1. So, tell us about A WIZARD'S FORGE.
A Wizard’s Forge is about a young woman’s effort to recast herself as someone strong and powerful in order to wreak revenge of a man who stripped her of everything she cared about. The story follows a forge theme as Vic (short for Victoria) is forcibly taken from her homeland, sold into slavery, and then escapes and becomes a warrior known as the Blade. Meanwhile, there are many signposts that suggest she has a larger destiny, which begins to be fulfilled near the end of the novel, when she acquires some phenomenal telekinetic powers. So it’s an origin story, where a weak nobody becomes an empowered superhero, of sorts.
2. What makes it different from other fantasy series?
I think the fact that it’s a mashup of so many themes and tropes from speculative fiction sets it apart. It’s science fantasy set on a lost space colony, and it uses a lot of tropes from high fantasy, including a hero’s journey and a special talisman. As you’ve pointed out in your review, Vic resembles a “typical” YA heroine in the beginning of the book, when she’s a teenager. But the main focus of Vic’s story is how she copes with being a survivor of human trafficking and sexual abuse yearsafterward, when she’s an adult soldier.
3. What was the inspiration for the series?
Readers familiar with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books may recognize the lost space colony setting, and Vic is sort of a combination of Lessa, the protagonist of Dragonflight, and Menolly, the protagonist of Dragonsong. Latha’s guild-based economy was also inspired by McCaffrey’s Pern, particularly the Harper’s Hall. The story also contains subtle echoes of the fairy tale Rapunzel.
The giant insects came out of my nightmares when I was a kid. The creatures from movies like Them! and Twenty Million Miles to Earth, which used to be shown on Saturday afternoons or late at night back on independent broadcast TV stations back in the 1970s, embedded themselves in my subconscious. As a result, I am both fascinated and horrified by insects. I used to work as a production editor for an entomology journal, where I learned a lot about their physiology. Believe it or not, I never read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but when the movie came out, I thought, hey, it’s the Kragnashians!
4. A Wizard's Forge deals with some very dark and serious topics. Why did you decide to deal with them the way you did?
I’m a pantser so the dark themes developed as a natural consequence of the plot. Everything began with Vic being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. Vic is frustrated with the people in her homeland not taking her seriously or finding her attractive—and then she’s kidnapped and held captive by someone who is obsessed with who she is, or actually, who he thinks she will become. Lornk believes he knows something about Vic’s destiny, and his entire goal is to control her so she’ll fulfil it in a way that benefits him. He uses seduction and sexual abuse as tools to gain her compliance, but she escapes before he can finish the job of securing her devotion. Her personality is completely broken down, but it’s not rebuilt yet. Thus, she spends the rest of the novel trying to repair that damage.
5. Is it hard to write relationships in your book when there's such terrible trauma hanging over them?
Not really. I’ve thankfully not had to endure psychological abuse like Vic undergoes, but I can imagine how I would react if I did. She and I share a lot of traits, extreme reserve being first among them. Like her, I’m slow to recognize the interest of potential romantic partners and inclined to dismiss signals as either mockery or simple friendship. In Vic’s case, her first “romantic” experiences come in an extremely abusive relationship, so it’s even harder for her to accept normal, healthy romantic interest when she encounters it. She turns a blind eye to Ashel’s overtures because she doesn’t believe she’s worthy of his affection, and doubts he sees her in that light. Ashel has to explicitly declare his intentions for her to begin to see that relationship as a possibility, and then she still cannot acknowledge her own feelings for him.
6. How have readers responded to your work?
It’s been a roller coaster at times: people seem to either love it or hate it. Early on I had some negative reviews from readers who seemed to want a more black and white story, where Vic felt only hate for Lornk and wanted to kill him, period. They strongly disliked the fact that she has Stockholm syndrome, even though this reaction to her captivity and abuse is well documented in real life (just look up Stockholm syndrome or battered woman syndrome). However, I value those negative reviews because they’ve helped shape the book’s readership, steering people away who don’t want to read about those themes. As time has marched on, the response from readers has been increasingly positive. I’m also thrilled that male readers seem to like Vic’s story as much as female readers. I never set out to write a “woman’s story,” and I’m glad that men seem to enjoy it and get a lot out of it.
7. Would you consider your book science fiction, fantasy, or science fantasy?
It definitely straddles the divide between fantasy and science fiction, so is properly called a science fantasy. There is even a (pseudo)scientific explanation for the “magic” in the book, although Vic won’t learn it until the sequel.
