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Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan


Please welcome Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan to The Qwillery to answer some questions about Born to the Blade, a Serial Box series. The first episode, Arrivals, was published on April 18, 2018. The series is written by Marie Brennan, Cassandra Khaw, Malka Older, and Michael R. Underwood.



Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan




TQWelcome to The Qwillery. How did the Born to the Blade serial come about?

Michael R. Underwood (MRU):  Born to the Blade started as a magic system I imagined over ten years ago. I wanted to have magic that felt embodied, that was the opposite of the D&D stereotype of the frail wizards that can’t lift a sword. In this world, magical talent isn’t heritable, but it is common enough that each nation has their own way of considering and utilizing people with the gift. Bladecraft, the magic of this world, uses edged metal for carving sigils to create magical effects. I first explored the world in a very pulpy sky pirate adventure (a trunk novel, never to be seen) that set up some of the political tensions we explored in Born to the Blade (Quloo’s aerstone shortage, Mertikan imperialism, Tsukisen’s isolationism).

When I found out about Serial Box, I got in touch and talked with co-founders Julian Yap and Molly Barton about what they were looking for, and developed several pitches. Born to the Blade, re-working a concept I had for an unfinished novel in the setting, was the one that most excited them, so we developed the world together toward the series order. And here we are, with the fabulous team of Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw, and myself weaving the tale for readers to enjoy.



TQWhat's Born to the Blade about? How many episodes will it be?

MRU:  Born to the Blade is an epic fantasy series of diplomacy, swordplay, and magic, focusing on duelist-diplomats from a variety of nations that work together in an analogue to the UN security council based in the neutral city of Twaa-Fei. It’s a story about people caught between personal loyalties and national loyalties, between friendship and duplicity, between ambition and compassion. Another way that I’ve been pitching it is like Avatar the Last Airbender meets The West Wing, with magic swordfights.

The first season is eleven episodes, and if we get renewed, I’d love to take the series forward with a total of three to five seasons. I have plans for a three-season version and a five-season version, so we’ll see where the winds of fate take us.



TQWhy is this story suited to the serial format?

MRU:  Born to the Blade was specifically built for the Serial Box format, drawing on drama series like Babylon 5 and Game of Thrones that unfold story bit by bit, balancing a cohesive story for each episode with the ongoing serial drama of character arcs and widescreen storytelling about war, diplomacy, and so on.



TQPlease tell us in general how the collaborative process works with each of you writing different episodes? Do each of you try to write in the same style for each episode?

MRU:  We kicked off the development process for season one with a weekend-long writers’ summit, where all four of us on the writers’ team talked about what we wanted the series to be, ideas about the world and characters, and once we had the world, characters, and their relationships more firmly established, we broke the story for season one, with character arcs, twists, mysteries, and so on. We broke the story within the episode structure, so that we already had a pretty clear sense of what major story beats went where in the season.

The actual collaboration process was not unlike a TV show, where each episode was assigned to one member of the writing team. For each episode, we developed a more detailed outline which the team discussed, then wrote the episode and shared with the team, arranged in phases (roughly act one, two, and three of the season). We all gave feedback on each episode, so while any given episode is entirely written by just one team member, every episode represents all of our ideas and creativity. We didn’t push ourselves to all write in identical prose styles, but as the team lead, I did take the lead in setting the tone and approach for the series in writing the pilot episode before any of the other episodes were written, helping us find the voice and approach for the series and characters (though as I said above, all of this represents everyone’s approach rather than just my own).



TQWhat do you like about writing a serial? Is writing episodes in a serial easier or harder than writing a novella?

MRU:  It’s been a great challenge to pack in as much story as possible to 10K word episodes (about 40 pages or an hour of audio). I’m definitely more used to novella and novel-length writing, so I have had to continually push myself to focus, to make every scene do double or triple duty, and to pack as much worldbuilding into other parts of the story as possible in order to keep the wordcount on target.
Working on Born to the Blade has definitely helped me become a stronger writer, and I have also set myself other challenges, like writing fight scenes that are exciting and easy to follow while also being emotionally resonant.



TQWhat is the easiest and hardest thing about writing a serial?

