Fiction Friday

Featured Author Interview with Michael Espinoza

For this week’s Fiction Friday I was asked to highlight a gifted young man’s upcoming book launch. I am happy to introduce him to more readers and to showcase his soon-to-be-released novel, Blades of Cairndale.

Hi Michael and glad to have you here. Tell us a bit about your book. What is it about?

 I am in the process of concluding a novel entitled “Blades of Cairndale.” It is a fantasy piece, written under the inspiration of classic pillars of fantasy such as Robert E. Howard, with a bit of a nod to (relatively) more modern fantasy conceits such as magic in the Gygaxian sense of things. Not in the sense that my characters roll d20s and the like (though the idea would amuse me), but in the sense of its approach to magic as a very physical manifestation of unseen, arcane power.

Well, my only real experience with the fantasy genre is Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I will admit that I wasn’t really familiar with Robert E. Howard, having to do a bit of research about his life. I appreciate you bringing my attention to him. I am always glad to learn more about authors and writers. How does your novel fit into the fantasy realm? What makes it a clearly defined fantastical story?

In this case, that power is known as the Weave; a network of invisible veins which mages may link to with their minds, that their bodies may become conduits for Weave energy.

 I’d describe the tale as somewhat “dark” in nature, in that the protagonists are likeable, agreeable people, but it’s not a very clear-cut, black and white morality sort of thing. Azyriana the Witch-Queen isn’t evil, but she is a ruler and a brilliant tactician who will fight to preserve her realm and avenge wrongs perpetrated against her. That sounds fairly good in a classic sense, but the overall point is that the “good guys” aren’t knights in shining armor, they’re warriors too. They’ll behead their foes as needed, interrogate prisoners by force, and claw at their objectives with tooth and nail, just like a true warrior should. I try to shake off that notion that the “good guy violence is good and the bad guy violence is bad”; it’s all violence in the end, equally cruel and destructive, but we happen to agree with our protagonists’ end goals. Or maybe some readers won’t. That’s the fun of it.

I liked the strong female presence in your story. I’m glad to see less stories with the image of the weak helpless girls and women totally dependent on the stronger male characters, that you are making room for more female power and rule. Explain more about that element of things. What other topics of prejudice do you cover?

 The book has many strong female characters, and I felt that was important. Weakness has no place in a land of swords and sorcery. Females fight in battle, they lead armies, govern realms, and are in no way treated as lesser than their male counterparts. There are instances in the book where characters are discriminated against for gender or race, but these serve to illustrate the reprehensible nature of such dated ideology. The book addresses racism amongst fantasy creatures, particularly cross-breeding between humans and non-humans, as a metaphor of sorts for the divisive mindsets of our world: homophobia, nationalism, racial stereotyping, and so forth.

I detected a bit of Queen Elizabeth I in your main character of Azyriana. Would you say that is there at all?

 Ha, that’s a fantastic analogy for Azyriana, actually.
And if you are a Tolkien fan, I hope you will enjoy my work. It’s a bit more influenced by Robert Howard (the creator of Conan the Cimmerian), but there’s definitely a touch of Tolkien in there as well.

Have you always been a story teller? What first got you interested in writing stories?

That is a great question. Ever since I was young, I was the designated storyteller amongst my cousins. I remember when I would build a fort with my three male cousins, what we believed to be a fantastic structure sculpted of pillows and chairs. We’d crawl inside with sodas and purloined snacks, set up a flashlight, and then I’d be asked to “make up a story.” So, on the spot, I’d craft some new horror tale about an axe-wielding fiend from beyond the grave, or a sentient corpse hunting down its stolen arm which had been crafted into tools and sold to collectors of rare artifacts. It would just come out of my head, as naturally as talking. I’ve always loved to improvise. In addition to writing, I’m a heavy metal musician, and improvisation has been a crucial component of every concert I’ve ever played. So, storytelling was the precursor to that, I suppose.

I think the answer to this question is obvious, but I’ll ask it anyway: What is your favourite genre and why?