8. Who is your favorite character after the lead?
That’s weighted 50/50 between Ashel and Geram. I love them both. Ashel was written to be a pastiche of a fairy tale prince, but I’ve worked hard to layer in complexity into his character and explore what is really going on inside the head of the nicest, most talented, best looking guy in the land. On the outside, he’s everything Vic isn’t: he’s completely at ease with himself and his place in the world, but we discover he harbors quite a few insecurities and inner demons—a struggle that will only get worse in the second book.
I love Geram because he’s so noble—he’s the kind of guy who would throw himself on a grenade to save a comrade, even if it was someone he disliked. Geram also will face some challenges to his nobility in the second book, which I hope readers will find intriguing.
9. What are the ups versus downsides of being an indie author?
I’m a controlling person with high standards, so I like being in charge of all the decisions. The downside is, I don’t always make good decisions—particularly when it comes to marketing—so some of my efforts haven’t been very successful.
10. Any tips for being an indie author?
Don’t try to get the editing done on the cheap. A good editor is hard to find, and you usually get what you pay for.
11. What do you think the key for writing female heroines versus male in fantasy are? You've been mentioned in other interviews to have strong opinions on the subject.
I have written a lot on this topic (for example, “Heroes, Heroines, and Heroism,” “What’s the Matter with Mary Sue,” a discussion of gender and heroism with Allan Batchelder, and “The Problem With Abandoning the Strong Female Character”), but the key to writing realistic female (and male) protagonists is simple: create people, not characters. (In fact, I think this rule applies to all characters in a book: protagonists, antagonists, and the supporting cast.) In other words, avoid stereotypes and flesh out each character to make him or her a three-dimensional human being. How do you do that? Here’s where the adage write what you know comes into play for the speculative fiction author. Base your characters’ personalities and behavior on real people you know or you’ve observed. (Tip: pay attention to how people talk and interact with each other in real life. Eavesdropping on strangers in restaurants, parks, and airports can be really enlightening.) I certainly don’t know any kings or queens, but I do know a lot about family dynamics and how parents’ and children’s ambitions and desires can clash and create resentment and disappointment as well as pride. That is the sort of thing authors should draw upon when creating characters.
12.What can we expect of you next?
I have some short stories coming out in various anthologies and A Wizard’s Sacrifice, the sequel to A Wizard’s Forge, should be out next year.
13. Do you have any other indie authors you'd recommend the works of?
I haven’t read very widely in the indie world—something I’m trying to rectify during this year’s SPFBO competition. I would recommend a few stand-outs (some of which your readers probably haven’t heard of):
C.C. Aune: The Ill-Kept Oath was my favorite read of 2016. It’s an Austenesque novel of manners, written in the style and language of the regency period, but in which two young women inherit a magical legacy from their dead parents and slowly become ensnared in the opening moves of a magical rebellion against the British crown. I love Aune’s prose—she’s one of the best writers out there, whether indie or traditionally published—and I love the way she tells this story in authentic detail.
Graham Ing: Ocean of Dust is a really good YA novel about a teenage girl who is pressed into service aboard a merchant ship in a world where the oceans are composed of an extremely fine silt and the ships are powered by the static charge moving through the dust. It’s a great seafaring adventure and coming of age story.
E.P. Clark: The Midnight Land is one of my favorite feminist novels. It follows a princess on an expedition to survey the northernmost reaches of her nation’s territory, in a land that resembles pre-Christian Russia. The princess is an underdog character who has a low opinion of herself, based on the abuse she’s taken from family members, but along this journey she discovers that the so-called weakness people criticize about her—her empathy—is actually an incredibly dangerous power. The story is filled with all sorts of interesting creatures from Russian folk lore, and the world flips gender relations upside down in some very creative and fascinating ways.
Rob Hayes: Everybody knows who Rob is, now that Where Loyalties Lie won last year’s SPFBO. I haven’t read that book yet, but I was really impressed with The Heresy Within. Rob is a great writer and I look forward to reading his later work.
C.T. Phipps: That guy ain’t too bad a writer. I did love his Wraith Knight with the love a thousand kittens and I’m excited to read Wraith Lord.
A WIZARD'S FORGE by A.M. Justice is a story which I was recommended and by a poster I liked on the grimdark as well as fantasy forums. It existed somewhere in the middle of my TBR pile for some time, not really making too much progress since I didn't know what to make of it. What is the story about? What is the protagonist? It's about a wizard, right? Eventually, I got around to finally reading it and I was blown away. It's so far the best self-published novel I've read in 2018 and would be definitely something I'd support for the next SPFBO.