Marina Lostetter lures readers in to her complex new fantasy with a killer premise: a death mask imbued with the knowledge and personality of a serial killer has been stolen. We talked to Lostetter about how she developed her alchemy-inspired magic system, why The Helm of Midnight needed to be told from three different perspectives and more.
Your past work has been in the realm of hard science fiction. What led you to write your first fantasy novel? Was there anything that surprised you about writing in this genre?
I've always dabbled in both sci-fi and fantasy in my short fiction, and the first draft of The Helm of Midnight was about halfway done when Noumenon went out on submission, so in some of ways I think of it as my second novel, rather than my fourth.
I think secondary-world fantasy's greatest strength is also its biggest challenge. The author is responsible for every aspect of the world. So, when I'm writing it, I get to break free from reality, but there's also no real leaning on reality. For example, if a government functions a certain way, it's because I chose for it to function that way, not because it just does. And I can use a lot more short-hand in sci-fi, because there are real-world touchstones I can reference directly. In fantasy, if I want to use cultural touchstones, I have to establish them first.
Is there another subgenre of SFF that you haven't explored yet that you would like to? And are there any that you have no interest in?
I'm a very never-say-never kind of writer when it comes to dabbling in different genres. I like to keep my options open and play around. I have an alternate-history novel with giant monsters and dieselpunk aspects that's been sitting half done on my hard drive for a while, and I would love to be able to get it out into the world one day.
"To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with."
The setting of The Helm of Midnight is elaborately detailed. What is your approach to world building? Where and how does a world begin to take shape for you?
My world building is a tad haphazard in early drafting. I usually only have a tentative grasp on the rules I'm trying to put in place, and end up just throwing in fun things that I later either change to conform to the rules or reform the rules around. The Helm of Midnight was especially challenging world building-wise, because I knew from early on that I wanted hidden history to be a big part of it. Which, essentially, meant I had to world build in layers.
In your magic system, people can bottle and harness emotions, thoughts and time. Do you remember how you first came up with this idea?
The Helm of Midnight incorporates one of my previously published short stories, which features the knowledge-based and time-based magic. When I expanded the world and integrated that short story into a new plot, I wanted to expand the magic system as well. Since the system already focused on enchantments, I decided the magic itself should be mined and harvested from different materials: knowledge magic is in wood, time magic is in sand/glass, nature magic—which is characterized by evolution and transference—is in metals and emotion-based magic is in gemstones.
If you had the chance, would you like to have such powers yourself?
I think any of these enchantments would be great to have—save for the fact that I know how they're made. Let's just say Arkensyre's enchantments are not responsibly sourced.
What was your inspiration for the five-pointed, multi-gendered pantheon?
I hadn't yet built a religion for the Valley of Arkensyre when I expanded the magic system into five magics, and it felt natural to assign each kind of magic to a god. You'll notice above that I only mention four kinds of magic, and that's because when we're first introduced to the world in The Helm of Midnight, one god and their magic-type is unknown. I chose to have a five-gendered pantheon because I wanted to highlight that many genderized aspects of culture are constructions. Five gods with five genders means it's natural for the people of Helm's world to treat gender more like a spectrum, and to reflect their pantheon by using any of the five gods' pronouns for themselves.
The Helm of Midnight is written from three perspectives, all of which take place in different timelines. What was challenging about such a complicated structure? Why was this approach the best way to tell this story?
Each character has their own journey, and the three perspectives end up converging with all the force of planets colliding—which was very exciting for me to write, and I hope is equally exciting to read!
To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with. The novel kicks off when his death mask—imbued with his knowledge and an echo of his personality—is stolen. Knowing how and why he began killing prior to his death is essential to grasping what's really going on in Arkensyre Valley. Krona is a Regulator, tasked with re-containing his mask. Hers is the present-day perspective and really gives us a baseline understanding of how society is "supposed" to work. It's Melanie who feels like the odd one out at first. Her storyline might initially seem divorced from the other two, but the entire narrative hinges on her and her bizarre encounters with magic.
Essentially, it took three perspectives across three timelines because there are aspects of the story that are outside each character's purview. The audience is getting the full story, not the individual characters.
Melanie's point of view was the only one that gave me any problems structure-wise, which I think stems from the fact that her perspective is the one that incorporates the original short story. It was also a bit of a challenge to make sure all three perspectives wove together in a way that made each chapter in a new point of view naturally flow from the last.
What's one thing you would suggest a reader keep in mind as they read this book?
Each character is moving through the narrative acting on what they believe to be true, rather than what is true.
What's next for you?
I have another book coming out this year! Activation Degradation will be released on September 28, 2021. It's a thriller-esque sci-fi novel set in Jovian space, featuring soft robots, queer space pirates, action-adventure and unreliable narration.
Author photo © Jeff Nelson.