A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsa the and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil—until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.
Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.
Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surprising is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own…
Dabney: Welcome back! We have missed your work. Let me begin by saying AAR loves A Heart of Blood and Ashes. It’s is a fabulous read.
Milla: Thank you! I’m so thrilled that the three of you enjoyed it. I always write the books that I want to read, but it’s a continual surprise that anyone else likes reading them, too. But it’s a happy kind of surprise, so I’ll take it.
Dabney: So, the last book you published was in 2014. What have you been doing since then and what brought you back to writing romance?
Milla: I never really left romance or Romancelandia, but I know that I seemed to disappear — and that’s part of the answer of what I was doing. And the TL;DR version of that answer is “Well, I burned out, then shattered into a million worthless (or so I felt) pieces, and I spent years carefully putting myself back together again.”
(Content warnings for what’s ahead: depression and miscarriage.)
To put it bluntly, 2014 was a really bad year for me creatively and professionally and personally. It might not have seemed so from the outside, but that’s what we often do on social media: we put our best face forward. And that wasn’t hard, because I had a ton of good stuff going on, too. I released what a lot of readers called my best book (The Kraken King serial.) I had recently wrapped up the eight-book Guardian series, and I was incredibly happy with how it turned out — especially since sales weren’t there, and I knew far too many other authors with publishers who’d dropped their paranormal romance series and weren’t able to finish. My editor continued supporting my work, which was amazing.
But I also felt like an utter failure. A real feeling of despair had been building for a while (not just 2014), combined with the sense that my writing couldn’t sustain a long-term career. I always hesitate to talk about sales, because I feel like readers put far too much obligation on themselves to ‘support’ authors, and I’m a firm believer that every author is responsible for her own livelihood. And I failed in that one, big time. I write long, and I write slow, and what I was writing didn’t appeal to a wide enough audience to call what I had anywhere near a success.
Add in some other factors — such as feeling creatively boxed in by my own Meljean brand so that I was thinking about creating another pen name since around 2010 in order to write not-Meljean stuff, the sense that current political events were changing the punk part of my steampunk into something more like parody, a few random financial hits that had turned “getting by” into “hanging on with bloodied fingernails,” the guy who’d stalked me online off and on for twenty years swinging by again to all my online spaces, and just the everyday stuff that builds up — and one morning I found myself bawling on my bathroom floor with a positive pregnancy test in my hand (though I’d been on birth control), with less than zero money and feeling like my author brain was completely broken, and thinking it was the end of this writing dream I’d had, and knowing I had to make a choice whether to go get a ‘real’ job because I was at an emotional stress point where I knew I couldn’t have both the writing and also take care of a baby. Then I miscarried anyway, and of course — despite knowing better and knowing how common miscarriages are — saw that as my body failing me, too.
Looking back, I probably should have gone into therapy then (if not before.) And I was very, very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband and a few good friends who held my hand through it all. Because I was in a really bad place, and it took a long, long time just to get off that floor, emotionally. But of course, all the while smiling online, because the compiled version of The Kraken King would be coming out in a little while, and I sure as heck didn’t want anyone beyond a tiny circle knowing how desperately low and broken I felt or to bear the burden of well-meaning advice and sympathy.
So I slowly stepped back, looked at all the ways I’d fallen apart, and set to work trying to put myself in a better place where I could support myself and my family by doing what I love. Either that, or go back to accounting (and that’s not a shot at accounting; I like accounting. But my passion lies with writing and books, so I wanted to give that another go). Creatively, everything was wrapped up into Meljean Brook. And I love those series — and loved writing them — but my steampunker was broken, and my worldbuilder was broken, so I had to look at what else I could do. I could still write less complicated stories, though, and I could play around with those to release some of the creative pressure in my head. And back when I was in my graduate program at PSU, I took a few publishing courses, and knew there was a lot of stuff there I loved and could do — and I absolutely love the process of book production. So I could make covers, and I could copy edit, and I could design print books.
