I’m delighted to have the chance to interview a friend and fellow member of Northwrite SF writers group on the blog today. Jacey Bedford has published two trilogies through DAW, one SF and one Fantasy and both are excellent. Her latest novel, The Amber Crown, is due to be released into the wild on January 11th and after seeing it grow, I can’t wait to read it.
Jacey, thank you for speaking to me. Your next novel, The Amber Crown, comes out next week as a trade paperback. That’s an exciting development after your previous novels were mass market paperback. What does this mean for you?
It’s lovely. Trade paperback is a step up from mass market paperback, though not quite such a step up as hardback would have been, but I live in hopes for the next one. It means the publisher (DAW in the USA) has plenty of confidence in the book, and I’m already working with a publicist to make sure the word gets out. DAW is part of PenguinRandomHouse for distribution purposes, so I’m allocated one of their publicists and a marketing person. I’m working with Stephanie Felty on the publicity, and she’s sent the pre-publication copies out for review. It will eventually come out in mass market (smaller) paperback size as well, of course. I don’t have a date for that yet.
After committing trilogy twice, what made you decide to write a standalone? Or is that simply the way the story worked out?
When I started writing the first Psi-Tech book (Empire of Dust) and the first Rowankind one (Winterwood) I never actually thought that I’d end up with two trilogies. At that stage I was unpublished and writing on spec. I’d made the rookie mistake several years earlier of writing the first two books in a trilogy. My (then) agent couldn’t sell the first one and therefore couldn’t even submit the second one, so I effectively wasted two years of my writing life. After that I decided to write standalones with potential to become trilogies, so when my lovely editor bought Winterwood and asked what else I had written, I was able to send Empire of Dust and a brief synopsis of how the second book in that series would go. That led to my first three book deal: Winterwood, Empire of Dust and a sequel to Empire, unnamed and unwritten. The sequel became Crossways. The next deal was for the second book in the Rowankind trilogy (Silverwolf) and the third Psi-Tech book (Nimbus). Then when I was part way through writing Silverwolf I emailed my editor and asked if I should wrap up the story arc in two books or should I plan for three? She emailed back and said that it looked like a trilogy to her. That one became Rowankind. So without really intending to, I’d committed trilogy twice. The Amber Crown always told me that it wanted to be a standalone. (What? Your books don’t talk to you?) There’s one huge problem for my characters, and it’s solved in one book. I have no intention of writing The Further Adventures of Valdas, Lind, and Mirza, much as I liked spending time with the characters.
Your trilogy of fantasy novels is set in an alternate England, what inspired you to go to the Baltic for The Amber Crown? (which came first, the story or the setting?).
Story and setting are always closely linked, but I think character, specifically Valdas, came first. I usually get a scene in my head and I have to write to discover what it’s all about. The scene I got with this one was Valdas, captain of the King’s High Guard (i.e. the king’s bodyguard) taking one night off (the first one in months) getting pleasantly drunk in a tavern with his favourite whore on his knee, and hearing the Didelis bell ring out the death of the king – the king he’s sworn to protect. I knew it wasn’t set in Britain, but I’d recently been reading about the Northern Crusades and that turned my attention to the Baltic. When we think of Crusades we think of the Middle East and Saladin, but the crusades to the Baltic States began in the late 12th century. That region was the last in Europe to be converted to Christianity, and it wasn’t a pretty story. It got me interested in the region, and even though my story is set some 400 years later, there are echoes of paganism. Valdas, who isn’t very religious at all, worships where his king worships, but sometimes, when he’s up against it, he whispers a prayer to Perkunas, the Baltic god of thunder and the second most important deity in the Baltic pantheon.
Also the costumes of that region are lovely, closer to Russian fashions and quite different from Western dress of the day. I was able to deck my male characters in wide pantalones, with zupans (long garments to mid calf that button down the front, with a wide sash) and deljas (a bulky outer garment with semi-attached sleeves, sometimes worn with the arms through the armhole and the sleeves dangling down behind). The respectable women wore modest kaftan-like garments, covering from neck to feet with long sleeves. Though maybe they weren’t all as covered as Albrecht Durer’s Three Mighty Ladies of Livonia.
