With The Hidden Keystone (paperback, Kindle), writer Nathan Burrage is kicking off an epic historical fantasy duology called The Salt Lines. In the following email interview, Burrage discusses what inspired and influenced both this first half of the story and the whole saga.
To begin, what is The Hidden Keystone about?
The Hidden Keystone is a historical fantasy that unfolds across two intertwined timelines. In 1099, we follow Godefroi de Bouillon and his ragged Christian army as they breach the walls of Jerusalem in what became known as the First Crusade. Just over 200 years later, Bertrand — a newly anointed knight — flees the safety of his Commanderie in the company of his Preceptor and two mysterious strangers, as the infamous persecution of the Knights Templar in France begins. Set against these dramatic backdrops, the novel explores the efforts of a secret fraternity called the Salt Lines to secure a sacred artefact known only as “the Keystone.”
In simple terms, the Jerusalem timeline follows a classic quest structure, with smatterings of secular and religious politicking, and more than a few battles. The French timeline, on the other hand, is an extended chase sequence as Bertrand becomes embroiled in the machinations of the Salt Lines and an unexpected love triangle. Stitching the two timelines together is an arcane mystery that draws heavily from the Kabbalah.
So, yeah. Bit of an epic, really.
Where did you get the idea for The Hidden Keystone, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
The Hidden Keystone, and The Final Shroud, which is Book 2 of The Salt Lines saga, are loosely linked to my debut novel, Fivefold. Fivefold was set in the UK in the early 2000s and was always intended to be a stand-alone novel. However, in the prologue, a cathedral is burned to the ground by the monks who lived there. That scene remained with me, occasionally prodding me to explore their story further.
Eventually I started researching what became known as the First Crusade, and the events that led to such an extraordinary undertaking. Soon I was immersed in conspiracy theories about secret fraternities headquartered in France, links between the ancient Essene (of the Dead Sea Scrolls fame) and the striking similarities between their practices and those of the Cistercian Brotherhood, who in turn gave the Knights Templar their monastic rule (or code of conduct).
Who could resist such a story?
You said earlier that The Hidden Keystone is a historical fantasy novel….
I think that’s a fair description, as both timelines contain historical figures. The Jerusalem timeline contains numerous scenes that were recorded in primary or secondary historical accounts, particularly during the siege of Jerusalem, and in the weeks that followed as the various Christian factions tightened their grip on “the navel of the world.”
Yet there are mystical elements in the plot as well, most of which can be traced back to the nature of the Keystone and its place in the creation mythology. Sorry if that’s a bit vague, but you know, spoilers.
The French timeline also includes historical figures, but I’ve focused the lens so that the story closely follows Bertrand and his attempts to fulfil an oath he made to his dying Preceptor.
The Hidden Keystone is your second novel after Fivefold, though you’ve also released a short story collection called Almost Human. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Keystone but not on anything else you’ve written?
I’m a big fan of Guy Gavriel Kay and the way that he can ground his audience in a particular place and period in history. Kay’s characters are always people of their time, yet they remain relatable, perhaps because they are intelligent, nuanced, and face challenges that contemporary readers can identify with. I didn’t set out to emulate Kay, but I certainly think he’s one of the authors setting the benchmark in historical fantasy. And he doesn’t mind flavoring some of his stories with a bit of magic, too.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Do you think any of those things had a big influence on The Hidden Keystone?
I read a fair bit of epic fantasy, so I’m partial to battles and long odds, and this is evident in both timelines. As for video games, I find MMORPGs heaps of fun but also quite addictive.
In my experience, influences can creep up on you unawares, and often it’s my beta-readers that point them out. If I had to pick a movie, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven springs to mind, although that movie deals with the demise of The Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than its formation. And from memory, it lacks the mystical aspects that are present in Keystone and Shroud.
Speaking of which, my understanding is that The Hidden Keystone was originally a lot longer, but it was then split in half, with the second half, The Final Shroud, due out in a year. Do I have that right?
Each timeline is long enough to constitute a novel, so woven together, they make for a hefty tome. My publisher — the excellent folks at IFWG Publishing — suggested we split the story into two more digestible parts.
This made a lot of sense to me, as the conclusion of Keystone signals the ending of one journey and the beginning of another in each timeline. Jerusalem is in the hands of the Christian factions and the clandestine search for the artefact has begun in earnest. In the French timeline, Bertrand’s Commanderie has fallen and his dreams of travelling to the Holy Land are in tatters. Instead, he faces a very uncertain future, although the burden entrusted to him involves a far greater destiny.
