TheCO: A Mankind Witch is the third book in the Heirs of Alexandria series—what can we expect from this book?
Dave Freer: (Thinks.) Text. I’m pretty sure of that. Actually, that’s a little more than a snarky monkey answer. What you will find rather depends on the reader. If I wrote it, you will always find a fast moving, high action tale. That’s a given. I want to entertain. I want to give the reader pleasure. That’s what you can expect. You can expect a fantasy story of a Norse princess being groomed for murder and suicide. You can expect an enslaved captive Barbary corsair who becomes a trickster worthy of Loki for her sake. You will find trolls, disaster, humor, magic and the Norse nine worlds. You can expect intractable problems and vast odds… and solutions that take their answer from thought rather than mere slugging. You can expect plot twists and a murder-mystery in among the magic and mayhem. What you find after that depends on how hard you look. There are socio-political, philosophical and moral dimensions if you want them. (Smiles.) I don’t care if you do. I write them because I do, but I don’t let them ruin a good story.
TheCO: Who does this book revolve around?
DF: I could come up with all sorts of smart answers, but there is an easy and accurate one. The book revolves around Cair Aydin. Like most books that do not involve the superhero shooting fish in a barrel, Cair is a deeply flawed character with some likeable traits, who is in dire trouble. He’s a slave. A small, unarmed, lowest-of-the-low thrall. Worse, a slave to a woman with no status. As far down as you can go in the Norse world. He’s cunning, clever and disdainful of his primitive and superstitious captors. He is set on bloody revenge, and a return to his position of absolute power in North Africa. Only, he is trapped—and redeemed—by Signy, who finally penetrates his armor of, well… arrogance, and brings out hero worth having.
TheCO: Do you have a favorite of the new characters to appear in this book?
DF: Well, yes… I have a soft spot for three of them, and now you want me to make it one. The trials you put me through! Well, I’ll just mention them, Ok. Proctor Juzef Szpak, my Polish Knight of the Holy Trinity. He has a relatively minor role in A MANKIND WITCH, but he has all the hallmarks of a great hero, towering and deep-seated idealism, a chip on his shoulder and an appalling sense of humor to balance the other two. Watch. He’ll be back. Signy is a Princess worth dying for. Or better still, making her enemies die for. But Cair Aydin, the trickster who is so good that he fools himself, has to be my favorite. This book is about loyalty, love and… I guess in the end it is about his attitude. In the end it is always about attitude.
TheCO: Are there further volumes forthcoming in this series? And if so when can we expect them?
DF: Well, in Heirs of Alexandra Series (The Shadow of the Lion, A Mankind Witch, This Rough Magic) there are two more contracted books. I am due to start the next one (Much Fall of Blood) in about 6 weeks. It usually takes me 6-8 months on one of these enormous books. Then it depends on my co-authors (this is with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey again) as to their schedule and of course, Baen’s schedule. Figure on 18 months, and you won’t be disappointed. I have some vague and so far unrealized hopes—depending on the sales of A Mankind Witch, to do a few more in that “arena,” the Norselands and Finnland.
TheCO: Since this book is set shortly after the first book in the series, The Shadow of the Lion, can you give the reader a quick summary of that book in case they haven’t read that?
DF: (Snort) Are you sure don’t want a three line summary of the American Revolution? It’s be easier. Firstly, although A Mankind Witch fits in, I do believe you can read it on its own. Cair and Signy are principal characters, not those shared with the other books. But in a nutshell, the entire ‘universe’ for these books, the first of which is The Shadow of the Lion, rests on an alternate history premise: The great library of Alexandria was saved from destruction in 391 AD. Hypatia—the librarian of the greatest repository of knowledge in the Ancient world—joined with the evangelist John Crysostom to change history. The early church split and became dominated by a Peterine faction (our history follows the Pauline tradition) and the shape of the world is altered in ever-widening ripples.
In this universe magic and magical creatures continue to exist, and, at the time setting for our stories, 1530 The Holy Roman Empire still continues powerful. The Shadow of the Lion is set on sprawling canal-canvas of Venice, Venice as she once was, a city through which the bulk of trade between East and West flowed, on the edge of the Renaissance Italy—a place of petty principalities, endless little wars and constant intrigue. Venice’s fleets were to the Eastern Mediterranean what British became after Trafalgar: totally dominant. In the North East the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, under the rule of someone who has been absorbed by the demon power Chernobog, with whom he tried to traffic, which strives to flank and destroy the Holy Roman Empire.
Venice and marine power are the key. Through his tools—a Pauline Abbot and Nun sucked into evil, various traitors and vying political factions, to say nothing of a crippled “god,” an evil magic creature brought from the Norselands to bring terror, Chernobog, plots the destruction Venice. But Venice—the lagoons and marshes—exist under an ancient compact with a magical guardian, the Lion of St Mark. And the shadow of that lion still lies over Venice, shielding her. The lion has its guardians and they can awaken it—if they live that long.
The story follows a number of threads, but centers on Marco Valdosta, His relationship with Kat Montescue, two ‘houses’ at war with each other, and his half-brother Benito. The two, estranged grandsons of Duke della Este of Ferrara, have a precarious existence on the canals of Venice, with the spy Ceasare Aldanto, and the Canal-girl Maria. A second major thread running through all the books is that of Manfred of Brittany, third in line for throne of the Holy Roman Empire and his bodyguard-mentor Erik Hakkonsen. The gigantic Manfred and Erik, as well as the perfumed courtesan Francesca provide the link to A Mankind Witch. Along with other factions, Christian and pagan, these thread weave together to ensure Venice survives, and her guardian awakens. Manfred and Erik are recalled Mainz to the Holy Roman Emperor, and sent North, for the events that unfold in A Mankind Witch.
