Like other fantasy writers, Stephen Deas is a veteran of numerous Dungeons And Dragons campaigns. But — as he confesses in following email interview about his new sword & sorcery novel, The Moonsteel Crown (paperback, Kindle) — he may be the first who’s tried to correct the mistakes of his adventure gaming past by writing a story…then abandoned it, came back to it, and, oh, you know, I’ll let him tell you the story…
I find it best to begin with an overview of a novel’s plot. So, what is The Moonsteel Crown about, and what kind of world is it set in?
This is one of those questions that can have lots of different answers. On the surface, I suppose it’s about a small band of misfits who get lured into stealing something that’s really way too hot for them to handle, and then bicker a lot about what to do and whose fault it is. It’s about compulsive greed, whether that’s Fings’ inability to not steal things or Seth’s avarice for knowledge that just keeps digging him into a deeper and deeper hole…and he knows it, and yet he still can’t stop digging. At its deepest, I suppose it’s about friendship and loyalty, and how much shit we’re all prepared to put up with from the people we call friends, and somehow it doesn’t matter.
Where did you get the original idea for The Moonsteel Crown, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
Once upon a time, I started to write a story. It was a story of a game of Dungeons And Dragons. I was about fifteen, and the story I was writing was the story of how the campaign I’d been trying to run was supposed to have gone, as opposed to the way it did go, which, like most of the games I remember from that time, ended up with far more players being murdered by other players than by anything else. Frankly, in those days, I think the plot was largely “who can be the first to travel the hundred yards home from ye locale pubbe without getting stabbed by his so-called mates.”
I’d planned a bit more story than that, so I set out to write it for myself. I didn’t get very far, and what did get written down was a trash-fire of god-awfulness of which we can be grateful nothing survived. But it got me thinking that I’d kind of started in the middle of the story. That’s about when I stopped.
Years passed. Civilizations rose and fell. Word processors came to be and I set out to write my story again; only now, it was book two of a trilogy, so I figured I best get on and write book one so I could finally settle in to writing the novel I really wanted to write. Book two was a “journey home” novel, so book one was the “how I ended up a long way from home in the first place” novel. There was going to be a kidnapped princess, a long chase, a dissolute (but plot twist — not a plot twist — actually a good guy) guardian, a botched rescue, some more running away, and voila! A couple of characters lost in a strange land a long way from home, in need of the actual protagonists I wanted to write in book two.
The lesson here is this: don’t let your characters think they’re just here to carry the story for a bit until the real heroes show up. No, don’t do that. The kidnapped princess — really didn’t want to be kidnapped, thanks — immediately proved to be about as meek and submissive as a wolverine that’s on fire and also just stepped on some LEGOs, and only got worse. The dissolute guardian saw no reason why being dissolute had to stand in the way of relentless competence and tenacity. The rescue turned into more of an escape and utterly failed to get itself botched; when I wheeled out some opposition of almost god-like power to force the characters I was writing to go where they were supposed to go, both of them (note, these are the characters on whom the entire premise of the second book depended) made it explicitly clear that they were literally prepared to die rather than let me set up the next volume of the story. It was like Obi-Wan decided, “No, I’m not going to die symbolically so my pupil can learn the ways of the force and walk the path of the hero’s journey. Instead, I shall dispatch Captain Clanky here [murders Darth Vader] and then make my way to the central reactor and light-sabre things until it explodes. Galaxy saved, end of story, everyone can go home.”
It was a traumatic experience. I wrote some other stuff. Then I wrote some more other stuff. Quite a lot of other stuff, but it was always there, the corpse of that first novel, lying in the corner, its dead protagonist flipping me the middle-finger.
It was never published and probably never will be (there’s a lot about it I still like, but the writing is terrible). The Moonsteel Crown is its sequel, and also an ode to characters who run as fast as they can in the other direction at first sign of any plot.
The Moonsteel Crown sounds like it’s an epic fantasy tale. Is that how you think of it, or are there genres that describe it better or are at work in this story as well?
There ought to be. It doesn’t feel very epic. It doesn’t feel very high or heroic either. I think, if anything, The Moonsteel Crown quietly has its roots in sword & sorcery (particularly Fafhrd And The Grey Mouser) as much as anything. The series will get more epic later, I think. Whatever genre you’d give to Scott Lynch and Jen Williams, it’s that, only less competent.
