March 20, 2018

Melissa Caruso and Rowenna Miller

Fighting in ballgowns
Interview by

Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir and Rowenna Miller’s Torn have some of the most beautifully realized settings in fantasy, places where courtly intrigue and gowns matter just as much as magical powers and threats of invasion. We talked to Caruso and Miller about living vicariously through world building, putting their characters in danger and how to fight in a ball gown.

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The Raverran Empire is like Venice, but with same-sex marriage and fire warlocks. Galitha City is a bustling metropolis on the cusp of revolution where you can buy a charmed dress to make you lucky in love. Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir and Rowenna Miller’s Torn have some of the most beautifully realized settings in fantasy, places where courtly intrigue and gowns matter just as much as magical powers and threats of invasion.

The second book in Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, The Defiant Heir, follows Lady Amalia Cornaro and the powerful mage Zaira as they try to prevent a cataclysmic war between the empire and the Witch Lords of Vaskandar. Miller’s heroine, Sophia, finds herself in a similar position in Torn, as she balances the demands of her firebrand reformer brother and noble customers as tensions in the city approach a boiling point. We talked to Caruso and Miller about living vicariously through world building, putting their characters in danger and fighting in a ballgown.

You both have fantasy worlds with several different nationalities that intersect with each other in such interesting ways. Where did you go for inspiration about culture when you were writing your books?
Melissa Caruso:
The setting of the Swords and Fire trilogy is loosely based on the Venetian Empire. I’ve wanted to write a book set in a fantasy version of Venice ever since first visiting that magical and unique city, and it provided the inspiration for Raverra, the city in which much of the first book is set. It also doomed me to many hours researching 17th-century Italian cuisine and salivating over delicious food I can’t have! (Uh, and other research, but the food may have made the greatest impression.) Some of the other cultures in the series are less directly inspired by the real world, most notably Vaskandar, which you see a lot more of in the forthcoming second book, The Defiant Heir. I wanted Vaskandar to have kind of a dreamy, dark fairy tale feel to it, but to also have a bit of a strange and alien flavor as well, so I combined familiar elements like gothic-looking spooky castles and long black coats with made-up stuff like jagged, asymmetrical embroidery and designs.

Rowenna Miller: Like Melissa’s books, there’s a combination of history and fantasy and folklore in the setting of Torn. The strongest influence on Galitha is 18th-century Europe. Lots of little details of city life in that era gave me ideas to populate a bustling city, from ballad-sellers singing in the streets, to migrations of people of other nationalities, to fishmongers with carts of wares. The “Cries of London” sketches by several artists from the 18th and early 19th centuries, like Francis Wheatley, gave me a shot of lively inspiration when I started to flounder a bit on the flavor of my city. While the higher-level political systems and socio-economic realities are important to the bones of world building, I keep coming back to everyday, ordinary people for inspiration. It’s the history nerd in me—I can get enough inspiration from one image, diary entry or newspaper story from the past to write for days!

Rowenna, you re-create and research historical textiles. Did the idea behind Torn spring from that work? And how did your knowledge of these techniques help you create Sophie’ s magic?
In a lot of ways, crafting clothing is magic. You have a simple length of fabric and through the process of draping and stitching, it becomes a gown or a jacket or even a simple petticoat. I was actually researching the evolution of jacket styles in the late 18th century (nerd alert) when I got the idea for a charm-stitching seamstress—so the two are very much intertwined. Knowing how intimate and hands-on the process of hand-sewing a garment is, as opposed to working with a machine, it seemed almost natural that a magical practitioner could utilize needle and thread to cast a charm. There are places in the process where the work can be very collaborative but also places where a charm-casting seamstress could work on her own.

Something I admired about Torn was that Kristos is only able to spend his time writing and protesting because he relies on the financial and emotional support of Sophie, which undercut the Les Mis-esque fantasy that depictions of rebellion can often fall into. Rowenna, what drew you to the more neutral and practical character of Sophie? And why do you think we so rarely get stories of people like her?
RM: Writing a politically neutral character is hard, and it was a real challenge to keep Sophie from reading as boring or passive rather than passionately invested in what she does care about—her work, her personal ethics and her family. So much of spinning a good story is the tension between what a character wants and how other characters, the social system they live in, a very large bear in the woods, whatever, are preventing them from achieving that goal. A character like Kristos has a much clearer, more black-and-white goal and conflict. I think we often prefer to write and read a Kristos because there’s some wish fulfillment there. There’s a thrill in imagining we could abandon the other facets of our lives to be in service to A Cause.

But I wanted a story centered on Sophie because there are so many historical characters like her—people motivated by love of the quiet but also vitally important things like family and livelihood, and by the fear of losing those things to outside political conflicts. Most of us are probably Sophies at least some of the time, balancing all the things we care about, often in conflict with one another.

