Destroying Empires

Brian Staveley on his latest epic fantasy, The Empire's Ruin, taking risks, and throwing away an entire book to write a better one

Destroying Empires
Image: Andrew Liptak 

The history of epic fantasy is filled with stories of heroic figures setting out to restore some measure of glory or stability to their world, bring about the rightful ruler to the crown, or otherwise return it to a state of previously-enjoyed peace.

In some ways, that's what Brian Staveley's debut novel, The Emperor's Blades, seemed to have promised: when the ruler of the Annurian Empire is killed by unknown assassins, it falls to his three children, Adare, Kaden, and Valyn have to figure out who was responsible, and how to succeed him to keep their empire together.

But over the course of the rest of the Chronicles of the Unhewen Throne trilogy (The Providence of Fire, and The Last Mortal Bond) Staveley takes a slightly different turn as a brutal war erupts, threatening to topple Empire. In his latest, The Empire's Ruin, he throws out that playbook, taking a nuanced and measured look at the cost of the Empire, all while throwing his characters through the wringer in ways that will utterly transform them.

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I'm a big fan of Staveley's books—he's a fellow Vermonter, but I've appreciated the epic world that he created for this series, the characters who occupy it, and the twists and turns that he's taken me on over the course of his five novels. With The Empire's Ruin, I felt that he leveled up significantly, telling an intense character story that blended weird horror with an epic quest, and puts the future of his world into incredible peril.

After finishing the book this summer, I met up with Staveley in Brattleboro, Vermont, where I sat down with him to talk about the notion of burning down empires, pushing characters to the limit, and why he threw away The Empire's Ruin's completed predecessor novel to start anew.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. There are also some fairly significant spoilers for The Empire's Ruin ahead, as well as discussion about suicide. Purchases made via affiliate links might result in a commission to Transfer Orbit.

Image: Andrew Liptak

I want to start with where you left off with your last trilogy. You'd signed a book deal with Tor for four more books, and wrote the standalone novel Skullsworn in 2017. How did you approach continuing this world after that?

I finished the [Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne] trilogy and then signed a deal for four more books with Tor and that was not specific: It was like "do whatever you want." I didn't know what I was gonna do, honestly.

I knew I want to write at least one standalone, so I wrote Skullsworn. But then I kind of wanted to do another big project. Skullsworn was a very specific kind of thing: first person, relatively short (125,000 words), just a tight 14 days for the [events of the] whole book, and just one city. That was awesome, and I loved writing it, but I was like, "Okay, I want to do something bigger again."

If  remember correctly, at one point you wanted to do a standalone Gwenna story— 

—I actually wanted to do a standalone Flea* novel. I still kind of do, but after doing the one standalone, I wanted to then do something bigger.

[*A side character from the prior trilogy]

What was the story about Gwenna that you'd been working on?

Ah—that wasn't going to be a standalone book, that was going to be the beginning of the new trilogy. But it was going to be—not light-hearted, that's the wrong word—more like a swords and sorcery, hack and slash, a quest novel like Voyage of the Dawn Trader. Without, you know, all the religious stuff. Gwenna and her team go to this strange island on this quest to find Kettral Eggs and encounter adversity and triumph over adversity and all this fun stuff. But taking characters and putting them in their element and watching them succeed is not really a great recipe for well, drama. It wasn't a great recipe for me anyway.

I mean, I know there are lots of books like that and sometimes I like to read them, but I wrote maybe seven or eight chapters, and I just kept bouncing off of it. I kept thinking like, "well, okay, they encountered that adversity, and then they triumphed over that adversity, and they had this weird situation, and they had all the skills necessary to deal with that situation."

I think a part of the problem is that as a character, Gwenna has come to a place of rest. She has a real arc in the first three books, and that arc is complete at the end of those first three books. She starts out as an uncertain cadet, and ends up becoming a capable veteran commander of the Kettral.

Just taking a character who's at a place of rest and keeping them in that comfortable place is not effective. It took me a long time to realize that and eventually that's how The Empire's Ruin starts out: with her just fucking up catastrophically, destroying all of that comfort and stability and certainty that that she gained over the over the first three books.

How did you come to that realization?

Just trying to do the other thing that wasn't working and being like, "why isn't this working? Why can't I write a cool scene?"

