Malarat is Jessica Rydill's third book set in the same world as her earlier stories, but can be read as a stand-alone novel (available for the Kindle): “Annat Vasilyevich is a shaman and an outcast Wanderer. No longer her father's apprentice, she watches enviously as he sets out into enemy territory with his new pupil, Huldis of Ademar, and their companions. War has come to Lefranu, and while Annat remains to defend the city of Yonar from siege, her father Yuda has to face his destiny and confront a demon from the lore of the Wanderers.”
Jan Edwards asked the questions and Jessica Rydill provided the answers:
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m the younger daughter of a naval architect and a social worker. My elder sister is the Fantasy writer Sarah Ash, who has had a huge influence on me, though our books are very different. I’ve spent most of my life living in Bath or London, but I think Bath has won out now. I studied English at University and would have liked to become an academic, but I didn’t get a good enough degree. So I trained as a solicitor and had a somewhat chequered career in local government. The best bit by far was working as a locum for the London Borough of Lambeth; as a housing lawyer as I got to stand up in court (though solicitors have horrible gowns, unlike barristers). I gave it all up in 1998 in order to write. A writing course at Fen Farm taught by David Gemmell was a breakthrough for me. It made a huge difference to my writing though it was still some time before I produced a book that was publishable!
Malarat is standalone book and somewhat darker than previous books in this world. Can you tell us a little about that?
I suppose Malarat is on a more epic scale than the others. I like to imagine my books as movies, and Malarat is a bit like War and Peace in scope. The beginning is quite light, and one of the main characters is preoccupied with what she’s wearing. But in that first chapter there is a hint of what’s to come. There will be a war, and all the characters will be affected.
In some ways it’s a story about obsessions of various kinds. The Duc de Malarat wants to rule the country through a puppet king. The Inquisitor wants to eradicate magic. And behind that is a man with the weirdest obsession of all – Colonel Carnwallis. He sets out to change history and the afterlife in line with his view that the Anglit – the English, in effect – are true descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The way in which these characters set out to achieve their ends is disastrous for everyone else. So there are some dark episodes. The standalone bit relates to the fact that you don’t need to have read my first two novels to understand this one. If anything, I have enlarged the amount of contextual detail relating to the world and country where the story is set. Some of the characters are the same, but the entire episode is separate.
You have two previous novels set in this world: Children of the Shaman – short- listed for a Locus Best first Novel – and The Glass Mountain. Fill us in on the details.
Children of the Shaman introduced the Vasilyevich family. They are Wanderers, an ethnic group similar to the Jews. They also have magical powers to varying degrees, which is why they are known as shamans. The children, Annat and Malchik, have been brought up by their aunt and grandparents. Their father abandoned them and their mother died young. Malchik is rather nerdy and weedy and Annat, the young girl, is bolder and more adventurous. When their aunt has to go into hospital, their father, Yuda, takes custody of them. He’s on a secret mission to a frontier town called Gard Ademar (which does exist – it’s called La Garde Adhemar). Since the Great Cold ended, the Railway People have been constructing a railway north into the unknown wastes of what is (more or less) northern France. And when they reach Gard Ademar, they accidentally disturb a hornet’s nest.
Yuda is there to investigate a series of murders, and he and his children get caught up in the magic of the place. He’s a very mercurial and charismatic person and not at all an ideal father; he can’t accept that his son, Malchik, is not only not a shaman but also completely bookish and wimpy.
The Glass Mountain deals with some of the fallout from Children of the Shaman. It talks a lot more about what it means to be a shaman and focuses on Yuda’s twin sister, Yuste. In this story most of the trouble is caused by a Magus who carries two suitcases with … unusual … contents. He practises necromancy and fancies himself as a rival to the powerful Sklavan Magus Kaschai the Deathless. The mountain of the title is his hideout, and he kidnaps Annat and Malchik to further his purposes. The setting is 19th century again but there are mediaeval elements because of the fact that parts of the world have been set back by the Great Cold.
