Wednesday, May 13, 2015

PUYB Virtual Book Club Chats with 'The Jack of Souls' Stephen C. Merlino

Stephen C. Merlino lives in Seattle, WA, where he writes, plays, and teaches high school English. He lives with the world's most talented and desirable woman, two fabulous children, and three attack chickens.

Growing up in Seattle drove Stephen indoors for eight months of the year. Before the age of video games, that meant he read a lot. At the age of eleven he discovered the stories of J.R.R. Tolkein and fell in love with fantasy.

Summers and rare sunny days he spent with friends in wooded ravines or on the beaches of Puget Sound, building worlds in the sand, and fighting orcs and wizards with driftwood swords.

About the time a fifth reading of The Lord of the Rings failed to deliver the old magic, Stephen attended the University of Washington and fell in love with Chaucer and Shakespeare and all things English. Sadly, the closest he got to England back then was The Unicorn Pub on University Way, which wasn't even run by an Englishman: it was run by a Scot named Angus. Still, he studied there, and as he sampled Angus's weird ales, and devoured the Unicorn's steak & kidney pie (with real offal!), he developed a passion for Scotland, too.

In college, he fell in love with writing, and when a kindly professor said of a story he'd written, "You should get that published!" Stephen took the encouragement literally, and spent the next years trying. The story remains unpublished, but the quest to develop it introduced Stephen to the world of agents (the story ultimately had two), and taught him much of craft and the value of what Jay Lake would call, "psychotic persistence."

Add to that his abiding love of nerds--those who, as Sarah Vowel defines it, "go too far and care too much about a subject"--and you have Stephen Merlino in a nutshell.

Stephen is the 2014 PNWA winner for Fantasy.

He is also the 2014 SWW winner for Fantasy.

His novel, The Jack of Souls is in its fourth month in the top ten on Amazon’s Children’s Fantasy Sword & Sorcery Best Seller list, and among the top three in Coming-of-Age.
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About the Book:

Title: The Jack of Souls
Author: Stephen C. Merlino
Publisher: Tortoise Rampant Books
Pages: 352
Genre: YA Fantasy
Format: Paperback/Hardcover/Kindle
An outcast rogue named Harric must break a curse laid on his fate or die by his nineteenth birthday. 
As his dead-day approaches, nightmares from the spirit world stalk him and tear at his sanity; sorcery eats at his soul.
To survive, he’ll need more than his usual tricks. He’ll need help—and a lot of it—but on the kingdom’s lawless frontier, his only allies are other outcasts. One of these outcasts is Caris, a mysterious, horse-whispering runaway, intent upon becoming the Queen’s first female knight. The other is Sir Willard—ex-immortal, ex-champion, now addicted to pain-killing herbs and banished from the court.
With their help, Harric might keep his curse at bay. But for how long?
And both companions bring perils and secrets of their own: Caris bears the scars of a troubled past that still hunts her; Willard is at war with the Old Ones, an order of insane immortal knights who once enslaved the kingdom. The Old Ones have returned to murder Willard and seize the throne from his queen. Willard is both on the run from them, and on one final, desperate quest to save her. 
Together, Harric and his companions must overcome fanatical armies, murderous sorcerers, and powerful supernatural foes.
Alone, Harric must face the temptation of a forbidden magic that could break his curse, but cost him the only woman he’s ever loved.

A tale of magic, mischief, and the triumph of tricksters.

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Thanks for joining us at the book club, Stephen! Can we begin by having you tell us how you got started writing YA fantasy?


To be honest, I thought I was writing for adults, but it turns out I don’t really know what an adult is, so everything came out YA.

Just kidding.

I wrote The Jack of Souls on the heels of my first novel, Dragon Bait, which is an (unpublished) Middle Grade novel, grades 3-6.
After Dragon Bait, I knew I wanted to explore some more mature themes in my next book, and I wanted to write epic fantasy, too. So I began The Jack of Souls.

To be honest, I didn’t conceive of it as YA at the time. I just thought of it as epic fantasy. But two things conspire to keep it in the YA genre: 1) the fact that I was coming out of a children’s novel, and my antennae were still tuned to a younger audience; and 2) the fact that my protagonist is a teen.