Marie Brennan (MB): It might seem counter-intuitive, but I feel like one of the easiest things was making sure every episode had something cool happening in it. An episode isn't the same thing as a chapter; if you think about a TV show and compare it to a novel, you'll generally see a different structure for how they're broken up. (Depending on the writer. Some novelists structure their books like TV shows.) Both approaches work, but once I got my brain into TV-style gear, it was pretty easy to think of each episode as having some kind of set-piece or ending punch, rather than building toward the ultimate end goal in a more gradual fashion.

The hardest thing was making we kept all the balls in the air. Most novels focus on only one or two protagonists, or if they have more, each one tends to get their own chapter. But because Serial Box's projects are structured more like TV series, we had to make sure the central characters were doing something significant in every episode, and the secondary characters weren't neglected for too long. It creates challenges for pacing both within an episode and across the whole season.



TQDo you have a favorite secondary character?

MB: Several! Our development process meant we spent a chunk of time considering each major secondary character directly, rather than focusing only on the main protagonists and positioning everyone else in relation to them. My answer changes from day to day; I wrote a piece for Mary Robinette Kowal's "My Favorite Bit" feature about Bellona Avitus, the junior warder for Mertika. But while she's one of my favorite bits of the story, I don't actually like her -- she's really not a good person.

So I'll choose Ueda no Takeshi, the Ikaran warder. I can't go into detail as to why without giving spoilers, but he's a "still waters run deep" kind of guy. And I like that he's a nerd: he studies the magical elements of his world, like the birthrights people acquire from being born on a particular island, and gets his strength from knowlege as much as his ability to hit people with a sword. (He's actually not all that great at hitting people with a sword.)



TQHave any of the characters in Born to the Blade been surprising?

MRU:  A lot, especially because I’ve had the fortune of witnessing how Malka, Marie, and Cassandra write the characters and take them in ways I didn’t expect. I think Bellona came to surprise all of us, as we dug in on what made her tick, how she tried to deal with Lavinia (her superior)’s domineering and demanding approach, as well as the ways that we showcased Bellona’s calculating but obvious social maneuvering through the baby shower and other efforts to make a grand gesture or big display.



TQWhat kinds of research have you done for Born to the Blade?

MRU:  A lot of the research that shows up in Born to the Blade was more a result of me and the other team members applying what we already knew, from martial arts (unarmed and swordplay) to the material and intangible culture of a variety of civilizations and peoples from around the world that we drew from to create the numerous nations of the sky. Marie did a bunch of extra work in developing a resource document for hairstyles and clothing notes for the different nations, condensing and clarifying the brainstorming that all four of us had done along the way.



TQAre social issues touched upon in Born to the Blade?

MRU:  The issues we touch on most directly are imperialism and colonialism, with Michiko as a subject of the Mertikan empire. But with Quloo we have a story that resonates with peak oil and/or climate change. Because it is a political and diplomatic series, social issues are never far from the surface, and I am especially happy with the ways that the team was always very conscious of the different levels that character actions and big moves in the story operated on, always boiling down to power – who has it, who uses it, for what purpose, and with what unintended effects.



TQAny hints to what is upcoming for Oda no Michiko and Kris Denn?

MRU:  Michiko, Kris, and Ojo are all in very different places at the end of the season than they were at the series’ start, with new perspectives, drastically different relationships, and new objectives emerging from the action and intrigue of the season. Born to the Blade is the most character-driven story I’ve worked on as a writer, which makes it very exciting, as I came out of the season with a clear sense of what each character wants based on the season’s events, and what they’re willing to do now to achieve those goals.

Just talking about it makes me want to dive back in and start writing season two. But that will have to wait to see how readers react and whether the series has earned enough support to get picked up (again, think TV series). So if you have already been reading and want to see more, make sure to spread the word and encourage friends to subscribe and read, too!



TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery!





Born to the Blade is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Google Play, iBooks, Kobo and Serial Box.

