We so enjoyed our interview with Milla Vane about A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Book One in her A Gathering of Dragons series, that we wanted to talk with her about Book Two, A Touch of Stone and Snow. She was game–our discussion is below!
Dabney: A Touch of Stone and Snow, left me wondering about gods, geography, and goodness. I grew up reading–and then read to my own kids–the myths of the Greeks, the Norse, the Hindus, and more. As I read A Touch of Stone and Snow–this book seemed to me to have more stories about your world’s different gods–I wondered what mythologies, if any, you’d been influenced by in your life. Do the gods in your barbarian world hew more closely to a single traditional mythology? What inspires the gods in your world?
Milla: I’ve always been a sucker for fairytales, myths, and legends, and I haunted that section of the library growing up (and always sought stories that included them, too.) So I’ve been influenced by those myths and by the way those myths and archetypes made appearances in the fictional stories I read and watched. And of those, I think it’s fair to say that until I was a little older and specifically began to seek out stories from other cultures, they were predominantly European/Western, because there wasn’t much else on offer.
When writing and creating my own, I didn’t base them on any specific mythology. Considering that those mythologies developed and evolved in the real-world cultures (and that those cultures don’t exist in my fantasy world and the evolutionary line to them is broken) it wouldn’t make any sense to do so. It would be easy to draw parallels to many of them if I wanted to, just as it’s easy to draw parallels between mythologies of different real-world cultures, past and present. But they aren’t just different versions of gods from another pantheon. Vela is a moon goddess but she isn’t a retooled Artemis or Mama Killa, for example. Stranik is a serpent god but he’s not Satan (or any of the other serpent gods or figures who’ve taken serpent form in mythology.)
But I can’t separate them completely from those mythologies, either. An author doesn’t pop out of the aether fully formed, so of course what ends up in the book is heavily influenced by everything that’s influenced my idea of a god—and the heaviest of those are the ones I’ve been steeped in from the time I was a little kid.
Dabney: In this book, different cultures tell the stories of the gods differently. (I loved this about your novel.) How do you, as the author, think about these different narratives? How significant are they to the story you are trying to tell?
Milla: There might be no good answer to this, because I don’t know how to quantify the significance. For example, Lizzan (who is from the north) thinks about the sun god in a completely different way than people from the south. In the south, references to the sun god primarily focus on heat and humidity and storms. For Lizzan, however, references to the sun’s brightness against the ice and snow are more prevalent. But there are also the shared experiences, because no matter where they live, everyone would be dead without the heat of the sun to warm the world.
But that’s just part of worldbuilding! Even in the real world, someone who lives by the ocean will likely have a different relationship with the moon than someone who lives in a desert does—and when they tell stories and legends, they’re more likely to feature a hero relevant to their own lives and culture rather than some obscure figure from another country.
So the way in which people in this world interact with their environment absolutely affects their view of the gods and the stories that matter most to them, which in turn affects their characters, which in turn affects their relationships with other cultures and people. But could I say “Lizzan would be a completely different person if she’d never seen the sun’s glare against the snow?” Would she be only a little different, so the story would be only a little different? Would it have completely changed her character and therefore the narrative? I don’t know.
In a more general sense, though, I would say that the way the characters are influenced by the stories they tell (and that are told about them) is the very heart of this series, and therefore the most significant aspect of all.
Dabney: For that matter, what is a god in your world? One character is called a god by some but not by others. Is he a god of his own myth-making?
Milla: Answering the second part of this question is kind of a spoiler, so SPOILER WARNING here: Yes, he’s a god of his own myth-making, though his power was not insignificant and could be considered godlike. But he was only a sorcerer, not a god.
For the first part of the question, I’ll say that the gods are real but I also think that they should remain a bit of a mystery—and readers don’t need to know much more than the characters do. Temra is the Earth, but she also has fists that she used to reshape it, and the planet is also just rocks and oceans around a molten core. Enam is the sun, but the ball of burning gas that’s up in our sky now is the same sun. Nemek are travelers with two faces and a body that appears human, and at the same time they are also literally disease and healing … but viruses and germs and antibodies and white blood cells also exist in this world. There’s a little magic in everything, and a lot of magic in some things, and the gods are nothing but magic. Explaining magic sometimes takes all the fun out of it, however, so I won’t do that here.
