June 1, 2017, a new YA fantasy releases from Ann Marston, author of the much-beloved The Rune Blades of Celi series Diamonds in Black Sand. Ann took time to discuss this engaging new novel from her home in Alberta, Canada.
LS: You return to your first love with this story by way of cultural influence, that of Scottish sensibilities. What is it about the culture that draws you, that feeds your imagination?
AM: Scotland—its people, its landscapes, its culture, its history—has always fascinated me, as far back as I can remember. My grandfather used to tell me stories of the “auld daes” and one of the first books I remember reading was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. “The lad with the silver button…” Who couldn’t love Alan Breck Stewart or David Balfour? I think perhaps Scotland and adventure are so connected in my mind, I lean toward it. And even when the story doesn’t have a Scottish background, I tend to give my characters Scots sounding names, witness Colin Fraser in A Still and Bitter Grave.
LS: This time you venture into the realm of YA, with Diamonds in Black Sand. Was there a reason for that, or was it something which developed organically?
AM: As I was writing the first drafts of Diamonds (it went through three very different incarnations) I kept thinking that Iain acted far too young for a man in his early twenties when the story began and I found it very difficult to fix. My friend Nicole Luiken (who writes wonderful, award-winning YA books) suggested I lower his age and make the book YA. By doing that, it made Iain a lot more credible and it made writing the rest of the book a lot easier. I’m not sure exactly what makes a novel YA or not, sometimes because I discovered that very many of the fans of my Rune Blade books are young adults.
LS: In this story you pit a pseudo-Christian society against a pagan. What is it about that eternal struggle that fascinates you?
AM: Oddly enough, I wasn’t thinking specifically of pseudo-Christian vs pagan when I wrote this, but simply conflict between the beliefs some people hold vs beliefs of others who wish to impose their beliefs on everyone else, a time-honoured, guaranteed basis for conflict. I tend to look somewhat askance at organized religion, especially those that tout themselves as the only way to salvation. It’s such a basic, age-old conflict—there are just so many facets to explore—it never seems to wear out or become nothing but cliché. I liked using it to illustrate the difference between someone with the quiet faith of his convictions and a fanatic. As well, I tried to illustrate the inherent evil of a anyone using any belief system to further his own lust for power and position.
LS: Among all of your many accomplishments, which include teaching, flying and airport management, is sailing among them? Or is the nautical motif in this story one which eluded you?
AM: Sailing is one love of mine that has always been confined to my reading list. I’ve always loved the “romance of sail” from John Masefield’s poetry to the books of Patrick O’Brian and (again) Robert Louis Stevenson and Hammond Innes. One day I hope to write a book with a nautical background. But first, I need to do more research so I truly know the difference between a top gallant and a spinnaker.
LS: Your stories have a tendency to champion the underdog, to illustrate struggle of one culture under the yoke of another. Do you think attraction to that eternal struggle is one embedded into the Canadian psyche, or do you think it is a theme common to humans, of shaking off the yoke of the oppressor?
AM: I think rooting for the underdog is a fundamental, inbred western—indeed almost universal—reaction. We all really love the underdog and tend to cheer wildly when he/she/it rises to overcome all odds and triumphs in the end. We’re also brought up to believe that good triumphs over evil, and we want desperately to believe that even though we see examples of the opposite every day. That may be one reason we keep returning to fiction, especially fantasy, which tends to celebrate the good guys winning in the end, even in a dystopian world, and that world set back on the track to a just society—or at least a less miserable one for the characters. In the western world, we like to see our heroes survive, but in many cultures, the hero wins his battle, but loses his life. That gives us the chance to shed cathartic tears. It’s the struggle and the triumph that holds us. We love it when they win and survive, but we also think it’s so romantic when they win but die for their cause. Me? I prefer it when they survive, of course.
LS: There is very much the feeling of being shaped by environment in this story, of a sense of inescapable destiny. Is destiny something you think is part of our lives, or is this the master storyteller drawing upon fundamental beliefs of society?
AM: I think destiny is pretty much what you make it. On the other hand, the way characters react to their environment, and the way they choose to deal with trouble, especially how they see themselves, makes the story. A person with high ideals and firm convictions will react quite differently than someone who just wants to get along and go with the flow. They say everyone should have something they’re willing to die for, but I think it’s just as important to have something to live for, and the conflict between the two can make for a darn good story. It’s that “I don’t want to die, but how can I let this go unchallenged” moment that I love in any story and like to put into my own.
Every good story begins with a “what if.” In the case of Diamonds in Black Sand, it was the: what if people could learn to use their minds, their psi powers, to communicate, to control a little bit of nature, to do things that had always before required machines. The idea of psi powers, of mind-magics, fascinates me. It’s been used in both science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to try my own spin on it.
As the editor of Ann Marston’s newest fantasy, I’d have to say this was a delight to edit, one of those rare moments you forget you’re editing because the story is so good. Diamonds in Black Sand is, in my opinion, simply one of the most engaging, escapist tales I’ve read in some time, with characters who walk out of the pages and inhabit your imagination for weeks to come. And check out the moody cover created by artist, Jessica Allain.
Diamonds in Black Sand releases June 1, 2017, in both print and ebook, and is available from Five Rivers Publishing, your favourite online bookseller, and by special order in your favourite bricks-and-mortar bookstore.