For full disclosure, Brent is a friend of mine and I beta-read The Blinding Knife. I liked it so much that I’m re-reading the published version. This, my friends, is what epic fantasy can be when a writer is on. You’ve heard me geek about The Black Prism which was book 1. It has a moment that is so astounding that my brother called me to say, “I can’t believe he just did that.”
The Blinding Knife is better. So, if you haven’t read book 1, start there but go ahead and order Book 2. Trust me on this.
Meanwhile, let’s see what Brent’s Favorite Bit is.
Every writer reaches a point where writing isn’t fun anymore. Often, it’s in the 23rd edit or during a creative dry spell. Sometimes, we can get caught up in worrying about what an–often imaginary!–critic is going to say. When I made the transition from wannabe writer to pro, I thought maybe I would never write with the innocent joy I had when I wrote my Night Angel trilogy in obscurity.
I’m so glad I was wrong! The first thing my editor said when I turned in The Blinding Knife (Book 2 of the Lightbringer Series) was that she could tell I was having fun again. Don’t get me wrong, writing The Black Prism (Book 1) was still better than working at a real job. But when writing that book, I was cognizant of fan and critic expectations for the first time, and I was trying harder things than I’d ever tried before. There is a pleasure in acquiring new skills, and The Black Prism was the best thing I’d written to that point in my life. But satisfaction isn’t the same as joy.
So my favorite bit of writing The Blinding Knife is actually hard to nail down. I’ve talked elsewhere about how cool it’s been to use real science regarding light and perception as the basis for the magic system of The Lightbringer Series, so today I want to talk about games-within-novels.
Warning: Here be geekery.
In The Blinding Knife I needed a reason for the outcast, bastard son Kip to meet his shut-in grandfather repeatedly. That grandfather thinks Kip’s mere existence shames the family, so these meetings weren’t something Kip would choose to endure, and given that his grandfather was a shut-in, they couldn’t be random crossings-of-paths. The idea for a game immediately appealed to me: a shut-in needs to pass the time, and he simply wouldn’t give Kip the option of not playing. A game puts two characters in direct conflict, and can easily be used to show sides of that character that are illustrative. Does someone curse and swear when they experience bad luck? Do they bet recklessly? Are they smarter than you realized? Will they cheat when vexed? And over the course of a series of games, you easily show a characters’ growth. When you add in the ability to gamble–which I did–you add another level of tension, especially when you opt for stakes that are more interesting than money. Money is interesting in the real world, but not in fiction. Instead, I had a character who desperately wants to learn, so one of the games is played over whether he gets to practice magic. He desperately wants friends, so another game is played over whether a new friend will be expelled.
I thought of chess, but it’s been done. I thought of poker, but nothing says This World in 2005 like Texas Hold ’em.
So then I did something really dumb. I decided to make up my own game. Now, I like games, especially the subset sometimes referred as the German Games (so many of the great designers are German): Carcassonne and all five expansions, Catan and two or three expansions, and even games made or ported to iOS like Ticket To Ride, Shadow Era, and the Risk-inspired Lux DLX 2. After Black Prism with its color magic came out, I had a math professor friend introduce me to Magic the Gathering, which–while at the height of geekery–is a game of superb mathematical balance. It’s really a thing of beauty if you can get past the steep learning curve and your own bias.
Upon beginning to make up my own game, I quickly realized that a reasonably good game player designing a game is like someone reading a few books and deciding they could do better, or a poet deciding that they’ve pretty much mastered words, so why not write for Hollywood and get rich? It’s so simple, right? Good thing writers don’t have to be good at stuff–we just have to be good at making it seem we’re good at stuff: I didn’t need to make a real game, I just had to draw the outlines. Now, I still did the best I could to make a game that makes sense. I don’t like to think about writer-as-brand, but when I have to bust my brain, I like to hold out little hopes to myself. In this case, I held a hope that someday I would make a real game out of this. (Partly because sure, it would be nice to make money from something I’ve spent a ton of time working on–while trying to also write a book. But also partly just because it would be so cool!)
Because one of the principle problems of writing a secondary world fantasy is that there’s just so much exposition necessary to flesh out the world, I had the idea to kill two birds with one stone: the characters on the cards would be historical figures. As Kip was learning to play the game, he’d also be learning about his world–and we would be, too.
Of course, part of good world building is giving readers a sense that the world is bigger than what they see directly on the page, so I called the game Nine Kings. Kings? This world doesn’t have kings, it has satraps and satrapahs. And why Nine? There are only seven satrapies. (This will tie in to later world building that I’ll do in following books, and leave me with nice foundations to build on, while giving readers fun things to wonder about.)
My last innovation took me a while to figure out: What if the cards are true? What if, rather than the card maker arbitrarily saying, “Abraham Lincoln, clearly a 10 in rhetoric and a -2 in Luck”, what if instead the cards were completely accurate? What if, instead of learning about the character, you lived as the character? Limits were necessary: most cards in the world are non-magical copies, but the originals are true. Also, only people who can use magic can use those original cards. Further, each color of magic is tied to a sense. So, if like most magic users, you can only use one color, you only see part of the truth of the card. Blue? You can touch that card and see what the character saw at some pivotal moment in her life. This allows some fun trickery where someone might get a partial truth and think they know the whole truth: You see a woman’s husband attacking her, and you think he’s the monster. But if you can use two colors, maybe you hear her husband asking her how she could murder both of their children, and then attack her. Who’s the monster now?
If the cards are true, then they become not just fascinating, they become frighteningly powerful. Maybe some cards are banned, because what they show isn’t what those in power want shown. This could be from good motives (think gun control) or from bad (think censorship). Or maybe how good those motives are depend on where you’re standing.
Then I thought, what if someone is making cards now? What person in power would be comfortable with someone finding out their darkest secret? Even if they didn’t know the card would be unflattering, they would fear that it would be. And if they couldn’t use the right colors, they would never know. What would they do? Ask someone else to look at it and tell them if it was dangerous? Who would they trust to do that?
Further, what wouldn’t they give to learn the darkest secrets of their enemies? Suddenly, the old cards control the past, and the new cards could control the future.
Ah, these cards have become very, very dangerous indeed.
Especially in the hands of a sixteen year old boy who just wants to win a damn card game.
Brent Weeks is the New York Times Bestselling author of The Night Angel Trilogy and The Lightbringer Series. Lightbringer #2, The Blinding Knife is out today. The exciting new trading card game Nine Kings will be out… someday. He hopes.