Dabney: I read this book in an advanced ecopy and I so wish I’d had a map. Or, even better, I’d gone to your website and looked at the maps you’ve posted there. (They’re gorgeous.) How do you make them? Did you write your story and then draw the maps or are the maps part of your writing process?
Milla: The maps are part of the writing process. All of these stories are road trips, so not only do I have to know where they’re going, how long it’s going to take them to get there, and what their surroundings are like physically — which means working out the geography of an area and how it affects the climate, the flora and fauna, etc — but it also helps me envision the movement of the plot and their character arcs.
And I’m not exactly the most subtle writer in moments like those. I’ve got crossroads and I’ve got healing baths. I’ve got a heroine racing through a dark, twisting maze chased by something out of her nightmares, desperately seeking a little bit of light and a way out. I’ve got an isolated island realm, and its prince realizes that his decision to bear a burden alone has pushed everyone he loves away. Not every location is meant to be metaphorically significant, of course (that would probably be obnoxious) but if I can make a location add another layer to their journey, I absolutely will.
So every book, I start with a basic map of the region (which has already been roughly determined in my world map) then work out the details of their path, based on what I’ve already established in previous stories and what I need to accomplish in the current story. I have sketches and notes for those, and then I begin a rough draft in Photoshop. As I write the book (and nail down all those local details) I can begin to finalize the artwork, too.
That artwork is what ends up on my site — it’s a work in progress, because I’m not a speedy artist or a speedy writer, and I can only work on it sporadically. The current map is more than six years in the making, and the past year has focused on taking it from a sketch-based, Tolkien-style map to that fully colored map (so I watched a lot of tutorials on fantasy mapmaking).
Dabney: How big is the world in your books? You write about it taking The Destroyer years to cross the world–how many miles/kilometers is he marching across?
Milla: Twenty-four thousand, nine hundred and one miles!…give or take a few inches. They’re on Earth, though the continental arrangement is significantly different (since it takes place 250 million years in the future, and also the polar ice caps are larger so the sea levels are lower, and there’s more overall land mass exposed.)
But the Destroyer’s pace is also determined by the kind of resistance he finds, along with practical considerations — such as, he’s got armies to feed and mobilize. Plus, he ran into something that made him do a U-turn! So although geography affects his pace, there are many other factors that affected the length of time it has taken him to return to the western realms.
Dabney: There are hints in this story that The Destroyer’s story is more complicated than just that he’s a very very bad man. The leads in this book, Lizzan and Aerax, are also morally complex (although not as much, in my view, as Maddek and Yvenne from book one). Would you say that Lizzan and Aerax are good? Or is the dichotomy of good/evil too simplistic a lens here?
Milla: I probably shouldn’t say too much about the Destroyer, except that no matter his motivations, anyone who does what he does is a very very bad man. And I think Lizzan and Aerax might be the most moral/good characters I’ve ever written! There’s no question to me that they are “good,” even though the challenges they face come with no easy answers of what is right and what is wrong. And I think for me, what it comes down to is the difference between harm and cruelty. In this world, doing harm to someone else (through action or inaction) can’t always be avoided. But they can choose not to be cruel and they can refuse to ignore suffering—and to me, at least, that difference means everything.
Dabney: The next book in this series comes out in December. Will that be the final book? If not, what are you planning for this series?
Milla: I suppose that depends on whether my publisher wants more (and that probably depends on whether readers do — and whether current events disrupt everyone’s plans!) I have six books outlined at this time, but made certain to break the storylines into two three-book arcs so that even if this series ends after the third book, readers will receive a fulfilling (and I hope thrilling) conclusion to this Gathering of Dragons storyline.
After the dragons have gathered…we’ll see! Maybe they’ll have a party where they’ll drink too much ale and spend all night comparing the lengths of their swords. Or they might be required to do some social distancing. Or maybe they’ll ride off into new parts of the world and have new adventures (which is the choice I’d prefer.)
Dabney: Thanks for talking with me!
Milla: Thank you for having me, and I’m so thrilled you enjoyed Lizzan & Aerax’s story!