Those were all things that I did, and I carefully created a little cushion around each activity, so that if one part of what I was doing failed again, I wouldn’t be in such a horrible desperate place (and when Vellum introduced print formatting, that pretty much knocked out the need for print book designing for a lot of authors, so it was definitely a good idea not to put all my eggs in one basket there). I was fortunate that self-publishing was taking off at the same time, so I had friends and they had friends who needed these things. So I gradually started gaining a bit of confidence in myself and my work again, and began re-focusing on the work I still had under contract as Meljean.
Unfortunately, my steampunker was still broken. I kept trying to write the Blacksmith’s book, and that just wasn’t coming, no matter how I tried to force it. But I had another novella that I wanted to write in the Milla Vane world (in 2012 or so, I’d told my editor that about my plan to write something in a different pen name, so she told me to go for it – and my publisher released the first novella in this barbarian world in the anthology Night Shift back in 2014). So I began working on that story to ease myself back into the heavy worldbuilding stuff. The novella grew bigger and bigger, and then I realized it was going to be a long novel — so in early 2018, I contacted my editor and said “Do you want this barbarian fantasy instead of the Blacksmith, because I don’t think that one’s coming?” She did, but it was still another year and a half before I turned it in.
And during this entire time, I had withdrawn quite a bit from social media — some of that was just not having anything to promote, but I’ve always been active for other, dorkier reasons, and I love book and movie discussions. So a lot of that withdrawal was just trying to create healthy spaces for myself, mentally. On Facebook, I check my wall and a few reader and fan groups, and nothing more than that. I’ve had to almost completely withdraw from Twitter, because although a lot of important discussions are happening there, it’s like Grand Central Station, and I get so distracted by the conversations taking place in the crowd that I kept missing my trains and falling behind on my schedule. Because you can’t really control the information coming at you, or keep it narrowed to a specific topic except by not following anyone. And since I’m so easily distracted, I don’t get my work done, and then I get anxious, and then I feel like I end up in a terrible place again. So now I don’t really follow anyone. I’ll check in on friends or look up topics here and there, but it’s more of a deliberate process of seeking out the discussions instead of being caught up in them — and I also have blockers on my computer that limit my time.
But that withdrawal was also a long process: first realizing how social media affected me, and then making myself back away. It was hard. I have so many friends online, and I miss interacting with everyone, but I’m still a bit fragile in some ways and so I’m being careful not to let myself ever get into the same place I was in 2014. And I feel all around more stable now on many different fronts, so that it doesn’t matter so much if writing Milla Vane’s stuff is slow and long and might not make much money; the other things I’ve got going can fill in the financial gaps and serve as a creative outlet when I need to do more than just barbarians. It’s like being my own patron, using what I love to support what I really SUPER love, which is kind of nice.
So that’s what I’ve been doing since then! Falling apart, followed by a whole lot of healing (which is still in progress—this interview happened to catch me on a day when I could talk/write about this, and I still ended up crying. So I’m not sure I’ll talk about it much again.)
Dabney: Wow. Thank you so much for sharing that. I feel as though so many of us go through things like this or things that make us feel this way. It’s a gift to know others struggle, fail, cry, and keep going too. Your story is inspiring. (Hugs to you as well.)
This is your first book as Milla. Why did you decide to use a new pen name for this series? Are you done writing as Meljean?
Milla: I’m not done writing as Meljean — I really want to return to the Iron Seas at some point, to write the Blacksmith’s story and Scarsdale’s story, and I have a novella from the Guardian series that I’d love to get out — but Meljean is on hold for the foreseeable future.
As for why a pen name? If everything had gone to plan, you wouldn’t know Milla and Meljean were the same. As I mentioned above, even before my burnout, I had been thinking about taking on a secret pen name so that a) my effing stalker couldn’t intrude on yet another online space, and b) so I could play around with other stories without any pressure (real or imagined) from readers who expect certain things from “Meljean.” Because expectation is a huge part of reader enjoyment, I feel, and not getting that might be a disappointment. But a mix-up when the novella sale was announced outed me as Milla, whoops.
