This book was sent to me by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review.
21.02.19 / Gollancz / Fantasy / Paperback / 592pp / 978-1473222861
Target Audience: Readers who enjoy investing themselves in a soaring fantasy series. A coming of age/power/chaos/destiny story with great characters, important themes and fantastic imagery.
About Justin T Call
Justin Call graduated from Harvard University in 2012 with a Master’s in Literature and Creative Writing. He has studied fantasy literature for over a decade and is co-designer of the board games Imperial Harvest and Royal Strawberries. Justin currently lives in Idaho with his wife, two sons, and Great Dane.
About Master Of Sorrows
The stunning coming-of-age adventure of fantasy’s most compelling anti-hero . . .
The Academy of Chaenbalu has stood against magic for centuries.
Hidden from the world, acting from the shadows, it trains its students to detect and retrieve magic artifacts, which it jealously guards from the misuse of others. Because magic is dangerous: something that heals can also harm, and a power that aids one person may destroy another.
Of the Academy’s many students, only the most skilled can become Avatars – warrior thieves, capable of infiltrating the most heavily guarded vaults – and only the most determined can be trusted to resist the lure of magic.
More than anything, Annev de Breth wants to become one of them.
Q&A with Justin T Call
Thank you, Justin, for taking some time to answer a few questions about your outstanding debut fantasy novel, book one of The Silent Gods series, Master of Sorrows. Could you give us your own personal overview of what readers should expect within the book?
I actually wrote the blurb that appears on Goodreads (it’s what I used to pitch my novel to agents and publishers), and that still pretty well sums up my pitch for the novel (and the series) without giving away any spoilers. Leaving it at that would be cheating, though, so I’ll give you a slightly different take here.
If you’re planning to read Master of Sorrows, you should expect a story that feels very familiar because it plays with a lot of the classic fantasy tropes, some of which have gone out of style but which I am lovingly reintroducing. Along with that accompanying sense of déjà vu, you should expect something that feels more modern. One of the reasons for that is because the magic system in Master of Sorrows is more scientific than a lot of the ‘soft magics’ used in older fantasy novels, which means MoS has a flavor more closely approaching a Brandon Sanderson novel. Unlike Sanderson, though, MoS also dips its toe into the Grimdark/Dark Fantasy genre, which (I would argue) is the second reason it feels more modern; MoS is still fully epic fantasy, but its themes are darker and the world is bleaker than either traditional epic fantasy or most of what Sanderson writes. It’s nothing near as grim as a Joe Abercrombie or Ed McDonald novel, but a comparison to Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor series would be close to the mark, particularly since my protagonist is also a student at a religious institution that trains its students in martial arts and skullduggery (similar to Nona in Red Sister).
The last thing I’d like to reiterate is one of the taglines floating around for Master of Sorrows, which asks the rhetorical question: ‘What if you were destined to be a villain?’ The premise then is that my protagonist, Annev de Breth, is the reincarnation of an evil god . . . but he is also the story’s ‘hero,’ which implies this may be the coming-of-age story for the story’s villain. I play with that possibility throughout the series, then bring it to a satisfying conclusion at the end of Book 4. In the meantime, enjoy the ride and trust your driver.
Where did the inspiration for Master of Sorrows, and The Silent Gods series in general, come from?
So many places! Folklore and mythology, roleplaying games, classic and modern fantasy. All of those things provided inspiration, but the biggest inspiration really came from my sympathy for villains. Since I was a kid, I harbored a secret affinity for all things villainous, primarily because I liked the psychology: ‘What drives a villain to fight the hero so vehemently? Do they just like being evil, or is there something deeper going on here? At what point does the hero (or anti-hero) become the real villain?’ Likewise, I love origin stories – especially when it comes to villains – and I feel like most bad guys don’t get enough page presence or screen time.
