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Fantasy author Myke Cole talks about writing novellas and ending an epic fantasy series in The Killing Light

Fantasy author Myke Cole talks about writing novellas and ending an epic fantasy series in The Killing Light


The final book in Cole’s Sacred Throne trilogy will be out on October 1st

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Graphic by Michele Doying / The Verge

Two years ago, fantasy author Myke Cole announced The Armored Saint, the first book in a new trilogy that would break pace with his usual work, switching from writing modern, military urban fantasies to something more in the vein of George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, with all the swords and sorcery that one expects in a modern fantasy book.

Spoilers ahead for the first two books in the Sacred Throne trilogy.

The first two installments of the series — The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows — were two of our favorite reads from last year, in which an oppressive theocracy known as the Order ruthlessly hunts down magic users. A chance encounter with the Order leads to 16-year-old Heloise to start a rebellion against them when her village is attacked, and in its sequel, The Queen of Crows, she leads a growing rebellion as new, unexpected allies come to her aid.

Now, Cole will bring that trilogy to a conclusion with The Killing Light. In it, revolutionary (and maybe some sort of religious saint) Heliose and her allies try to break free from the control of the zealots that control their land. But much like Cole’s other work, the appeal of the Sacred Throne trilogy isn’t just the fantasy action, but in the detail that Cole puts into his work.

The Verge recently spoke with Cole about the upcoming conclusion and his thoughts on working in a shorter format. We also got an exclusive look at the cover for the final book, The Killing Light. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cover art by Chris McGrath, cover by Christine Foltzer.
Cover art by Chris McGrath, cover by Christine Foltzer.

Now that we’re coming up on the end of the trilogy, what’s it been like working with the shorter novella format on the Sacred Throne books? Obviously, you’re establishing this whole world from scratch, and you have fewer pages to do that than you do in a full-length novel.

Actually, it’s extremely liberating. It’s freed me up to focus on a really tight story. I think the thing that I get the most compliments for on The Armored Saint is how much plot and character development and story arc is being packed into a tighter space. And I think people have grown up on doorstop fantasies, right? And, by the way, I’m not trashing doorstop fantasies. That’s the thing people enjoy.

But in the digital age, in the post-Kindle, Amazon upset of traditional publishing, publishers have been looking for new ways to engage with readers. And one of the things that really has been kind of a forefront of that, stretching reader imagination for what’s possible, what’s consumable, what’s marketable, has really been the podcast revolution.

Because people listen to podcasts now, they listen to them all the time. And that’s gotten into this idea with series like Tanis and The Black Tapes, and they’ve sort of gotten people into the idea, sort of like we did in the golden age of the magazines, consuming stories serially in small dollops. Serial Box is tapping into this and is doing this with its novella line, and it’s really cool to be participating in it.

It’s also really cool to see how it lends itself, how it shapes my writing. It really helps you to focus on concise prose, a tight storyline, and an ensemble cast that doesn’t proliferate the way that like the cast of A Song of Ice and Fire does where you’re jumping around to different points of view, having remember who everybody is. It produces a really different reading experience and a really different writing experience. And it’s one that I’ve really enjoyed working in.

A big part of the Shadow Ops books and the Reawakening trilogy was how your own military voice and experience impacted those books. Partway through the Sacred Throne series, I know you published Legion Versus Phalanx. Has any of the research or work you did for that book factored into the Sacred Throne books?

Oh god, yes. I mean, first of all, the Sacred Throne trilogy is about a revolution that widens into a war, basically. And understanding war and understanding the emotionality and internality of soldiers and the soldiering experience has been instrumental in my writing for sure. (Legion Versus Phalanx, for those who don’t know, is this nonfiction I did studying Hellenistic heavy infantry combat in the third and second century BC. How the Romans fought the Greeks essentially. Really, it was the Balkan peoples, but Greeks.)

There are so many parallels between how armies engage in the ancient and medieval world. In fact, there’s probably more that’s the same than is different, really, all the way until you get up to the Battle of Adrianople, which sort of ushers in medieval warfare and then again when gunpowder really makes itself felt on battlefields. You’ll see this in The Queen of Crows, and you’re certainly going to see it in The Killing Light. There are major battles and sieges in those books that have been incredibly informed by the research I did in Legion Versus Phalanx. One of the coolest things about being a writer is that you wind up learning all of this stuff about yourself, about other people, and about the world in the service of creating a good book. You don’t mean to, and it’s kind of like this cool “gift that keeps on giving” aspect of the work.