And I’ve tried to make this as clear as I can that Milla Vane writes different stuff than Meljean does. The overall world is darker — which all might seem funny to say, given how violent or dark my other series could be at times. But this is a world that was essentially traumatized by the Destroyer a generation ago, and characters are either growing up in that world amid the emotional fallout, or they lived through what he did and have had to heal from it (and not everyone did.)
Not that it’s relentlessly dark. There’s hope and humor. But just in general, the setting is darker and there’s not really anyone or anything that wasn’t affected by the Destroyer.
Dabney: I’ve gravitated to fantasy in the past year because fantasy can tell dark stories that don’t destroy me in the way that dark stories set in the present can. I loved the darkness in A Heart of Blood and Ashes because I want to believe humanity can recover from profound destruction. I can’t wait to read more about this world.
This is the first in a new series called A Gathering of Dragons. (Dragons!) What can you tell me about the series?
Milla: It’s straight up sword-and-sorcery style fantasy, but heavy on the romance and including explicit love scenes. The first books each feature different couples, and follow the story arc of the Destroyer’s return, which should wrap up in three books.
Dabney: You are justifiably famous for your complex worldbuilding and the realm you’ve created here is fascinating. To begin with, the novel is set in the time of the barbarians. Who are they? Do they live in a time period that corresponds with our calendar?
Milla: They do! This is all set 250 million years in the future, after a major extinction event. Then some gods come along and terraform the world and Jurassic-Park everything that used to live there, toss in some magic (like adding frog DNA to fill in the gaps) and BAM! … a brand new/old world. Then they let everything begin playing out, and play out it does. So fast-forward ahead a few eons, and that’s where I come in and start telling stories set in the world.
Dabney: Your barbarians live in a world where there are dinosaur like reptiles, right?
Milla: Literally dinosaurs. But not just dinosaurs! I’ve got all of evolution at my disposal, along with everything I can imagine evolving in the future, along with a hefty dose of magical stuff.
But the dinosaurs aren’t called by their dinosaur names in the same way that horses or mammoths are, and that’s simply because most of the time, they’re known as “Tyrannosaurus Rex” or similar … and that just doesn’t make sense to use scientific names with Latin and Greek roots for my dinosaur names. Or even creatures like gorgonops (I’m a huge fan of Permian era animals) because that references Gorgons in mythology. So I have to make up new names for them.
Not that I can erase all roots from the language (I still have “mammoths,” after all) but most animals with scientific names, I had to call them something else. But a lot of them are dinosaurs, some are mammal-like reptiles, some are other things.
Dabney: And there are also savages called Farians–these are not the barbarians–who are constantly at odds with the barbarians. Are the savages another people?
Milla: They are what happened to incels after millions of years of evolution. They crawled into caves bigger than any mother’s basement and came out millions of years later (and all the evolutionary changes were heavily influenced by Trixie Belden and the Mystery at Bob-White Cave, and those ghostly white cave fish that got into my head as a little kid).
I’m being a little tongue in cheek, but a lot of my worldbuilding actually happens this way: I think, “What would be fun?” and then I toss it in and make it work. The end result is more serious, because I’m putting it in a book and I want the story and world to hold together. So the Farians aren’t human, they are another sentient species with their own culture, language, etc. They’re just not a people you’d want to hang out with, because they’d eat you and kill you (probably in that order).
Dabney: Maddek, the hero of this book, is as alpha as they come. He has to be to survive and lead in this world. What are the challenges of writing such an alpha male in today’s #MeToo influenced era?
Milla: Before I can really answer this, I probably should define what I think an alpha is — and that’s a leader who encourages and cares about and protects his people. Not a bully, not an apathetic loner who skulks in the shadows and would rather not have anything to do with other humans, and not just having muscles or being violent or good with a sword (euphemistic swords included). I know all of those definitions have been used in romance, so I just want to clarify what I mean when I talk about Maddek being alpha.
