I was so incredibly excited when I was given the chance to read and review Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness Into Light by Titan Books. I’m a huge fan of the Lady Trent series from both fantasy and throughly researched realism points. The world building is phenomenal, the characters are fantastic, and there are dragons! When there was an opportunity to be part of the blog tour and do a Q&A, I was absolutely on board.
Not only did I get to ask Marie about Lady Trent and Audrey, RPG campaigns, research, and smallpox scabs. I actually went to the release day signing event for Turning Darkness Into Light at Forbidden Planet and hear a short story letter exchange between Lady Isabella and Benjamin Talbot called From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review (A Lady Trent Story) performed to perfection in character voice.
Lady Trent was quite the pioneer. Between her parents and grandparents Audrey has a lot to live up to, although the expectation comes from outside the family. Aside from being strong, intelligent, independent women, how do the two compare?
They’re both headstrong, of course but Audrey is cockier. She grew up with the assumption that she could get away with things, and that if she got into trouble her family would bail her out — neither of which were true for Isabella. But at the same time, Audrey is in some ways less sure of herself, because she has this yardstick everybody else is holding her up to . . . and she holds herself up to it as well. Plus there’s an experience in her past that badly undercut her confidence, as much as she tries to pretend otherwise.
I am fascinated by world building and how different influences and viewpoints create such contrasting imagery. If Lady Trent and Audrey could study the dragons and historic civilisations of any world, where would they go?
Anywhere they could get to!
It’s a flip answer, but it’s also true; they’ve both got a rampaging case of intellectual curiosity. I suspect Isabella would be fascinated to go into Naomi Novik’s version of our history, because it’s so much like her own, but the dragons there are intelligent. (Even if she would undoubtedly find some diplomatic faux pas to commit with them.) For Audrey, because her interest is more on the archaeological and linguistic end of things, she would need a place with ancient legends and the like. She would be wildly out of place in Middle-Earth, but Tolkien’s attention to detail on such matters would make her as happy as a clam.
The Spotify playlists are fantastic scene setters. What music do you imagine Audrey would work to?
I’m so delighted people are listening to those! And it makes me feel a little guilty that I didn’t put together a full soundtrack for this novel, the way I’ve done with most of my previous ones. In large part that was because I don’t have a very big reservoir of the appropriate music; what I listened to while writing this novel was in the vague direction of swing, big band, and jazz, but I only have a little of that kind of thing. I wanted music with a 1920s feel, though, to help break me out of the Victorian mold of the Memoirs. I can absolutely see Audrey turning on the wireless and bobbing her head along to some swing as she works out a particularly knotty bit of text.
New Worlds (a Patreon project with compilations for years one and two available) is an amazing project and unbelievable resource for writers. I am a huge research nerd and will fall merrily into any obscure rabbit hole. Previously you spoke about 1491 and the Incan Mummy Problem. What has been the weirdest discovery in your reading or research?
I have to pick just one? Let’s go with two, and I apologize that they’re both a little bit gross.
The first is that China was practicing a form of immunization against smallpox centuries before Europe was, by taking smallpox scabs, drying them out, grinding them to a powder, and then snorting them. Which doesn’t sound appetizing — but when the alternative is getting smallpox . . . I think I’d take the scabs.
The other has to do with the way Japan was almost completely closed to outsiders during the Tokugawa Era. Because of this, they had adapt to working with limited resources, which meant that most of the very limited arable land they have was devoted to farming, not livestock. But without livestock, they didn’t have animal manure to fertilize the fields; they had to use human waste instead (taking measures to minimize the risk of pathogens). So Tokugawa-period Japanese cities were quite sanitary, because urine and fecal matter were valuable resources; shopkeepers and the like owned the right to collect it in barrels, and when barges came into the cities loaded with crates of food, they went out again loaded with barrels of waste. Except that after a while the exchange rate broke down . . . because the waste was becoming more valuable per cubic foot than the food. In fact, it was so valuable that there started being a problem with people stealing it.
So there you go. Snorting scabs and stealing crap. The world is so, so full of weird things.
Todd Lockwood’s artwork for both the memoirs and turning darkness into light is beautiful, it instantly calls to mind the lithographs displayed at the Natural History museum. Would you ever consider a Lady Trent Guide to Dragons?
I would love to do one! People should instead be asking my publishers whether they’d consider it. 🙂 Side note: absolutely make sure you do this. I want this and a film/tv series that starts with the older Lady Trent sat at a desk writing and then goes into the action in the style of Granny Wendy’s story in Hook.
Do you have any favourite folklore or mythology tales? And if you could, which one would you do a retelling of?
I’ve actually done retellings of quite a few, or at least stories that riff on the sources in some fashion. I wouldn’t necessarily say those are my favorites, because what sparks a story isn’t how much I love a folktale or song; it’s whether I can find some angle or gap that gives me a way to do something new with it. One I do love, though, is the Scottish border ballad “Tam Lin” — I’ve got a retelling of that one that I’m trying to sell right now, though it’s unfortunately quite long, which limits the number of markets that will even let me send it to them.
As an RPG player, what was the most memorable campaign you’ve played or the most fun to write?
Aw, man — the first half of that is asking me to play favorites among my GMs!
I’ve honestly had so many great experiences of different kinds that choosing between them is a bit like apples and oranges. Several of the most memorable have worked their way into my fiction in one fashion or another; my novelette “False Colours” is based (with permission) on the most ridiculously serendipitous sequence of events that has ever occurred for me in a game, while the Varekai novellas grew out of a character I played for about four years in a Changeling LARP, and the Onyx Court series has its roots in the historical context for the first tabletop campaign I ever ran. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Can you tell us what’s next for Audrey or what you are working on now?
Audrey’s done for now; Turning Darkness Into Light is a standalone novel that resolves her personal arc. But since I thought I was done with Lady Trent’s world in general after the Memoirs, and then accidentally tripped and wrote another novel, I won’t rule it out entirely!
As for current projects, I have a novella connected to the Legend of the Five Rings game called The Eternal Knot coming out this fall, probably in September. And last year my friend Alyc Helms and I wrote an epic fantasy novel together, which we have just sold to Orbit Books; that’s the first book of the Rook and Rose trilogy, and we’ll be publishing it next year under the joint pen name of M.A. Carrick.
From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review (A Lady Trent Story) can be read at tor.com where it was first published, or as part of an ebook collection called Maps to Nowhere. Marie Brennan has also recently published a short for Uncanny magazine called On the Impurity of Dragons, written in the point of view of Lady Trent’s son
Be sure to check out my fellow tour guides blogs and see what they are up to.