I know you did a great deal of research for The Amber Crown. What did you enjoy learning the most?
It has to be finding out about the elite Polish Winged Cavalry. These guys used to ride into battle with iron and eagle-feather wings strapped to their backs. It made them seem as if they were ten feet tall. They used to ride slowly towards the enemy in a loose line, then as they got closer, they’d move in until they were riding knee to knee and then they’d charge forward with long lances and the wind howling through their wings. Talk about shock and awe. Their whole purpose was to scare their opponents shitless, and they succeeded. At the Siege of Vienna in 1683 the charge of the Polish Winged Cavalry broke the massed troops of the Ottoman Empire. Of course my story is not set in Poland. My Zavonia largely covers what is in our world Latvia and Lithuania, but I’ve borrowed the winged hussars. They were just too good to leave behind.
Your previous fantasy novels are set in an analogue of an actual historical time and place. So there’s a responsibility to get the setting right for the time, but I would assume more leeway for events since there will always be a divergence from this world to the one you are creating. Does that make it easier or more difficult than a standard historical novel?
I kept the Rowankind trilogy as close as possible to the actual course of history, Napoleon was hammering on the door. King George III was going steadily bonkers (for a magical reason as it turned out) and William Pitt was first minister. I had to research the sea and ships in great detail and the Heart of Oak was a regular, two-masted tops’l schooner. Into this I introduced magical elements.
The Amber Crown wasn’t so easy because I dicked around with history much more thoroughly. For starters there was never a king in Latvia/Lithuania. Sweden was the big power in the Baltic at that time, but I forestalled an invasion with a marriage contract. I broke the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which was officially established in 1589. Instead of Lithuania being a duchy, I combined it with Latvia, called it Zavonia and made it into a kingdom. One of the things I did keep, however, was religious tolerance and high levels of ethnic diversity. I also cherry-picked clothing and food, taking inspiration from Poland, Russia and Belarus as well as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.
Who’s your favourite character in the Amber Crown, and why?
Oh, that’s like asking a mother to choose between her children. Valdas, Mirza, and Lind – I like them all for different reasons.
Valdas is the king’s bodyguard who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and fails to prevent the assassination of his (enlightened) king. In short order he discovers that his men have been executed for their failure and he’s been accused of the murder. He vows to find the real perpetrator, avenge the death of his king, and redeem the reputation of his men. Valdas is a good man, solidly conventional with a strong sense of duty. He’s risen to the top position in the High Guard on personal merit. He’s happy doing what he does, but when he’s suddenly catapulted into the position of being on his own, so he’s more than a little lost.
Mirza is the witch-healer of a band of Landstriders – itinerant outlanders who are travelling in search of somewhere to settle down, but always being moved on. She has a strong connection to the spirit world and a wide knowledge of herb-lore, but she can’t find a man to settle down with because they’re all afraid of her scolding tongue and her witchmark (a port-wine stain on the side of her face). They think that sex with her will unman them.
Lind is the assassin. Yes, he killed the king, but it wasn’t his idea. He was the weapon, but is the weapon at fault or is it the one who wields it? Fate brings him together with the young widowed queen, fleeing the palace after her husband’s death because she fears she’ll be next. The meeting changes his life in ways he doesn’t really understand. He’ll have to come to terms with his traumatic past before he can move forward into a new future.
I enjoyed working with all of them I have soft spot for Valdas because he was the first character to appear on the page and I love his openness and his lust for life. I like Mirza because she’d argumentative, which is always fun to write. Lind is twisty, which keeps things interesting. He’s got more hangups than your average wardrobe and a lot of past trauma to overcome. And yes, they do eventually all come together.
Sorry, I’m not going to choose between them. You can’t make me. Ner ner ne ner ner.
Jacey Bedford is a British writer of science fiction and historical fantasy. She is published by DAW in the USA. Her Psi-Tech and Rowankind trilogies are out now. Her new book, The Amber Crown, is out on 11th January 2022 and is available from Amazon. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been translated into Estonian, Galician, Catalan and Polish. In another life she was a singer with vocal trio, Artisan, and once sang live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.