What type of charmed garment would you each want Sophie to make you?
RM: I would want something I could wear frequently—charms don’t come cheap, so I want bang for my buck! Perhaps a lightweight short cloak or mantelet (it goes with everything), charmed for your basic go-to good luck.

MC: I’d want her to make something for my kids, with good luck to keep them safe and out of trouble! Definitely something they could wear everywhere, but not something small like a handkerchief because they’d lose it. My teen would probably like a stylish jacket, and maybe a nice shawl or scarf for my younger daughter.

What is your favorite era of clothing?
MC: Ooh, that’s a tough one. One of the things I love about fantasy is that you get to mix up the fashion a bit in terms of real-world era and gender (though of course you have to be good about keeping recognizable themes that unify the fashion for your world so that it feels coherent, even if you’re cheating). So for instance, I think 17th-century men’s coats and jackets are cool because they have swashbuckling flair and gorgeous embroidery. I made it acceptable (though unusual) for women to wear them in my books because I wanted my main character to have them (uh, basically as wish fulfillment). I don’t know if I’d pick 17th-century Europe as my favorite overall, but I do think it’s generally underappreciated (so long as you stay away from cartwheel ruffs).

The 18th century is fun for the sheer, ridiculous, over-the-top factor, and I do like a good old Renaissance doublet. I also want to continue to learn more about non-European historical clothing, because there are a lot of cultures out there with incredibly rich fashion histories full of gorgeous fabrics and beautiful patterns and embroidery. And frankly much more comfortable-looking clothing.

RM: I know, it’s so hard to nail down just one! Fantasy is fun for allowing more of a mélange, or for introducing elements that didn't show up historically. When I research historical clothing I can get very, very picky—if I'm recreating clothing for, say, a woman in Virginia in 1780, I have to ask myself if that French fashion plate or Swedish museum piece is something she would have had. In fantasy, I can remove some of those barriers and set clothing norms that accept or reject some historical realities.

My overall favorite is the late 18th century—roughly 1770 through 1790. The over-the-top Rococo stuff was waning, and clothing had this more restrained, tailored aesthetic while still being sumptuous and elegant and doing truly incredible things with draping and design. Not just for the wealthy, either—the lower-class gowns of the era make me really happy, too. There’s this pragmatic insouciance of “This skirt hem is in the way, I’m rucking it up,” and BAM, it’s a fashion statement. I also love the bustle era of the Victorian period—the draped skirts and tailored bodices are just scrumptious—and for actual real-life wearability, I’m a sucker for the 1930s.

Melissa, something Ive really enjoyed in your novels is watching characters use social events and relationships to raise their own standing, conduct diplomacy or levy threats. How do you get the subtext of that sort of courtly maneuvering across in your writing?
I love writing those kinds of layered court intrigue interactions! I think there are two keys to getting the subtext across: the setup and the reaction.

For the setup, I try to make sure that I’ve already given my readers all the information they need to understand the significance of what might otherwise seem like a simple social interaction. For instance, once you know fire warlocks can destroy entire cities, you’ll instinctively understand the power dynamics of bringing one as a guest to your rival city’s party without me needing to spell it out.

Then the reaction works on much the same principle you see in stage fight choreography—it’s the person getting hit that sells the punch. It’s the reaction of other characters to hearing Amalia’s mom’s name that tells you what kind of reputation and power she has, and it’s where characters pause or wince or buy time with a sip of wine that mark the points in a barbed political conversation.

Fantasy has often portrayed noble characters as detached from reality at best, and completely villainous at worst. But both of your books have upper-class characters that are deeply concerned with the welfare of their subjects, and who grapple with their own privilege and limitations. What do you find so compelling about those characters?
Most people, in my view, want to be decent. They see themselves as invested in positive systems and worldviews. Few people wake up one day and say, “Hey, I’m going to exploit and abuse people because being evil is fun!”

I envisioned my politically advantaged characters as very dutiful, responsible people who perhaps only half understand the extent of their privilege. It’s uncomfortable for them to be challenged as the “bad guys” in a revolution that accuses them of hoarding power and wealth because they didn’t see themselves as withholding these things but rather using them for everyone’s benefit. Of course, we as outsiders can see that it’s not really possible to have all the systemic power and not benefit from it, regardless of one’s intentions, and I find that compelling. What do not-bad and even pretty good people do when presented with evidence that they’re benefiting from a corrupt system?

