Allies & Assassins: Interview
So, Justin, here we are at the beginning of a whole new sequence. How does that feel?
Exciting, exhilarating and sheer terrifying.
In equal measure?
Can you sum up the key story of ALLIES & ASSASSINS for us?
There’s a small, rather beautiful princedom called Archenfield, one of several states in close proximity that is often in conflict with its neighbours. For the past two years, since Prince Anders came to the throne, Archenfield and its people have finally enjoyed some hard-won peace. This was partly achieved by the politically beneficial marriage of Anders to Silva, whose mother is Queen of neighbouring territory Woodlark. But the day the story begins, that peace is shattered. Anders is found murdered in his bed and the hunt for his assassin is launched. It’s a time of chaos, confusion and conspiracy. Prince Anders’ younger brother, sixteen year-old Jared, is his heir. It’s a big ask for Jared to step up to the plate, take over the reins of rule, solve his brother’s assassination and make the princedom safe.
Jared’s not on his own, with these challenges though, is he?
No, absolutely not. As one of the other characters observes, no one is ever truly alone at court. But Jared’s problem is that he doesn’t know whom he can trust. There’s his family, for instance. His father and more confident older brother are both now dead. He has a very ambitious, rather cold mother who is not short of advice but clearly has her own agenda. Then there’s his cousin, Axel Blaxland, who is moving ever closer to seizing power for himself. Axel is not only a royal but also one of the Council of Twelve – the officers who assist the Prince in ruling the princedom. And Axel is far from the only challenging member of the Twelve. Ultimately, Jared finds an unlikely friend and accomplice who moves slightly outside these spheres.
Who is that?
Her name is Asta Peck. She’s the niece of Elias Peck, one of the Twelve. Elias is the Physician and therefore in charge of the post mortem of the dead prince. Asta is his apprentice but she’s new to court. She’s only been there six months and she’s challenged by some of its rules and etiquette. In fact, one of the things Jared likes about her is that she doesn’t curtsey when she meets him.
How, and when, did this story take shape in your head?
That’s easy to answer. I can actually name the date – October 9th 2009. A Friday. I was in North Wales, finishing up my third day of author visits as part of Book Week there. On this final day, I was chaperoned by a brilliant librarian called Hedd (pronounced ‘Haze’) ap Emlyn. We got chatting between my events and he told me that his daughter was taking part in a competition to win ‘The Poet’s Chair’. This term immediately struck a chord with me and Hedd explained that it harked back to the court structures of pre-medieval Wales, where the Poet was a key officer to the Prince. Over lunch that day, I knew I had the seeds of the idea for my next book. After I got back to my base in London, we began exchanging e-mails about this. Hedd sent me through copies of some useful and inspiring background documents. He also recommended books for me to look at, including helping me to track down a copy of THE LAW by Hwyel Dda.
What exactly is that?
Well, what it is not is an easy read! But it has its own, sometimes obscure, poetry. It’s essentially a law book, dating from the early 13th century. From the Dark Ages, the various kingdoms which made up Wales each had their own system of law, the origins of which lay in the tribal past. According to tradition, these laws were brought together by Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) when he became king over the majority of Wales in the year 942.
So is that where ALLIES & ASSASSINS is set – in Wales in that time?
No. It was my initial idea to set the story in a specific place and time, this specific place and time. That seemed rather a safe, indeed luxurious prospect after the years of world building on my previous sequence, VAMPIRATES. But as I started to sift through the source material and begin to play with the world and characters in my head, I felt in my gut that it would benefit from the freedom of being set in a parallel world and time. Before I knew it, I was back in the business of world building.
Is that something you enjoy?
I suppose I must do! It comes with equal parts of pleasure and pain. The main upside is that you get to make your own rules, rather than adhering to those of a particular place in geography or time in history. But you can’t run wild. You have to adhere to the rules you make. Because you’re trying to establish a defined sense of somewhere – somewhere new and unique but, at the same time, convincing and hopefully concrete. I want readers to feel that they can not only see Archenfield but also touch it, move through it.
How did those Welsh sources help you to evoke that defined but unique sense of place?
One of the key ways was when it came to peopling the court with characters. I said before that THE LAW is a book with its own sense of poetry. At the heart of it are lists of the key officers reporting to the King and the Queen. Each has about 24 officers, I think, and their roles and rewards are laid out. I found the titles of many of these officers to be wonderfully evocative. As I say, that phrase ‘The Poet’s Chair’ was the very first impetus for the idea. Then when I discovered that there was a Falconer, a Huntsman, a Captain of the Guard all reporting to the ruler, I felt tingles – generally a good sign. I could see, albeit dimly, the world beginning to come together. But I reduced the number of officers from 24 to 12. You need to give characters room to breathe. And of course, I played around with them, swapping out the Watchman for the Executioner, bringing in the Beekeeper. But the Poet remained. His name is Logan Wilde. I always knew there had to be a Poet in my court. One of the things that Hedd told me at that first meeting was how the ruler prized his Poet. As a writer and a publicist myself, I found that a very appealing prospect. Logan is very much a publicist, a ‘spin doctor’.