Fantasy. There are others tied for second place, but nothing touches fantasy for me. Everything from the dark tales of magic and savagery to the campy, over-the-top adventures with big, boisterous characters. I love everything about fantasy. It is my truth, the place where I feel happiest, safest, and most free to create. Why is that, you ask? In fantasy, no one can tell you no. You have to explain things, you can’t just say that a troll can’t resist staring at fire or that a succubus can walk through walls without giving it a little basis, a little explanation, but if you are willing and able to give even an in-universe reason for an occurrence, it can happen. The world is full of “no,” and fantasy is a great place to finally hear “yes.” I wanted a little fae creature with retractable claws in my story and no one can stop said character from existing. As long as I’m consistent about my reasoning, anything is possible. “Just because” is never a good reason, but given the right time and motivation, a writer can justify their wildest dreams in fantasy literature.

Do you feel your blindness effects your writing? If so, how? If no, why not?

It’s never an insurmountable obstacle, but it comes up at times. I sometimes have to ask sighted friends what colors go together for a character’s outfit, but after a while I get the hang of those sorts of things. I once tried to write a tale with a blind character and actually struggled with not describing the visual aspects of things. The images in my head are crystal clear, vivid in every detail, so it’s hard to write in such a way that conveys them by every sense other than sight. Good writing should appeal to many senses, of course, but writing from a character’s perspective who cannot see at all does impose a unique challenge.

Tell us about your favourite author or authors.

Robert E. Howard is my all-time favorite author. Under appreciated though he is, he is the grandfather of fantasy as we know it. To give any indication of his influence, a recent inventory of Tolkien’s library revealed a few Howard books on his shelves. Howard’s work is just so visceral, it’s like a good sword, it hits hard, fast, cuts deep, and does the job perfectly. People hear Howard’s name and they think of the awful Conan the Barbarian movies, terribly inaccurate comic book renditions, and overlook the original works of the Texan author who brought so much to our world of fantasy with his larger-than-life heroes and epic adventures.

Do you listen to music when you write? If so what music do you listen to?

That is context specific, actually. If it’s an action scene, I listen to my usual genre of choice: heavy metal. Loud guitars, virtuoso musicians, and soaring vocals set a perfect score for a clash of armies or a frantic chase. I also throw in a little Carly Rae Jepsen, but that’s less about setting the scene and more about my “secret” love of super fluffy pop music. (Note to self: As a writing challenge, write a scene that Carly Jepsen’s music would perfectly score.) For other scenes, I like softer music, usually of a Renaissance Faire style. Bands like Blackmore’s Night, or any of Blind Guardian’s ballads fit the bill perfectly.

What else inspires you to write?

So many things! Social issues always make good fuel for writing, whether it’s painfully tragic acts like genocide, disgustingly destructive thoughts like homophobia, or annoying bits of subcultural discrimination that we all experience every day. Another big motivator for me is religious discrimination. As my faith is not a well-known one, it often comes under fire or is misunderstood, and I want to correct the confusion and stop the discrimination brought on by ignorance or willful disdain. In other ways, my faith inspires my writing because I know its lore well and can inject ideas from it, hopefully with some subtlety, into my work. Not with any aim to “spread the word” or win followers, but just because I know it well and I do like the “write what you know” idea. Another big source of inspiration for me is reading. This may sound conceited, but I mean it in the best possible way. When I read other works, I see amazing scenes and grow to love new characters as though they’re my friends. But no single story has every element I want in it all at once, and why would it? It wasn’t written for me. So, I get motivated based on what I didn’t see. That sounds self-centered, but of course the things I do see give me ideas as well: new ideas for how to phrase things, new information about concepts or practices I’d yet to consider, and any other manner of innovations. But just as frequently, it can be a desire to see a scene you didn’t see that makes you want to start writing a tale of your own.

Do you have a process when you write?

It varies. It’s more of a mood than a specific process. I just have to feel creative, motivated to sit down, focus, and tune out distractions. I find a nice place from which to work, turn on my iPod, crank up a little viking metal, and just hammer out the images running through my head.

