While writer D.J. Butler concluded his epic fantasy / alt history Witchy War trilogy with last year’s Witchy Kingdom, it was not the end of the story. In the following email interview, Butler discusses Serpent Daughter (paperback), the first book in a sequel trilogy that will ultimately bring this saga to a close.
For who haven’t read any of the Witchy War books, what is this series about, and what kind of a world is it set in?
The Witchy War is Game Of Thrones meets Last Of The Mohicans. It’s an epic fantasy tale that’s set in an epic-magical alternate Jacksonian America. It’s the story of a young woman named Sarah, who learns that she is the secret daughter of the dead empress Mad Hannah Penn and Kyres Elytharias, the king of one of the moundbuilder kingdoms of the Ohio, and sets out to reclaim her stolen heritage.
And then what is Serpent Daughter about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, Witchy Kingdom?
The Witchy War consists of two trilogies. The first — Witchy Eye, Witchy Winter, and Witchy Kingdom — follows the arc of Sarah regaining her father’s throne. The second trilogy follows Sarah as she deals with her two continent-level enemies, the Emperor Thomas Penn (Sarah’s uncle) and the raging aspect of the god of the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, Simon Sword. Serpent Daughter picks up a few weeks after Witchy Kingdom ends. Sarah is dying, because she has wrecked her body with magic, and because she has become her city, and the city is wracked by earthquakes. Her friends and allies have a plan to save her, but that requires gathering the kings of the other six Ohio Kingdoms to perform an ancient rite that will transform Sarah into something beyond human.
The previous books in the Witchy War series were mash-ups of epic fantasy and alternate history. Is that how you’d describe Serpent Daughter as well?
The Witchy War is epic fantasy. It’s also a kind of alternate history in the sense that it’s a sort of funhouse mirror held up to the real world — the Bible, folk songs, European and American history, American cultures, and more — to tell a story. That’s a good way to see the genre of Serpent Daughter, too.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Serpent Daughter but not on any of the other Witchy War books? Or, for that matter, anything else you’ve written?
Well, the entire Witchy War is influenced by Tolkien, by [Orson Scott] Card’s Seventh Son, by [David Hackett Fischer’s] history book Albion’s Seed, by the stories of the Brothers Grimm, by Mircea Eliade’s book on shamanism, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques Of Ecstasy, and by other works. I’m not sure that there are additional books that are specific influences on Serpent Daughter alone, but…now I am going to say something deeply nerdy.
There are also two Biblical texts that I use Serpent Daughter to comment upon, and which are, in that sense, an influence on the book. I read Isaiah 11 as a royal anointing text by which seven spirits were laid upon a person (probably the Davidic king). Isaiah 11:2 lists the seven spirits, and the list is chiastic, meaning it’s a parallelistic poetic structure rising to and descending from a central point, and the central spirit is the spirit of counsel. And that’s really interesting, because in the old Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, the only title given to the newborn (or newly-anointed?) son in Isaiah 9:6 is the Angel of Great Counsel. All of this, of course, has to do with the climax of Serpent Daughter.
Weren’t expecting that answer, were you? Ha!
What about non-literary influences; was Serpent Daughter influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
There is a large game influence on the Witchy War that may not be very obvious, and that is the gaming world of Glorantha. As embodied in tabletop role-playing games like RuneQuest and HeroQuest, and such narrative video games as King Of Dragon Pass and Six Ages, Glorantha is an epicomic fantasy setting which is deeply mytho-liturgical. Glorantha is said to be a Bronze Age setting, but the Witchy War has a Glorantha-like sensibility about magic and religion, transposed into the nineteenth century.
As we’ve been discussing, Serpent Daughter is the first book in a second Witchy War trilogy. Did you set out to write another trilogy connected to the Witchy War series or did you realize while writing Serpent Daughter that it was the beginning of a larger tale?
I conceived the story as six books, originally. It’s hard to pitch a six-book series when you are an unknown quantity, so I pitched only the first trilogy to Baen Books. Fortunately, Witchy Eye sold well enough to justify extended the series to its full planned length.
So do you know yet what the other two Serpent Daughter trilogy books will be called and when they’ll be out?
They’re tentatively titled Serpent Mother and Serpent Son, and I’d expect them to come out about one per year.
Some people, upon learning that Serpent Daughter is the first book of a trilogy, will decide to wait until the other two books come out before reading any of them, and some will go even further and decide to read all three back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think they shouldn’t wait?
Some big-name authors in the epic fantasy space have really created a problem for the rest of us. I travel to comic cons and similar events to sell books, and I have had many potential customers say to me, “I’ve been waiting X years for the next book in Y series, and I just can’t do this to myself again, so I’ll wait until your series is complete.”
I knew this going into the series, and this is one reason why I structured the story as two trilogies. So if you, as a reader, are loath to be Rothfussed or Martined (or whoevered) again, consider reading the first half of the series. By the time you get to the end of Witchy Kingdom, many of the plot threads that began in the first book have been brought to their conclusion (I won’t say which threads, because I don’t want to give spoilers, but Sarah’s basic quest has been accomplished), and you’ll have reached a satisfying point to rest. And if you can resist reading Serpent Daughter immediately at that point, you’ll only have to wait two years to see the complete second trilogy, too.
Now, along with Serpent Daughter, you also recently put out In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy. People can read more about that story in the interview we did about it a few months ago [which you can do by clicking here], but just real quick, what is that novel about?
Palace is a pseudofantasy comic noir thriller, about two intellectuals forced to live as thugs, who get caught up as the patsies in an insurance scheme.
In that previous interview, you said, “Palace in some ways is a reaction against the Witchy War books.” How then do you think writing In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy influenced both what you wrote in Serpent Daughter and how you wrote it?
Palace was a kind of palate-cleanser. I love long-form storytelling, but I like shorter-form, episodic stories, too. Palace let me step away from history into more of a fantasy world (though that’s not a completely fair description of Kish, the setting of Palace). I could write characters with more modern sensibility, and weave in Indian allusions and influences, rather than American ones. I could write a story that was banter-driven and wore its humor on its sleeve, rather than buried in allusions and echoes. In that sense, I don’t know that Palace influenced Serpent Daughter, but I think it helped me write Serpent Daughter by giving me a break from it.
Finally, if someone enjoys Serpent Daughter, what similar novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next while waiting for Serpent Mother to come out, and why that?
If you like the flintlock fantasy / musketpunk aspects of the Witchy War novels, you might read Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series, whose first book is Promise Of Blood, or Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns, which starts with The Thousand Names. If you like the real-world-as-fantasy-setting aspect, try Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. And if you like a fantasy series that intimately works the Bible and Christianity into its magic, Katherine Kurtz’s classic alt-Britain series starts with Deryni Rising.