With Into The Vortex (hardcover, Kindle), writer Charles E. Gannon is presenting the middle part of the epic fantasy Vortex Of Worlds trilogy he launched in 2021 with This Broken World. But as Gannon explains in the following email interview, this story is bigger than a trilogy…and the epic fantasy genre.
For people who haven’t read any of them, what is the Vortex Of Worlds series about, and what kind of a world are they set in?
What I really like about this question is that it needs a little tweaking to highlight how this series subverts a some of the tropes and structures typically associated with fantasy.
Firstly, the setting is not just a world or even just a single universe. Secondly, over time, the protagonist — maybe hero, depending on how you feel about him — discovers the truth of the old adage that in order to understand your home, you have to leave it, and that is very much what he does. But that is a perilous journey, which is hinted at in the first book and increasingly explored by the next two in what may turn out to be more than just a trilogy. Their titles reflect that arc, with the first one being This Broken World, followed by Into The Vortex, and the third one is Toward The Maw. So if that doesn’t sound increasingly ominous I don’t know what would.
It is epic fantasy, to be sure, but one in which there is steady accountability to some basic rules that become familiar over time. This is in contrast to the way some key shaping forces remain more mysterious, the way they do in Tolkien, for instance. In Middle-earth, most communities don’t have frequent contact with each other, though each seems to have its own internal logic, traits, and traditions. But we never really learn how magic works, where it comes from, or its limits. Likewise, there are some interesting deep threads in the history, but most of that didn’t get explicated in the trilogy so much as in surrounding works like The Silmarillion.
Conversely, Into The Vortex and the universe of which it is a part, is not only consistent but a setting in which knowledge is much more explicit and interaction between cultures and continents much more routine. There have been some major changes along the way, not all of which are fully understood — either in terms of what caused them or the period that immediately followed — because these were catastrophic events. So this is epic fantasy shaped by two unusual vibes that arise from all this: a world defined by power politics, and therefore, world in which those powers attempt to control the knowledge of its most transformative (and yet murky) events and epochs. These two factors generate a lot of high stakes and, not surprisingly, a lot of action. To put it lightly.
The protagonist’s attempt to learn about this world increasingly becomes a journey of learning about himself, because his own past is somewhat unclear. He is certainly not some mysterious Chosen One, but there are aspects of his past and origins that are that are a bit atypical and he has to make sense of them, too.
In the process of these twinned journeys, you might say old adage is steadily chugging in the background, informing the narrative. Specifically, that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. But the dramatic arc suggests a corollary: that even more knowledge makes it all just that much more dangerous.
So, given the nature of the world and the way the exploration of it becomes a reflection of the protagonists ongoing “coming of age” story, it’s probably most reminiscent of the fantasies of my friend Lee Modesitt, in which you know enough about the world that the events and powers within it are accountable in terms of both its cosmology and its history.
As a reader, I’ve always felt that kind of environment produces more, not less, “sense of wonder” — and sometimes, outright shock. Probably because in the typical fantasy trope of a character journeying through a largely unknown landscape, you’re pretty much expecting surprises. But in a fantasy (or any series) where a hero thinks they know what they’re going (and what they’re going to find there), the discovery of the unknown, unexpected, or misunderstood can be much more profound, because our expectations lulled us into a false sense of knowledge, of security. So in the world of Into The Vortex, the characters’ greatest problems and challenges arise not because of they are moving through unfamiliar terrain and circumstances, but because they get blindsided by the unknown in places they thought they understood.
So then, for people who have read This Broken World, what is Into The Vortex about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to that previous book?
Into The Vortex picks up shortly after the end of Broken. Our heroes (?) have set sail for the place where they are most likely one to discover what various sage old beings call the truth of the world: the city of Shadowmere. There, the protagonist Druadaen acts on their advice that he may need to get beyond his world to be able to see it clearly and to ask the right questions about the confounding and sometimes contradictory things he’s observed while traveling across its continents and oceans.
As the title suggests, finding and using the means of making that journey is a challenge in and of itself. In doing so, the group is split up — not intentionally, but as a consequence of making this transition to another world.
When in relation to writing This Broken World did you come up with the idea for Into The Vortex, and what inspired its specific story?
The first three books of The Vortex of Worlds series were really conceived as a complete arc. The first and second books were known in detail from the start. The third book was a bit more nebulous originally, but by the time I was halfway done with This Broken World, I knew exactly where that (now probably not final) novel was going. If Into The Vortex is about finding the place where the answers lie, Toward The Maw is where some of those answers are learned. Yet — as those familiar with my other series might expect — getting those answers leads to new questions and new dangers.
You said earlier that Into The Vortex, like This Broken World, was an epic fantasy story. But are there any other genres at work in these stories as well?
There are. In This Broken World, I take some of the beloved and rightly cherished tropes of both the epic fantasy and swords & sorcery subgenres, and loving stand them on their collective head. I felt they deserve to be interrogated, because a lot of them have become over-simplified stock formats since the original trend-setting works in those fields were written. Since then, we’ve had this thing come along called role-playing games, which have graven a variety of compelling images into our expectations of, and associations with, these subgenres. They have become traditions in their own right. However, to my mind, a lot of them don’t really make sense, so I have some fun with that, particularly in This Broken World.
Into The Vortex has much less of that, moving instead into a kind of narrative that transcends genre boundaries. It is what I would call “the fateful journey with no way back.” Sort of like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or Michael Shea’s venerable A Quest For Simbilis, which are about as different as stories could get, except for this common structural element: the protagonist has to keep going forward, but is unsure what that’s going to mean.
