The Speculative Shelf is thrilled to welcome E. J. Beaton to the blog today to discuss her outstanding debut novel, The Councillor (out March 2, 2021) from DAW Books.
The book follows Lysande, a scholar plucked out of an academy at a young age to work for the Iron Queen of Elira. When the queen is killed by an unknown assassin, Lysande is thrust into a leadership role in the kingdom, with little support and only her wits to guide her. You can find our review of the book here.
DAW Books is hosting a giveaway for 3 copies of The Councillor (Age: 18+, US residents only) – you can enter here.
1. The Councillor is labeled “Machiavellian fantasy” — How would you describe this subgenre as it applies to your novel?
The Councillor has a bit of a dialogue with Machiavellian thought. Lysande confronts the consequences of persecution and class inequality, and considers who has historically paid the price for leaders’ choices – as a less privileged person, she’s aware of the allure of power yet also critical of it.
Machiavelli famously described the practical moves that a leader can make to establish their power. His best-known treatise, The Prince, explains how a feudal leader can rule effectively. But he was living in a divided Italy during a time of widespread chaos and pillaging, and he was calling on a leader to unite and stabilise the country. He had one eye on the realities of politics, yet simultaneously, he hoped for a better world.
That’s how I’d describe the main character in The Councillor, too. Lysande has a realistic understanding of power, and she’s studied political history. Yet she also sees the need for structural change and hopes that society can change for the better. The question that remains is whether she’ll be committed to achieving that justice herself, or whether the allure of power will be too strong for her to resist.
2. The Councillor features multiple unique cultures that feel lived-in and well-developed. Were any of these modeled after real historical world cultures?
Thank you for the kind comment! Multiculturalism was an essential part of the world-building in the novel. None of the cultures directly adapt real-world cultures or are intended as a faithful representation of any country, but some of the places I’ve visited inspired a few creations.
The city of Rhime is partly inspired by the places in Italy I’ve visited, including Rome, the Vatican, Cinque Terre, Florence, and the Tuscan countryside. The decoration of ceilings with elaborate sculptures and trompe-d’oeuil paintings in the novel, for example, are based on some of the Italian churches and buildings I walked through. The land that Lysande travels through in Rhimese territory is inspired by my travels in Tuscany, including the special quality of the light and the vibrant colours of the environment.
The use of city-states was partly inspired by my reading about Renaissance Italy – I was intrigued by the concept of a range of different rulers co-existing, sometimes chaotically, within the one country. On the other hand, aspects of Axium are inspired by English history, and Axium’s values are linked to the values taught historically in the English-based curriculum. Lysande comes to question those values over the course of the novel.
I’ve travelled a fair bit in Asia and Europe and have worked in Cambodia, so there are bits of things that I’ve observed from a range of countries and shaped into my own creations, but less concentrated in one city. It’s probably more of a subtle tribute. Being Australian, I had my own country’s varied nature to consider, too: I tried to create a multi-climate land where you could find desert, jungle, temperate land and snow-capped mountains all within the same country.
3. Lysande, your main character, becomes addicted to ingesting a powdered dragon scale, of sorts. Drug addiction is not something I see much of in modern fantasy. Why was it important to include this difficulty in Lysande’s journey?
I was hoping to show the lived experience of overlapping mental and physical struggles – the combination of those two things at once can be very dangerous, and Lysande has learned to keep her struggles a secret. She’s a high-performing person who manages to conceal a lot of her emotional life. It was important to me to show the toll that these kinds of problems take on the body and mind at once, and how denial and shame work to keep that pain hidden.
The effects of chimera scale are based on effects that I experienced in my own struggle with illness. Mentally, Lysande’s scale use is calming, but physically it acts as a stimulant. This was modelled on an unhealthy cycle of behaviour I experienced where those two things – physical stimulus and mental calm – would be happening at once. I hope that by showing Lysande’s struggle with damaging behaviours, I can help someone else out there to feel a little less alone. That’s something I found, myself, from reading or watching stories about similar health struggles: I felt better after experiencing those stories, even if they were emotionally tough.
4. How do you think your experience as a poet influences your approach to writing a novel?
The aesthetic possibilities of language really open up in poetry. I think language is beautiful, and there’s a power in a writing style that can speak to the senses and to the deeper emotions. My approach to writing inherits something from my love of poetry, although I do feel that writing is a constant learning process, and I’m always trying to improve my writing.
One aspect of poetry that has influenced my prose is the search for more specific words, whether that’s nouns, adjectives, or verbs – words that say exactlywhat I want to say and aren’t just the first ones I grab for in my mental bag. I’m also a fan of combinations of words that suggest rather than tell. For example, saying that someone has a knife-like smile or a dangerous smile is different to saying that they have a mean smile.
Poetry also makes me conscious of rhythm: what a short sentence can do, what a long sentence can do, and how alliteration or other techniques can create different rhythms. It helps me to think about the beat of my words, and how that can match the action of a scene. A character’s slow observation has a different rhythm to furious warfare, for example, and the accumulation of insight has its own particular and peculiar rhythms.
5. What was the last great book you read? What are you reading now? What is next on your to-read list?
I really enjoyed Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Those three books seemed beautiful and powerful at once; they all feature elegant prose, but they also have emotional journeys that leave a lingering ache.
I’ve just started reading Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. As in his debut novel, he writes with such beauty about difficult and painful things.
Some fantasy books I have my eye on to read soon are Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, and when it comes out, Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm – I’m very impatiently awaiting that one!
6. Can you share your plan for any future installment(s) in the world of The Councillor?
I’m working on the sequel to The Councillor at the moment, and wrangling with the story. Some of the tension between two characters boils over in the second book and there are consequences, both personal and political consequences. Lysande is also grappling with a question about her identity and trying to make sense of who she really is. If all my scenes make it through edits, then these words should give some hints: book, rope, fire, birth.
Many thanks to E. J. for her thoughtful responses.