My Favorite Bit: Django Wexler talks about SHIP OF SMOKE AND STEEL
Django Wexler is joining us today to talk about his novel Ship of Smoke and Steel. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ship of Smoke and Steel is the launch of Django Wexler’s cinematic, action-packed epic fantasy Wells of Sorcery trilogy.
In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka enforces the will of her criminal masters with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat. The money she collects goes to keep her little sister living in comfort, far from the bloody streets they grew up on.
When Isoka’s magic is discovered by the government, she’s arrested and brought to the Emperor’s spymaster, who sends her on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.
On board Soliton, nothing is as simple as it seems. Isoka tries to get close to the ship’s mysterious captain, but to do it she must become part of the brutal crew and join their endless battles against twisted creatures. She doesn’t expect to have to contend with feelings for a charismatic fighter who shares her combat magic, or for a fearless princess who wields an even darker power.
What’s Django’s favorite bit?
Choosing a favorite piece from a book always seems impossible, especially when I’m trying to avoid spoiling it for everybody. For Ship of Smoke and Steel, I want to talk about the magic system, the concerns which went into it and some of the odd little bits that I’m particularly happy with. We start the book with a list of the Wells of Sorcery, as follows:
The Nine Wells of Sorcery
Myrkai, the Well of Fire
Tartak, the Well of Force
Melos, the Well of Combat
Sahzim, the Well of Perception
Rhema, the Well of Speed
Xenos, the Well of Shadows
Ghul, the Well of Life, the Forbidden Well
Kindre, the Well of Mind
Eddica, the Well of Spirits, the Lost Well
Putting together the magic system of SSS was a slightly different task than my usual world-building, because I wasn’t starting from scratch; the core of the story and much of the world, though few of the characters, were salvaged from the remains of a defunct project. The concept of the Wells of Sorcery, metaphysical sources of all magical power, was one of main pieces I re-used, which means that the actual origin of it is lost to me, now. (I suspect Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen was an inspiration, though, with its fearsomely-named elemental warrens.)
At the same time, one of my core world-building principles is that the nature of the world needs to suit to nature of the story. SSS is a YA adventure story, which imposed some rules on how magic could work in this world — it can’t be the sort of magic you have to spend fifty years practicing to get any good at, because I wanted to have teenagers running around using it to fight monsters. Isoka, the main character, is a rare magical adept born into the lower classes; ability to access the Wells is partly hereditary, and largely confined to the “mage-blood” nobility. The combination of these two elements makes the magic of SSS more like the mutant superpowers of the X-Men, say, then carefully-acquired spells of the D&D mage.
That in turn has all kinds of interesting consequences for the social structure of the various societies in the world, since managing people with that kind of power isn’t easy. Isoka boards the ghost ship Soliton and meets others from all over the world, so I got to have great fun designing a wide range of societal adaptations to the way magic works. There are little asides in snippets of dialogue, some of which sadly had to get cut, that talk about the cultural differences — societies where mage-bloods rule, societies where they’re anathema, where they’re slaves, where they’re members of holy orders sworn to defend the throne, and so on. This is the kind of world-building I love, trying to imagine the consequences of some supernatural element in everyday life.
Some specifics of the Wells also bear mentioning as among my favorites. There are more of them than I really need for the story, which gives the system a pleasantly baroque feel and provides some interesting material for future books. We don’t find out much about Xenos, or Kindre, or Sahzim. Having those seeds there, without always precisely knowing what they’ll be good for, is another fun piece that only occasionally gets me into serious trouble.
Isoka’s well is Melos, combat, which lets her generate energy blades and impenetrable magical armor. From a metastory perspective, this has two important benefits:
1) It looks cool. Especially since they got Richard Anderson, maybe my favorite cover artist, to do the cover!
2) Isoka’s armor in particular helps make for a very fast-paced plot. Getting hit doesn’t injure her, usually, but the energy it uses builds up as heat under her skin, which means that getting really badly beaten will burn her and eventually kill her. This means that when she fights somebody, there’s still a real threat (at least if the person has their own Wells, or is a giant crab) but she doesn’t take the kind of damage that a “realistic” fight would inflict, stabs and cuts and broken limbs and so on. That helps keep things moving, without long hospital stays between battles!
But, you ask, what about magical healing? That’s another interesting part of the Wells: Ghul, the Well of Life. One of the major characters (spoilers, slightly) is a Ghul adept, and we learn fairly early on that Ghul practitioners are universally reviled. Their power can heal, but it can also harm, and in particularly gruesome ways — seeding a victim with fast-growing tumors, for example, or creating diseases custom-tailored to target specific groups. In the deep history of the SSS world, a city that prized Ghul mastery was destroyed by the hubris of its own adepts, some experiment gone wrong converting the entire island metropolis into an incomprehensible wasteland of riotous fungal growth and constant decay called the Vile Rot. The Rot plays a fairly minor role in the story, but it’s such a fun element of background — the trauma of it has worked into culture so deeply that characters say “rot” or “rotting” in place of words like “damned”. (Another piece from the old archive, incidentally, whose origins I have only the sketchiest idea of. I suspect Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore played a role — I remember vividly reading it as a teen and being simultaneously fascinated and scared witless.)
Even with the best of intentions, Ghul can be dangerous. One attempt at healing gone wrong, for example, causes the intended recipient to rapidly bloat into a shifting, melting ball of flesh, screaming until they explode in a shower of gore. (Yes, it’s probably inspired by the movie you’re thinking of.) And that, obviously, is one of my favorite bits.
DJANGO WEXLER graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Shadow Campaigns, an epic fantasy series for adults, and The Forbidden Library, a classic fantasy series for middle-grade readers.
You can find him online at www.djangowexler.com and on Twitter as @DjangoWexler.