Into The Vortex gets an infusion of this vibe through characters compelled to visit and puzzle out forsaken places, discovering artifacts and ruins, and so unearthing not only the remains but reasons of events that have not ever fully come to light or been understood. So the first novel’s “coming of age” structure now gets twinned with an “unfolding the past” element that delivers both a sense of wonder and the lurking menace of uncertainty.
Obviously, Into The Vortex is not your first published work. Are there any writers, or maybe stories, that had a big influence on Into The Vortex but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not This Broken World?
One genre novel is a post-apocalyptic masterpiece titled Riddley Walker, by the late American expat author Russell Hoban. It’s a very interesting and very challenging read because it is communicated in first person by a protagonist who speaks a massively devolved form of English. Like Into The Vortex, much of the action and mystery is shaped by what the main character is uncovering of the long lost (and thoroughly blasted) past and how it threatens to reignite the cycles of violence that destroyed the world in the first place.
An obviously related influence is Gene Wolfe’s magnus opus, The Book Of The New Sun series. In both cases, there’s a tension between uncovering the past and suppressing it, where those in power are dedicated to the latter activity. To me, this makes a fantasy world eminently believable, because there as here, knowledge is power and those who have it want to keep it from those who do not.
Aside from Hoban and Wolfe, are there any other writers or stories who had a particular big influence on Into The Vortex? And I don’t mean someone who’s an influence on everything you do, but someone who had a specifically strong influence on Into The Vortex…though they could be both.
There are probably some parallels between it and the centrality of portals between different worlds and the core drama and conceits of the Stargate series.
I think there’s also a general vibe of what I would call the “post apocalypse at a distance” narrative. Of course, that’s a pretty broad category in popular media: everything from Zardoz to Logan’s Run, and the original Planet Of The Apes.
A slightly different influence is HG Wells’ The Time Machine, particularly the final trip into the future where the traveler encounters the Eloi and the Morlocks as the grisly endgame of a promising, high tech future gone very wrong. What I like about it, and incorporated at places, is the feeling of dissonance that arises when that which was once (or began as) the familiar has become the alien.
As we’ve been discussing, Into The Vortex is the second book in your Vortex Of Worlds trilogy. Though it seems there will be more than just the three books…
Yes, as I’ve intimated, the trilogy will be completed and by every indication, a fourth book is really necessary. From the very beginning, I also saw the universe had legs beyond this first arc, and with any luck, it will have exactly that. There ‘s a lot more story to tell.
There are people who like to read all three books of a trilogy back-to-back. Do you think that will be the best way to take in the Vortex Of Worlds trilogy?
Frankly, I don’t think reading them back-to-back is the most, well, “authentic” way to approach these books. I understand that is a puzzling reply, so I’ll try to unpack it.
First of all, reading them all in one long push may allow you to stay very oriented in the narrative, but I purposely end the books at conceptual breakpoints. I try to craft each conclusion to be both a final drumbeat and a thunderclap of realization / revelation. My reason: to set up anticipation for what might come next. Having the ability to scratch that itching curiosity immediately undermines a reader’s affinity with the character’s own sense of sustained dislocation. They have to live with that uncertainty. So, to really feel the world as the characters experience it, I commend the reader to join them in that head-space, that edge of suspense in which we’re feeling, “Wow, what are they going to do next? How are they going to deal with what they’ve just learned or lost?”
I think that having to wait a little bit in between the books conveys much more of that sense of an uncertain future and I employ it quite intentionally as I bring each book to a conclusion.
Earlier you mentioned that Into The Vortex had been influenced by the Stargate series and the original Planet Of The Apes movie. But to flip things around, do you think Into The Vortex — and, of course, the rest of the Vortex Of Worlds series — could work as a series of movies, or a TV show? Or maybe a game?
I actually think it could work well as all of them. A series of movies gives you enough time to really do a deep dive into a new world and its differences — and to get lost in it. And that’s certainly one of the things that I tried to bring to readers in this book: everything from encountering arbitrary local traditions and spins on medieval technology to desperate adventures and challenging ideas.
The advantage of a television series is that it gives you more hours of screen time. So whereas movies usually have to cut some story in order to fit into a sequence of two-hour formats, that means a trilogies total runtime might average six hours.
Compare that to long running series such as The Expanse or Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Some have hundreds of hours, so you get to keep a lot of the story in that way — if it can be parsed into enough separate dramatic beats. I do a lot of that anyhow, because the way I write is heavily informed by my background in television and film.
All that all being said, The Vortex Of Worlds would be a really good game. The sense of exploration of uncertainty, of the consequences of making a choice without all the information, or assuming that something is an absolute fact — and then experiencing the consequences of being wrong? That is role-playing gold.
There’s one other dimension that can’t be ignored: the value of experiencing versus witnessing. If you’re an if you’re looking at a film or a television show, you are only witnessing, but when you play a game, you experience it. And I think that there are a lot of ways to use the main characters, such as making them loci of conflicts, opportunities, alliances: that way, players do not relive the main story arc, but make a new one. And Into The Vortex has plenty more mysteries and revelations that could be braided into a game, because I will not have exhausted them after the first four novels.
Finally, if someone enjoys Into The Vortex, they’ll probably go back and read This Broken World, if they haven’t already. But once they’ve done that, which of your other novels would you suggest they read while waiting for Toward The Maw to come out?
I would recommend that they pick up the Caine Riordan series. This is a hard science fiction universe set about 110-120 years in the future. That world has been changed by a variety of events which drove us to key social and technological commitments which have sent us out into the stars This is a very fast moving series with discovery in every novel, but also a deeper ongoing mystery. Threads of it appear, but are not resolved, in most novels thereby creating an overarching tapestry that—to borrow a term applied to The X-Files — are woven into a “series mythos” that each novel adds to — and which sometimes refocuses the understanding of what humanity is encountering.