Friday, August 29, 2014

Interview: Sylvia Izzo Hunter author of The Midnight Queen

Sylvia Hunter credit Nicole Hilton 2013

We have debut author Sylvia Izzo Hunter here to answer a few questions I had about her alternative historical fantasy novel The Midnight Queen. It’s set in rural Brittany and Regency England and scheduled to be released September 2, 2014 by Ace/Penguin.

Let’s welcome her!

photo credit: Nicole Hilton 2013

Do you have a favorite character in THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN, and if so, why?

I like a lot of the characters, particularly the protagonists (maybe that goes without saying?), but if I had to pick one favourite I think it would be Sophie's younger sister, Joanna. Have you ever had a character refuse to leave after a walk-on role? That was Joanna, for me: I invented her as a bit of comic relief who would appear in a couple of chapters and then be left behind when the story moved on, and instead she grabbed the narrative rope with both hands and hung on, making herself integral to the rest of the book. What I like about Joanna (besides her persistence) is that she's clever, bolshy, and, if she likes you, doesn't care whether you're a princess or a housemaid. Well, actually, thinking about it, she doesn't care about that if she doesn't like you, either ;)

What prompted you to write a novel about rural Brittany and an alternative Regency England?

That is absolutely not what I intended to do when I started! When I first thought up Gray and Sophie, I actually thought they might be Edwardian or perhaps Victorian, and definitely English. As it turned out, things were more complicated than that. First, of course, the magic showed up (as it tends to do in my writing), and then the language started to drift Austen-wards and, strangely, the story started to come together and the writing got easier.

I put the Professor's estate in Breizh (Brittany) because it needed to be far enough away from Oxford that Gray couldn't believably just walk away, and because it allowed me to do some interesting narrative things that I can't tell you about because spoilers! Also, because it is a drop-dead gorgeous place and I felt like Sophie would love it the way I love the Rocky Mountains back in Alberta, where I grew up.

The Midnight Queen - Sylvia Izzo Hunter

The world building in THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN sounds complex. Tell us a bit more about it.

So once I realized that this world was going to have magic in it -- not magic hidden away and practised in secret, but magic as an everyday part of life -- I tried to reconcile the practice of magic with what I knew about the history of the Church of England, and it just didn't work. At the same time there was an idea floating around in my head, something I'd been thinking about since I read James Carroll's Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: what would religion in Europe have looked like, fifteen hundred years on, if the Emperor Constantine hadn't converted the Roman Empire to Christianity? It seemed to me that the cultural and religious practices of pre-Christian Europe left a lot more scope for the socially acceptable practice of magic.

Part of the connection with Regency England is actually aesthetic: that period was into Classical aesthetics (think about the artfully tousled "Brutus" hairstyle for men, and the flowy, curve-hugging gowns and Grecian up-dos for women, as well as Greco-Roman influences in architecture and interior decoration), and I thought, well, what if that's because Roman culture and religion have never stopped being influential? I picture the conquering Romans caring a lot about territory and tax revenues, but not really concerning themselves much whether the conquered peoples worshipped their own gods or Roman ones, or what languages they spoke, provided they kept the Pax Romana. Some people would have assimilated -- in both directions -- and others, not so much. So the Kingdom of Britain is polytheistic and also polyglot, and choices with respect to worship and language can be markers of class, education and other affiliations.

I changed some specific historical events: Henry V didn't die of dysentery after expanding his territory into France; Henry VIII divorced his first wife but didn't have to cause a religious schism to do it (although the decision did have serious political ramifications); and neither of his daughters (in this world, their names are Julia and Edith Augusta) ever held the throne. I took the agglomeration of France out of the equation, as well as the union of England and Scotland.

The absence of the 1200-pound gorilla of the Established Church, together with the existence of magic, changes a lot of cultural assumptions. One big thing is that divorce is a much less big deal; another is that there's more comfort with talking about sex and a horror of violating the customs of hospitality. Another effect of taking Christianity out of the equation, which seems minor but required quite a lot of thought, was that I had to look farther afield for personal names (can't call anyone John, Elizabeth, Mary or Anne!) and research toponyms for places currently named after saints or churches.

And also, I'm not going to lie, I just made a lot of stuff up.

Which books do you go back to re-read over and over, and why?

OK, there are a lot of these (I'm a re-reader by temperament), but here are four (technically five):

Jane Austen, Persuasion. Anne Elliott is older and more thoughtful than most Austen heroines; she's clever, competent, patient and kind, and

Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls. Ista dy Chalion is everything heroines in fantasy novels usually aren't: forty, not particularly beautiful, cantankerous, a widow. Oh, and her family thinks she's mad and keeps her under guard for her own safety. But, whoops! The gods have plans for Ista, which ultimately involve kicking arse and taking names.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog. This book has everything: time travel, cats and dogs, comedy, jumble sales, awful Victorian art, rowing on the Thames, mistaken identities, and true love.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Komarr and A Civil Campaign (which I think is really one story spread over two books). I am a late but fervent arrival to the Vorkosigan fandom, and although I like the younger Miles a lot, the arc from Memory through Winterfair Gifts, which brings together all the threads from the earlier books and shows us Miles as an adult dealing with the consequences of his choices, I find profoundly moving. (Also, A Civil Campaign is incredibly funny.) I've also read Captain Vorpatril's Alliance at least six times.

And now for something a bit off-the-wall – do you have a secret talent (that you can share)?

I'm a bit prone to over-sharing, so I'm not sure I have any talents that are really secret. But here's one not too many people probably know about: I am really good at Plants vs Zombies.

What's your next project? Just a little tease would be wonderful.

Well, my very next thing is books 2 and 3 of Noctis Magicae. Book 2 will take us to a neighbouring kingdom, and gives Joanna a bigger role. Because she wanted one, and I apparently can't say no to Joanna.

Then at some point I will get back to my currently back-burnered tale of secret sorcery in Toronto...

Sylvia Izzo Hunter was born in Calgary, Alberta, but now lives in Toronto with her husband, daughter, and their slightly out-of-control collections of books, comics, and DVDs. Links for more information about her and to follow on twitter

About The Midnight Queen: Gray Marshall and his friends from Oxford’s Merlin College, a school for magic theory and practice, went out into town around midnight when carelessness and drunk townspeople struck, resulting in a dead student. Suspended from the College that summer, Gray is under the watchful eye of the domineering Professor Callender. Until one afternoon, while working in the professor’s garden, he meets his daughter.

Sophie Callender wants nothing more than to be educated in magic, even if being a female student is unheard of in the community. But secretly, against her father and society’s wishes, she has spent countless lonely hours studying the ancient volumes on the subject.

Now, with the arrival of the lanky, tall, and yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who can encourage her interest and awaken new ideas and feelings. Between them, they forge a beautiful and touching relationship that sets off a series of events that begin to unravel secrets about one another.

Paperback | 432  Pages | 2 Sep 2014 | Ace | Adult

We also have a giveaway for her book The Midnight Queen for one US address.

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