Magic isn’t really as big of a force in this world as it is in your previous books. Is there something about reaching that balance between more realistic and more fantastical that you’ve been approaching in this series?

So look, I don’t lie — or rather, I don’t soft shoot. I am an imitator. My work is proudly derivative. I read stuff, I love it, I ingest it, I spin it, and then I make it my own. And what was I reading that made the Sacred Thrones series what it is? I was reading Joe Abercrombie. I was reading George R.R. Martin. I was reading Robin Hobb. I was reading Peter Brett. I was reading the genre that I consider to be grimdark. And, of course, the Sacred Throne trilogy is a love letter to Warhammer 40,000 and the Warhammer universe. All of those universes have some aspects in common. One is the bleak grimness and the adherence to the extrapolation of reality. We’re writing fantasy here, but it feels real. It has to feel real. And it feels real in its awfulness. It resonates with people who occupy an awful world, which we all do.

Another common aspect of all those universes is that they’re low magic. They really are, even in their fantasy series. In terms of bright magic, active magic, the way that you would think of it in Dungeons & Dragons or in my Shadow Ops universe, it just ain’t so. It absolutely is by design. But I will also freely admit that it’s the result of my influences and what I read and what I liked.

The Killing Light is the conclusion of this trilogy. Are we going to see more works set in this world? Or is it too early to say?

It’s not too early to say. This story is done. One of the things I really don’t like — and I think a lot of your readers and listeners will agree — is when people push a story past its limit. We saw this with The X Files, right? We saw this with True Detective season 2. You have a good story, and the good story ended. And people don’t want a good story to end. So they asked for more. But the truth is, they don’t really want more. And if you can’t deliver it, you’re going to wind up leaving people with a sour taste in their mouth. No, this story arc is complete at three books. I have no intention to revisit it.

That said, years down the road, once I’ve met all my other obligations and completed my existing contracts and projects, then I’d be willing to take a look at what fans are saying, what sales numbers are — and yes, what sales numbers are do dictate. I’m a professional writer. I write books that I want to go out in a marketplace. And if that marketplace is not supporting more books in the series, then that’s not a thing I’m going to do. But if all of those stars align, it’s something I would consider, but not for a long time.

Anything in particular from the Sacred Thrones series that you’re hoping to bring with you into future projects?

Audacity and ambition exceeding ability. I think people know this story, but I keep telling it again. Maybe it’s because I want to tell it to myself. But I did six military fantasy books — the Shadow Ops and the Reawakening prequel — and everybody talked about authenticity, authenticity, authenticity, authenticity. I got this insecurity that people were reading my writing and enjoying my writing because it was authentic, not because it was good.

I needed to prove to myself that I could write something in another subgenre to break out of that. When I originally wrote The Fractured Girl, which was the book that became The Armored Saint, the first book in the Sacred Throne trilogy, it took me three years. My agent rejected it again and again and again. Nobody would take it out to market, and I was really staring failure in the face. When you set yourself up to prove something to yourself, and you’re failing at it, I can’t describe how demoralizing that is. And I don’t really know where the reserves came from that kept me going to the point where Justin Landon finally was able to help me get it to a point where you can purchase it from and turn it into the trilogy. But they came from somewhere, and that’s the lesson I hold close.

That’s a really, really, really important lesson to me, and I hope it’s a lesson for everybody. Sometimes you’re not wrong. Sometimes everybody else is wrong, and it’s really hard to know when you’re at that point, but it bears asking yourself and digging deep. “Should I give this one more round, one more polish? Should I give it one more try?” Because if I hadn’t done that, both in the case with Legion Versus Phalanx and the whole Sacred Throne trilogy, then arguably my most successful, my most popular, and the books I’m most proud of would never come to be in my life, and my life would be a lot poorer for that.

The Killing Light comes out on October 1st, 2019. The other two books in the Sacred Throne trilogy, The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows, are available now.