There’s a line about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. It’s a good way to describe the situation that the people in Sharon Shinn’s new novel The Shuddering City (paperback, Kindle) find themselves in, thanks to a well-meaning god. In the following email interview about it, Shinn discusses what inspired and influenced this romantically-tinged fantasy tale.
Photo Credit: Lou Bopp
To begin, what is The Shuddering City about, and what kind of a world is it set in?
The setting and the plot pretty much come from the same place. The story is set in a world where, about a thousand years ago, the god Cordelan moved around a few small land masses to create one larger continent full of rich resources. The problem is, it’s not entirely clear how the continent is held together, and periodically the whole place is shaken by violent tremors. As the book opens, the quakes have gotten more frequent, and they’re worse in the major city of Corcannon. Only a handful of people understand what’s happening and how to stop it…if they can.
The book follows four different point-of-view characters who are all going through their own upheavals as the city shakes around them. Madeleine is a rich young woman who wants to focus on planning her wedding, except that she thinks she might be marrying the wrong guy. Oh, and someone keeps trying to kill her. Jayla is a soldier who’s recently arrived in Corcannon, and she ends up being hired to watch over Madeleine. Brandon is a temple guard who’s just been transferred to a new assignment, where his task is to keep a beautiful and mysterious woman imprisoned in her own house. And Pietro is an ex-priest who’s returned to the city ten years after he left on the heels of a terrible betrayal. Only Pietro really understands what the quakes portend, and he’s not telling.
Where did you get the idea for The Shuddering City, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
It’s always a little hard to remember the exact genesis of any story. I knew I wanted to create a world with a lot of built-in diversity, which is how I got the idea for a continent that was stitched together from many parts. There were three different races living on those smaller land masses, and pretty soon Cordelan began producing his own descendants, which created a fourth race. So every time anyone meets someone new, it’s pretty instinctive for them to take quick stock — Oh, that’s an islander. That’s a Cordelano. That’s someone with mixed heritage.
So then once I had created the land of many pieces, the next obvious step was to tear it apart again.
I’m not sure how it is with other writers, but my books always evolve as I’m writing them. I usually spend a lot of time thinking about the story before I write it, so I’ll try different ideas in my head. “What if she did this? No, that wouldn’t work. But what if she tried that instead? But then he would have to be over there. Oh, but then I could do this!” It’s like putting together a puzzle, except I’m cutting the pieces and painting the picture at the same time.
By the time I start writing, I usually have a pretty good idea of the overall plot, and some fairly detailed ideas on key scenes. But there are always surprises. A character that I just threw in because I needed someone to answer the door suddenly has a key part to play later in the book. Or a throwaway line becomes the basis for a supporting subplot. I usually stick to the overall spirit of the script, but I’ll add (or subtract) when I get to an individual scene.
The Shuddering City sounds like it’s a fantasy tale, but with a bit of romantic intrigue. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
The overall genre is definitely fantasy, but the subgenre is fantasy romance. Most of my books would be considered fantasy romance, I think. That’s what I like to read, so that’s what I tend to write.
So, how romantic does it get, and why was this the right amount of romance for this story?
Each of the four point-of-view characters has a love interest — but since it’s hard to fit an overarching story and four detailed romances in a single book, none of the romances is explored in too much depth. So the romances don’t drive the story, as they do in some of my novels, but they’re definitely important to the book.
I generally try to make sure that the love interest isn’t just there as a prop for the main character, but is actually necessary for the plot. In The Shuddering City, it’s possible that Pietro’s love interest isn’t strictly essential, but I just wanted something good to happen in Pietro’s life.
Now, unless I’m mistaken, The Shuddering City is your 31st novel. Which means you’re legally required to go your nearest Baskin-Robbins and have some ice cream. What flavor will you get, and what does it say about you and The Shuddering City?
I’m never sure if my graphic novel counts as a book or its own special category, but when I get ice cream, it has to have at least some chocolate in it — whether it’s the ice cream itself or some kind of add-in. And lately I’m all about the add-ins. So I like s’mores flavors (chocolate and marshmallow and graham crackers) or chocolate with caramel swirls and chocolate chunks. Or chocolate with salted caramel and crushed pretzels. You get the idea.
Not sure what that says about my writing process for this book. Except that maybe I like stuff that’s a little complex.
On a more serious note, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on The Shuddering City but not on anything else you’ve written?
I mean, everything I’ve ever read or watched somehow plays into every story I’ve ever written. I think we all just absorb storytelling techniques all the time and employ them when we need them — sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. But I don’t think there was anything specific that made me say, “Yes! I want to use that idea in my new book!” It’s happened with other books, just not this one.
Along with fiction, you also write poetry. Which suggests you also read poetry. How do you think writing and reading poems may have influenced how you wrote The Shuddering City?
I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger, but I produce very little of it now. For that reason, I think some of my earlier books were much more influenced by poetry than my later ones. Well, The Shape-Changer’s Wife, my first published novel, was based on a poetry cycle I wrote in college, and it’s full of deliberately lush passages. I think my YA trilogy — The Safe-Keeper’s Secret and its sequels — is also more poetically written.
But my prose has gotten leaner as I’ve gotten older. I still try to work in the occasional beautiful metaphor or flowery description. For instance, in The Shuddering City, this is how I describe one couple’s first kiss: “She tasted like desperation and euphoria, starlight and fire, mystery and cruelty and defiance and hope.” But generally speaking, these days I’m a little more focused on making the words flow with such smoothness that sometimes the reader doesn’t even notice them.
And how about non-literary influences; was The Shuddering City influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
It wasn’t. But (I don’t admit this too often) one of my very bad, very early unpublished books was written as sort of an homage to the TV show Knight Rider. Except it features a talking spaceship instead of a talking car. So.
Is it weird that I want to read that book? Anyway…Hollywood loves turning fantasy stories into movies, TV shows, and games. Do you think The Shuddering City could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it might be hard to fit the story into two hours, so it probably wouldn’t work as a movie. TV miniseries? Sure, why not? Might require some pretty good CGI to simulate the earthquakes, but they would certainly provide some exciting scenes.
I’m not a gamer, so I have absolutely no idea how to answer the game question.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Shuddering City?
The Shuddering City is what I wrote when the world shut down because of the pandemic. I hadn’t had a chance to write much of anything in 2019 because life was so busy. I’d had the idea for the story in my head for a while, but I knew that I didn’t have the concentration to keep track of four complicated and interconnected storylines. But then, suddenly, I had months where I barely left the house and almost never saw anybody. I thought, “Well, I might as well do something productive with my time.” The book isn’t directly about the pandemic because it doesn’t deal with illness and disease, but it certainly has disaster as its background.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Shuddering City, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
If they like the world-building, they might like Archangel, because there’s the similar feel of a fantasy story that might have science fiction underpinnings. But if they don’t like romance, Archangel is not for them, because it’s very much driven by the love story.
If readers like the diversity of the characters in The Shuddering City, maybe Heart Of Gold would appeal to them. If they’re intrigued by the religious elements, then they could start with Wrapt In Crystal — or maybe Troubled Waters. I’d like to think that people couldn’t go wrong whatever they decide to pick up next.