Nathan‘s Interview with LL MacRae
I had the opportunity to ask author LL MacRae about her Dragon Spirits series, which began with the SPFBO final The Iron Crown and recently continued with one of my five star reads of 2023, The Shadow Gate. You can find my review of The Shadow Gate here.
Before we start talking about anything else, can you give readers a short elevator pitch for your Spirit Dragons series? What kinds of readers would be interested in your series?
This epic fantasy series takes place in the magic-drenched world of Tassar, which has given rise to powerful dragon spirits. Wherever there is an abundance of life (such as a forest, river, lake etc.) or a particular material (such as iron or gold), a spirit can form. This spirit will take the form of a dragon, bound to and representing their domain.
Many people of the world worship various dragon spirits – many to avoid their wrath or being cursed by one, others in the hopes of obtaining their blessing. Considered guardians of Tassar, or even gods, they represent life. Counter to that are the Myr, which are spirits of death. They can take life with a single touch and to see one is a bad omen.
Although both dragons and the Myr are, “natural,” the balance of power has tipped. Queen Surayo, bonded to the Spirit of Iron, vanquished the Myr from her lands several years ago. The story begins when the Myr seem to be resurging, and whether or not that has anything to do with the amnesiacs popping up around the country…
If you love more light-hearted adventurous epic fantasy with a rag-tag group of characters thrown in together, you’ll probably like this! I focus on small-scale more intimate stories within bigger epics. There are no chosen ones or people discovering they’re special – just regular people often caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and making the best with what they have. There are a lot of non-traditional characters – those with traumatic childhoods, toxic families, mental health issues, a lot of introverts, and people battling their own demons. There are healthy relationships, LGBT representation, badass female characters, bucket-loads of dragons, magic, and even griffins!
It’s a great palette-cleanser from all the super gritty and grimdark fantasy out there, too!
If you are looking for overconfident, chosen ones with plenty of snark, a super action-packed story, and clear definitions of “the good guys” and “the bad guys,” you won’t find that here!
The main character, Fenn, has amnesia. Was it tricky writing about a character who didn’t know about their past? Since as the author you know Fenn’s past, how did you build Fenn’s character (and his arc) that was informed by his actual past that he and the readers aren’t aware of?
It was pretty tricky, yes!
I wanted him to be a blank slate and easily influenced by those around him (for better or worse), but writing a character who really is a weathervane runs the risk of making him too bland without anything to root for. When I wrote book one, I did not actually know Fenn’s past (because it wouldn’t enter that part of the story), so it was easy enough. However I tried to make sure some personality traits came through – for example, he tries to help people when he sees they are struggling, he tries to inject humour to diffuse tension, he never uses any sort of physical aggression to get his way and appeals to people’s better nature.
I wanted to show a lot of his frustrations from people treating him as “lesser than” at best and an actual threat at worst, which was quite fun! From the start, I wanted to explore his corruption arc. Because he is being influenced by so many parties, and doesn’t have a huge amount of support (and the support he does find is often conditional), I wanted him to potentially be influenced by forces that might seem morally at odds with the characters he finds himself with, and that kind of battle. I’ve always found that dynamic quite interesting!
Additionally, there is the whole dilemma of, “do something good for yourself that might be bad for everyone else,” or, “do something bad for yourself that might be good for everyone else,” and exploring that.
One of my favorite things about the series is the spirit dragons themselves. Where did the idea for the spirit dragons come from?
I’m glad you like them! I always love writing about dragons, they’re my favourite trope – the ultimate in (fantasy) escapism.
I wanted to make sure the dragons in this series were very different from those in my other epic fantasy series (World of Linaria), and I was also influenced by the Studio Ghibli films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. They focus heavily around spirits, nature, the world being bigger than the characters, and that’s the kind of magical wonder and awe I want in my books. So creating dragon spirits that represent life (and the opposing Myr, who represent death) worked well thematically for me.
Also, having dragon spirits of different domains made it easier to give them different natures and personalities, and seeing how that transfers to those people whom they have bonded with, e.g. a person bonded with a selfish dragon spirit is more likely to behave selfishly themselves. People who are blessed might change personality (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) depending on who they’ve bonded with, which is a really interesting way of showing that “meddling god” trope in a more subtle way.
The spirit dragons feature quite prominently in the books. Often fantasy authors keep the “coolest” elements of their worlds out of the story but you rolled right into them! How did you determine how much the spirit dragons (and other magical elements) would play into the actual books?
I mean, it is called the Dragon Spirits series, so I would be upset as a reader if the dragons themselves weren’t prominent! I definitely don’t want readers of this series to be disappointed.
The dragon spirits are essential not just to the world-building (being literal guardians of the world), but also the theme of the series (life and death). So they have been there since day one of concept and throughout plotting, and I always wanted them to feature prominently.
Whereas book one sets the stage, things really ramp up in book two. I try to improve every book I write and make sure it is better than the one before, so my goal was to raise the bar for book two. That included more dragons, more action set pieces, and generally more magic. It leaves the door open for a climactic finale without feeling like I’ve “robbed” readers of a potentially awesome experience with book two, or kept all the prominent dragons/reveals hidden until the final book only.
