With The Last Days Of Hong Kong (paperback, Kindle), writer G.D. Penman is concluding the Witch Of Empire trilogy they started in 2017 with The Year Of The Knife, and continued in 2020 with The Wounded Ones. In the following email interview, Penman discusses what influenced this noir hardboiled detective urban fantasy mystery, how it connects to the second installment, as well as why you should never leave your cats alone. Ever. Not even for a minute.
To start, what is the Witch Of Empire series about, and when and where is it set?
The Witch Of Empire books are set in an alternate timeline where magic exists, and that has changed the power dynamics and geopolitics of the world a fair bit. They were written as an alternate present, but publishing moves slower than real time, so I guess now they’re alternate history? Anyway, they follow Iona “Sully” Sullivan, who starts off the series working for the British Government in their American colony, solving magical crimes that the regular police can’t deal with. It started off as a sort of love letter to America and her potential, then the rose-tinted glasses slipped a little once Independence came to fruition and the new American Empire started to grow.
And then what is The Last Days Of Hong Kong about, and how does it connect to the previous Witch Of Empire novel, The Wounded Ones?
Hong Kong takes place about three years after The Wounded Ones. While that ended on a bit of a downer, thanks to the only victory Sully ever gets being pyrrhic, she’s had a little time to pull herself back together after losing her girlfriend, magic, freedom, memory, hand, peace of mind…wow, she really had a bad time in that book. Anyway, it picks up on one of the loose threads left over from the very first book in the series. An escaped demon, bound in the form of a doll, that Sully set free.
And is there a reason why The Last Days Of Hong Kong is set in Hong Kong as opposed to Tokyo or London or West Orange, New Jersey?
Hong Kong is the wild west, as far as the Witch Of Empire world goes. It is the only British colony that hasn’t been swallowed up by one of the other imperial powers or declared its independence. The fortifications are too strong for it to be taken by force, and the people living there are entirely too used to their freedom to willingly hand it over to the next global bully that came knocking. This lawlessness has attracted a criminal element, along with anyone else who doesn’t fit in very well elsewhere.
When in relation to writing the other novels did you first come up with the idea for The Last Days Of Hong Kong?
I plotted out The Wounded Ones and The Last Days Of Hong Kong back to back when I found out that I was going to be doing a trilogy instead of a one-off. I had some loose threads dangling from the previous books that desperately needed tied off, and while I’d shown what the world was like under imperial rule, and the war to break free, I still hadn’t shown what a post-empire world might look like in the setting.
It sounds like The Last Days Of Hong Kong is an urban fantasy story. Is that how you’d describe it?
The Witch Of Empire books are hardboiled detective / film noir stories that just happen to take place in a world with magic. The magic is there, and it is used, but the actual stories revolve around people, and what they do with that power.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Last Days Of Hong Kong but not on any of the other Witch Of Empire novels?
I drew a ton of inspiration for the first book from old film noir movies. The second book then moved on into war stories. I really wanted to reflect the post-war time period with a more contemporary flavor, while still sticking to the noir roots. I found that eastern action-crime movies were exactly what I was looking for, and what prompted me to set the story in Hong Kong. Films like, The Raid, Killzone, and The Night Comes For Us use action in a way that is almost oppressive, like there is no escaping the violence and no predicting what will happen next. Beyond that, I’ll have to give all credit where it is due to Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon. It is a classic for a reason.
Winston, Frodo, Pooka, Casserole
And how about your cats? Your website says you live with “…so many cats.” How many cats are we talking about, and what influence did they have on The Last Days Of Hong Kong? Because cats are usually more into sci-fi than fantasy.
There are four of them at the moment, which is about three too many for the space that we have. Frodo, Casserole, Winston, and Pooka. While they didn’t have a massive influence on this book, they had a tremendous effect on the first one. When I left the room to go to the bathroom they managed to sit on the computer, deleting several chapters of work from earlier in the manuscript, then in leaping off managed to reset the cursor to where I’d previously been working so that I didn’t notice. By the time I realized, all hope of retrieving the lost parts was long past, and I had to go back and rewrite the damned thing.
Yeah, I can’t imagine how they “managed” to do that. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was intentional…
On a more serious note, you also say on your website that you’ve designed tabletop games. How do you think your work in that realm has influenced your writing, and especially how you wrote The Last Days Of Hong Kong?
I currently write a couple of series in the LitRPG genre, where game elements are incorporated into the world, so the transfer of skills has been pretty much direct for those.
As for how it has influenced Hong Kong, Sully, as a character, can jump in unexpected directions. I was surprised during the writing how differently certain scenes played out when viewed through the lens of how she makes her decisions. Then I had to try to keep the plot moving regardless. Writing RPG modules for a bunch of strangers who might do literally anything in the world you’ve just handed to them was good prep.
Upon hearing that the Witch Of Empire series is concluding with The Last Days Of Hong Kong, some people will decide to read all three books in a row, even if it means rereading the first two. But do you think back-to-back is the best way to experience this saga?
I know that some of the advance reviewers have already gone back and read them back to back so that they didn’t miss any of the little Easter eggs I’d left for them in Hong Kong, so I’d say that probably is the best way to read them. The cliff-hanger at the end of book two will probably also prompt people to read on.
Earlier I asked if The Last Days Of Hong Kong was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Last Days Of Hong Kong, and thus the whole Witch Of Empire series, could work as a series of movies or a TV show or as a game?
In an ideal world, I’d love to have a Netflix series for Sully. There hasn’t been much in the way of urban fantasy on TV in years, and it would be great to dig through all of her old cases while slowly revealing the overarching plot.
With that said, I would play the hell out of a Witch Of Empire video game. Using forensic magic to pick apart crime scenes, zapping people who bug you and turning them into parrots, fighting giant kaiju monsters?! I want it now, please.
Finally, if someone enjoys the Witch Of Empire trilogy, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
If you want something similar but different, then consider picking up The Last King trilogy when it drops next year. I’m writing it with Indie Fantasy superstar David Estes, and while it has more of a medieval fantasy sort of setting, the plot of the first book is about solving a mysterious series of locked-room murders. And dragons. Because of course there are dragons.