is just straight thriller, you might try The Wilding Probate, which comes out in October.