What do you hope to do in the future with your writing?

I want to write, it is my passion. Whatever I do in life, it has to involve writing and or creativity in some way. Regarding my fiction tales, I hope to have my novel published and will strive toward establishing a career as an author.

Why do you love to write?

Writing allows me to deliver the images in my head to other people. I can think out a plot and enjoy it, but writing lets me share that with others and get their input on all my crazy thoughts. It’s very validating to hear someone say they enjoyed or were in some way helped by a story of mine. To think that something I created could bring someone joy, satisfaction, or comfort is a truly joyous, exhilarating experience.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I’m not sure all the time, to be honest. Sometimes dreams motivate my writing, sometimes other stories motivate me to shape my own worlds and populate them with my own characters, and sometimes the characters just walk into my head and tell me their stories. Occasionally, I’ll find that a thought won’t leave my head: a particular character or a fun scene, and I just can’t shake the thought until I give it life on paper.

What would you say this book is about? What are its themes?

That is a tricky question to answer concisely. “Blades of Cairndale” addresses a lot of themes: deceit, discrimination, and recovery from loss are the three biggest issues the characters must face. The characters themselves may, in a way, be indicative of certain ideas or beliefs. For example: three of the five protagonists are very physically and mentally strong female characters, one of whom is the ruler of a prosperous queendom. That has to have some significance for readers, or so I’d hope.

What’s your favourite part about writing? What do you like least?

I love telling a story, being able to convey exactly what I want, how I want it. Editing can sometimes be a bore, but there’s even fun in that. I’d say my least favorite aspect of writing is not a part of writing itself, but the occasional instance of working with other writers who are less interested in helping each other grow and more interested in stroking their own bulbous egos and reshaping the tales of others into their own image. That sort of creative infringement in the guise of criticism has always disgusted me, and I’m very glad it happens rarely.

What do you think of the publishing world right now, traditional Vs independent?

I think they both have their merits. I do really like that we live in a time where a writer won’t go unread just because they don’t know the right people in the industry. We live in an age of access, and everyone can be heard. Truly that is a beautiful thing.

***

CHARACTERS

Azyriana the Witch-Queen: A tall, imposing figure with black hair and ivory skin. Her fiery red eyes exude a ceaseless confidence and determination. She favors flowing black garments and elegant yet functional leather boots. Her most note-worthy physical feature is the pair of leathery wings extending from her back. Regarding personality, she can seem cold, calculating, and a bit harsh, but is in fact a good hearted woman with deeply felt emotion and as much hope and fear as any human.

Van the Anointed Subject: Physically, he is Azyriana’s opposite in many ways. He is short, light haired, and has wide, clear blue eyes. He is a timid young man, but devoted to Azyriana with a fiery passion. He spends much of his time sitting by her feet like a loyal pet, or lingering near at hand to carry out an order or defend her with his prodigious skill with a rapier-like blade. He seems docile, subservient, and dependent on his queen, but is valuable to her in every way for his dedication to aiding her in all things. Over time, they become lovers.

Zuna: A military leader in Azyriana’s army, the Bladed Scourge. Zuna’s family, the clan Urunzai, came from the east a few generations ago after some unknown matters knocked their clan from its high seat of respectability. She is a fearless leader, with a fiery personality to match her fiery red hair. She favors twin swords in combat, as well as flexible leather armor that accommodates reasonable movement while still offering good protection. Strategically-placed metal studs on her armor signify that hand-to-hand combat is also a favored weapon. She is a devoted soldier and a leader who genuinely cares for the well-being of her squadron. It’s safest to be on her good side, has she harbors no sentimentality toward anyone deemed a threat.

