If your local bookstore has such a thing, then you’ll undoubtedly find Eric Lewis’ historically-inspired fantasy novel The Heron King (hardcover, paperback, Kindle) in their fantasy section. But in the following email interview, Lewis confesses, “I get a bit squeamish describing The Heron Kings as fantasy too loudly…”
To start, what is The Heron Kings about?
The Heron Kings follows a band of peasant insurgents caught between two sides of a brutal dynastic struggle in a fictional kingdom. They’re led by Alessia, a kind of ex-nun who just wants to heal the wounded, and Ulnoth, a grieving family man obsessed with vengeance. Together they attract commoners, smugglers, disaffected soldiers, and others who’ve grown sick and tired of being victims and decide to band together to strike back. They use guerrilla tactics to raid and steal from the forces of both sides, but some are also out for revenge, and Alessia finds herself tolerating more and more violence to keep everyone safe. A spymistress and a warlord with a taste for mass crucifixions are sent to wipe them out, but when proof of a foreign conspiracy fueling the war falls into their hands, the Heron Kings will have to try to convince the very people hunting them to expose the truth and bring the bloodshed to an end.
Where did you get the idea for The Heron Kings, and how did this story evolve as you wrote it?
Several different places, really. The setting was inspired by a conflict in 12th century England known as The Anarchy, when two Norman-French nobles spent almost twenty years fighting over a crown. The country was devastated, society largely collapsed, and most of the dying was done by the common folk. Specifically, Sharon Kay Penman’s wonderful historical novel When Christ And His Saints Slept tells the story in vivid detail. I always wondered why the peasants put up with it, and what if they just decided to take to the forests and terrorize the very nobles that demanded their obedience.
The idea of the Heron Kings as a group of fierce forest-dwelling fighters came about first as a kind of melding of Robin Hood’s Merry Men and the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune, and I began a story about them way back in grad school, around 2006. At this time the insurgency in Iraq was raging, and issues around terrorism versus resistance to foreign occupation were all over the place, and that certainly played into the story. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, writing just for fun without a plan or any experience and the story went nowhere, so eventually I set it aside.
In 2014 I decided to begin again, making an outline of what would be this group’s origin story. The first draft was finished about eighteen months later, and had 127,000 words and about a dozen POV characters. Over time I winnowed that down, though the plot didn’t change very much at all. The story did become more focused on the two main protagonist characters rather than the group as a whole, though I still consider it an ensemble cast. I also put more emphasis on the lasting effects of the trauma they experienced and the toll that obsessive revenge takes.
The Heron Kings sounds like it’s an epic fantasy tale. But are there any other genres or subgenres at work in this story as well?
Honestly, I don’t think it’s all that epic. It takes place within a pretty well-defined area over a relatively short period of time. But there are certainly broader-ranging effects of the plot on the world in which it takes place. There is a bit of political intrigue and spycraft involved, albeit in an essentially medieval context. During my darkest days of pitching the book to literary agents I sent a query to someone who represents historical fiction, claiming that it was “historical fiction from a fictional world.” That went about as well as you’d expect.
I also get a bit squeamish describing The Heron Kings as fantasy too loudly, because although that’s definitely the section where you’d find it in a bookstore, other than being set in a fictional world there are no other fantasy elements: no magic, no dragons or elves or fairies, anything like that. I don’t want readers to expect something they’re not going to get, so the phrase I’ve settled on is “historically-inspired fantasy.” So perhaps there’s something in there to appeal to fans of historical fiction and spy thrillers.
While The Heron Kings is your first novel, you’ve also written some short stories. Are there any writers that had a big influence on The Heron Kings but not on anything else you’ve written?
I mentioned Sharon Kay Penman, and her ongoing historical saga about the Plantagenets and her Welsh trilogy were definitely an influence, particularly in interweaving great political events with the motivations and feelings of (sometimes seemingly unimportant) individuals. Also, Colleen McCullough’s Masters Of Rome series and pretty much all of Robert Graves’ fiction played a big part in shaping how The Heron Kings came about. I like to think I’ve taken little bits and pieces of those very different styles and blended them into a tale that has something to offer to fans of all of them. Other influences like Frank Herbert, Peter Beagle, and Joe Abercrombie cannot help but contribute to just about everything I’ve written.
How about movies, TV shows, video games, or other non-literary influences; did any of those have a big impact on The Heron Kings?
Well, certainly the trope of the scrappy underdog rebels fighting the good fight against the evil empire exists in pretty much every kind of media, so I don’t think I need to list them. The only difference in my story is that both sides in the main political conflict are equally bad, and our heroes are just caught in the middle. This is definitely not Game Of Thrones, this is Game Of Staying The Hell Alive! Shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica were certainly in the background of my mind as I was writing, as well as elements from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which is the best Trek, by the way. The main character Alessia took inspiration from several disparate sources: Cadfael, the medieval crime-solving monk from the British TV series of the same name (which was also a book series, but I’ve only read one of those, so I think it still counts as non-literary), a little bit of Marion Ravenwood from Indiana Jones, a bit of Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H if you can believe it, and even a tiny little bit of Maria from The Sound Of Music. The other major protagonist Ulnoth is quite a lot like Jayne Cobb from Firefly. Perhaps most oddly, the banker character Carthagne has a voice and manner exactly like Londo Mollari from Babylon 5.