And for about half of this book, I don’t think Maddek is an alpha. Instead he’s more of an alphahole, driven by rage and grief to the point where he’s lost his way. I think that BEFORE the beginning of this book, he was a good alpha warrior. But as soon as he’s knocked off kilter emotionally by the murder of his parents (and the subsequent helplessness when he’s forbidden by the alliance from seeking vengeance) he’s not an alpha. He’s just a grieving, angry man who’s lashing out at the most convenient target (Yvenne). And the greater portion of his character’s journey is becoming that true alpha again.
So I don’t think writing alpha males and living in the #MeToo age are incompatible, or even challenging. An alpha male — as I define an alpha male — isn’t going to use his power to intimidate or threaten a woman. An alpha is not going to cross that line, even in a barbarian world where violence is common and necessary for survival, because violence or intimidation used in self-defense or to protect others or to punish evil sorcerers is NOTHING like violence or intimidation against women in order to force sexual favors.
I think the most challenging part, actually, is negotiating expectations and understanding between a world where #MeToo is necessary (ours) and a world where it’s not, because I deliberately created a society where gender roles aren’t cast as strong/weak, hard/soft, violent/gentle, dominant/submissive (and so on) in the same way, and women and men are more truly equal in terms of holding power. And individual realms will be different in their individual makeup, but quite a few have a strong thread of favoring matriarchal lines—so even the use of “realm” is deliberate. I didn’t want to call them “kingdoms” because that automatically centers the male as having ownership. When Maddek continually names his mother before his father, or uses the phrase “queen and king” instead of “king and queen,” that’s also another deliberate choice. I wanted to show (hopefully without beating the reader over the head) that that default centering of the male isn’t part of this world. The English language doesn’t always make that easy, yet I do what I can.
But even in this barbarian world where gender roles are largely equal, do people use their power over others in ways that are dangerous and dehumanizing? Of course. So this is a world that would never need #MeToo in the same way, but there isn’t a culture in the world (any world) where people don’t abuse their power over others, or where a discussion of “where do we draw lines regarding appropriate behavior?” isn’t relevant.
As a writer who planned this series and the sexual/power dynamics at play before the main thrust of #MeToo began, do I give any thought to where those lines are and how they’ve shifted (for myself and for readers?) Of course I do.
I also know, very well, that the lines will never be in the same place for everyone. What is okay for me or for some readers is NOT OKAY for others. The first sexual encounter between Maddek and Yvenne is a good example — I don’t even think it’s a sexy scene. Instead it’s all about an angry Maddek trying to prove that Yvenne is the oathbreaker he believes she is after she agrees to serve as a vessel for his vengeance. But she doesn’t balk, and doesn’t back down, and then he can’t back down, either. And she turns the power dynamic in that scene around, but I know that for some readers, the whole situation will cross their lines. Or when Maddek almost follows through on an oath that he made. To me, he goes right up to the line and almost crosses it. But for some readers it will be WAY over the line.
So I do keep in mind “what is forgivable/what isn’t forgivable?” when I’m writing a character — but I would do that anyway, and have always done that. And I’m also aware that my answers won’t be the same as every reader’s. Some readers might make allowances for setting and different fantasy cultures, or it being fiction, and forgive what they might not in real life; other readers don’t care if he’s a barbarian or a billionaire in New York or a mechanic on Mars, whether he’s a real person or a fictional one—if he crosses a line, that’s it. And that’s all good and fine. I’m not here to dictate how people read or how they should react to my books.
And the influence of changing political landscapes on reader reaction is (to some extent) beyond my control. For example, there are many walls in this story, and my characters make several comments on the usefulness (or not) of walls. Walls are a familiar theme in my books (they show up often in the Iron Seas, too) and having walled city-states in this kind of fantasy world is common. But I know there is a political discussion regarding walls happening in the real world, and that readers might take what I write in the book as a political stance. I don’t mean for anything to be taken in that way, but I’m aware that it might be (and that’s just fine, because that’s often what we do as readers: we find parallels to our own lives in the stories we read, even in things that are just there for worldbuilding flavor or entertainment.)