It's boring when the characters are equal to their circumstances. It's like, if you think about it in Shakespearean terms, Hamlet is only interesting because Hamlet is the main character. If Othello was the main character in Hamlet, it'd be a very short and very uninteresting play. Othello would be like, "oh, I need to kill Claudius? Cool, I'll go kill Claudius." And that would be the end of the play. Right? And if you put Hamlet in Othello, it would not be a very interesting play because Hamlet would be like, "Oh, am I being cheated on? Let me actually think this through. No, I don't think I am." And there'll be no play.

So you have to take the characters and put them in a situation that they're unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. I mean, this is something I've known forever, but like you can know things and still forget them. I feel like with every damn book I have to remember all the old lessons again, and hopefully add a couple more. Next time, I won't make any more mistakes. [laughs]

So, I was doing this classic thing of just taking a character and putting them in a situation where they felt comfortable. And I mean, not comfortable: Gwenna is a special forces soldier. She was in her element, that's a much better way to put it.

So it took a long time to figure that out, and once I did, I immediately worried that I'd gone too far, because the things that happened to Gwenna in that first chapter are so catastrophic. Those things don't just happen to her: she participates in how those events unfold. I was like, "oh, now maybe I've taken her to such a dark place that nobody's going to want to stick with this."

You could try and write her out of that pretty quickly, like she gets half of her people and her bird killed, but you know, in a couple of chapters, she dusts herself off and gets on with the mission! But that didn't feel emotionally true to me. I mean, I'm sure there are people for whom that would be emotionally true, but it didn't feel true to me at the time.

And so then I was confronted with the prospect of writing a long book about at least partly about a character who is traumatized and depressed and kind of broken, and still have that be like a fun adventure novel. I mean, she spends what felt like a dangerous amount of time for me as a writer ineffective a a warrior. I hope she's effective as a character.

But you know that the readers are just going to be like, "okay, alright, when she's gonna get back to and start kicking ass again? This chapter?"

And I'd be like, "nope, not this chapter."

That felt perilous to me, and I'm very fucking relieved that it seems like readers are good with it and they got it.

Image: Andrew Liptak

So this started a bit as a fun, quest-like novel: how did this evolve into The Empire's Ruin?

So I had this this book where Gwenna goes to the ends of the Earth, and a lot of the ideas were there, but the execution was all off. Like, that first book ended with her, finally getting the Kettral eggs: that was the last chapter, and I wasn't making full use of Menkiddoc and I hadn't fully committed to her massive depression in that first draft, because I was like, "I don't want to write that. Nobody wants to read that."

So she was a little bit she was off from the things that happened earlier, but she wasn't off enough. The first draft didn't have Rat, because I was like, "Well, if I send her that deep down the hole, how does she ever get out?" And that took me a long time to figure out the solution, which was Rat.

It was a very different book. Ruc and Bien were in it, but Ruc was like deeply unlikable. He was Pyrre's son, but wasn't raised by the Delta Gods, and had no special powers. He was just kind of a whiny little shit, who was like, "I want to be faithful to the goddess of love, but maybe I'm not up to it." But he didn't have the whole other side that made him more complex. My agent Hannah, was like "he's just totally unlikable, why does Bien like him at all? This romance has no sparks, there's nothing lost there because there wasn't anything to begin with, and of course Bien is going to like Talal better, because Ruc just wasn't a good character!" And Kiel wasn't in it at all?

What was the moment when you realized that you had to start over?

Well, the book had been signed, sealed, and delivered. I think the check was not in my hands, but it was in [my agent] Hannah [Bowman]'s hands, and she called me and was like "this book sucks."

How did it get to that point, where you'd finished an entire book that you and your team realized wouldn't work?

She had read it, but some of my book—I always think it's an interesting thing, like you think you can pull it out in the end. It can be a hot mess, but when you make a few hundred changes, it all comes together. It's hard to know sometimes. Like, the end of Skullsworn, which I'm very, very, very satisfied with, right up until the wire, I didn't know if it was going to work. But then I kept tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking the setup earlier and then going back to the end, and then going back to the early chapters and then back to the end, and then back to the early chapters.

And you know, in the final analysis, I probably only was really monkeying around with maybe 10,000 words of the whole text—maybe less, 5,000-6,000 words? But once they clicked, then it worked. And I think I was hoping and she was hoping that a similar thing would happen with this book.

No click?

No click. We spent a long time on the phone trying to figure out like, "oh, is there still a click waiting to happen? Do we just need to move this chapter earlier, or add a secondary character to this plot line or remove a character, put these two people in contact earlier?" and there was nothing. There was no one month fix.

And she was like, "Well, what do you want to do? They paid us for it, you can publish it, but I don't think you should."

And I was like,"Yeah, I don't think I should either."

