Nathan‘s Interview with James Islington
I had the honor of interviewing James Islington, author of the best-selling Licanius Trilogy and now a brand new Roman-inspired magical academy epic fantasy, The Will of the Many. This interview is spoiler-free. You can find my review of The Will of the Many here
Before anything else, can you give a quick elevator pitch for your book? Who would be interested in The Will of the Many?
Sure! It’s a Roman-based epic fantasy mixed with dark academia – so about half of the book takes place in a magic academy – and follows an overthrown prince as he hides from the empire which killed his family. I’ve heard it described as Red Rising meets Name of the Wind, and I think that’s a great high-level description of it (particularly as those are both favourites and influences). I think fans of Red Rising in particular should enjoy this one.
What originally inspired the Roman setting for The Will of the Many? What attracted you to this particular time period?
I wanted to do things a bit differently to my previous series, so that’s where the decision to ground it in an historical culture originated – and then as soon as I began considering the options, Rome was the one that really stood out as an obvious choice. I had a basic idea of what I wanted to do with the magic system from the outset, and Rome’s society was very hierarchical, so that was a great match. Then the scope of its history, how vast it was at its peak, and the grandeur of it all fit really well as an epic fantasy setting. Plus it was a time of significant advancements in culture, science and civilisation in general… in retrospect, I’m actually a little surprised that it’s not more often utilised in the genre.
Rome also appealed because, I think, it straddles a line between familiar and exotic that not many other historical cultures do: it’s different enough to be a great backdrop for a fantasy story, but it’s also fairly easy for readers to conjure the aesthetic. You don’t have to be steeped in Roman history to get a mental image of senators in togas, gladiatorial fights in the Colosseum, or legionaries in uniform… which meant I could lean into it, without feeling like I had to slow down the story by describing every little detail. Not a deciding factor in my choosing it, but definitely an added benefit.
When writing a fantasy book about a particular historical period, how do you decide when you want to include real world elements from that culture/time period and when you want to go in your own direction?
It’s mostly about what feels natural or logical to include – obviously some real-world elements just don’t fit where there’s magic involved! And you want to be careful not to add too much historical detail. It’s easy to get carried away after doing hours of research and simply start throwing in everything you’ve learned – but a lot of the time it’s just going to slow the story down and make the worldbuilding harder to parse for the reader. And ultimately this is a fantasy book, so I’m always trying to err on the side of practicality and serving the story, rather than slavishly keeping to any sort of historical accuracy.
Having said that, I suppose I did occasionally land somewhere in between and decide to integrate historical aspects that clashed with the fantasy setting, though. An example would be that I really wanted to involve gladiatorial bouts – they’re one of the most iconic things about ancient Rome, after all – but realised early on that with the magic system I’d set up, having socially sanctioned fights to the death would be completely illogical. So that’s something I tweaked to work within the world, rather than taking it out completely.
First-person present is common in YA but is rarer in adult fantasy. How did you come to choose this tense for the novel?
Initially, it was just because I was intent on writing something new – stretching myself a little – and changing the perspective felt like one of the most obvious ways to do that. It helped that some of my favourite books from the past several years are written in first person, too. So that was something I knew I wanted to do from the time I made the original pitch to publishers, but the present tense side of things was a decision I made a little later, after I’d developed the plot more. Partly to benefit the tension of the story (Vis not knowing who he can trust from moment to moment), and partly due to what I wanted to do with the ending… which I won’t go into detail about here, for obvious reasons!
You have this really cool magic system that has clear and defined rules for the reader (a hard magic system) while still having a lot of room to maneuver like a soft magic system. Where did your idea for your magic system come from?
I had the pyramid structure concept, and how it might tie in to society, in my head from quite an early stage. That was inspired in part by a series called The Runelords by David Farland… I read it probably twenty years ago now, but the magic system has been stuck in my head ever since. It’s set in a world that has more of a feudal system, but where people can give up ‘aspects’ of themselves (for example their strength, or intelligence, or beauty) to their lords, in exchange for benefits and protection. I loved the idea of people being literal sources of power, but that they had to give it up (nominally) by choice – it’s such an interesting dynamic! – and I’d always wondered what that might look like in a more advanced, structured society.
Beyond that, in working out the specifics, I was very conscious of trying to find that balance between soft and hard magic you mentioned. I’m a big fan of a magic system’s limitations being clear enough to readers that it can’t just become a fix-all for problems in the plot. But I’m also not a fan of it coming across as too ‘scientific’, which to me takes the mystique out of it, a lot of the time. So I really aimed to build in some inherent flexibility, and then only go into details that were relevant to the story, rather than taking up pages and pages explaining the ’harder’ aspects of it.
