Monday, August 27, 2012


Gwen Perkins, author of the swords-and-sorcery fantasy The Universal Mirror, discusses her novel's characters, magic system, and inspirations. Visit her website, Friend her on Facebook, or Follow her on Twitter.

The Universal Mirror takes place on the island of Cercia, where magic is strictly bound by laws called the Heresies. What inspired you to set up your world in this way?

One of the things that I've always found inspiring as a writer is limitations.  I've never been someone who is very good at thinking up plots with perfect characters.  If someone can accomplish what they need easily and with little resistance from the outside world, I'm afraid that I just don't find that incredibly believable, perhaps because that doesn't reflect my own experience.

The Heresies came about for a number of reasons.  The world of Cercia is a place in which structured religion as we understand it has been gone for some time.  One of the themes that I wanted to examine in this series, however, was the question of what laws do men live by when they have no gods?  In this case, the Cercians replaced formalized religion with a set of laws and prohibitions around magic with the idea of keeping public order. (There are more sinister reasons for why they did this but I'd prefer not to spoil anyone for further twists in the series.)  Each "Heresy" basically relates to something that the government doesn't wish the people to do, particularly those who have access to controlling great amounts of physical power.

A key question in the novel becomes why the government makes one of these laws in such a way that no magician is allowed to heal.  It makes no sense to the protagonists that their moral code outlaws what, to them, is one of the most moral actions a man can take.

Both the arrogant young nobleman Quentin and his best friend, the good-hearted merchant Asahel, could be considered the protagonist. Why did you choose to focus on two main characters instead of one?

I like to do two main characters per novel because it allows me to change the focus and to cover more ground.  Each character brings something very different to the table and it's interesting to me how readers have reacted to both.
Also, I'll be the first to admit that both Asahel and Quentin are flawed in their own ways which was a deliberate choice on my part.  Not all readers enjoy reading flawed characters and I hope that by varying a bit, I've managed to provide a more balanced story for them to enjoy.  My point-of-view characters do change throughout the series.  While you see Quentin and Asahel as the main characters in The Universal Mirror, my next book The Jealousy Glass (coming out December 1) focuses on Asahel and Felix.

Do you have a favorite character, or a character you particularly sympathize with?
I have to admit that I love them all in different ways, though Quentin irritated me quite a lot in the writing of the first book.  I'm fond of Asahel in large part because of how I see him changing and growing throughout the series (a bit spoilery, perhaps, but true).

A character that I was surprised to discover I enjoyed as much as I did was Felix.  Felix was actually introduced into the book because my youngest daughter asked me to name a character Felix.  I did so to humor her and then got really interested in his story.  I had a number of readers comment on him as well, so many that it actually got him promoted to main character status in the second book.  (I have to admit, I'm one of those authors who listens to their readers.  I may not always be able to make them happy but in a case like this, it was a pleasure to try.  Hopefully, I've succeeded.) 

Which part of The Universal Mirror did you most enjoy writing and why?

It's always a little easier for me to remember the hard parts but there were definitely characters and moments that I enjoyed.  There are a few little references and injokes that I slipped in here and there (one reader finally caught one to Sweeney Todd the other day and I was so happy)—I love to put those things in since it gives people who know something about me or about history something to uncover.

It's hard for me to share my favorite scenes without spoiling the entire book but I really loved writing the end of the story.  By that point, the character relationships were defined enough that I was able to keep building on them.  For the same reason, I enjoyed the sequel—familiar characters allowed me to delve more deeply into the story at hand.

One of the things that jumped out to me about your writing is how it carries an old-fashioned, almost archaic tone, reminiscent of older fantasies and even epic poems. Why did you choose to write in this style?

I don't know that it was entirely intentional so much as a carryover from my day job.  I work as a museum curator and spend a lot of time reading letters and documents from the past.  When you spend most of your days thinking in that voice, it slips into just about everything you write.  For this story, it felt appropriate enough to keep.

I also cut my teeth as a child on the old sword and sorcery tales so you're right in noting that influence.  I loved those short, simple books that people like Fritz Leiber and Robert Howard were writing—they were always so full of magic, mystery and intrigue.  That was the feel I wanted to capture in these fantasy stories of my own—just to give the reader a few moments of adventure away from their own lives.

How did you develop the magic system at the center of the story? That is, the rules of the magic, how it is used and channeled, who can use it, etc.?

The rules and ideas actually were inspired initially by the Renaissance university and education system.  I tend to think of the education that the magicians receive as much more global than a simple expression of magic (I'm working on a prequel, Paper Armor, that really defines the use of magic in Cercia). 

Also, one thing that I knew was that I wanted a kind of magic that could be channeled through a universal resource but that I could have different cultures use in different ways.  That was where the use of the body as a conduit for earth energies came in.  I could write a whole post just on that concept and the differing relationships of cultures in the Artifacts-verse to magic—it definitely comes into play in The Jealousy Glass and more so in subsequent novels.

In The Universal Mirror, you take the time to set up your world before advancing the plot and conflict. Why did you choose to write with this slower pace rather than the page-turning style that seems to be in vogue these days?

To me, what was important was setting the foundation for a much broader story.  The series travels throughout a number of lands and examines the magicians' interactions with class, other cultures and with their own abilities.  It's hard to tell stories like that unless you start with a strong base.  I'm hoping that readers will want to stay with the series through its end and that, by allowing them to know the world and characters, they will love them as much as I do and perhaps imagine themselves a part of it. 

If you were to live on the island of Cercia, who would you be? Magician? Noblewoman? Both? What do you think it would be like to live there?

Oh, I'd probably be a poor wretch on the docks!

As far as what it would be like to live in Cercia, it would all depend on who you were and what your class was.  (And don't forget questions of gender, sexuality, and to some extent, religion.)  I imagine that being a noble in Cercia would be a fairly relaxed and pampered existence, if a little boring, whereas those  of the lower classes have it extremely hard.  Women also struggle in Cercia and have a much more difficult existence there than in the Anjduri Empire or other parts of the world.  There's a history behind that but that will be saved for other books.

What’s next for Quentin and Asahel?

They're both featured in the sequel to Universal Mirror entitled The Jealousy Glass.  This book, which comes out December 1, follows Asahel as he travels to the Anjduri Empire with Felix in tow.  It takes place one year after the events at the end of the first book and really starts to examine how things have unfolded in Cercia since.  Really, it's like a friend of mine put it—"The revolution's over.  Now what?"

The Universal Mirror is available at:  Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon US (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Barnes & Noble (paperback), Powell's Books (paperback)

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