The main stamp of a YA novel is that it features a young adult protagonist who solves their problems without the help of adults.
Once I realized I was writing YA, I thought it might clash with my ambitions of writing an epic fantasy in a dark and gritty realistic world like that of The Game of Thrones. 

It didn’t take me long to realize that contemporary YA fantasy is dark. I think we owe that to JK Rowling. In the last Harry Potter books, Voldemort and the Death Eaters are truly horrific characters, and the wizarding world in the last books of the series is a dark place. Think too of The Hunger Games and Maze Runner.

Plus, just about every adult I know read those books. So my concerns evaporated, and I embraced my young adult protagonist.

Why do you feel that YA has suddenly become a hot genre to read as well as to write?


I think it’s very much the thing I just noted above: the level of realism or darkness has been turned up a notch. That means it doesn’t feel “juvenile" to follow these characters through these worlds; plus, a grim world raises the stakes in the story, which makes any story more engaging.

Rowling, Cooper & Co. have broken the mold and made the genre accessible to adults.

Can you tell us a little about Harric?


Harric doesn’t like me talking about him, so I’m going to let him answer for himself.


Thank you, Stephen. Hi folks. A little about myself?  Well, I turn nineteen in a couple days. And that’s all I get. After that, I’m dead, because my mother cursed me to die on my nineteenth birthday. I’m not looking for sympathy, but since you asked, I thought you should know.

Normally, I tell people I’m exactly what I appear to be: a gentleman bastard, earning his coin playing cards and running a modest trade supplying pioneers passing through on their way to the Free Lands.


Since I’m dead tomorrow, it hardly matters who knows the truth. The truth is I was trained from birth to be a courtier spy in Her Majesty’s service. Why am I on the frontier, you ask, and not in court? Long story. Suffice it to say, I refused the service, and won a death curse for my pains. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the Queen. I do. She’s the only reason bastards like me are free in Arkendia and not slaves. She freed us, and I’d give my life for her. I refused to go to court because…Well, let’s just say I had some differences of opinion with my master on the best way to serve Her Majesty.

Enough of that. The long and short of it is that instead of serving in court as I was raised to do, I’m a frontier gambler, con artist, trickster, and rogue.

Can you tell us a little about the other supporting characters?


Harric’s best friend is the Lady Caris. Before you imagine a petite, gowned beauty seated on a cushion with a cat in her lap, let me paint a more accurate picture of her.

Caris hasn’t worn a gown for many years. More recently, she’s worn armor strong as anvils and ridden hard upon a warhorse rather than sat with a kitten in her lap. That’s not to say she isn’t fair. She is, in her way. But she’s different.

Caris is what we call “horse-touched.” No one really knows what causes the condition, though everyone recognizes it: Caris is bigger and stronger than most men, and she gets along better with horses than with people. She is uncanny with horses, really, and just as useless among people, unless you get her alone. Alone, she’s kinder and more true-hearted than anyone Harric ever met.

It is Caris’s ambition to be the Queen’s first female knight, but for that to happen, she must find a knight to squire her, which won’t be easy in Arkendia.

What location is this book set?


 The story takes place on the wild frontier of the island kingdom of Arkendia. The kingdom is ruled by the Lone Queen, who upon taking the throne freed all slaves and educated the ladies of her court. Before her time, all bastards and women were slaves, and since Harric is a bastard and Caris a liberated woman, they are both deeply loyal to the Queen.

The Queen has powerful enemies who loathe her reforms and insist she marry a warlike king. When she refuses, civil war threatens.

To distract her detractors and diffuse the tension, the Queen announces that she’s opening up her wilderness frontier to settlement, giving the land away to any lord or freeman who claims and settles it.

Plotting lords instantly drop their schemes and head for the frontier, and the Queen’s ruse works! She has her peace.

Until it backfires… Within months, her settlers discover a strange new race already in possession of the wilderness—a race that defends it with powerful magic, bringing the very thing she wanted to avoid—war—to her doorstep.

They say all books of fiction have pivotal points where the reader just can’t put the book down.  What’s one of the pivotal points in The Jack of Souls?


The scene in which Caris walks in on Harric’s would-be murderers.

What’s next for you, Stephen?


Two sequels come out this fall and winter: The Knave of Souls, and The Prince of Souls. Can’t wait to get back to writing them!   It’s been fun chatting. Thanks for reading!

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