Esmera “Esme” Atlia: A nymphling, half nymph and half human. The nymphs of this universe are forest dwelling maidens who enjoy song, dance, nature worship, deadly hooked knives akin to the Nepalese kukri, and their carnivorous appetite can sometimes be startling. Equipped with sharp fangs, retractable claws, a matching set of knives, and a natural attunement to magical energy, Esme is a formidable and acrobatic combatant. She is also beautiful, and this can have its downsides. She can often be be treated poorly for her race’s reputation as purely sexual creatures, an unfortunate stereotype which she detests for its ignorance and falsehood. Her temper is fierce, but generally slow to awaken. Her compassion is easily her dominant emotion; she is a loving, nurturing person with a profound gift for empathy and understanding. She serves in Zuna’s squad and is close friends with the easterner.

Garyn Valenthir: The etnar race hails from the regions north of the Snowfang mountains. Valenthir was, long ago, a powerful family in the etnar region. Generations passed and many of the clan drifted southward into the lands of Cairndale and beyond. Garyn’s family settled in Cairndale and he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined up in the Bladed Scourge. He has his race’s natural love of chainmail and broadswords in battle. Unlike Zuna and Esme, he is newer to the arts of warfare and is still anxious about succeeding and impressing his superiors.

***

EXCERPT

 Seth imagined the sound of undergrowth being trampled under the charge of mail-plated boots. In his mind’s eye, a soldier clad in black plate armor, adorned with the crest of Cairndale, smashed through the wooded landscape, sword unsheathed and ready to slay. Seth envisioned himself breaking from his patrol to follow this servant of the Witch-Queen, moving soundlessly behind the wild charge of the enemy warrior. He knew the man was bound for Eastcliff’s wall, that he meant to assail the small town’s priest, Father Archibald, amidst the holy man’s speech to his people, and Seth would not stand for it.

As he doubled back on his patrol route, he continued to play out this fantasy in his mind. The forest-dwelling birds would scatter before the on-rushing warrior of the Bladed Scourge, the Witch-Queen’s mighty armed force. The soldier would break from the tree-line-still unaware that he was being followed–and Seth would pounce, driving a dagger into a gap between his target’s helmet and cuirass. The man would crumple to the ground in an armored heap, leaving Father Archibald to deliver his speech in safety.

So enthralling was his imagining that Seth never heard the swift footsteps behind him. If he did, he had no time to react before a dagger’s point was jammed sharply into the base of his skull. A firm hand pulled Seth’s head back, easing the passage of the dagger into his brain. Seth was momentarily aware of a burning sensation at the nape of his neck as his vision swiftly receded into darkness. But that awareness faded rapidly, leaving his body limp and lifeless.

“That’s the last of them.” Garyn said in a low voice, slipping his dagger free of the dead scout and letting the body fall to the ground.

“That is, assuming the others hit their marks,” Zuna replied, emerging from behind a tall tree.

Both warriors had foregone their primary weapons–Garyn his broadsword and Zuna her twin shortswords–in favor of daggers, which far more suited the subtle task at hand. The two warriors wore light armor, a patchwork of mottled green designed to blend into the woodland that bordered the southwestern edge of Eastcliff. Garyn much preferred his chainmail, but such armor was hardly suitable for moving quietly amongst the trees. Likewise, Zuna would have much preferred to wear her padded leather armor and to wield her shortswords, but that would have to wait for now; their assignment was not yet concluded.
“The Eastcliff priest should be taking to the wall shortly.” Zuna said, taking the lead as they moved carefully up through the trees.

 Garyn closely tailed his veteran comrade, hoping all the while that the other members of their detachment had successfully eliminated Eastcliff’s remaining patrols beyond the wall. An ambush was the last thing they needed.
“We’ll be fine,” Zuna said, somehow sensing Garyn’s trepidation, “Sergeant Tahlin wouldn’t have sent you if he wasn’t confident in your skill.”
Garyn nodded, but looked doubtful nonetheless.

They moved onward, northeast through the wooded terrain, stopping just short of where the tree-line had been cut back, well away from Eastcliff’s border wall. From their concealment, they watched the city’s wall: a tall construct of stone, broad enough for soldiers to walk upon, with watchtowers placed at even intervals along its length. Even from where they lurked, prone in the foliage, they could hear the dull roar of the ocean lapping against the cliffs east of the walled city. The air smelled faintly of the salty ocean spray, and gulls cried their shrill song in greeting to the slowly rising sun.

