Den Patrick is a London-based author who shares a birthday with Bram Stoker and entirely coincidentally wears a lot of black. He co-hosts Super Relaxed Fantasy Club with Jen Williams, with whom he also shares an agent in Juliet Mushens. The Erebus Sequence consists of The Boy With The Porcelain Blade, The Boy Who Wept Blood and the forthcoming eagerly anticipated The Girl on the Liar’s Throne.
What’s the story so far, for those who don’t know?
I think Jen Williams gave my favourite description when she said it’s like Gormenghast meets The X-Men! It’s the idea of these outsiders having to live in this strange, monolithic old castle, called Demesne, which is steeped in subterfuge and secrets and ancient traditions. The four noble Houses are entrusted with deformed foundlings, called Orfano, whom receive the best of everything: education, accommodation, clothing, and fencing lessons. None of the Orfano know what they are supposed to do when they reach adulthood, which is a feeling many of us can relate to.
The first book centres on Lucien, who over the course of his childhood uncovers this dark conspiracy at the heart of Landfall. While he initially feels powerless, he is compelled to take a stand, as plucky young 18 year olds are want to do! As the novel progresses we learn why he is so conflicted about Demesne, how he struggles to fit in, and the problems created when duty clashes with love.
The structure of each book is directly related to the protagonist. There are flashbacks in the first book as Lucien is very introspective so he tends to look back at his childhood a lot. In the second book, Dino only looks back at the past when it’s about to have a direct impact on the present. In the third, there are no flashbacks at all, since Anea has lost her memory.
Dino’s book, The Boy Who Wept Blood, is set ten years after the first book. We see how difficult things are as Landfall edges away from feudalism to a republic. Dino’s own story is about remaining true to himself, even as he asked to be someone else. His story is set against a backdrop of simmering class tensions, inequality, corruption and betrayal.
I think of books two and three as being a bit like the original Star Wars trilogy – they’re much more dependent on each other than the first book, which you can easily read as a stand alone.
Would you describe it as a YA series?
There are a lot of what I’d call YA elements, what with both the first two books being coming of age stories with young protagonists who are opposing adults and figures of authority around them. I was fortunate enough to be invited to YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) last summer and I was surprised to find I do have younger readership, so perhaps I’m not the best judge of what my books are.
That said, I didn’t set out to write a YA series. The books cover some very adult themes – there are some very strong horror scenes for a start, as well as struggles with alcoholism, addiction, and characters who are workaholics. I’ve tried to write the characters in a nuanced way, showing why these people are the way they are.
Was it quite difficult to keep track of all the characters and motivations?
I have a shocking memory so I actually kept a who’s who of everyone in the books with little thumbnail descriptions! I then cut them down to a Dramatis Persona, which got added to the beginning of each book. I think they could probably all have their own novellas!
Did you always have a very specific series arc planned from the beginning, or did the story grow quite organically?
I didn’t know how many there would be when I first started writing; it is a trilogy but I called it The Erebus Sequence basically because I liked the sound! My grammar’s not so good, so I tend to read my work out loud to get a feel for how well it sounds and flows. I haven’t got any plans for any more Erebus books at the moment, but there are at least two others I’d like to write given the chance! I also have a novella drafted which is set in the time between the first and second books after Lucien has left the castle, but he’s not the main protagonist. I think of it as kind of a Renaissance era road trip movie as the protagonist has been cut off from his family and has to fend for himself.
What attracted you to the renaissance period as your fantasy backdrop?
I’m a huge fan of Jon Courtenay Grimwood. His Assassini books are set in an alternate history Venice – they’re so amazingly well written and cinematic, he was a huge influence on me. Plus there are Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard books, particularly when the characters are in Camorr, which reads as a very Venetian style city to me.
I also visited Italy to see friends and just fell in love with it – the climate, the café culture, and the fact that so much of the architecture is exactly as it was when it was first built. It feels like stepping back in time.
And I suppose that in pop culture, we tend to have these kind of lazy assumptions about that time, and imagine it was all about fancy clothes and swashbuckling and intrigues – and that does appeal to me, I find the idea of having to fight your opponents using your brains and wits instead of just brute strength and armour much more interesting.
What kind of research did you do into that period?
I did do some research around terminology and looked at things like styles of architecture. I also started using this dictionary of symbolism – like for instance the ear is the symbol for obedience, and of course Lucien doesn’t have ears and is seen as very disobedient! I also found this book called The Merchant of Prato which collects a merchant’s letters to his wife, and I used that for some small touches. For the Italian language I confess to using Google Translate – fortunately I had a very astute copy editor who picked up any errors!
