In Milla Vane’s new fantasy romance, A Heart of Blood and Ashes, protagonist Maddek and his fellow Parsathean warriors are ruthless, practical and feared—and their society is also sex positive and completely egalitarian in terms of gender. We talked to Vane about updating the barbarian trope, crafting Maddek’s complicated relationship with Yvenne, his guarded and calculating love interest, and more.
What were your favorite fantasy worlds growing up?
Oh, I’m definitely a product of the 80s and all of those movies and cartoons. Conan, Red Sonja, The Beastmaster, Willow, “He-Man,” “ThunderCats”—and toss in superheroes, because I suppose that falls under fantasy (or science fiction), and Star Wars. My dad had a huge collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs and shelves crammed full of pulp sci-fi, and they always seemed a lot like fantasy to me (especially their covers, which I loved). So I never differentiated much between science fiction and fantasy. It all felt very similar to me, and I gobbled it down. Mix it all up with fairy tales, which I also loved, and out pops the writer I am now.
Have you always wanted to write a fantasy romance? If not, when and how did the idea come to you?
I have, though I started out in urban fantasy/paranormal romance. I’ve always really enjoyed sword-and-sorcery type of fantasy—but there really didn’t seem to be an audience for it in romance (or at least, there wasn’t much on the shelves; it was mostly paranormal and UF). But I’ve always loved historical romances, too, and adding in dragons or fantasy elements only seems like a step sideways from that. So it’s always been in the back of my mind, but I didn’t start developing this series until about 10 years ago.
A Heart of Blood and Ashes absolutely does not shy away from the violence inherent to its world. How do you approach the depiction of violence in your work, and were there any scenes that took a particularly long time to get right?
I approach it in much the same way that I would if I were watching a movie. “Is the action clear? Can we tell what’s happening? And if we can, is it too clear and edging into gratuitous? Am I at the point where, if this was a movie, I’d be putting my hands over my eyes or turning away until it’s over?” And I know every reader has different tolerances, but I use that feeling as my baseline guide.
The hardest scene by far was the one where Maddek thinks Yvenne has spoken something she shouldn’t have (I’m trying to avoid spoilers). Because that wasn’t a scene where he was defending against a charging revenant, or defeating the bad guy—it’s emotionally fraught, and horrible, and combining the emotional elements with the physical/action elements was difficult, because the scene is a difficult one, and I wanted to make sure that I showed exactly what I wanted to show without lingering in a gratuitous way.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Heart of Blood and Ashes.
Did you look to any specific aspects or eras of history for inspiration for the world or characters of A Heart of Blood and Ashes?
My barbarian world is made up of many different realms that will have different influences and cultures, but I think it’s easy to point to the Parsathean riders and trace their origins back to another series I wrote which included an alternate history of the Mongol Horde. The cultures and history are not much alike, but was all that research still in the back of my mind when I was developing another society of mounted warriors? Absolutely.
Due to their different cultures, goals and personalities, Yvenne and Maddek have some emotionally brutal and very compelling fights. What makes for an effective, believable conflict between a couple?
I think you’ve listed some great sources of conflict: different cultures, goals and personalities. Though in the end, I would say that their goals are very much in agreement, and that allows them to work toward each other despite differences in personality and temperament.
But the other aspect is passion—not just romantic or sexual passion, though they have plenty of that, too. These are two people who feel deeply and care very much about the people under their protection. So when they clash, it’s just not their own interests they are fighting for (and fighting each other for). And it also makes it harder for each of them to back down, because the stakes are so high.
There is a very adorable running bit about the sheltered Yvenne discovering and loving new foods. What do you think she would most like to eat in our modern age?
Mango with sticky rice. It’s the perfect little dish—just a little sweet, a wee bit salty and if the mangoes are properly ripe, they’re so smooth and luscious and incredible. And the rice lets you lie to yourself and call it a proper meal instead of a dessert. Or maybe that’s just me.
Yvenne would probably like anything at a county fair, especially if it’s meat that comes on a stick.
This novel plays with the barbarian stereotype in really interesting ways. When you were creating the Parsatheans, what about that trope did you want to keep, and was there anything you consciously decided to be rid of?
One common aspect of barbarian stories that I wanted to keep was the road trip structure. In other stories (like Conan), wandering from place to place is more episodic, but it’s so fun exploring a world as we go along, fighting monsters and sorcerers and whatever other dangers pop up.
What I got rid of? Rape as an acceptable form of courtship. Which isn’t to say that rape doesn’t happen in this world, or that sexual interactions can’t be problematic as the characters negotiate their relationships with each other or try to gain power over the other. But I’ve built consent into the fabric of the world’s mythology, so rape is a criminal act punishable by a goddess’s wrath.
Are there any fun world building details that, try as you might, you just couldn’t find a place for in this book?
Oh, so many! The most obvious one to most readers will be apparent by the end of the book, because the “dragon” referenced throughout isn’t the same as they probably expect. But will one show up in the series? . . . We will have to see.
What’s next for you?
The next book in the series, which takes us north! That’s A Touch of Stone and Snow.