Magical academies are quite common in fantasy. How did you decide which tropes you wanted to include (like the nerdy best friend, deadly games, etc.) and which you wanted to completely subvert?
They are! I think that’s because schools tend to be instantly relatable for most of us, which helps ground the story and give us a connection to what’s going on straight away. They also bring loads of great storytelling elements to the table – friendships and rivalries, clear-cut progression as characters learn new things, and then tangible assessments and goals to work toward. There’s definitely a reason they’re so popular.
In terms of what I decided to include or subvert, it was mostly about what I needed for the story and characters to develop in the direction I wanted (and, to a lesser extent, what I thought I could pull off well). With well-worn tropes, the main aim is usually to make sure that the things people enjoy about them remain intact, while the story itself doesn’t start to feel too predictable – so that was the only real consideration I gave to that – there wasn’t really a conscious effort to try and strike a balance otherwise.
Except for Vis, did you have a character that you particularly enjoyed writing?
Callidus and Eidhin, I’d say I enjoyed writing the most – the growth of their friendships with Vis, and then the scenes where they got to banter with him, were just fun to develop! And a nice change of pace from the general intensity of the plot.
Many of your characters are neither heroes nor villains, but something in between. There are resistance fighters who do terrible things, and people at the top of the social hierarchy who do noble things (and many people who do a combination of both!). How did you go about calibrating the moral greyness of your world? How do you write morally grey characters and situations while still maintaining a moral compass (if a moral compass is even desirable!).
It’s an interesting question. I think I set the moral greyness of the world by aiming to have most characters trying to be moral, but in a way that keeps them (as the saying goes) the heroes of their own stories – they’re doing what they think is right, or at least what they’ve convinced themselves is right. That hopefully means that even when they’re doing something self-evidently awful, you can also kind of understand and maybe even sympathise a little with why they’re making those decisions. And that should always be the purpose of moral greyness in a story, in my opinion – to make readers pause and actually consider what is right in various scenarios, regardless of what the characters believe.
What I do try to steer clear of is ‘moral greyness’ for the sake of it, where a moral compass sort of just disappears completely – which to be honest, I don’t really consider to be interesting at all. When you have people who are just unpredictably good or bad depending on the day, they aren’t morally grey, they’re just… bad people. It’s only when people do questionable things for (ostensibly) good reasons that I think it leads to compelling stories and conflicts.
And I try to keep a moral compass front and centre as well by having Vis have a strong sense of right and wrong, even if he sometimes is forced to choose the latter. Take the fact that he, as a very minor example, has to constantly lie. It’s completely understandable – he’ll be executed if he tells the truth! – but that doesn’t mean he likes it, or doesn’t struggle with it. But as long as he, and other characters, have that basic understanding of right and wrong – regardless of what they’re forced to do – then I feel that moral compass remains intact.
What are your future plans for the Hierarchy series? How many books do you have planned?
Well, I’m contracted for three, so at least that many! I’ve been very careful not to refer to this series as a trilogy, though, because it absolutely wouldn’t shock me if it ended being longer. I know where I want the current story arc to end, and I’ll be writing as many books as it takes to get there. But I don’t have a specific number in mind at this stage.
Can you give readers a little tease of what to expect in the sequel to The Will of the Many?
Let’s see… I suppose the headline is that the scope of the story and conflict is going to expand fairly dramatically. The Will of the Many is, in many ways, focused on Vis’ journey as he becomes involved in what’s going on – the stakes of the book are largely personal for him. The Strength of the Few isn’t going to lose that, but the story is going to become about much bigger things as well.
You have also mentioned elsewhere about possibly expanding the Licanius Trilogy, including some storylines you didn’t get to fully explore. Do you still have plans to go back and visit that world?
Absolutely. My focus is 100% on finishing The Strength of the Few this year, but once that’s done, I expect to at least start tinkering with the Aelric and Dezia story I have planned – it’ll fill in some of those last gaps from The Light of All That Falls. I won’t say that we’ll be seeing it published soon or anything, but it’s very much on my radar.
Beyond that, I do have ideas for other stories set in that world, but they’re only concepts at the moment. If I do write more, I want to make sure it’s because there’s genuinely another compelling story to tell – a reason for it to exist that stands alone from the original trilogy – rather than simply filling in the edges around what’s already been written. But as I said, I do have ideas. We’ll see!
Thank you again James for answering my questions! You can find James on his website, Twitter, and you can pick up your own copy of The Will of the Many here.