What’s this about fingering your ricasso?
Ha! A fan posted the cover art for The Boy With The Porcelain Blade on their Facebook and one of their friends commented that he’s holding the hilt incorrectly – the ricasso is the unsharpened part of the blade just above the guard – apparently his finger should have been pointing down the length of the blade. Someone asked me if I’d done much sword fighting research at Gollanczfest while I was on a panel. I confessed I hadn’t, but couldn’t resist a smutty joke.
If you could pick your Orfano “gift” what would it be?
The Orfano’s mutations are really a metaphor for that stage of puberty when you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, when you feel like you’re not normal. The next step in fantasy is to make those changes really abnormal and then turn them up to eleven, so really the Orfano’s gifts are not something I’d wish on anyone!
I suppose there is the unseen stuff, like agility or strength – all Orfano have something good to counterbalance the worst aspects of their “gift”.
“Do I look to be in a gaming mood” – who said it first, Dino or Thor?
Ha! Totally Thor! I mainly put that in there to make Jen Williams smile. It’s such a great line! And, you know, I’m not a linguistic historian so I do have to adapt the language to my own needs, and I really like pop culture references and zingy, zippy dialogue. ‘Are you kidding me?’ feels very anachronistic somehow.
I think the line works well for Dino though. Dino is not as introverted as Lucien so there is more banter in the second book. All my characters have a thing they do when they’re freaked out, a significant flaw, like they drink or they mope. I suppose it is partly a reaction to that idea that a character can go through a novel without ever needing a duvet day!
There is a strong theme of not belonging in both your first books, both in part to the protagonists being Orfano, and compounded in the second with Dino’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality as something forbidden in Landfall. Is this something you feel very strongly about?
Yes, there are several reasons – I think a lot of good fiction is typified by outsiders as it’s through them that we get some perspective, and they tend to drive change as change often comes from the outside. The other thing is that the outsiders tend to be the underdog. Underdogs don’t tend to have that support network so they have to work twice as hard to achieve the same results as everyone else. Audiences love an underdog. That said, my books do play on the idea that you can’t do everything alone, you do need friends to help. In this way Lucien has to create a family of sorts to see him through, while Dino‘s struggles are made harder as he discovers he can trust fewer and fewer people.
How do you use the style of violence employed by the characters to illuminate their personality?
One of my friends was able to give me some pointers on swordplay which helped, but I didn’t consciously think about styles of fighting reflecting personality. There is a turning point in the first book when Lucien beats three men despite being wounded, and he is so rude! Dino is a bit more measured and controlled which might be what comes with the hindsight of being a younger child who can see what his older siblings have done before. Dino is also more dedicated and a more naturally talented swordsman. Anea is no slouch in the violence stakes either, though she’s much more intellectual than the boys.
What can you tell us about The Girl on the Liar’s Throne?
It’s kind of me thumbing my nose at authors who say women in fantasy can’t have agency. Here we’ve got Anea as Queen, and we switch perspectives between Anea and her imposter. I also thought it would be fun to give them both right hand women rather than men, so the imposter has the Domina, and Anea has Medea Contadino. Later in the novel they build up this kind of Dungeons and Dragons style team of characters with assassins and scholars and so on – I tried to do a lot of mirroring so each of the narratives works in parallel with the other and the way I end the book is an inversion to the beginning.
There’s a lot of people trying to prevent war which isn’t entirely successful, but it’s more about defusing and avoiding violent conflict rather than the more usual build up to wide-scale conflict that is prevalent in Epic Fantasy. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I just wanted to do something different.
Have real world issues influenced your writing?
There’s a huge amount of poverty and inequality in the books. I’ve always seen the Orfano as this kind of liberal middle class who want to enrich people’s lives without a cost to anyone else. And usually in fantasy, you get the sense that nothing’s really changed except the hero. The Chosen One might defeat the evil king or whatever, but nothing really changes for the country, the people are still peasants. And they still get a bad rap, like the working class do in the real world – either they’re nice people with bad teeth or they’re thieving scum. I wanted to kind of progress things. So there are definitely issues around class and poverty which have played a big part.
Thanks so much for talking to us, Den!
The Girl on the Liar’s Throne will be published by Gollancz on 21 January 2016. The audio rights for The Erebus Sequence have been sold to Audible.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)