In The Stormbringer, Amris thought he defeated Thyran, an evil wizard intent on remaking all of existence in his own image. But instead, they were both frozen in time and awakened hundreds of years later, restarting a worldwide magical conflict. To make matters even more complicated, the soul of Gerant, Amris’ wizard boyfriend, now resides in a magical sword wielded by Darya, a gifted warrior for whom Amris begins to develop (highly inconvenient) romantic feelings.
Darya and Amris’ love story is sweet and emotionally mature, a spark of hope in the chaotic, action-packed landscape of author Isabel Cooper’s new Sentinels fantasy romance series. We talked to Cooper about dreaming up creepy monsters, crafting her post-snowpocalypse world and why there isn’t any room for jealousy in the three-sided relationship at the heart of The Stormbringer.
You wrote large portions of this book while quarantining with your parents. What was that like?
Lots of logistics! My parents are very respectful of my time, but it’s still really easy to get drawn in to stuff around the house or distracted. I can write on trains and in cafes, but I can’t tune out people I know the same way that I can ignore strangers. I had to establish a fairly strict “OK, I’m going to write for this amount of time, starting now” routine.
"I don’t really have a lot of time or patience for jealousy. It’s one of my bright lines as an author, a reader and, to be honest, a person."
Your previous series have been historical paranormal romances. Why did you decide to go full-on fantasy with this new series, and what have you been enjoying about it so far? Is there anything you miss from writing novels set in our world (sort of)?
I’ve always been very enthusiastic about fantasy as a reader—I saw the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit when I was 7 or 8, read The Lord of the Rings shortly after (though I didn’t understand huge parts of it) and started playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was 11. The first books I wrote were much more fantasy with romance elements, and then I gradually transitioned over to romance with No Proper Lady.
I really love the world-building opportunities of secondary-world fantasy. On the positive side, it’s a chance to create entire societies, mythologies and even types of people out of whole cloth (albeit with strong influences from elsewhere). On the negative side, it means I don’t have to stop and look up the date of a particular real-world battle or explain why my heroine has an attitude that wasn’t encouraged in medieval or Victorian Europe.
That said, I do miss having a readily available reference pool! There are resonances in quoting Shakespeare or the Bible that are much harder to set up in fantasy, when the audience doesn’t have the cultural familiarity and possibly baggage to go along with it.
The complex but loving relationship between Gerant, Darya and Amris is so beautifully done. Where did you get the idea for his character, and did anything about him and his interactions with Darya and Amris change in the drafting process?
Thank you! When Mary Altman, my editor, and I were brainstorming for the book, she suggested having the hero’s ex as a soulsword would be a nifty potential complication. I totally agreed—it also really helped set up Amris as a real person with a past and emphasize how much he’d lost by being stuck in time.
I don’t really have a lot of time or patience for jealousy. It’s one of my bright lines as an author, a reader and, to be honest, a person, so I knew Gerant wouldn’t be an obstacle per se. It wasn’t until I started writing the story, though, that the relationship really expanded to include all three of them. At the point when he and Darya bring Amris in on their mental link, it became clear how much of an emotional center he really was.
Something that I thought was fun and unique about this series is that it essentially takes place in a post-apocalyptic, post-world war setting. What drew you to that particular setting, and did you do any research to get the atmosphere of it right?
It was around 2013, it was February, and Boston had so much snow that parts of the T system just stopped running for weeks. A bunch of us up there were making various jokes about Narnia and then about apocalypses, as you do, and my friend Hillary suggested that I should write post-snowpocalypse fiction. That idea sort of lurked around my head for a while (I’m running a D&D game with the same basis, though the world is much more straight D&D than the Sentinels universe), and when Mary and I started talking about fantasy, it came right to mind.
I didn’t do specific research about it, but I’ve also always been a fan of post-apocalyptic novels, as long as there’s enough magic that it’s not completely grim. There’s something about a world in the process of rebuilding itself that attracts me. The Stand (which has been making me paranoid when I get a cold since 1995 or so) and Swan Song were distinct inspirations, as was S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series.
The Sentinels’ various magical abilities were so creative and so much fun! Which of their powers would you most like to have for yourself?
Thanks again! Of the Sentinels that appear in Stormbringer, I think Emeth has the most fun power set: Talking to animals sounds like a good time and would definitely be the most useful in my real life. Maybe I could convince my sister’s dog to calm down on occasion.
This romance is definitely a slow burn, since Darya and Amris are busy worrying about Gerant’s feelings as well as, you know, the end of the world. What do you think makes a slow burn work? Was there anything you tried to avoid?
It’s a hard balance, in my experience! You have to provide opportunities for the characters to get physical, as well as reasons for them not to go for it—and for me, a 21st-century girl who’s never needed any motive other than “he’s cute and there’s nothing good on cable,” those are hard to think of! (That’s another way historicals are easier: You can always have a hero get all flustered and worried about taking advantage.) Emotional slow-burn is easier for me, because emotions and the confessing thereof don’t come naturally, WASP that I am. Having “No, I really like you” revealed like deciphering the freaking Enigma code makes way more sense.
I definitely tried to avoid both Big Misunderstanding and jealousy as a plot device. As I mentioned above, I don’t really like the latter at all, and it’s hard to find a big misunderstanding where people, even people as emotionally bonsai-ed as I am, wouldn’t just talk to each other.
"I’ve had more sex than I’ve fought demons."
The various monsters and creatures Darya and Amris face off against were impressively creepy. Did you take any inspiration from other fantasies or from folklore? How does one go about creating a fantasy monster?
Yay! It really helps to have run role-playing games for a while. I didn’t draw any of the Stormbringer monsters directly from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons bestiaries, but throwing different horrible beasts at my players every week for sure helped me get a sense of what makes a creature creepy or threatening. Mostly the process involved figuring out what the monster “type” was (the twistedmen were shock troops, then I needed a creature that could ambush people from the trees, then something kind of hypnotic, etc.) and figuring out the creepiest way I could make it do its thing.
Folklore definitely helped. I used the Dullahan from Irish stories—sort of the Headless Horseman but up to 11—as an inspiration, and the twistedmen are or look skinless because the stories of the nucklavee made an impression on me in my formative years.
I also spent a lot of time in college playing the Silent Hill and Shadow Hearts games, which are excellent examples of taking a normal person or creature and finding new ways to make it freaky and wrong.
What was the most difficult part of this book to get right? What was the easiest?
Fight scenes were by far the toughest. Translating physical action onto the page so that it’s both exciting and possible to follow is really tough for me. Same thing applies to sex scenes, to some extent—in both, I will inevitably give someone too many hands and only realize that during the first round of edits—but I’ve had more sex than I’ve fought demons.
What’s next for you?
Two more books in the Sentinels series—telling the rest of the story about Thyran’s second attack, revealing what the heck’s up with Olvir and introducing more of the world! After that, fantasy and horror! Also, I keep thinking someone needs to write a Christmas romance called Hither, Page and follow it up with Brightly Sean, but that’s because I’m a horrible person and have eaten half a box of cherry cordials.