There are (at least) two kinds of magic in this universe. Shamans are an evolutionary phenomenon. Before the Great Cold, they were rare and were found mostly in Cine (which is China). After the Thaw, the centre for the study of shamanism was established in Inde (India). They had a long tradition of academic study, and they were excited when news came through that shamans were starting to be born in Europe. So they sent out a number of emissaries, one of whom was Prakhash Sival, who planned to establish a school or college for shamans in Masalyar. Sival “discovered” Yuda and Yuste Vasilyevich when they were children, and recognised that they were both unusually powerful. So he set out to study and train them.
The characteristics of a shaman are that they can use telepathy, heal, and travel into other dimensions, particularly the spirit world. A small number of them have much more flamboyant powers and can also fight. They are often but not always bisexual, and they tend to be on the short side. But there are exceptions to every rule!
The Magus is a shaman who uses other forms of magic. He casts spells and uses mirrors. The shamans frown on this type of magic because it’s superstitious and tends to involve abuse of power.
There is another species of magic which only gets hinted at: gifts, which are a specific magical ability. In Children of the Shaman there is a painter called Cluny who can use his paintings to escape from his confinement. He is not a shaman and has no other magical powers.
If you could visit a fantasy world from another book where would it be?
That’s a tricky one! I would once have loved to go to Narnia, but discovering that it was a Christian allegory rather knocked that on the head for me. More recently, I have wanted to go to Lyra’s Oxford. The trouble with fantasy worlds is that they’re dangerous. It’s not unlike travelling, going backpacking, and I these days I prefer my home comforts such as sanitation, hot and cold running water, and sofas. I’m emotionally close to Bilbo Baggins before he set out for Erebor. So I think I’d choose Middle-Earth, specifically the Shire, because you can smoke and drink beer (and eat well) but there is also the possibility of Elves.
How do you see the rise of ebooks affecting writers and writing?
I believe it’s too soon to call, really. The effect could be quite deleterious in one scenario. At the moment, many people are rushing into print before they have had a chance to learn their craft, and there is no editorial control. There are thousands of ebooks out there and it is hard to discover which ones are any good. It’s also very hard to get reviews for self-published ebooks due to the sheer volume being produced. So on the one hand there is the opportunity for people to publish work that might not otherwise have been published – but on the other hand there’s no gateway, no vetting process and so it’s almost as if there is an ebook for everyone in the world.
I love “traditional” reading but I fear that in the future it may not survive. I may be completely wrong, but I get the impression that young people enjoy so many different formats – games, films, tablets, music and more. Sitting down to read a book is a much more concentrated and reflective experience. On the other hand, ebooks have a lot of unexplored potential. One could incorporate music, images – who knows what! – into such a book.
So I feel the rise of ebooks is a challenge; they rely on technology and a hi-tech society to exist. I’m a bit of a Luddite – I love low-tech things like steam trains and wind-up gramophones – but I have to confess I also love iPads and computers and suchlike.
Who is hot on your reading list?
I want to read Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell, which has been waiting on my Kindle. Lots more Sherlock Holmes, and some of my Terry Pratchett pile. The Kindle is quite bad for a book hoarder like me (in one way) in that I can download stuff and there it is, waiting for me! I am keen to read more of the Graceling books by Kristin Cashore.
I’ve started something called Winterbloom. That’s its working title. I’ve got to scan my first two books to bring them out as ebooks, but Winterbloom is pre-occupying me. It’s my work-in-progress and it looks as though some of it may take part in England – a fictional 19th century England – and also in the Anglond of the shaman world. At the moment there appear to be characters from three parallel worlds interacting. It may also have Sherlock Holmes in it, but I’m not sure because Conan Doyle was such an outstanding writer. But I used to love the old Sherlock Holmes TV series with Jeremy Brett playing the Great Detective, and now I am a huge fan of Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss. I’m terribly fan-girly about the whole thing! So Winterbloom might have a Sherlock Holmes strand. After Malarat, I wanted to do something a bit more playful, and I have always wanted to mingle my characters with someone else’s. The main problem at the moment is structural – I know what I want to do but not how to get there!