While fantasy, as a genre, has clearly been influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, it’s not often that fantasy writers say their style was impacted by role-playing games. But in talking to David Mealing about Soul Of The World (paperback, digital), the first book in his series The Ascension Cycle, he explained that, “Pen & paper RPGs taught me just about everything I know when it comes to storytelling.”
Let’s start at the beginning. What is Soul Of The World about?
Soul Of The World started with a scene in my head: a street artist sketching a fantasy version of Louis XVI’s court in the months leading up to the French Revolution. It grew from there into an epic about Gods, magic, and conflict between many different civilizations, but the kernel of the story is in revolution and change, the old order being forced to adapt to the new.
When I first decided to write the book, I spent hours working on an outline for a fantasy Western, a pretty typical revenge story. Then all my planning got tossed as soon as I sat down to write the first chapter. That’s when the image of the street artist came to me. So I’d say the finished book is pretty much 99% different than the original planning; only a couple of the characters and some of the magic system details survived.
Soul Of The World is a fantasy novel, but what sub-genre of fantasy would you call it?
It’s an epic fantasy for sure, very much in the vein of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Though I intend to wrap the story in three books rather than ten. My use of firearms and 18th, 19th century era military tactics and technology puts it in the “flintlock fantasy” subgrouping with such folks as Brian McClellan and Django Wexler, but I don’t think of it as strictly flintlock fantasy. For me it’s an epic first; the technology is more backdrop than genre.
There are elements of the story — like how there are food shortages during war — that also could’ve worked in a sci-fi novel, a historical novel, or a real-world novel. Why did you decide to tell this tale as a fantasy novel? Or was it more that you started out writing a fantasy novel, and this is the story you can up with?
I’ve always been an avid sci-fi reader as well as fantasy fan, but I don’t feel confident enough to write convincing sci-fi; hats off to folks like William Gibson and Peter F. Hamilton who can. Once I start imagining how some things might be different in the future, it tends to cascade into many things being different, too many for me to tell a tight story rather than revel in my world building.
The great thing about fantasy, for me, is I can keep the core of the world fairly recognizable by anchoring it in historical analogs, then change only the specific things that help illustrate whatever social or economic, technological ideas I want to explore.
Your PR peeps have said that the book would appeal to fans of Brandon Sanderson [Oathbringer], Brian McClellan [Promise Of Blood], and Miles Cameron [The Red Knight]. Do you think this is accurate, or do you think there’s other fantasy writers that Soul Of The World is more similar to?
I’m a total sponge when it comes to influences. All three of these comparisons are excellent, but I suppose I’d add a few. Jacqueline Carey’s vision of Renaissance France in her Kushiel novels was a huge influence. Also, if you’ll permit me to wander a bit from strictly fantasy, I have to give credit to Michael Shaara and Jeff Shaara for The Killer Angels, Gods And Generals, and The Last Full Measure, each of which heavily influenced the military arcs in Soul Of The World.
Beyond the military influence of Michael and Jeff Shaara, I’m also constantly reading non-fiction. These days I probably read as much history and philosophy as I do fiction. The religion in the ‘”French” world in Soul Of The World was inspired by G.E. Moore’s Ethics, for example, and the politics was heavily influenced by reading and research into 17th century Native American and American colonial life, with especial credit to Charles Mann’s brilliant 1491 for giving me a foundation for building the history of my Native American analogs in the New World.
How about non-literary influences; do you think any movies, TV shows, or games had an influence on Soul Of The World? Because as I understand it, you’re a big fan of pen & paper RPGs.
Yes indeed. Pen & paper RPGs taught me just about everything I know when it comes to storytelling. Soul Of The World is my first attempt at writing a novel, but I learned how to keep an audience engaged building my own modules and story arcs for Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf, MechWarrior, Palladium, etc., etc., etc. I think you’ll see this manifest in the way my storytelling tends to skip as much boring downtime as I can. The last thing anyone wants to do when they show up for a weekly D&D session is spent three hours talking about buying supplies and traveling from point A to B. I prefer to kick the session off with the characters already in the thick of things; ditto when it comes to how I structure my chapters and scenes in my writing.
Speaking of influences, you studied philosophy, politics, and economics and the University Of Oxford. All of those things are usually essential to a great epic fantasy tale. But how often did you have to dial back on the academics to keep Soul Of The World from being more scholarly than entertaining?
Hah! Soooo much. It wasn’t a single cut, either. Every draft I cut a little here, a little there for the sake of readability. My early drafts were packed full of philosophy: Sarine would go on these page-length introspective journeys; Donatien and Reyne were given to long-winded dissertations on epistemology, rights, egalitarianism, you name it. It’s a much better book for having this stuff removed. Instead, I tried to capture the feel of the philosophy more in subtext and setting than actually hearing the characters deliver their doctoral dissertations every other chapter. Credit to my advance readers — especially my wife, my agent Sam Morgan, and my brilliant editor Brit Hvide — for helping find the core of the story amidst my scholarly inclinations.
Now, you’ve already said that Soul Of The World is the first book in a series you’re calling The Ascension Cycle. When, in the process of writing Soul Of The World, did you decide it would be the first book in a series, and what made you think that?
I knew from the first scene it would be a trilogy. There are exactly three layers of the “onion” as it were that I want to peel away. I can’t get into specifics without major spoilers, but I’ll leave it at saying structurally, each book deals with one main plot and one metaplot, then the metaplot of the last book becomes the main plot of the next one. So book two, which I just turned in to my editor last week, takes the metaplot of book one and answers all the questions raised there, while simultaneously introducing another set of questions that will be wrapped up in book three.
I asked earlier about movies, TV shows, and games that may have influenced Soul Of The World. But, on the flipside of that, has there been any interested in making a Soul Of The World movie, show, or game?
I would love a pen & paper RPG! I also think a TV show would work better than a movie. There’s just way too much to pack into two hours, and I tend to structure my chapters and parts very similarly to TV episodes anyway, with more rising and falling action centered around smaller narrative chunks vs. a single larger arc.
If it was going to be made into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the lead roles?
Hmmmm. The only character I’ve really thought about is Erris. I’d love to see Kristen Bell [The Good Place] play her. Sarine is tougher. I don’t really watch enough TV and movies to have a twenty-something French-looking actress in mind. And Arak’Jur…whew. I’d need a Native American version of Dwayne Johnson.
And if it was going to be made into a pen & paper RPG, is there someone or some company in particular that you think could do the best job?
Well, in terms of shelf space devoted to their books in my house, it’s a close contest between Paizo, Wizards Of The Coast, and White Wolf. But I’ve run so many different systems over the years; it would really depend on finding someone passionate about the source material. The rules ultimately don’t matter to me as much as the love put into crafting the books. I just recently bought some of the old EverQuest Swords & Sorcery books over the weekend, and I’m blown away by how much detail they put in while staying true to the spirit of the original game. Find me someone with that degree of love for my writing and we’ll be in business.
Finally, if someone enjoys Soul Of The World, what would you suggest they read while waiting for The Ascension Cycle, Book 2 to come out, and why that?
I’ll never miss an opportunity to plug Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, starting with Kushiel’s Dart. They’re my favorite books of all time. If you’ve never read them, do. Though, they come with a pretty hard-R if not NC-17 content warning, so keep that in mind. As for why…they’re just beautiful, beautiful books with some of the most compelling character building, romance, sex, action, politics and drama in fantasy.