Fantasy Gems

Lord of the RingsThe Christ­mas present that stands out most in my mem­o­ry was giv­en to me when I was 16. We opened our presents on Christ­mas Eve. At that age, I expect­ed clothes and prac­ti­cal gifts. Some­how, my moth­er knew to give me the boxed set of The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read any fan­ta­sy before this. So I was curi­ous. I slipped into my bed­room around nine o’clock and began read­ing. I read until the Nazgul’s pur­suit of the Hob­bits became too intense. I put the book down, dreamed about the book all night, picked up The Fel­low­ship of the Ring the next morn­ing, and nev­er came up for air for the rest of the hol­i­day. I had to fin­ish those books.

The Lord of the Rings start­ed me on a life­long love of fan­ta­sy. My master’s the­sis was on fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture. I enjoyed read­ing Cabell, Lord Dun­sany, Peake, Le Guin, Moor­cock, McKil­lip, McKin­ley, Susan Coop­er, Wal­ton, Kurtz, Nes­bit … I devoured them.

But at a cer­tain point, fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture felt repet­i­tive to me, with stock char­ac­ters, and pre­dictable plots. I sel­dom read it any­more, which is a sad thing.

But last Sep­tem­ber I met the author of a series about Jinx. She talked about the book as though I should know it … and I was curi­ous. So I began Jinx, then had to find Jinxs Mag­ic the next day, and Jinxs Fire a cou­ple of days lat­er. These are good books with char­ac­ters I hadn’t encoun­tered before in a world of wiz­ards and magi­cians and a deep con­nec­tion to the forests. It’s fun­ny and mag­i­cal and fea­tures a lot of warm and cap­ti­vat­ing rela­tion­ships. The main char­ac­ter, Jinx, is com­plex and like­able. There’s a good bal­ance between dia­logue, descrip­tion, action, a fast pace, and time to breathe. The main char­ac­ter starts out at age 12 and grows to age 14 so this is the right book to place in the hands of read­ers ages 10 and up (through adult).

Jinx series

I was so enthralled by Jinx’s tale that I had to ask the author, Sage Black­wood, a few questions:

Did you construct the Urwald, Samara, and the surrounding countries before you began writing the first book, Jinx? Or did you invent the geography as you went along?

The Urwald came first— years before the story, in fact. Samara I think also came before the story; I remember drawing pictures of it. The surrounding countries weren't really developed till I needed them.

Did you know the ending of Jinx’s Fire (Book 3) when you began Jinx (Book 1)?

As regards the Bonemaster, yes, but the autonomy of the trees was something that developed as I wrote. I gradually realized that if the Urwald was a living entity, then like any other character, it had to have agency and flaws… and a Last Straw.

This series is founded on the balance between good and evil. Did you start writing with this premise or did you discover it during your writing process?

I think I started out not really believing in evil. At least not of the hand-rubbing "Mwuhaha! Cringe before me, mortals!" variety. So I guess it developed as I wrote: Each of the major characters has at some point touched evil. Not just as a victim, but as a perpetrator or potential perpetrator.  And each character is changed by the experience. That's what evil is— something we all either face down, or embrace. Fortunately relatively few of us do the latter.

And, of course, we can’t always tell it’s evil at the time. Evil can come dis­guised as an unfor­tu­nate neces­si­ty, or a great job offer.

What aspect of your story underwent the most change during the writing of the three books?

Jinx himself, I think. At first he was a polite, diffident boy. Then it became clear that he was never going to survive being raised by Simon. Not with his protagonisthood intact, anyway. So he had to toughen up and develop a sardonic edge, and I really became much fonder of him when he did.

I love the ambiguity of your main characters. They seem fully human for this reason. Does this part of crafting a character come naturally to you or is it an effort?

Thank you. It is an effort, but not one I would forego. It's important that each major character could conceivably be the protagonist, if the story were slewed around a bit. And this is how they see themselves, of course. None of us are sidekicks in real life.

Jinx can’t exactly read minds but he can see auras that show how a person is really feeling. This is one of the most exciting aspects of your books. How did this character quality come to you?

It happened while I was writing the early scenes. Emotions kept coming up in a very visual way, and I realized that that was because I was writing from Jinx's point of view and that's what he was actually seeing.

Do you have an affection for trees?

Oh yes! I am a tree-hugger. I spent a lot of time walking in the forest while I was writing Jinx, and this was where I realized that the trees talk to each other—something science was apparently also discovering at more or less the same moment. (People keep sending me articles about this.)

Your over-arching villain, The Bonemaster, is so reprehensible that it’s hard for me to have his presence in the story. How do you figure out the parameters of an evil character?

Well, I had to remember that as far as he was concerned, he was the hero of the story.  A good villain should always think he's the hero. It's what villains think in real life.

There­fore, a vil­lain needs val­ues. They can be hor­ri­ble ones, but he’s got to have them. He has to have a self-con­struct­ed ide­al he’s liv­ing up to. (This is where some Dark Lords fall short.)

How long does it take you to finish writing a book from first draft to the editor receiving your manuscript?

About a year, if I've got my act together. Before that there's a period of drawing pictures, taking notes, and hanging index cards on the wall.

Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? If so, which are your favorite books or series?

Drowned AmmetLike you, I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid. Later I grew disillusioned with the genre. Then I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. She was such a fresh, new voice, seeing the humor in the genre and the magic at the same time. And the way she establishes a world on page one without ever lapsing into mere description… I couldn't believe everyone wasn't talking about her!

It was 20 years before I final­ly met a Diana Wynne Jones fan I had­n’t cre­at­ed, as it were. Now it turns out she was a major influ­ence on many (most?) of us who are writ­ing mid­dle grade fan­ta­sy today. We just all found her one way or another.

Some of my favorites of hers are Drowned Ammet, Cart and Cwid­der, The Lives of Christo­pher Chant, and The Home­ward Bound­ers (which is prob­a­bly struc­tural­ly her best novel).

Beyond Jones, the Har­ry Pot­ter series is also won­der­ful. And I absolute­ly love Ter­ry Pratch­ett— per­haps as much for the lan­guage as any­thing else.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sage. Your series of Jinx books ranks right up there with my favorite fantasies of all time.

Thanks so much, Vicki; that's wonderful to hear. And thank you for coming up with all these great questions that were fun to answer!

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