TheCO: The first two books in the series were coauthored by Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey—how much did writing this volume alone differ from your contributions to the other two?
DF: Well… not a lot except in the confidence area. No ‘crutch’ to lean on. I write first draft of all of the books. Eric and Mercedes then do any pre-agreed scenes, which I usually sketch out. Eric then does a ‘broad editorial’ which comes down to working out what extra scenes and chapters might be needed. We divvy these up, taking them by areas of expertise (Eric writes the real nasties, and broad overview of battle-scenes, Misty handles the scenes which are mostly magic or things like weddings and feminine garb (not my strongest suite), and I take the rest, especially the food. I am Monkey-of-all-trades, and monkeys like to steal the food. Seriously, to try and keep characters consistent, I try to write the major characters extra parts. Eric then polishes and blends. I can do the polish. I just think he does it better. He also manages multi-thread editing brilliantly. For this reason I tried to keep A Mankind Witch more linear and with a smaller cast than the threesomes.
TheCO: When you are working on a series when do you fact check the previous books?
DF: Well, first I re-read all of them. Then I work with the last book-file open and back-search. It doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong. With huge, complex books, with at least 8 threads, things do.
TheCO: Which authors would you say have influenced your style?
DF: Dr Seuss? The authors I most try to learn from are Tom Sharpe (one of the world’s greatest satirists), Terry Pratchett (the master of the likeable character), Georgette Heyer (the queen of dialogue), Roger Zelazny (the lord of blending myth and fiction. Prince of lyrical fiction and a dab of humor. Only Michael Scott Rohan actually comes anywhere close). Kipling for the multi-layered effect I so desperately want to imitate, and Yeats of the aching lyric quality I can’t imitate. I read—and always have read—voraciously, catholically and very, very fast. All of this prose goes into the gigantic anti-computer I call my head, gets mixed with itself and a bizarre life and emerges as my writing.
TheCO: How detailed are the outlines you work from?
DF: My outlines with my co-authors tend be fairly slim. Then I work a second layer, once I’ve written about 5000 words (enough to get character and story feel) This one tends to be precise, just fill in the dialogue and description. And then those SOB characters get a life of their own and do things the way they would do them and botch the whole thing back down to basic outline. One day I’d like them just to listen to me and do the best that they can to do what they’re told. But no, they always have their own ideas. Who is charge around here? Me or them? (Ans.: Them)
TheCO: What other forth-coming volumes should we go reserve now?
DF: (Smiles.) Don’t reserve any. Rather go to the Baen Free Library and check out some of my other work. If you like it, well, wonderful, we’re both happy. You’ll probably buy the next one of mine you see. If you don’t like it, well, at least you didn’t pay good money for it. Fair warning: there are different styles of books there. SF, (The Forlorn, and (forthcoming) Slowtrain), high fantasy (The Heirs of Alexandria), Space opera (Wizards of Karres) and sf-action/satire (Rats, Bats, and Vats). It seems like I mostly come through like myself, so most fans like the bunch, but everyone has their preferences. I don’t. I like variety. Slowtrain—with my friend Eric Flint—should be next book out. I’m excited about that book. It goes back to some of the roots of science fiction, and I hope will re-awaken some of the old magic. Otherwise, hey, I have to recommend Eric Flint’s Rivers of War.
TheCO: Anything you’d like to say to your readers both current and future?
DF: Um. What about “Hello? Anybody out there?”
Well, guys, I have it on good authority that the secret of this civilization thing is banging the rocks to together. Take it from me (I tried it), you don’t want to do this. It leads with a sort of terrible inevitability to things like Chicago, polyester socks, and even flush toilets. Now, you may not think those very dangerous, actually, not bad things, but I had a great aunt that was attacked by one. It’s an awful tail… uh tale. No, rather give the rocks (make sure they’re diamonds) to a trader in exchange for a lifetime supply of my books (and try to live a long time) and be safe. My books have many many uses, from firelighters to bedding material or even, if you get enough, building supplies. AND you can read them first too. It’s a bargain!
Seriously, I write to please. I like you to enjoy the books. Of course if my books make you think, laugh, maybe cry and re-affirm the importance of the individual, that’s even better. Humanity, for all its faults (like Hitler, Mugabe, and possibly polyester socks) has much that is truly great, in the most “ordinary” seeming of us. I write to please. I love feedback so I know if I’m doing it right. And I hope to see some of you on my forthcoming trip to the US in November. I’ll be attending Astronomicon in Rochester, NY, WFC in Madison, Wisconsin, and be in Chicago and Fort Wayne en route. Details will be posted on my website and LJ.
That ladies and gents is Dave Freer; once paid to play with fish guts, he now plays with his readers’ heads, and they pay him to do it. Seriously, he may not recommend going out and getting the books; I however do. Dave is one of the best authors you will ever read. You can say hello to him over at Baen’s Bar in his own conference (“Dr. Monkey”) and tell him what you think—just beware of falling coconuts, dueling double entendres and painful puns.
Dave’s webpage: http://www.doctormonkey.com
Baen Free Library: http://www.baen.com/library
Baen’s Bar: http://bar.baen.com:8080/~bar or http://bar.baen.com