The Episodes:

 1.  Arrivals by Michael R. Underwood
 2.  Fault Lines by Marie Brennan
 3.  Baby Shower by Cassandra Khaw
 4.  The Gauntlet by Michael R. Underwood
 5.  Trade Deal by Malka Older
 6.  Spiraling by Marie Brennan
 7.  Dreadnought by Cassandra Khaw
 8.  Refugees by Malka Older
 9.  Assassination by Malka Older
10. Shattered Blades by Marie Brennan
11. All the Nations of the Skies by Michael R. Underwood

Look for Born to the Blade: The Complete Season One on July 27th:

Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan
For centuries the Warders' Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the countries of the sky a way to avoid war, settling their disputes through formal, magical duels. But the Circle's ability to maintain peace is fading: the Mertikan Empire is preparing for conquest and the trade nation of Quloo is sinking, stripped of the aerstone that keeps both ships and island a-sky. When upstart Kris Denn tries to win their island a seat in the Warder’s Circle and colonial subject Oda no Michiko discovers that her conquered nation's past is not what she's been told, they upset the balance of power. The storm they bring will bind all the peoples of the sky together…or tear them apart.





The Authors

Marie BrennanWebsiteTwitter
Cassandra KhawFacebookTwitter
Malka OlderWebsiteTwitter
Michael R. UnderwoodWebsiteTwitter

Interview with Marie Brennan


Please welcome Marie Brennan to The Qwillery. Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the 5th and final Memoir of Lady Trent, was published on April 25, 2017 by Tor Books.



Interview with Marie Brennan




TQWelcome back to The Qwillery! The first of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was published in 2013 and now Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the final Memoir has been published. What are your thoughts on ending this series?

Marie:  I'm sad to see it end -- but I also am glad to be finishing while I am sad, rather than after I've grown tired of it. Or worse, after my readers have grown tired of it.



TQWhen we first spoke I asked if you were a plotter or pantser and you replied "...somewhere in between." And now, 4 years later, how would you answer that question? Has anything changed about your writing process?

Marie:  I'm a bit less linear than I used to be, but ultimately, I'm still in between on the question of outlining versus improvising. For example, I knew going into Sanctuary what Isabella was going to find, but the specifics of how she found it and what happened afterward? Those mostly got made up as I went along. I still have fixed points I want to hit, and those get added to along the way, but a lot of it is still discovery, me figuring out how I'm going to get from where I am to where I want to be.



TQYou are both an anthropologist and a folklorist. Have you based any of the dragons that have been documented by Lady Trent on anything in the fossil record?

Marie:  Oh, definitely! The drakeflies in The Tropic of Serpents were inspired by a dinosaur called Microraptor, which had two sets of wings. They were probably connected by a membrane rather than being separate like a dragonfly's, but that didn't stop me from running with my own version. And the idea that a swamp-wyrm at different stages in its life cycle might look like very different organisms also came from a theory about certain dinosaurs -- apparently I was reading a lot about dinos while I worked on that book!



TQAnd do you have a favorite dragon from folklore?

Marie:  My favorite dragon overall is Maleficent, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to call Disney's decision to turn her into a dragon an element of genuine pre-modern folklore. I'm also quite partial to the Wawel dragon of Kraków -- but that's more a matter of liking the story of how the dragon got defeated, rather than the dragon itself. So let's go with the quetzalcoatl of Aztec folklore, because feathered dragons are cool. (As are feathered dinosaurs!)



TQWhat is the most unusual thing that Lady Trent has discovered in Books 1 - 4?

Marie:  I am so tempted to name off some random detail about people! Part of the idea behind the series is that the places she travels to are every bit as interesting as the dragons she studies there. But since I suspect you meant something dragon-related, I'll say the odd quirk of draconic development Isabella figures out at the end of In the Labyrinth of Drakes, via the honeyseeker breeding project. I can't really be more specific without spoilers, though.



TQPlease describe Within the Sanctuary of Wings in 140 characters.

Marie:  Intrepid lady adventurer nearly gets killed in the Himalaya discovering awesome dragon stuff!



TQPlease tell us something about Within the Sanctuary of Wings that is not found in the book description.

Marie:  There's a whole lot of linguistic fun around the efforts to decipher the ancient Draconean language. And I love the fact that fans of this series are the kinds of nerds who really will find that fun -- it's like a puzzle, and the characters have to get really creative to solve it.



TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Within the Sanctuary of Wings.

Marie:  "In the history of scientific discovery, it is my opinion that insufficient credit has been given to the behaviour of the humble yak."