And this is my last question about influences: You are a Ph.D. research chemist during the day. I can’t see how, but did you day job have any influence on The Heron Kings?
Only indirectly. I mentioned that I began the first scribblings that would become the book back in grad school. This included mandatory attendance at conferences which often contained lectures on research topics of, shall we say, limited interest to me. But they always provided plenty of paper pads and pens. So when I would appear to be taking diligent notes on some mind-numbing topic or other I was actually coming up with bits of story. That’s literally how it all began. I still occasionally use boring meetings as an opportunity to hash out plot points or dialogue. Please don’t tell my boss.
I won’t. Now, as you know, some fantasy novels are self-contained stories, while others are parts of larger sagas. What is The Heron Kings?
One piece of writing advice everyone gets is that a debut novel should always be stand-alone with potential for a sequel, since publishers rarely commit to a series by some unknown author. The Heron Kings is a self-contained story, told from beginning to end in one volume. But it definitely leaves the door open to a follow-up, so whether it’s part of a larger story will be up to the publisher.
I am working on a sequel, as yet untitled, but it’s set about a hundred years later with a new cast of characters. The Heron Kings have evolved from desperate, ragtag guerrillas into a society of highly disciplined, lethal fighters living in secret and working from the shadows, until an invader with a messiah complex bent on world conquest comes along. For me this is kind of a payoff of the first book, where the seeds planted have grown into the group I originally envisioned: Robin Hood’s Merry Men crossed with the Fremen from Dune. I also wanted to explore the changes the broader world has experienced in that time, and how the Heron Kings adapt to it. It would again be a self-contained story, though a reader would certainly benefit from having read the first book. But again, whether this ever sees the light of day is up to the publisher.
I also have some preliminary ideas for a third book, but I haven’t any long-term plans for an extended series at this time.
Earlier I mentioned that you’ve written short stories. Were any of them connected to The Heron Kings? And if so, are there any plans to collect them in a book of their own?
I shamelessly steal names and plot points from the book to use in short stories. Keep in mind, I never really believed I would ever get The Heron Kings published, so why not? Several of my stories are set in the same world at a couple time periods, though only a few are directly connected to the events of the book. The first story I ever got accepted anywhere, called “Demon Of The Mount,” is essentially a rewrite of a chapter of The Heron Kings, though the context is changed quite a bit. Another called “The Heron King” (singular) is set centuries later, when a supposed monster is using the legendary name as a cover for dastardly deeds. “Illicit Alchemy” is set in the same world but in a more industrial era. Two stories, “Necessary, Not Casual” and “The Tower of Faces” feature more lighthearted versions of characters from the sequel book I’m working on now, and will appear in an upcoming small collection with other, non-related stories. All of them in a book? That would be well down the line, and I don’t think I’m quite done writing them all yet.
We also spoke earlier about the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced The Heron Kings. But has there been any interest in adapting The Heron Kings into a movie, show, or game?
Well, no one knows it even exists at this point, so there’s no interest from anyone other than myself. Of course, everyone imagines their work on the big screen, or the small screen, or the PC monitor. So certainly I’d love to see The Heron Kings brought to life. Heck, part of the problem I had in writing the first draft was that I envisioned the whole thing as if it were a movie, where you don’t have to worry about things like physical descriptions of scenes or too many POVs or dialogue tags. Typical newbie mistakes.
Given my choice, I think The Heron Kings would work best as a four- to six-hour miniseries. Since most of it is set outdoors there’d be limited cost in sets or CGI, so a small screen adaptation would be quite doable.
If The Heron Kings was going to be adapted into a miniseries, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
I think I would want most of the cast to be relative unknowns, so that the viewer sees the character and not a movie star.
If you want to know who most resembles a character…well that’s difficult too. I tend not to give too much physical description of the characters, because I want them defined more by their words and actions. Isabelle Fuhrman [Orphan] could do well for Alessia or, if I’m allowed to time travel, a young Karen Allen [Raiders Of The Lost Ark]. Someone who can project both intensity and compassion at the same time. The warlord character Taurix would be very well portrayed by James Cosmo, who played Jeor Mormont in Season 1 of Game Of Thrones. But I wouldn’t want anyone else from that damn show! I honestly can’t think of who would be cast as Ulnoth, he’s such a singular character for me. Wes Chatham from The Expanse does an excellent crazed killer, so if he was starved skinny he might work. Also from The Expanse, Cara Gee might be a good choice for the spymistress Vinian, since she can pull off cold and calculating without being completely emotionless. The only absolute requirement for me would be that the characters Alessia, Ulnoth and Vinian be played by Americans (or Canadians). I am completely opposed to this odd notion that’s come up in the last few decades that everyone in all fantasy everywhere has to have a British accent. That didn’t use to be the case, and it’s made fantasy much more monotonous.
I’m not sure if it would work as a game, though there’s certainly a stealth element to it, with lots of ambushes and disguises and infiltrations.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Heron Kings, what similarly epic fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Sorry, I can’t name just one. I recently read The Traitor God by Cam Johnston, which I quite enjoyed and thought was similar in tone, though it has lots of magic. Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards is a wonderful adventure and hits exactly the same spot on the “grimdark” scale I aim for. I used Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children Of Earth And Sky as a comparative title in my queries because it’s very heavily historically based. I also used Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country as a comp, which is a good example of a fantasy done well without much magic. All of those would be great choices.