So what was the missing ingredient, or what ended up setting you down the right path? Or was it just throwing it all away and starting over?

I think that throwing it all away was the important thing. I was tethered to some ideas that I had committed to early on in that draft and which I kept building out in the writing that were kind of rotten at the root and I couldn't find a way to dial them back. Once I jettisoned everything, it felt actually much easier, because it was like, "Oh, I'm not tied to that shitty idea anymore. I can do it differently."

I then felt more like myself, and it kind of came together. I mean, the irony of writing is that, before you write anything, you can do anything! You have total freedom. And for every word, every sentence you write, it's like you're building your own cage. You hope that the cage turns out to be a beautiful structure, but you're limiting your freedom with every choice you make.

In the case of that particular book, I had written myself into a place that I couldn't deal with.

I used to teach creative writing to high school seniors, and for an assignment that I would give at the beginning of senior year, I'd tell them, "okay, you have to write a 10-page short story longhand—there's a reason it has to be longhand—I don't want you to do it on the computer." This was like a high-pressure high school and all these kids are thinking about college, and this was like the last, most important set of grades before they graduated and went off to college. I was like "this is really going to set the tone for the whole semester in this class, so I want you to really take it seriously and work hard on it."

They were all new to me as students, and they want to make a good impression, so they took a week and they wrote a 10-page story longhand, which for high school students is a lot. I then I had them gather around a steel trash can, and they handed their story to the person on their right. And then I had them all rip up the stories that had been handed to them, put them into the trash can, and we lit the whole thing on fire.

No one ever read the stories. I felt like this book was my karma for that.

But! I stand by the lesson, which is like—the kids were distressed, but I was like, "Look, this is one week of your life. If you can't abandon one week of your work, you shouldn't write."

Most of them, I think, got it. By the end of the year, it was like a refrain. They were like "I just need to burn the section." They got very good at just throwing away things, which I think is a crucial writing skill. Some of them, I think, never forgave me.

But I was like "well, this is time to put my money where my mouth is, at a much larger scale" and goddamn if it didn't feel good.

Have you told any of your former students?

Oh yeah, I'm in touch with some of them.

What was their reaction?

Sort of satisfied sense of justice. [laughs] The universe is not an unfair place after all.

But yeah, once I was out from under that thing, it felt great because that book just wasn't working. So it felt great to start it again and be free and try and do it right the second time around.

In keeping with that, the central theme of The Empire's Ruin for me was the idea of transformation, whether it's transformation under adversity or under fire. Was that an intent going into this the second time around?

I don't think so much about, like, the themes or whatever. They pop out maybe afterwards to me, but I didn't go in thinking I want to write a novel about that. I just had these characters in mind and wanted to put them in situations that were difficult for them and to see what they did.

And so that was more my approach, rather than thinking I want to write about this, or I want to write about that. It's usually not until the end that I'm like, "Oh, yeah," or even until somebody like you says is. "I'm like, I guess that's right."

I think it's imbued in the practice of good character development, I think. As you said earlier, you can't have your characters sort of meeting their skill level and calling it a day. I guess I was thinking here that in order to get Gwenna move forward, you have to put her under a vice and squeeze until you find her core essence and remold her.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's not really a spoiler, but there's kind of a suicide in the middle of the book in Gwenna's plotline. That's where she gets to.

This is when she goes after the wild Kettral single-handed?

Yeah. She believes she's going to die, and she shouldn't—she has every reason to believe that's a suicidal act, and she's not wrong. She's not being pessimistic: no one should live through that. And the fact that she's killing—this did not occur to me when I was writing it, but as I was revising—I was like, "Oh, well, of course, she's killing a Kettral." Not only is she kind of committing suicide, she's also symbolically murdering what she has been for her whole life. So what she is after that is anybody's guess, but she's definitely not same thing she was before it.

You've got another transformational thing going on here with the Empire. At the end of The Last Mortal Bonds, the heroes triumph over the Csestriim and the Annurian Empire is held together. In this book, you have everything splintering again. What was your thinking here?

Well, I mean, one of the things that was always appealing to me about writing the first trilogy is that I found the the antagonist, Ran il Tornja, interesting to write because his motivations is to get rid of humanity; his thesis is that humanity is rotten. I mean, it isn't necessarily wrong, right? Look around, look on Twitter, look at the news. So his idea that maybe the world would be better if we were all just Csestriim. Like, on the face of it: he's not genocidal and wanting the world to be filled with orcs and fire pits. Right? He has a vision for a rational world where people don't just murder and do horrible things to each other.