You’ve written nearly two dozen novels. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on The Moonsteel Crown but not on anything else you’ve written?
Terry Pratchett. I didn’t go looking for it, and he’s not in anything else I’ve written, but after the first draft of The Moonsteel Crown, shades of Ankh-Morpork were obvious in Fings. I thought about trying to make it go away but…well, why not. A great, great writer, sorely missed. The opening with Seth is a deliberate nod to C.M.O.T. Dibbler.
What about non-literary influences; was The Moonsteel Crown influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Largely not, except…well, Myla is a sword-monk, and the whole idea of sword-monks definitely has its roots in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and wuxia in general. But then, Myla isn’t my first sword-monk…
Unless I’m mistaken, none of your previous novels were stand-alone stories, they were all parts of series. What is The Moonsteel Crown? Is it the first book in a new series or a stand-alone novel?
I like to think of my characters as threads who weave their way through a shared world. The first dragon trilogy and the Thief-Taker’s Apprentice trilogy came together in the second dragon trilogy. A much younger Myla already makes a passing appearance in one of the Thief-Taker books (I forget which). There are at least two other characters who get mentioned in The Moonsteel Crown from those books, and two more characters present in The Moonsteel Crown who get a mention (at the very least, although in one case it’s quite obscure) in the second dragon trilogy (in fact I think it’s three, although the third reference is to a character from that first novel I mentioned). So you can take it as a stand-alone, insofar as the “plot” of The Moonsteel Crown is resolved as far as its central characters are concerned. Or you can take it as the start of a series, insofar as the characters who survive have ongoing stories and outstanding debts to be repaid, like most characters, and some of them will be coming back in The Book Of Endings next year, along the with some wider consequences for the choices they make. Or you can take it as part of a thread that ties The Moonsteel Crown to The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice and The Warlock’s Shadow. Or you can take it as another square in a patchwork tapestry of stories that might, one day, add up to a single bigger picture, in which case this is simply book eleven of [insert large number]. But no one, reader, publisher or author, was ever going to commit to a series of twenty-odd novels, so I’m writing in these threads. And of people keep liking what I do enough that I get to keep on writing more, one day the whole picture will emerge.
As you know, fantasy novels sometimes get turned into fantasy movies or fantasy TV shows or fantasy games. Do you think The Moonsteel Crown would work as a movie, TV show, or game?
I don’t think The Moonsteel Crown could cut it as a movie. It’s too not-epic, and the series as a whole (which will get considerably more epic) couldn’t be cut down to a single movie without ruining it.
A TV series? Yes, it could be done. It’s more character-driven than plot-driven, which I contend suits TV, while movies are better suited by plot-driven stories. It’s not short of secondary characters that could be expanded to fill a season, there’s a wider political story available to be drawn on, there’s a wider world already build… Yes, it could work just fine, if someone has the spare many tens of millions of dollars necessary…
If by game you mean table-top RPG, then sure – that’s how it started. I don’t know about a video game. There’s not enough action in the first volume to sustain one, I suspect, although a version of Thief set in Varr would be a delight.
And if someone did want to turn it into a TV show, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
My dream-team here is for it to be a TV show. I’ll have Damon Lindelof [Lost, Watchmen] as showrunner (not that I think it’s really his sort of thing but everything he touches is gold). Danny Pudi [Community] is a shoe-in for Fings, Blackhand was always Ray Winstone [Black Widow] or someone like that. Myla is basically Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but she’s too old now, and I’m not sure who would come in to take her place. [Altered Carbon‘s] Dichen Lachman, maybe, and Zhang can be sword-mistress Tasahre in The Book Of Endings. Not sure about Seth. Obviously it’s going to be made by HBO with a near-unlimited budget, which is just as well, because in season four there will be dragons and the literal shattering of the world…but I get ahead of myself again.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Moonsteel Crown, and they want to explore your oeuvre, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
The Warlock’s Shadow. It’s the closest in tone, and it directly sets up some of what happens in The Book Of Endings. I think it’s the best (by some way) of the three Thief-Taker books. Then if you like that and still want more, the rest of the Thief-Taker series or else Dragon Queen (possibly the best fantasy I’ve written, but quite different in tone).