Is that where the Welsh inspiration began and ended?
No, definitely not. I have kept going back to Wales to help inspire the book and indeed I’m continuing to do so now as I embark on the second book in the sequence. Key to writing the first book was a trip my partner and I took to Snowdonia in June 2012. By now I was already deep in the midst of the story so I knew some things I was looking for to help me get a better sense of Archenfield in my head. We drove around, exploring lakes, forest and castles of varying shapes and sizes. I came back with loads of photos and notes.
Can you give us an example, or two, of how you have drawn on this location research?
Sure. One afternoon, we just stumbled across this small castle, Gwydir Castle, and pulled the car over to explore. The sun was beating down and the owners’ dogs were lazing in the courtyard as peacocks strutted about. Immediately you felt transported to a different place and time. This one visit gave me so many seeds of inspiration. The castle has beautifully laid-out gardens, above which loom the mountains. These were very much in my mind when I wrote about the Prince’s widow, Silva, taking a stroll around the palace gardens, thinking of her homeland on the other side of the mountains. I also imagined the quarters of Queen Elin (Prince Jared’s mother) from a room we visited there. The fact that there were working beehives in the garden was the icing on the cake. And there’s a tree I photographed, a Cedar of Lebanon, which was planted in 1625 to commemorate King Charles’s wedding. You’ll see in ALLIES that trees have also been planted to commemorate the wedding of Prince Anders to Silva of Woodlark. Sometimes, it’s a small detail like that, sometimes something bigger.
On another day, we planned a visit to Penrhyn Castle, which is on a much grander scale. Again, it really got my brain whiring. It “gave” me the balcony, from which on the second day of his reign, a terrified Prince Jared has to address his subjects. Other gifts from Penrhyn Castle were; the ice chamber (there are two of these in the book), which I’d already researched but it’s so much better when you get to stand inside for yourself; and the cramped quarters where the stable-boys lived but which in ALLIES I’ve used for the rooms inhabited by the palace stewards, including one renegade in particular.
What further research did you do for this book?
Another high point was going on a ‘Hawk Walk’ in Winchester. The Falconer, Nova Chastain, is another key member of the cast and I wanted to know more about falconry at first hand. What better way to find out than to venture out with a real-life falconer, two hawks and a Labrador (fortunately, not my own!)? One of the things that interested me about the experience was the feeling of companionship there is between you and the different animals. I’ve felt that when I’m out walking with my own dogs but to feel it with two birds as well was different and rather magical. I was dreading the part when they killed something but as a writer there are some things you have to grit your teeth and experience and it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Easy for me to say, I guess.
Were there any other significant influences on ALLIES & ASSASSINS?
I think with any bit of world building, there are a host of influences, some of which you are more conscious of than others. The other influence that I definitely am aware of is Scandinavia. I visited Norway and Sweden while this idea was simmering away – as well as becoming in thrall to TV shows like THE KILLING and, even more so, BORGEN. I have cousins who live on an island on the Oslo fjord and, when we visited for midsummer, my cousin’s wife showed me her ‘badehus’ (bathing house), which I have plundered and put into a key moment in the books. The fjord is a key part of the Archenfield landscape. And there are quite a few Scandinavian names in the books, as indeed there are Welsh ones. That all helps me to create a defined sense of place, but also a sense of ‘otherness’.
You’ve received acclaim in your previous work for creating compelling characters – especially villains and anti-heroes. There are a lot of characters in this story – how do you go about breathing life into them?
One of the things I most enjoy about writing is inventing and developing characters. You hope you’re breathing life into them but you don’t really know if you’ve succeeded until people start reading the book and tell you. You have a more immediate sense of some characters than others and there are definitely some here that are more strongly drawn than others. One of the pleasures of writing a sequence is that you have more than one book to get to know the character. And readers are helpfully vocal about which characters they want to see more of.
Really, does that kind of feedback influence you?
Absolutely. It’s great when readers get behind a character. It’s fun to play with their expectations of what that character will and won’t do.
You’re about to start work on Book 2. What can you tell us about that?
Nothing at this point. It’s not that I don’t know stuff. But if I told you, I’d have to kill you.