So when it came time to write my fantasy series, I decided I wanted to write a story told from the villain’s perspective but couched with all the fantasy tropes of a more traditional coming-of-age story. I wanted to give readers a chance to really empathize with the would-be villain – to see him, not as a bad guy, but as the hero – and then I wanted to play with that sense of empathy by gradually giving the hero all the tropes we now associate with traditional fantasy villains. For those that know what to expect, it’s kind of exciting to anticipate where the story will go and when the main character will either remain idealistic or give in to his baser impulses – or, alternatively, to see when the hero’s ideals have remained the same but his actions in support of those ideals have become less heroic. It’s a delicate balance because I don’t want to alienate readers (I want them to empathize with the protagonist), but I also want to foreshadow his evolution as a character so that they keep rooting for him throughout his entire character arc.
That, in a nutshell, is my inspiration for The Silent Gods.
I thought your prologue was inspired and it grasped me with both hands. I thought Sodar and Annev were exceptional and compelling characters too. How did you decide what sort of magic and fantasy you wanted to explore within Master of Sorrows?
Sodar and Annev’s relationship forms the core for the whole first book, so I’m glad they resonated with you as characters! As for the fantasy and worldbuilding, I’ve always been inspired by David Eddings’ ‘historical/literary’ prologues and the way he often depicted Gods and mortals interacting with one another – sometimes as allies, sometimes as adversaries. His pantheon of Gods also added a lot of colour to his books, and I wanted to mimic that feeling to a certain degree.
At the same time, I recognised that Eddings’ magic system was a little too amorphous for my tastes, whereas the magic in Brandon Sanderson’s books felt more scientific – more ‘analytical’ – and that resonated with me. It felt less like cheating and more like a tool that could be used to solve puzzles presented by the story. I also chose to adopt a hard magic system because it put restrictions on the way magic could be used, and that forced me to be both more honest and more creative with how I chose to use magic to solve problems in the book.
Combining those two styles gives Master of Sorrows a resonance that I feel is simultaneously classical and modern. The concept of “Art as Magic” also unifies the two themes by showing where the “magic of the Gods” and “the magic of men” converge. You get something that is elemental – something primal and wondrous – while also being scientific and artistic. I think magic can (and should) be all of those things, and it was exciting to discover ways to show that dichotomy in the book. Like religion and science, I don’t think the two types of magics (soft and hard) are at odds with each other; rather, in the hands of an adept writer, I think they complement and inform one another. You get to feel that sense of wonder from seeing something you don’t wholly understand, but you can also feel the joy of discovery as you begin to conceptualize the principles behind that magic.
Could you give us a few insights about how The Academy, Chaenbalu and the world surrounding them came to life?
Ironically, the seed for Chaenbalu and the Academy came from a game of Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing with my friends. I devised a one-armed elvish “Spellfilcher,” which is sort of a mage-thief-warrior who trains specifically to steal magic artifacts from wizards (noticing any inspirations?). It was a fun concept, and I later expanded on that hero’s backstory by making him a grey elf (or ‘high elf’) that was raised to believe all other races were inferior to his own. This instantly set him apart from the rest of the world, but I took it a step further by making him an outcast from his own elvish clan, who now wanted to kill him. This meant my character had no real allies, and he had to overcome his own prejudices about the outside world in order to find acceptance among those he once considered inferior.
So that was one seed. One tiny source of inspiration. In another RPG, I played a religious zealot who worshipped a god named Odar (a name you should recognise from my book), but the concept of the Gods and their mythology was mostly inspired by a combination of Judeo-Christian theology and some academic questions I had posed to myself: ‘Most cultures view the world in terms of four or five elemental powers – but what if you invented a culture with only three elemental powers? What would those elements be? What would their patron gods and goddesses be like?’ Combining all of that with my aforementioned literary inspirations formed the earliest origins for this book’s worldbuilding.
How does it feel to have published the first novel in this series?
SO GOOD. I’ve been building the foundation for this series for well over a decade, so it’s exciting to see it finally in people’s hands. There’s probably no bigger buzz than telling someone about your book on Day 1, they read it on Day 2, and on Day 3 they come back being able to discuss something that took my years to conceptualize and then write. It’s like some magical way of transporting people to a world I’ve spent half my life living in, and then we get to talk about the trip they took and I get to ask me questions – the ‘right kind’ of questions that show they’ve been analyzing and conjecturing about what they’ve read. It’s thrilling. Nothing beats it.
