In her first three novels — Noumenon, Noumenon Infinity, and Noumenon Ultra — writer Marina Lostetter took readers on an epic, sprawling, sci-fi space opera trip that lasted over 4,000 years. But for her fourth, she’s keeping things grounded…sort of. In the following email interview, Lostetter discusses her horror-seasoned epic fantasy novel The Helm Of Midnight (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), the first book of The Five Penalties trilogy.
To begin, what is The Helm Of Midnight, and what kind of world is it set in?
The Helm Of Midnight is set in a world of structured magic, hidden histories, cruel deities, and mythological beasts. It’s epic fantasy that’s been heavily seasoned with crime fiction and a dash of horror.
Krona Hirvath, the main character, is on the hunt for the stolen death mask of Louis Charbon, one of her city’s most notorious serial killers. Charbon was hanged ten years previous, but the mask was magically — and illegally — imbued with his knowledge and his memories. The thieves are out to begin his murder spree all over again, with the enchanted mask as their guide, and when the killing starts, it becomes clear to Krona that these murders are different from before — not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister, world-altering question.
Where did you get the idea for The Helm Of Midnight, and how, if at all, did it change as you wrote it?
The Helm Of Midnight is an expansion of my short story “Master Belladino’s Mask,” which was one of the first short stories I ever sold. When I sat down to write the short story, I was casting around for elements to include, and just happened to set my gaze on the Boruca masks my husband and I had brought home from our recent honeymoon (in 2020 we celebrated our ten-year wedding anniversary, so as you can see, this story has been in the works for a long time). The masks themselves are very expressive, and filled with a lot of personality, and so I started to imagine that maybe they’d been carved to match the personalities of real people.
From there, the whole story has gone through a lot of iterations. I wrote a novella set in the same world that was separate from the plot of “Master Belladino’s Mask,” then I pitched the novella’s plot as a text-based game to Choice Of Games, then I combined the novella with “Master Belladino’s Mask” and expanded both. Then I added the serial killer’s POV, and ended up with The Helm Of Midnight as it is today. Sometimes it feels like it’s taken on a life of its own.
As you said, The Helm Of Midnight is an epic fantasy tale, but you also mentioned it has, “a dash of horror.”
There are some creepy, horrific undertones. I like to bill it as Hannibal meets Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, because we do get into the point of view of the killer, and those elements collide with a (seemingly) very rigid magic system.
Your previous novels — Noumenon, Noumenon Infinity, and Noumenon Ultra — were all mosaic novels. Is The Helm Of Midnight one as well?
The Helm Of Midnight is a much more traditional novel structure, with three intertwining points of view that all converge to create a larger narrative. I think this is in part because of how it developed, but also because it just felt more natural for this type of story. For one, the entire plot of book one takes place over 10 days. Whereas the entire plot of book one in the Noumenon series takes place over 4,000 years.
While The Helm Of Midnight is obviously not your first novel, it is your first published foray into fantasy. Are there any writers who had a big influence on The Helm Of Midnight but not on anything else you’ve written?
I think it’d be difficult to figure out if any kind of story I’ve consumed has lacked an influence on something specific — it all goes into the same learning-and-inspiration bank, after all.
That being said, Brandon Sanderson and Victoria Schwab both had a big influence on this particular book in different ways. Sanderson’s magic systems were an influence from the beginning, and I started reading Schwab’s work after I’d begun redrafting the novel, which I think helped me hone in on what kind of people I really wanted these characters to be and what kind of audience I was trying to appeal to.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of them have a big influence on The Helm Of Midnight? Because the press materials says you, “…enjoy a good zombie-themed board game now and again.”
Actually, I think the Final Fantasy video games have had a huge influence on the way I approach fantasy storytelling. They appeal to my fundamental sense of world building: present a magical world and its rules, then slowly chip away at those rules while creating higher and higher personal stakes for the characters.
And what influence did your pal Andrea Stewart have on The Helm Of Midnight? Because in the interview I did with her about her fantasy novel The Bone Shard Daughter [which you can read by clicking here], she said she was influenced by the time you almost choked on a bone you found in your lunch, so I’m thinking maybe The Helm Of Midnight might’ve been inspired by, I don’t know, that time she was at your house really late one night and wouldn’t leave and she was either wearing a hat or put a lampshade on her head…
Ha! That would be great! But, in a way, it’s kind of the other way around: The Helm of Midnight had a huge influence on my friendship with Andrea. “Master Belladino’s Mask” won a contest alongside Andrea’s short story, “Dreameater,” and we met at the awards week. If I hadn’t written “Master Belladino’s Mask,” I might never have met her.
But I’m also lucky enough to be in a writers’ group with Andrea and a bunch of other very talented friends. Their feedback and constant support have a lot of influence on my work.
Now, you have already said that The Helm Of Midnight is the first book of a trilogy called The Five Penalties. What was it about this story that made you think it needed to be a trilogy as opposed to a stand-alone novel?
I need room to break the world now that I’ve built it. In The Five Penalties, nothing is as it seems. Each novel will feature a crime at its core, but the over-arching story is about pulling back the curtain to reveal the mechanisms of a shady power structure for what they really are.
And why a trilogy and not a duology or pentalogy whatever they call a 37 book series?
I’ve more or less paced it out in a three-act structure. There’s definitely room for more stories set in this world after — if there turns out to be a hunger for that — but the primary over-arching story I want to tell fits well into a trilogy.
In the previous interview we did abut Noumenon Ultra [which you can read by clicking here], you mentioned The Helm Of Midnight, but also said you were writing a sci-fi book. Is that book going to come out before The Helm Of Midnight II: Electric Boogaloo or are you going to wait until after The Helm Of Midnight III: In 3D?
The sci-fi book will come out this year! It’s called Activation Degradation and will be out September 28th, 2021. It’s much more fast-paced than Noumenon, and features an unreliable narrator (actually, if we want to talk friend-spiration, it was Megan E. O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon that inspired me to try unreliable narration), queer found-family, soft-robots, and space pirates. I’m really excited for it.
You also said in that interview that you thought the Noumenon books would work really well as a TV show. What format do you think would work best for The Helm Of Midnight and The Five Penalties trilogy?
It would be great to see The Helm Of Midnight as a movie. And honestly the world itself might make a great video game; there are tons of enchantments that have lots of different functions — by themselves and in combination — and since one of the main characters is essentially a detective it would be cool to build quest-based episodes around magical crimes or enchantment-use gone awry.
If The Helm Of Midnight and The Five Penalties trilogy was going to be adapted into a movie series, who would you want them to cast as Krona and the other main characters?
I’m more prepared for this question than I was last time! I think we discussed before how I don’t really see faces clearly when I write — I’m more movement oriented — so this is something I have to think about after-the-fact. I absolutely loved Jurnee Smollett in Birds Of Prey and think she might make an awesome Krona. Nadia Hatta stole my heart in Away and the earnestness she brought to her character there feels so right for Melanie. I also think Henry Cavill would make a good Louis Charbon (Full discloser: I am very into The Witcher right now, and I’d simply love to see him play a villain, so why not my villain?).
I also recently got to participate in the audio book casting for The Helm Of Midnight, and I think we’ve pinned down some absolutely great voice actors.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Helm Of Midnight, what fantasy trilogy would you suggest they read while waiting for the rest of The Five Penalties to come out?
An Unkindness Of Magicians by Kat Howard also features a magical serial killer in a more modern-day, urban fantasy setting (it’s a stand-alone, so really great for someone who’s not looking to start a long series). And I highly recommend the Shades Of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab to anyone who has yet to encounter it.