I’d love people to read book two and think wow, that was awesome. How much better is book three going to be to improve on that!?
We will be careful about keeping this spoiler-free, but Torsten in The Shadow Gate is pretty sympathetic. You had me feeling bad for this not-so-great guy. When you are writing villains (or characters who are villain-adjacent) is it important to you that the reader understands them? What is the line between understanding a terrible character and empathizing with them?
Oh that’s great! Torsten seemed pretty irredeemable after events in book one, so the fact you are sympathetic towards him is incredible!
Mostly, I aim for readers to understand where all characters are coming from. Whether you agree or disagree, care or don’t care, the reasons for their actions and thoughts at the very least must be understandable and ideally believable.
Whether or not someone empathises with a character is down to that individual, so I don’t ever write for that. I just write for clarity, and people can make their own subjective opinions about what’s going on!
Many of your characters come from complicated (or even toxic) families. Why was the nature of family something that you wanted to explore in this series?
Absolutely. I come from a complicated and toxic family myself, so an element of that will always be in my writing, I expect. It’s cathartic to explore, especially if characters end up “happier” on the other side of things.
I also love the duality of things. People see or experience the same thing, but come away from it with very different thoughts. Some see growth in tragedy, others only pain. There’s a saying that the same pressure that crushes you can also make diamonds, and that’s really interesting. Exploring how people cope when their safety nets are removed, or when they’re pushed over the edge, or forced into situations they never thought they would. Will they sink or swim? If they sink, will they have people to help them or are they on their own? How do they feel about this? Do they blame themselves? Others? The world? Rightly or wrongly? A lot of this is determined by upbringing and how someone’s nature influences their thoughts on their experiences.
I typically shy away from “chosen one” or “village boy discovers he is special” type characters that are often hugely popular. It’s not a character type I’ve ever been super interested in myself, and I like to see characters with quieter voices come to the fore more often. Their stories are just as important as the confident extroverted heroes, and I really enjoy exploring characters who are more like me in terms of struggles, mental health, behaviour etc.
I think that you have added a few new POV characters to The Shadow Gate. How do you decide when it is time to introduce a new POV character?
I find it quite difficult to decide, actually! Especially with The Shadow Gate, where there are plot points happening in multiple places with similar characters grouped together. There’s also deciding who is best placed to be the reader’s eyes and thoughts for a particular section, whether that’s whose thoughts will be most interesting, or who will put together important puzzle pieces to help the reader follow the plot etc.
Each time I reached a new part in the book I sat down and reshuffled all the POVs, chapter orders etc. again! I also try to make sure each POV has enough “breathing room,” so I don’t write the same character POVs back to back. There’s always at least one, ideally two or three, chapters between them so readers get a nice break and get to see what’s happening elsewhere!
I like new characters that either build on what we already know (e.g. showing established characters from another angle) or those that take the plot/world-building in a new direction. If they can do both, all the better!
Some readers will not warm to new characters simply because they’re new, and they haven’t already spent a book with them, and that’s the risk you run whenever you introduce people we haven’t seen before. But I think the book is stronger with the additions, and a good way to expand on an epic fantasy world with a sprawling cast!
Does being an indie author (and SPFBO finalist!) impact how you’ve plotted or written The Iron Crown and The Shadow Gate? Are there directions you went in that you feel you couldn’t have with a traditional publisher?
Not especially! I never really considered a traditional publisher and have only ever written the stories I wanted.
The biggest impact SPFBO has had on me is discoverability. There are now hundreds, if not thousands of people who are aware of me and my books who never were before. Sometimes in a social media bubble, it feels like everyone knows everything – but when you step outside of that, you realise how tiny you are and how almost insignificant your impact is.
SPFBO did an amazing job at shining a light on undiscovered books and really giving them a visibility boost. Now it’s amazing if people are like, “oh yes, I heard about The Iron Crown,” or, “I’ve seen this series before,” rather than, “never heard of it, not interested.’
I’ll always continue to write in the directions that call to me, and if more people are able to find my books (especially if they click with them) then all the better!
What are your future plans for the Spirit Dragons series? How many books are left? Do you have any other novellas or potential spinoffs in mind?
The main series is a trilogy, so there’s a final novel to go. I am releasing chapters for a Patreon-exclusive story called She Who Conquered Death, which follows Queen Surayo during the war and ends just where The Citrine Key novella begins (set five years before The Iron Crown), which is exciting!
If there is demand or interest, it would be nice to do a spin-off series, maybe a duology or another trilogy, perhaps following Selys when she was a pirate long before events of the main series. But it really depends on demand! I write full-time so I really need to balance writing the books that bring me joy with the ones enough people are interested enough in/buy to keep my tiny little business viable!
Can you give a little tease about what we should expect in Book Three?
Book three is called The Broken Sword and should be out in 2024 or 2025!