Cue Book 2.
And is there a reason you split it in half as opposed to three parts or four or 37?
It boils down to the structure of the story, really. That and perhaps reader patience. As I mentioned earlier, there is a mystery to be unraveled and 37 instalments might wear a little thin…
So, without spoiling anything, when does The Final Shroud take place in relation to The Hidden Keystone?
The Final Shroud follows on directly from The Hidden Keystone. No clunky jumps in time or missing characters whose absence goes unremarked or unexplained. Just head down and straight back into the story.
And is The Final Shroud finished? I ask because I’m wondering if you’re waiting until people read The Hidden Keystone, and give you feedback on it, before finishing Shroud, or if you made a point of finishing Shroud so people’s thoughts on Keystone wouldn’t influence it?
Both books are finished and have been through the beta-reader process.
I had to complete both timelines, then put them down for a bit, before I could assess the entire arc. I also wanted to ensure the two timelines were woven together in a way that amplified the story, rather than fragmented it. Many flashcards were sacrificed upon the altar of that objective.
They will be missed.
There is a point when the two timelines inevitably collide, of course, but it happens in a way that I hope few readers will anticipate.
Upon hearing that The Hidden Keystone is the first book of a duology, some people will decide to wait until The Final Shroud is out before reading Keystone so they can read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?
I’ve always enjoyed books that offer more in subsequent readings. Those are the sorts of books I aspire to write, and I think The Hidden Keystone has layers that may reveal themselves on a second read. And even if that doesn’t appeal, who doesn’t enjoy trying to guess how a book, or a movie, or a TV series is going to end?
So go on. Take a shot. I dare you.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, you recently put out a short story collection, Almost Human. Are those historical fantasy stories as well, maybe even one that’s part of The Salt Lines saga…?
Almost Human does open with a historical fantasy story set in an Ottoman-occupied Transylvania. However, the collection is a mix of genres, including near-future science fiction (think neuroscience, bioengineering, and a smattering of cyberpunk rather than space opera), a time-travelling romance and a horror story set in the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia (and I’m not just referring to the property prices).
The collection draws its title from the three linked novellas at the end, which are original to this collection. Set in modern times, the protagonist is a figure from mythology who has dedicated his existence to curbing the twelve Archetypes who manipulate humanity. One fellow author said the protagonist reminded her a bit of Charlize Theron’s character in the movie The Old Guard, if that helps.
So no, the stories in Almost Human don’t overlap with The Salt Lines saga.
Going back to The Hidden Keystone, earlier I asked if it had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, as the kids say, do you think Keystone — or, more accurately, The Salt Lines saga — could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
The Salt Lines could definitely be adapted into a movie. I’ve been told by readers in the past that I have a “cinematic” style of writing in that my settings are vividly described. That makes sense to me, as I need to be able to “see” a scene in my head before I can write it.
Pre-Covid, I was fortunate enough to travel to Jerusalem and France to help research the books. Being able to wander through the alleys of the old city of Jerusalem, to walk along the shore of the Dead Sea and to gaze at the many caves that dot that landscape, certainly fired my imagination. And the discovery of a secret tunnel that runs under the outer wall of one of the few remaining Templar Commanderies in France also features in Keystone.
I hope I’ve done these wondrous places justice.
So, if someone wanted to adapt The Salt Lines saga into a movie, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
In the Jerusalem timeline, Charlie Hunman [Sons Of Anarchy] would make an excellent Godefroi de Bouillon, as he possesses the physicality and presence to play the Duke of Lower Lorraine, plus he’s already had practice swinging a sword.
As for the French timeline, [Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker‘s] Adam Driver possesses the youthful — yet pensive — look required to play a young Bertrand far out of his depth.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Hidden Keystone?
If any of your readers are thinking this is just another retelling of the Templar story, I’d politely encourage them to think again. While the persecution of the Order does provide the initial impetus in the French timeline, it’s only one thread in a much larger, more ambitious story.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Hidden Keystone, what historical fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for The Final Shroud to come out?
Much of my fiction — whether short or long — has been inspired by travel. And one of the most inspiring places I have travelled to is Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and Byzantium.
I mentioned Guy Gavriel Kay earlier. He set two historical fantasy novels in Byzantium, which I absolutely adored. The first is called Sailing To Sarantium, and it contains all the elements I look for in a story: memorable characters, conflicting cultures and factions, and events that echo through history. Definitely worth checking out.