Sam Hawke is joining us today to talk about her novel, Hollow Empire. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Moving from poison and treachery to war and witchcraft, Sam Hawke’s Poison Wars continue with Hollow Empire, a fabulous epic fantasy adventure perfect for fans of Robin Hobb, Naomi Novik, and Scott Lynch.
Poison was only the beginning…. The deadly siege of Silasta woke the ancient spirits, and now the city-state must find its place in this new world of magic. But people and politics are always treacherous, and it will take all of Jovan and Kalina’s skills as proofer and spy to save their country when witches and assassins turn their sights to domination.
What’s Sam’s favorite bit?
The Poison Wars series centres around a family of ‘proofers’ who secretly defend the ruling Chancellor and his family from poisonings. Naturally, then, there are going to be a variety of poison attempts in the books. But (contrary to the wishes of at least one Goodreads reviewer who was very disappointed that there was not a different poisoning in every chapter) there’s only so many poisons you can convincingly use in a single story. Much as it amuses me to imagine a poisoner using a different kind each week (hey, just because they’re a murderer doesn’t mean they don’t like to mix it up a little. Assassins get bored too!) if nothing else, I’d run out of characters pretty quickly.
But I’d had a blast reading about all of the wild ways that poisons have been used in history—all of the monarchs and other powerful and influential figures who were poisoned or rumoured to be, the casual assassination businesses some women were running in high circles and the absolutely out of control bat shit toxic stuff people used to use as beauty treatments – and I wished I’d been able to use more of it.
In my first book, City of Lies, we used chapter epigraphs to catalogue (fictional, though often based on real world) poisons. They were fun and readers seemed to really dig them but I didn’t want to repeat it for another thirty-odd chapters in Hollow Empire, not only because it would probably become a bit dull for readers but also because making up nouns is not my strong suit.* So I decided to kill two birds with one stone** and make the epigraphs for Empire little historical poisoning notes; basically journal entries by past proofers which summarized a poisoning or attempted poisoning.
These notes gave me a vehicle for some of the cool poison research that didn’t make the books, as well as a chance to include a bunch of in-jokes for my friends by naming the majority of characters in these miniature stories after pals of mine. In the end, entirely decorative and non-essential to the plot as they are, these epigraphs turned out to be one of my favourite things about the book, and certainly the most fun parts to write.
Did you know, for example, about mad honey? There are places where bees who feed on the pollen of certain species of rhododendrons produce a honey that contains grayanotoxin. People who eat the honey can experience a range of dramatic symptoms, including hallucinations. There are accounts from as far back as 401 BC of its use. In 67 BC Pompey the Great, a Roman general, was reportingly leading his forces in chase of a Persian army when his troops ate pots of honey left out as a Persian trap and all ended up disoriented and confused. The Persians returned and slaughtered 1000 men; basically they fell victim to a literal honeypot! (I cannot take credit for the pun but it was too good to leave out).
I never found a way to get mad honey into the actual books despite best efforts, but thanks to one of my favourite of the epigraphs it’s now canon that a bunch of authors and lawyers at a fancy party ate the honey, got high AF, draped themselves in tablecloths convinced they could fly and jumped off the roof.
A less historical, more possibly-exaggerated-anecdote that was too good to ignore, also snuck in: I have a friend whose sister works in an aged care facility and reported seeing a patient who had grown so terribly constipated and backed up, so to speak, that when he eventually died, poo came out all of his orifices. Since that was one of the grossest things I’ve ever heard, I immediately and desperately wanted to get some kind of nose/mouth poo incident into the books and voila! My world now has a poison that causes that effect, and a certain friend of mine was very amused to receive this most undignified death.
The epigraphs gave me a chance to include poisonings caused by: sniffing poison ink reading romance novels; burning toxic wood in an enclosed space for a fire; overdosing on toxic perfume, poison in gloves, hand-washing water, cosmetics and hair tonics, accidentally drinking toilet cleaner, rival sports teams eliminating the competition, poisonous sweets made with cheap toxic food dye, and poisonous lipstick (aka murdered by snogging), to name but a few. Some were inspired by real world events and some were joyful personal jokes, such as one relayed by my colleague and friend who accidentally (and obviously non-fatally) poisoned her husband.
If you do pick up a copy of Hollow Empire, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say you should absolutely do that, then I hope these mini stories within the story give you some of the same entertainment they gave me while writing them!
As one final note, if weird and fascinating historical poisonings sound interesting to you (and what kind of madman would you be if they didn’t??), I highly recommend the Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman. It is a delight—meticulously researched and a very accessible style, and just full of awesome stories that are itching to be converted to fiction.
*If some of the names of fake plants or minerals in the books seem a bit dubious to you, please accept my deep apologies for something I may have had to dredge up at 2am when all my creativity went to bed at 9.
**No birds were killed, by stone or poison or otherwise, during the production of this book.
Sam Hawke considered several careers (including zookeeper) before choosing law, getting a black belt in jujitsu and starting writing. She lives with her husband and children in Australia. City of Lies was her first novel.