What was the most challenging part of writing a story about a boy who is prophesied to destroy the world but wants to save it at the same time?
Empathy and authenticity. Those are the hardest parts, and they will continue to be the hardest parts. You want readers to empathize with the main character – to root for the story’s hero and feel connected to him – but at that same time, you have to walk the tightrope by showing glimmers of something else beneath the surface. You’ve also got prophecies declaring the protagonist is the reincarnation of an evil god, and you’ve got religious leaders claiming he is a devil and a demon, so you can’t outright discard that. There has to be some bite to those accusations, some weight to the claims that cause the reader to wonder exactly who the protagonist really is, not to mention how his story will end. If the hero is too noble, though, readers will feel I haven’t delivered on the premise I’ve promised them. And if he is outright evil, I’ll have even more problems: the protagonist would be hard to sympathize with; he would run the risk of seemingly like an “anti-hero” instead of a “heroic villain.” Making him evil at the start would also feel inauthentic since people are rarely born bad. They might have a propensity for being capable of bad things, but they usually still have to experiment with that impulse – to fight it and indulge it – before they embrace those impulses.
For all of these reasons, I think it’s enormously difficult to really show an authentic coming-of-age story for a villain, let alone a Dark Lord. We’ve seen it done a hundred different anti-heroic ways, where the hero might be bad but he’s still better than the other baddies. Where he or she has a long and sordid past full of misery and heartache, which the author (and reader) then uses to justify that character’s horrific actions.
But I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who genuinely believed they were the hero – someone who not only convinced himself of being the hero, but who also convinces the reader he is the hero – but who, from an external perspective, would also be an unmistakable villain. Doing that authentically and maintaining empathy throughout the process requires a lot of subtlety and patience, but if done right, it would be a powerful bit of sleight-of-hand (i.e., getting the reader to root for the Dark Lord). I’ve got a detailed road map for getting to that place, but I worry every day about executing it properly.
There are some fantastic themes included in your work that I easily connected to. Does the way in which the world perceives deformity in Master of Sorrows have a personal origin in your own life?
Ah, a perceptive question. No, I don’t wear a magic prosthetic or anything like that, but I’ve definitely suffered for my own ‘otherness.’ We all do that, though, which is why Annev’s story resonates with readers. We may not be scarred or missing a limb, and it certainly won’t be because we are blessed or cursed with magic, but I think we all bear a burden that makes us uniquely blessed and cursed. For that same reason, blessings can be treated as curses when others lack empathy and carry prejudice in their hearts (just think of any nerdy kid that gets picked on for being smart, or any girl that gets teased or assaulted by boys because of her gender).
But I think it goes the other way, too. In my heart, I truly believe that every flaw and deformity we bear – real or imagined – is a blessing in disguise. I believe the things that others call weakness are actually our strengths.
Take me, for example. I’ve got a sleep disorder that makes my sleep only two-thirds as restful as the average person. I’ve also got some mild Obsessive-Compulsive and Attention Deficit disorders. They make it heart for me to focus – hard for me to get writing done and do normal jobs – but they also force me think differently than other people. They allow me to perceive the world in ways that others might not, which I consider a virtue. Knowing my own weaknesses also enables me to work harder to overcome them. Instead of sleeping all the time, I accept that I will always be tired and I push through my physical failings. I get up at 3:00 AM and study, read, and meditate. I shower and prepare for the day when my family is asleep, then I teach English to kids in China for a few hours, then my kids wake up and I get them off to school. By the time lunch rolls around, I’m exhausted . . . but I still force myself to write (most days, anyway). I acknowledge my weaknesses, but I don’t let them rule me. Instead, I look for the valuable parts of those experiences, and I use them to shape myself into something unique and powerful.