MC: I think an utterly corrupt fictional ruling class can lead to some wonderfully fun stories, but I agree with Rowenna that in reality, most people view themselves as trying to do good. In the Swords and Fire trilogy I wanted to write stories with court intrigue and dilemmas about the exercise of power, both political and magical, and to me, that’s much more interesting when the players in the conflict aren’t just out for personal gain. Everyone has something they’re trying to protect, and what’s putting them into conflict isn’t that they don’t want to make the world a better place, but that they have very different ideas about how that should be done and what they’re willing to sacrifice to do it.

Also, satisfying as it can be to read a classic overthrow of an evil regime (and let’s be clear, I love that trope), in this series, I wanted to show characters grappling with how to preserve the good in a system while challenging its flaws and standing up to power while still respecting the rule of law.

Torn is set in a traditional, fairly patriarchal country whereas the Swords and Fire trilogy is set in a progressive society with same-sex marriage and gender equality. How did you each decide what type of fantasy world to create?
I think that we need both kinds of stories, and some of my favorite books have characters who struggle against (and triumph over) a system biased against them. (For instance, I really enjoy how there are so many women in Torn who find ways to have power even in a society that doesn’t want to grant it to them.)

But as a writer, I love imagining characters that haven’t had real-world prejudice weighing them down and are free to just be their awesome, badass selves. Fun as it can be to build a fictional patriarchy and then smash it, I find the building-the-patriarchy part to be too depressing. Besides, I don’t want to build rules into my fictional world that will in any way restrain me from writing as many women leaders and warriors, happy gay couples and so forth as my brain cares to generate!

RM: Like Melissa, I love both kinds of stories and agree that we need both. Both explore and reveal questions and problems we grapple with in our world either by mirroring it or by rejecting the mirror. For me, and for this particular story inspired in no small part by a real-world age of revolutions, I wanted to spend some time with women who are strong within the confines of a society that doesn’t give them many options. They create their options.

And I think this is important to work with, lest we ignore some of the strength and dignity of women both past and present. When we talk about “cool women in history,” we usually talk about the ones who rejected traditional feminine roles, which starts to walk an iffy line of condemning women who worked within the confines of their society to do good work. For instance, we talk about Deborah Sampson, who dressed as a man and fought in the American Revolution, not the Philadelphia Ladies’ Association, who raised a bunch of money that the army desperately needed for socks (and other stuff, but an army needs socks, people). So, this time, I wanted to play within those constraints. Next time, maybe not 🙂

Melissa, you had a fantastic thread go viral on Twitter that explained how a character could actually fight quite well in a ball gown. How well could Sophie fight in one of her voluminous skirts and cloaks? And what sort of clothing do you put Amalia, Zaira and your other female characters in when they know they could be in a fight?
Well, my biggest concern for Sophie’s ability to fight in the kind of clothes Rowenna describes is probably the super-stylish jacket she wears to impress the nobles she wants to sell her work to. That sounds really tailored, and I’m betting she’d probably have to rip the seams of her beautiful work to get decent arm movement, which would just be too tragic.

For my female characters, it really depends on their role and the situation! Some of them are soldiers and would be wearing uniforms designed for battle. Amalia, on the other hand, has to dress appropriately for the social occasion even if she expects to be jumped by assassins, so she might wear anything from her preferred loose-fitting coat and breeches to a court gown that gives her free movement in the shoulders and has enough clearance that she won’t be tripping over her skirts.

Zaira always wears skirts, which are great for hiding things, and if she’s going into danger, she dons a corset with enchanted stays that protect her from blades and musket fire. Because there’s no reason not to be fashionable AND battle-ready!

If you could place yourself in your fantasy world, where would you want to live and what would you like to be?
This is always such a difficult question because of course, the worlds we usually write aren’t comfortable ones at the time we’re writing them. I’d love to visit Galitha City during the social season as a guest of Lady Viola, but in the midst of a dangerous revolution? No, thank you! It doesn’t make it into the book aside from some dialogue, but the agrarian regions in southern Galitha would make for about the calmest, least likely place to get run over by a mob. I’d set up shop in a small village—as a seamstress, of course!

MC: Well, I couldn’t pass up the chance to have magic, but I wouldn’t want to be forced to join the Falcons either. So I think I’d want to be a minor vivomancer living in some nice little villa in the countryside not too far from Raverra, so I could make day trips into the city and host occasional parties. I would use my vivomancy (life magic) to collect way too many odd pets (I want a raven! And a fox!).

I love that both Rowenna and I are clearly thinking to place ourselves in some safe, quiet location where we could happily putter away undisturbed by the dangerous adventures we put our poor characters through. Sorry, characters!


Caruso photo credit Erin Re Anderson. Miller photo credit Heidi Hauck.

Get the Books

The Defiant Heir

The Defiant Heir

By Melissa Caruso
ISBN 9780316466905


By Cynthia Eden
ISBN 9780062437402

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