So that was interesting to me about him. But also what was interesting to me about him is that the Annurian Empire was his tool. He built and maintained it for all of those years, he made sure it functioned, and yeah, there were the Emperors, but he was always there pulling the strings, sometimes as one of their main generals, sometimes as a counselor, sometimes as a founder of the Kettral, and sometimes from outside of the Emperor's sphere, but still influencing things outside of Annur, so that the empire was able to grow and prosper.

So he was single handedly responsible for creating this extremely stable Empire. Empires don't tend to be that stable and last that long under one ruling family. So I always knew that when he died, it would look like a victory for humanity—and maybe it is—but Annur is in deep shit. Because it's not the Malkeenian's Empire: it was his.

You know, a lot of readers hated—well, not everybody—but a lot of readers Adare, but I will defend her to the grave because she understood that in a way that none of the other characters did. And so she was willing to compromise with her hatred for her father's murderer, because she recognized that he was necessary for the lives of millions and millions of people. Now, she kills him in the end because, you know, he burns when too many bridges.

So to my mind, even when I finished The Last Mortal Bond, it was inevitable that the Empire was in trouble; it was only the most provisional triumph. So what you see at the beginning of The Empire's Ruin, five years later, is that everything is coming apart from the seams. You have cities that have been under Annurian control for hundreds of years that are seceding, banditry is rampant, there's famine, other nation states are testing the borders, and there are pretenders to the throne.

So, that was the plot reason.

Thematically or just in terms of my interests, I've always been intrigued by these massive empires, because there's two tendencies of thought (both of which I think are wrong).

One is to think of them in the way that Empires view themselves as this force of justice and law and order that brings reason and rationality and light to these benighted people. That's the way that these great Chinese dynasties, the Romans, the Aztecs, and others thought of themselves. And it's like, well, no, you guys are sort of horrible, you erased a lot of other cultures, ran roughshod [over them], committed all kinds of genocides, and all kinds of horrible things.

But on the other hand, there's this tendency to think of these empires as a sort of massive, malevolent dark force that sweeps over the world. And I think that's not entirely right, either. I mean, there are places in the world that experienced, like, many good things after say when the Tong dynasty showed up: a decrease in infant mortality, an increase in literacy and life expectancy, more social mobility.

And so, I've always wanted to write Annur as this really double-edged thing that in some ways is horrible — its occupation of Dombâng is absolutely repressive, they tried to wipe out the local religion at its roots. But on the other hand, the local religion is not all that cuddly either: there are people who are abducting orphans and taking them out into the delta to die as blood sacrifice.

So I've always been interested in the fact that history doesn't have good guys and bad guys: there's a bunch of folks, some of whom are clearly very evil, and some are clearly better. But a lot of it is muddled. It's a salutary thing to remember that one of Adolph Hitler's greatest enemies in World War II was Joseph Stalin, right? Just being against Hitler doesn't mean you were good.

And so I wanted an Annur that's pretty horrible in some ways, but not like a monstrous thing. They have courts in a way that the places that they invaded did not.

Image: Andrew Liptak

What role did writing Skullsworn play in your development of this world?

Dombâng figures really heavily — it was invented for Skullsworn. I loved it there and thought it was a super interesting place where the Empire's colonization was most obvious. It was a place where the Annurian's presence was relatively recent (within a century or so), they'd driven the local religion underground, and it seemed like a place where I could go back in a book about an Empire unraveling, because it seemed like one of the first places that would come apart once Annur start to lose its center of gravity, because half of the people hated Annur anyway.

It's a classic revolution tale: on the one hand, it's a triumphant reclaiming of the city for the people of Dombâng, which is great. But reclamation comes with all of the typical purges; neighbors ratting on neighbors and families being dragged out into the street in the middle of the night and shot, which also tends to happen when an Empire is evicted. Literally any time in history: if you were a collaborator, you're up against the wall.

It was fascinating reading the book and those scenes while at the same time we were watching the US leave Afghanistan.

Absolutely. That's a perfect example: the US in Afghanistan. I mean like fuck, on the one hand, what the hell are we doing in Afghanistan, right? Like, that's like some old-school 20th century bullshit. On the other hand, it's not like America leaving is going to usher in an era of peace and tranquility, and that's kind of how I want to paint Annur: would you rather live under an American occupation in Afghanistan or live under local, Taliban rule? I don't have an answer for that. The answer is probably different for different people who are living in Afghanistan.