“Is that him?” Garyn made a subtle gesture in the direction of a section of wall just north of their position.

“Looks that way,” Zuna replied after a moment of observing the figure who’d ascended the wall. “Ready your weapon.”

Garyn unslung his bolt-rifle from over his shoulder and brought it into position with a fluid motion, staying prone all the while. Even a slight excess of movement could alert those watching from the wall towers. The weapon relied on two heavy springs to fire its projectile: a quarrel which tapered to a wicked metal barb. Garyn slotted a quarrel into place and drew back the priming handle, compressing the weapon’s powerful springs. His index finger rested just outside the trigger-guard while he sighted along the length of the rifle.

Zuna mirrored Garyn’s actions, though she targeted the nearest watchtower rather than the robed priest standing atop the wall. If Garyn missed, she could easily shift her aim to the left and strike Father Archibald, but Sergeant Tahlin had ordered Garyn to make the initial attempt. A test of sorts.

“Children of Eastcliff,” Father Archibald called in a smooth baritone voice that carried in every direction, “we have withstood the Witch-Queen’s forces for five long days. Twice they have struck our wall, twice we repelled them. By the glory and benevolence of the Gods Above, our wall shall hold.”
 A cheer rose up from the far side of the wall. Zuna and Garyn both smirked at the foolhardy words of this charismatic holy man.

“See now how I stand,” Father Archibald continued once the uproar of his audience had settled, “guarded only by the might of the divine, and unscathed by the Witch-Queen’s dark legion! They dare not strike me, they cannot strike me, for I am the beloved of the Gods Above, the chosen to guard you against the Bladed Scourge! We have cast off the shackles of servitude, we will not worship the loathsome witch or her feeble gods!”

“Enough of this,” Zuna ordered. “Fire.”

 Garyn’s index finger slid into the guard and he slowly applied pressure. Carefully, gradually he squeezed the trigger, keeping his sight fixed on the robed priest. With a sharp snap, the springs released their tension and the barbed quarrel hissed through the air. Father Archibald, facing away from his assailants while he addressed his audience, never saw the bolt that plunged into his body, punching cleanly between his shoulder blades. The moment Zuna saw Garyn strike his target, she unleashed her own bolt at the guard in the nearest tower. He had no time to duck below the rim of his tower and caught the quarrel squarely in his chest. The projectile punched into his armor, knocking him to his back. He’d likely survived the blow, but he’d be no immediate threat.

 Simultaneously, the snap of other bolt-rifles sounded from elsewhere along the tree-line. The other scouts were firing upon the wall’s watchtowers, not a constant barrage of bolts, just a single shot from each scout to occupy or incapacitate the watchmen.

 Father Archibald’s body toppled forward over the edge of the wall, driven by the force of the bolt. Garyn and Zuna heard cries of anguish from beyond the wall, but they did not linger to observe the disarray. Zuna led the way on a hasty retreat through the trees, Garyn close behind her, weaving sporadically in case any of the Eastcliff Militia hoped to follow and return fire. They did not slow their pace until they reached their encampment: a well-guarded forest of tents set up to obstruct the only viable road to Eastcliff.

“Good shooting, Garyn,” Zuna proclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder. “Tahlin will be pleased.”

Garyn beamed at the thought of his platoon sergeant’s pride.

***

I want to thank Michael for sharing and being a part of Fiction Friday. To read more of Michael’s writing, you can visit his blog at:

http://barbarianbard.wordpress.com/

And stay tuned for Blades of Cairndale, to be released very soon.

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2 thoughts on “Featured Author Interview with Michael Espinoza

  1. Pingback: Interview: Learn About My New Novel | The Barbarian Bard

  2. Pingback: The Blades of Cairndale Are on the March | The Barbarian Bard

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