I think anyone can do that – I think we all should do that – but we’re still imperfect people full of weakness. That’s why I like Annev. He’s ballsy and willing to do the hard stuff, but he’s also human. He’s got a great propensity for good, but he’s also filled with a terrible sense of untapped power. Harnessing that power, for good or ill, is central to his character arc.
I know that’s a long answer, but a thoughtful question deserves a thoughtful response. Hopefully some of your readers also derive some strength from hearing my perspective.
How long did it take you to write Master of Sorrows?
Hahaha. That . . . is a long story. I started writing the first scenes for Master of Sorrows in 2007, but I had the first inkling of the story’s idea in 2002 (for those keeping track, that’s a seventeen-year gestation period). I actually mentioned this in my Q&A for Blanvalet-Verlag (Random House Germany), because I found it curious that the idea for my book is about as old as my 17-year-old protagonist.
In reality, though, I spent most of that time tinkering with world mythology, maps, and learning how to tell a good story. I had only written about 200 pages of MoS before I started by Harvard ALM thesis in 2011. I chose to finish my book as part of my thesis, and then I spent the next nine months writing and revising the remaining 450 pages. In October of 2011, I turned in a rough draft of my book as part of my master’s thesis (along with a critical essay explaining where my book fit into the existing canon of fantasy literature). If you’re interested in reading it, you can still find it in the Harvard Library.
After 2011, though, I got heavily involved with writing some screenplays for the film industry. I also graduated and started a new job at Harvard (before that I had been working as a receptionist and writer in the Office of the President). Also, my son Darwin was born and a lot of my attention and free time got sucked into that amazing little kid. So the book sort of sat on the back burner for a while. I submitted it to some agents every few months or so, but I didn’t pursue it with any great amount of vigour (to be honest, I was glad I hadn’t landed an agent then because I wasn’t ready to start my publishing career). I left Harvard in 2014, though, so that I could launch a board game company and pursue my writing career in earnest. By the next year, I had landed my agent, Danny Baror. He got some great publishing deals that same year but some bad luck forced us to switch publishers, so I didn’t really get to start edits with my current editor till 2017 (this goes to show how surreal publishing can be; either break-neck fast or turtle-soup slow). With Gillian Redfearn and Gollancz behind me, I spent around a year doing the revisions for my book, and I handed in the final version of MoS in 2018.
So you tell me. How long did it take to write Master of Sorrows? Three years? Seventeen? A lifetime? I can’t really say, but I expect the sequels to take a lot less time.
Who did the artwork/design for the cover of and the maps within Master of Sorrows?
The über-talented Patrick Knowles did the cover art/design for the book. As for the maps, I actually commissioned a friend, Jared Sprague, to draw those for me (based on some horrendous artwork I’d done on my own using Fantasy Cartographer 3 software); Jared was quick to point out any places that couldn’t physically exist (like rivers running uphill), and he did a corker of a job getting the personality of the different fictional map-makers represented in the maps themselves. I’ve been very proud to work with both artists and I hope to work with them more in the future.
Is there a part of the book that you are particularly proud of? And do you have a favourite quote you can share with us? (I already have mine!)
Haha. What’s your favourite quote?
I can’t share my top-two favourite parts since they would spoil the book for folks (I’ll let you guess what those parts might be, though). My third favourite part is when Annev confronts Crag in the Brakewood. It was a really fun sequence to write, and I really enjoyed the interactions of the two characters (not to mention the events that transpire during their time together).
Favourite quote? Wow, that’s a hard one. I really like the advice that Sodar and Crag both give to Annev, but it’s hard to quote them in context. I also really like the final lines of the prologue, the epilogue, and the last chapter in Part 3. Foregoing all of those, I’ll share these two favourites:
‘Sometimes lies can protect us, and truths can kill us. Given the choice between the two, which would you prefer?’
‘Tomorrow robs us of our present joys, so savour today.’
How far are you into writing the next novel, if I am allowed to ask?
You are allowed to ask . . . but I’m allowed not to answer. Haha.
