Crafting a World: Interview with Anthony Ryan

I’ve raved about it often enough that readers would know how much I enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s ‘Raven’s Shadow’ series. The trilogy is focused on the fate of the Unified Realm, a land where the ‘Faith’, a religious order, works in close tandem with the ruling family to maintain order and unity in the kingdom. When the lead character, Vaelin, finds out that the Faith may not be all that he’s been taught it was, things go spectacularly awry.

It’s a wonderful series, and brilliantly written, and a must read for fantasy fans everywhere. I was thrilled when Ryan agreed to answer some of my more technical questions, and give readers a peek into what went into the crafting of his very detailed, absorbing world.

1)A fairly traditional question first! Who were your biggest fantasy mentors, growing up?
eddingsFantasy really began for me with The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. In time I graduated to Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson and David Eddings. Later in life I discovered Robin Hobb, George RR Martin and David Gemmell, all of whom have been a big influence on my work.

2) How did the idea of the Raven’s Shadow series come about?

I don’t recall a single point of origin for the story, but I do remember it coming together in a nascent form sometime in the early 2000s. I’d conceived an early version of Vaelin as a character and had a vague idea about the course of his life and the world he lived in, but it didn’t start to gel until I realized he was part of a militant religious order. The 9/11 attacks were a recent memory and notions of religious conflict were also at the forefront of my mind, which probably had an influence on shaping the story. However, the biggest influence came from my reading of history.

3) You moved from self publishing to the more traditional route—how was the change for you?

It was a big decision to make. Blood Song was selling very well as a self-published book at the time and there was no guarantee that it would see the same level of success if I took a traditional deal. However, after weighing up the pros and cons I decided the series would only reach the widest possible audience if it had a major publisher behind it. Luckily, the series as a whole has gone on to sell over 300,000 copies in the US and UK, so I’ve yet to have any regrets.

4) The action of your series takes place in a well connected yet incredibly diverse world. Some of the empires you described—the Far West, for example, or the Unified Realm—seem to have echoes of our ‘real world’. Was it a conscious decision to model them thus?

The great thing about fantasy is that you can borrow from the real world and you don’t have to be completely accurate in how you depict it. I’m quite happy to mix and match as the story requires. The Unified Realm shares many similarities with late-medieval / early
16_Great_Wall_China_153096805-1680x1050Renaissance Europe, but neither is it a carbon copy. Ancient China is an obvious inspiration for the Far West and pre-imperial Rome provided a lot of material for the Volarian Empire, but then so did Nazi Germany.

5) The Faith, and faith in general, is very important to the series. It is a much more recognizable pillar of your world than it is in fantasy series, like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, though they too deal with the questions raised by belief in a higher power. Would you like to comment on this?

Religion, or some form of ritual observance, has always been part of human culture and a huge influence on the course of history. I took the view that, if this world was populated by humans, then religion would be a big deal there too. Dealing with notions of Faith, which is something everybody experiences differently, also provides great scope for drama and plot development. I wanted to explore Vaelin’s changing attitude to his faith as his tower lord
preconceptions are continually challenged by contradictory experience. However, I was keen to avoid any lazy allegories about faith versus secularism. I think to think such things are presented as being just as messy and unresolvable in my pretend world as they are in the real one.

6) Did you have a favourite character while writing the books?

It has to be Vaelin, he’s my first born after all and I’ve been with him the longest. I did develop a great fondness for the other principal characters as well, though.

7) Was there any one particular storyline that you found difficult to write, for whatever reason?

Lyrna’s journey was pretty difficult to get right, especially in the third book. She’s probably the least sympathetic of the main POV characters, but then she also has the toughest job and I put her through some terrible experiences. The biggest challenge came in capturing her vulnerability whilst also doing justice to what a formidable human being she can be.

8) You take some bold decisions in your books, and choose, often, not to follow certain conventions or pander to expectations. Was this also a conscious decision, at any level?

I just don’t want to be boring. If I’ve seen it before I try to avoid writing it and there’s a certain joy in confounding expectations. Formula is often comforting and, when done well, can be rewarding, but I’m always looking for the next surprise.

9) How did you go about building your amazingly detailed world?