Am I completely helpless regarding what readers take from my books? Of course not. I could have removed all references to walls. I could have made Maddek better able to handle his grief and rage. But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. So in reference to writing characters like Maddek who fall out of awesome alpha mode and into raging alphahole mode, I know that some readers will not be able to forgive some of the things he does, because I didn’t write him in a way that they’d be able to forgive (and #MeToo might have some influence on that reaction, or it might be that they’ve always disliked characters like him.) But my job isn’t to write a story for everyone. That would be impossible.
Instead my job is to — as best I can — be aware of what I’m writing, the implications both in-world and out, and take responsibility for what I put on the page.
And urge those who appreciate content warnings to seek them out.
Dabney: Yvenne struck me as remarkably hopeful despite having grown up in a truly terrible context. Even though, in the beginning of the story, Maddek gives her almost no reason to believe she will survive him, she has faith there is a possibility that she will. What would you say Yvenne’s greatest strength is?
Milla: I think Yvenne tells us what her greatest strength is: that she’ll never stop fighting, even if there’s no hope of winning left. That she might be completely defeated physically and emotionally, but mentally she will always be that warrior-queen who will never stop fighting to save her people.
And of course, for her to stop fighting might not even mean death. It might mean becoming what her father is, or to accept that cruelty is fine as long as she’s on top. But she would never do that, either.
Dabney: The history of this world is, for many, defined by the actions of an evil once thought vanquished–The Destroyer–but who is now marshalling a return. We don’t learn much about that backstory–will this be fleshed out in book two?
Milla: I’m not exactly sure how to answer this, because I feel like the backstory is there? The Destroyer marched across the realms, killing and destroying and violating everyone in his path before continuing on to do the same to the rest of the world (he was never defeated or vanquished; he just kept going after he was done squashing everyone, because it isn’t his intention to rule. Just to…destroy. I wasn’t at all subtle when I named him).
So do I intend to back up and revisit that time, and talk about in detail the pain everyone went through? No, not at all. I think we get a pretty good idea of what he did.
But if you mean “backstory” as in, “who is the Destroyer and will we find out what motivates him?” Absolutely. (A little bit in book #2, much more in book #3). I’m the type of writer who thinks the best villains are the ones who are the heroes of their own story, and that’s definitely the Destroyer.
On the other hand, if there is an expectation of spending a LOT of time with the Destroyer, and discovering exactly what led him down this path to evil, so that we learn exactly how came to have this twisted view of what a “hero” truly is…probably not.
And the reason for that is simply that I don’t find it really interesting to delve into the reasons a mass murderer becomes a mass murderer. It’s important to understand his motivations and why he’s on this path, and why he considers himself a hero in his own mind, but is there any story that can justify worldwide massacre and rape? No. There isn’t. So I don’t want to spend a book or a novella wallowing in how evil he is now or exploring in detail how he became evil.
I’m far, far more interested in characters who have suffered and are still fighting to be GOOD. I feel like any hero or heroine in these books has a backstory that could easily be a villain’s backstory. Maddek’s parents are betrayed and killed, an alliance council allows the murderer to get off free, and tell him not to seek vengeance. Yvenne is locked in a tower, abused for her entire life, and then sold off to a weak king. If these were villainous backstories, they’d be great! It’d be easy to see how they justified whatever evil they decided to do.
But they don’t become villains (even if Maddek goes rage-hole.) Instead they fight against cruelty, and trust in love and kindness, and hold onto hope in a world that’s hurting and dark and sometimes terrible. So those are the stories I’m interested in and those are the people I’ll focus on.
Dabney: Lastly, what do you love most about this book?
Dabney: Me too.
Thank you so much for talking with me. I eagerly await this summer’s A Touch of Stone and Snow and I’m sure our readers will too.