TQPlease tell us a bit about the 4 dragons on the gorgeous cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings?

Marie:  Todd Lockwood and I were discussing the covers a year or two ago, trying to figure out what else we could do that would fit the "scientific" theme of the images, without being a rehash of what we'd done before. He was the one who suggested an evolutionary series, like those pictures you see of a chimpanzee getting bigger and more upright until it's a modern human being. The idea is that you're seeing how a much more lizard-like creature eventually became a beautiful Yelangese azure dragon.



TQWho has been your favorite not main character in the Memoirs? And which character has given you the most trouble?

Marie:  Oh, man -- you're going to make me pick? I'm going to cheat and say my favorite is a tie between Tom and Suhail. The former because I loved developing his partnership with Isabella over the course of the series, and the latter because he's an archaeologist and in some ways my self-insert character. Most trouble was Ankumata, the ruler of Bayembe, because he required me to think through a lot of political calculus to figure out how he should act.



TQWhat's next?

Marie:  On May 30th Tor.com will be publishing Lightning in the Blood, the sequel to Cold-Forged Flame. That series is more in the epic fantasy vein than the historical/scientific flavor of the Memoirs, but I've had a lot of fun with the worldbuilding for it.



TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Marie:  Thank you!






Within the Sanctuary of Wings
The Lady Trent Memoirs 5
Tor Books, April 25, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 336 pages

Interview with Marie Brennan
Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the conclusion to Marie Brennan's thrilling Lady Trent Memoirs

After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent--dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.

And yet--after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard The Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia--the Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure--scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland's enemies--and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.





About Marie

Interview with Marie Brennan
MARIE BRENNAN is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She is the author of several acclaimed fantasy novels including A Natural History of Dragons; The Onyx Court Series: Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire; Warrior; and Witch. Her short stories have appeared in more than a dozen print and online publications.








Website  ~  Blog  ~  Twitter @swan_tower






Previously

A Natural History of Dragons
The Lady Trent Memoirs 1
Tor Books, February 4, 2014
Trade Paperback,352 pages
Hardcover and eBook, February 5, 2013

Interview with Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon's presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one's life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

"Saturated with the joy and urgency of discovery and scientific curiosity."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on A Natural History of Dragons

An NPR Best Book of 2013



The Tropic of Serpents
The Lady Trent Memoirs 2
Tor Books, February 14, 2015
Trade Paperback, 352 pages
Hardcover and eBook, March 4, 2014

Interview with Marie Brennan
The thrilling adventure of Lady Trent continues in Marie Brennan's The Tropic of Serpents . . .

Attentive readers of Lady Trent's earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world's premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.



Voyage of the Basilisk
The Lady Trent Memoirs 3
Tor Books, February 2, 2016
Trade Paperback, 368 pages
Hardcover and eBook, March 31, 2015

Interview with Marie Brennan
The thrilling adventure of Lady Trent continues in Marie Brennan's Voyage of the Basilisk . . .

Devoted readers of Lady Trent's earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now.

Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella's in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella's life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons.



In the Labyrinth of Drakes
The Lady Trent Memoirs 4
Tor Books, March 14, 2017
Trade Paperback, 368 pages
Hardcover and eBook, April 5, 2016

Interview with Marie Brennan
In the Labyrinth of Drakes, the thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.

Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent's expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.

As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperiled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.



From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review
A Lady Trent Story
Tor Books, May 18, 2016
eBook, 32 Pages

Interview with Marie Brennan
After risking the neck of her loved ones and herself during her perilous sea voyage aboard The Basilisk, and the discoveries made at Keonga, Isabella, Lady Trent, returns to Scirland with the aim of publishing her research. And yet, given the level of secret knowledge she now posses, she is reduced to waiting to reveal her new academic discovery until royal decrees can be lifted and a fraught political situation avoided. In her idle frustration, Isabella vents her spleen upon the shoddy research published by lesser men with swollen heads in local journals. Enjoy the following collection of letters, found in a trunk of mislaid scholarly documents left behind when she removed to Linshire for the season.

Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie BrennanInterview with Marie BrennanInterview with Marie Brennan, author of A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent  & Giveaway - March 1, 2013

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