I did some pre-writing before beginning Blood Song, but not a great deal. Because I’d been thinking about it for a long time, large parts of the world were already in my head waiting to come out. But I’d guess about two-thirds of the history and geography was invented during the course of writing.

10) And finally, what excites you about working in fantasy today?

I guess what excites me most in the fact that I get to make a living writing in a genre I love. I often wonder about writing a novel set in the real world and worry I’d find it too constraining. Fantasy offers complete freedom bound only by the author’s imagination. I’m also fortunate to be writing at a time when the genre is really taking off, thanks in no small part to the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series.

‘Blood Song’ and ‘Tower Lord’

Twitter gives me many things. It lets me engage with people I otherwise wouldn’t, fantasy fans from across the world; it gives me a peek into the daily life and thoughts of famous authors and actors and my other celebrity fascinations; and best of all, it connected me to Fantasy Book Critic, a really great site for any fantasy fan who wants recommendations and reviews of the latest books to hit the shelves.


BLOOD-SONG-FINAL1One of the series that their reviews pointed me towards was Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow books. The first two have been released—Blood Song and Tower Lord—and the third is poised to come out soon. I admit it took me a while to get hooked onto the first, but once I passed a certain threshold, or once Ryan hit his stride as a world builder and storyteller (which takes about three-four chapters) it’s impossible to put the book down.

The Raven’s Shadow books are set in the Unified Realm, a land that vaguely resembles (you guessed it) medieval England in terms of its social and technological set up. Funnily enough, anthropologically speaking, it seems to mirror Olde Englande as well. The four fiefs that make up the Realm, long at war with one another and now yoked together by a conquering king, Janus, could find similarities with the various parts of Britain—notably Wales finding its mirror in Cumbrael, the southernmost fief. Rather than history, it’s a common faith that unites these fiefs, the Faith. The Faith is split into six Orders, scholars, healers, missionaries, soldiers, and so on. Our main character, Vaelin al Sorna, is a student of the Sixth—the military Order—when we meet him.

The book follows Vaelin’s journey through training by the Sixth Order, from his arrival at the Order house to the conclusion of his doomed campaign against the neighbouring Alpiran Empire. Vaelin, as might be guessed, is no ordinary boy. Not only is he the only son of the Battle Lord, King Janus’s military commander, but he also holds and works a power of his own, the blood song.

I don’t want to jump into summarizing the second book, because well, it’s not fun to spoil
things for you. Suffice to say, it’s a great follow up, with plenty of action that capitalizes ontower lord Ryan’s quite obviously amazing world building skills. 

I read both these books in a near haze of astonishment. It was just so thrilling to find a new series to sink into, where the writer has obviously thought his story and his world through and is trying to put a new spin on an old plotline, where one brooding, martially-gifted hero saves the world. I really liked Vaelin, who was both Aragorn-like (brooding, distant, weighted by his past and his power), but also refreshingly young at times, like in his interactions with his Order brothers, or his fumbling feelings for Sherin, a healer from the medical Fifth Order.

Despite their overwhelmingly martial nature (there’s a lot of fighting, and I mean a lot), the Raven’s Shadow books are not without their share of romance, intrigue and moral dilemma. The female characters, in particular, are amazing. I LOVED Princess Lyrna, second in line to the throne, daughter of King Janus, and a mastermind. Lyrna spoke to me not only because she loved books and had a formidable memory, but also because she wasn’t afraid to use it, to charm her admirers while at the same time holding them at
bay with her inimitable wit and power. Almost in direct opposition to her gifts, but no less wonderful, was Reva from Tower Lord, a conflicted, devout warrior who has been raised to complete just one mission. As might be expected, fulfillment of that mission is not everything she dreamt it would be, leading her character along a path few would imagine. And you know what’s best about her? Ryan writes her as lesbian, and injects her with very real, very ‘real world’, self doubt and fear about the same. But it’s never presented as the be-all and end-all of her character arc, something that might very easily have happened in a less capable writer’s hands.

I cannot recommend this series enough. Ryan’s world is richly realized, his characters very well drawn. Now and then he falters in my Okay test (he uses the word ‘rogered’!), but I think I can forgive him, given how much I enjoyed his books and how I’m looking forward to the next. Queen of Fire, you can’t come soon enough!