I’ll say this, though. I have a very detailed outline for the next book in the series, plus a decent chunk of the novel has been written. If all goes well, it should be published in the Spring of 2020.
Did you always have your eye set on being a writer/author? And what sort of books did you grow up reading?
More or less, yes. I’ve been imagining and writing down stories since I was five years old, and I’ve been pursuing a career as a writer since I was about thirteen. Ironically, though, I refused to read anything but picture books until I was ten, at which point I switched to reading CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure) books. That eventually led me into reading epic fantasy (purely because I stumbled into the well-hidden fantasy section at my local library). Prior to that time, I read a lot of comic books . . . but not the kind you are probably thinking of. I’m talking about comics you read in the Sunday paper. Calvin and Hobbes. Garfield. The Far Side. Dilbert. I read a ton of that stuff before falling into the CYOA books.
And then I discovered the fantasy novels and went home with some books by David Eddings. I dove head first into the Elenium and the Tamuli, and then I read the Belgariad and the Malloreon. After that, I read some Gary Gygax (Knight Errant, Saga of Old City, etc.) and some R.A. Salvatore (Dark Elf Trilogy, Icewind Dale Trilogy, etc). I read a bunch of other stuff, too, but those are the ones that stuck with me the most. I didn’t get into Tolkien until high school, and I didn’t start reading Robert Jordan till my freshman year of college. By then, I knew that I wanted to be a fantasy author, but I was also balancing that with a desire to become a screenwriter, a teacher, and an actor (not necessarily in that order). I sort of pursued all of them at the same time, but I always knew I’d eventually write and publish a fantasy series (it was just a matter of applying the appropriate amount of effort and time). By the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, I’d read a whole lot more fantasy and I knew that, more than anything, I wanted to be a fantasy novelist. I pursued that goal while getting my master’s degree, and I read and studied a lot of Brandon Sanderson’s writing since I considered his own writing style and background to be very similar to my own. I also really loved the Mistborn trilogy (remember, this was back before Sanderson had been asked to finish the Wheel of Time), and I figured he was a good contemporary role model. I still believe that (Brandon is awesome, as are all of his books).
Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all the writing?
I’ve got two main hobbies: I love playing and designing board games, and I love playing League of Legends. I’m not especially good at the latter, and it’s a big time-suck when you’re trying to write the next chapter to your book, so I don’t play League very often. When I do play, I usually choose champions who play a lot of mind games and annoy the heck out of everyone (specifically Teemo, Shaco, Singed, and Ivern).
Now playing and designing tabletop games is a different story. I find that I’m a naturally gifted gamer when it comes to most board games and card games, and I like learning new games. Because of this, I sort of fell into launching my own board game company back in 2014 (Broomstick Monkey Games), and we released our first game in 2015 (Imperial Harvest). I have a sequel that actually pre-dates Imperial Harvest (called Royal Strawberries), but we won’t be printing that until after I’ve written the fourth book in the Silent Gods tetralogy. My partners and I also designed a bunch of card games, but we’ve held off on printing those for the same reason. As such, I’ve put a halt to all my designing ambitions (at least for the time being), and I mostly only play games when getting together with family at Christmas (busy, busy). There are few things I enjoy more, though, than a good board game convention and/or board game night.
Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
I’ve read quite a number of good books on writing (both novel writing and screenwriting), and my favourite continues to be The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It’s a great update on the traditional Hero’s Journey established by Joseph Campbell (which is good, but very academic and dry). It’s also not overly formulaic (a common criticism of people who study the Hero’s Journey), and it’s great at pointing out what works in storytelling (and why).
As with all things, though, what works for one person doesn’t work for another, so take my advice (and Vogler’s) along with all the other advice you might glean from other good writers. Keep what works well for you and leave the rest behind.
A huge thank you to Justin for taking so much time to give me a thorough and satisfying Q&A session about his superb debut, Master Of Sorrows. I adored this book and I can’t recommend it enough! Compelling, jaw-dropping and crafty, all the elements I look for in a fantasy read. Pick up Master Of Sorrow now and have fun!