But whose Republic will it be? Senators, generals, and elemental mages vie for the power to shape the future of the city of Aven. Latona of the Vitelliae, a mage of Spirit and Fire, has suppressed her phenomenal talents for fear they would draw unwanted attention from unscrupulous men. Now that the Dictator who threatened her family is gone, she may have an opportunity to seize a greater destiny as a protector of the people -- if only she can find the courage to try.
Her siblings--a widow who conceals a canny political mind in the guise of a frivolous socialite, a young prophetess learning to navigate a treacherous world, and a military tribune leading a dangerous expedition in the province of Iberia--will be her allies as she builds a place for herself in this new world, against the objections of their father, her husband, and the strictures of Aventan society.
Latona's path intersects with that of Sempronius Tarren, an ambitious senator harboring a dangerous secret. Sacred law dictates that no mage may hold high office, but Sempronius, a Shadow mage who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. As rebellion brews in the provinces, Sempronius must outwit the ruthless leader of the opposing Senate faction to claim the political and military power he needs to secure a glorious future for Aven and his own place in history.
As politics draw them together and romance blossoms between them, Latona and Sempronius will use wit, charm, and magic to shape Aven's fate. But when their foes resort to brutal violence and foul sorcery, will their efforts be enough to save the Republic they love?
I. How did you devise the magical elements in FROM UNSEEN FIRE?
When I started writing From Unseen Fire, I knew I wanted to attach the magical system to the pantheon of gods. The ancient Romans believed in magic and petitioned the gods for it, so it made perfect sense to have the magic of Aven be a literal blessing from those gods. And it made sense, too, that different gods would bestow different gifts, based on their spheres of influence. The system of nine Elements grew out of something my friends and I developed while we were growing up, a component of lots of games and communally-told stories that we had.
I love thinking about the different manifestations and applications that can occur even within one Element: Latona’s Fire magic, for example, derives from Venus, so it’s highly emotional and a little more metaphorical -- the fire of the heart, if you will, whereas someone blessed by Vulcan would have Fire magic, too, but it might manifest as a talent for blacksmithing and a career as a Fire-forger. The overlap of elemental magic and divine blessing is just so much fun to explore.
II. Alternate-history and historical fantasy is en vogue for TV and film, as well as books lately. Are there any historical or alternative-historical TV / films / books that influenced your writing?
Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series had a major influence on me. I loved the scope of the alternate world she imagined, flavored by the real history of dozens of nations and cultures, but interwoven with her own magical paradigm. I’ve always liked big worlds in the fiction I consume, and hers felt so fully-drawn and complete. That sense of the epic features in a lot of the stories that have influenced me over time -- Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, The Sandman, A Song of Ice and Fire -- if it has a massive map and a cast of thousands, I’m probably all for it.
As far as straight-up historical influence goes, HBO’s Rome was playing in the background during a lot of the drafting of From Unseen Fire. The creators of that show said in one of their behind-the-scenes featurettes that they were looking to re-create an authentic ancient Rome, even though they knew they weren’t being completely accurate, since they fudged timelines and merged characters together for storytelling purposes. I think they totally succeeded. Their Rome looked like a real city, so full of people, always busy, and so complex. Those images are definitely a lot of what I had in mind while crafting the city of Aven.
III. Who are your biggest writing influences?
I used to say that I wanted to be Neil Gaiman when I grew up, and that’s still rather true. His writings, and Terry Pratchett’s, have affected a lot of how I think about story and mythos. My ideas on crafting magic have roots in everything from Harry Potter to tabletop role-playing games. Years of studying Shakespeare has put a lot of rhetoric in my head, so that’s been a large influence as well. I’ve also read a lot of romance novels and a lot of historical fiction, and I think those bleed into my style, too.
IV. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for writers?
First, just keep at it. Determination counts for as much or more than talent and craft in this business. You have to be able to take a hit, shake yourself off, and keep going.
Second, the best wordcrafting advice I’ve ever gotten: “but then”. When you’re summarizing scenes, you should always be able to do so with a “but then” phrase, rather than an “and then” phrase. It’s so simple, but it can make such a difference. Think about what changes for your brain between reading, “Sally got up to make breakfast, and then there was a knock at the door” and “Sally got up to make breakfast, but then there was a knock at the door.” Immediately you have a sense of stakes and drama, because that knock has become unusual and unexpected rather than routine.
Third, make friends. Writing can be a solitary business, but it doesn’t have to be a totally isolated one. The magic of the internet can connect you with so many people that are sharing your experiences, whatever stage of the publishing journey you’re on.
Writing is work, yes. Sometimes it’s painful work. The publishing process has a lot of hurdles to clear. It can feel like the goalposts are always moving on you, like everything happens simultaneously too fast and at a glacial pace, like you never know the expectations and yet feel compelled to do everything you can to succeed. It can be rough, so if you don’t still have joy in writing itself, it’s not worth doing. When things get hard, remind yourself why you love the story you’re telling.
Cass Morris lives and works in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with the companionship of two royal felines, Princess and Ptolemy. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Find out more about Cass Morris online at cassmorriswrites.com.