That's what intrigues me about history, and what irritates me about it is when people frame historical events as like, "well, these were the good guys, these are the bad guys, and this was clearly a triumph for the forces of good." It's like sometimes, you have things like the liberation of [Germany's] the concentration camps—that was an unambiguous good, right? But those moments are very few and far between in world history.

I was talking to my son the other day: he was curious about nuclear weapons, and was like "was there ever been a nuclear war?" I was like, "well, the only country in in history to drop nuclear bombs on other countries was United States and we did it twice." But I remember the Chinese teacher at the school that I taught at, an older guy, and he was grateful for that. He told me "China was dying; we were holding on by the skin of our teeth." The stuff that Japan was doing to China was horrible.

There are all of these layers, and many of those situations are very complex: I wanted to write a book that reflected that.

So of course, for Gwenna to be a special forces soldier, this is the first time that she has actually felt really that conflicted about her job. Like, does she want to be the person in black who comes in the middle of the night and poisons people or assassinates them or blows them up?

She'd never really thought about it before in the books.

Not really! She's young in the beginning of the series, and then she's just fighting, fighting, fighting, fighting. In this book, she has those moments of reflection where she's like "shit, I could just build a cabin out here and just live and not be part of this.

I think there are a lot of people in our modern worwld who have those moments, where they're like "I don't know what the right thing to do is, maybe I should just like, not do it, and not to not be part of it." Just bail on all of it, because it's not even clear—these people seem horrible, these people seem horrible, that seems pointless. You know? I don't think that's the right response, and Gwenna doesn't choose that. But she doesn't know, and she isn't going to return to Annur the loyal soldier, right? She's not like "okay, what's the next mission?" That's not happening.

Another big transformational element in this book ties into what we learn about what the Csestriim were up in Menkiddoc. The characters are encountering these horrific landscapes as they lose their minds. What was behind the creation of Menkiddoc itself?

I was saying earlier, but I'll say it again: at first it was just a technical problem of me trying to figure out why Annur had not settled Menkiddoc — why hasn't Annur mapped or settled it, because the book is gonna be a lot less interesting if, Adare is like "Gwenna, go get some eggs, here's a map, here's the road you can take, and there are hotels along the way," right? I wanted Gwenna to go out into the unknown, and that was hard when you're dealing with Annur because they have the Kettral. The Kettral can map everything very accurately and easily; just put them up in the air and have one person flying and two people drawing maps, and you have accurate maps.

And I didn't want accurate maps for that part of the world. I didn't want to be all known because I want it to be a voyage into the unknown. So then I needed to think like, "well, why the hell is it unknown?" I realized that I needed to have something... it can't just be kind of unpleasant. At first I was like, well, maybe it's just a desert, and I toyed with some ideas—but I was like "it's a fantasy novel, it should be really bleak!" Monsters. And then why are the monsters there? I totally backed into what becomes the central conceit of the whole plot, that this idea that the Csestriim tried to annihilate the Nevariim, and in the course of doing that, blighted an entire continent, and that the weapon that did that still exists.

I always start with the characters, so that was not like, in my head when I started writing.

It's pretty twisted.

Yeah! But once I got into it, the idea that the Csestriim had at first been studying the Nevariim and then tried to train them, everything started to kind of fit.

I was thinking specifically about nuclear weapons in the way that the plants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki grew incredibly fecund and fertile after the bombs were dropped. Like, there's something about the radiation just made them like these monstrous Goliath radiation plants, and that was one of the one of the threads that I was thinking of when I was coming up with Menkiddoc, like, suddenly, things have taken in this dose of energy that's twisting them and warping them. I was also thinking about [Jeff VanderMeer's] Annihilation, and about Predator, a small group of people being stalked through this inhospitable landscape by a creature that they don't even know or understand what it is. So there were a lot of different threads that went into that. It ended up being really interesting to write that whole landscape, and try and think of those ideas and having it reflect the growing paranoia of the characters themselves was fun.

So what do you foresee happening next in books two and three?

Well, Book Two is a war book. A war novel. That's all I'll say, it's all too much of a spoiler.

[lengthy pause]

I will say this: book two is not going to end where people think it's going to end. I'll say that. I know the ending of it.

How far are you into it? Provided you don't throw it away?

Maybe halfway. Ish. Yeah, it's going to end — I don't know, maybe I didn't learn the right lesson from the first book, but what I learned in that book is to go for it and take the risk. So the place Book Two ends is gonna be a risk.

If you found this interview interesting, I've conducted some other, lengthy interviews in recent months that you should check out:

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