Saturday, June 9, 2018

Interview with Deb E. Howell, author of Warrior’s Touch

Today on the Speculative Fiction Showcase, it gives us great pleasure to interview Deb E. Howell, author of Healer's Touch and the forthcoming Warrior's Touch.

The name of your series is The Aenuk Chronicles, so could you start by telling us a bit about the Aenuk and their world?

Aenuks are a genetic variant of people who can heal themselves and others at an accelerated rate using touch to transfer life energy. To heal themselves, an Aenuk must take “life” from somewhere (plants, animals, or people). How much they take depends on how bad the injury is. Effectively, they burn whatever they heal from. To heal someone or something else, they give life… but then they need to replenish from somewhere else. So, it’s a handy skill, but ultimately destructive. 
In truth, I haven’t decided whether to go with “The Aenuk Chronicles” or just the “Touch” series… Healer’s Touch, Warrior’s Touch, Magician’s Touch… My only concern with the Touch series is the tendency for people to go with the sexual interpretation of touch… 

Your first book was Healer’s Touch, which introduced us to your characters Llew and Jonas. How did Healer’s Touch help us to understand their struggles and dilemmas in that world?

I crafted Llew as a “fool”: a character who doesn’t know all that much about the world they live in, so the Reader learns along with her as she discovers what her healing ability means. When we meet Llew, she has been an orphan for the last five or so years. She knows she can heal cuts and grazes. She’s never had a scab in her life. When her closest friend falsely accuses her of murder, she is put to death by hanging and, luckily for her, is left hanging for a day or more as a warning to others, which gives her the chance to be investigated by flies and carrion-eating birds… each of which ends up in a pile of death beneath her swinging feet, until she is able to return to life. When she manages to free herself from the noose, she has to leave town—magic use is frowned upon in her home country.
Luckily, she meets a group of travellers willing to take on the help of the young boy she appears to be. This group includes Jonas who is also a special genetic variant, called a Karan, who have augmented strength and speed compared to mundane types. In particular, Jonas is Syakaran, even more powerful than mere Kara. He is also highly trained in fighting and killing Aenuks whose destructive power is feared almost universally. The only country that values Aenuks keeps them caged in order to breed them for their army.
Over the course of her journey, Llew learns that she is not just Aenuk (who can heal, but not return from death); she is, in fact, Syaenuk.

You have a new book awaiting publication: Warrior’s Touch, the sequel to Healer’s Touch. At the beginning of the novel, how have things changed?

Ooh, but that would be telling, eh?
OK, well, going by the set-up for Healer’s Touch (HT), it will come as little surprise that Llew and Jonas develop feelings for each other over the course of that first novel. 
So, by the beginning of Warrior’s Touch (WT), they have already grown quite fond of each other, but there are still roadblocks: Jonas is expected to breed the next generation champion for his home nation, and the only way to guarantee that is for him to procreate with a Syakaran woman. Certainly not a Syaenuk.
At the beginning of HT, Llew is an independent young woman, because she needs to be. She can’t, and does not, rely on anyone else. By the start of WT, she has friends she would both fight for and count on to have her back. However, she is still surrounded by those who loathe her, and those she is wise to distrust.
Jonas is torn between his growing fondness for Llew and his commitments to his father-figure and captain, Aris, and his nation.

Your character Llew has the power to heal others – at a price. How important is this moral dilemma?

It is the backbone of the story, and why I ended up choosing the title. Her touch heals and hurts. And to make matters worse for her, she can heal from Jonas, but she can’t heal him… he is Karan, and Aenuks cannot heal Kara. It was a power I came up with when I penned stories in high school, but it wasn’t until I applied it to Llew and started developing HT that I realised just how hair-pullingly frustrating such a power would be. If she is badly injured and heals from plants, she will heal from a lot of plants… leaving a clear sign of her passing. And Aenuks are either loathed and killed, or captured. There are no free Aenuks… except Llew. If she is injured where there isn’t plant-life to take from, such as on a boat in the middle of a sea, she has to be careful about touching others, or she will burn them. She does heal slowly, like anyone else, but she would have to remain untouched by any living thing until she finished healing. That’s a pretty lonely existence.
Also, there are Syakaran knives, which inflict injuries that cannot by healed by Aenuk magic. So, if she is injured by one of those, she again will burn anyone and anything she comes in contact with until that wound heals. A minor scratch from such a knife basically leaves her as a black hole for life-energy, which can result in a lot of damage and death.

In the first book you mentioned two magical races, the Aenuks and the Kara. In the second book, a third race appears – the Immortals. Tell us about their particular powers and what threat they pose to your protagonists.

In the beginning… although the remembered histories would say otherwise, there once existed Immortals alongside Aenuks and Kara, with no Sy varieties. But one day, the last Immortal had his powers extracted from him by an Aenuk and her Ajnai tree, and the Syaenuks and Syakara were born.
Much like the Immortals of movie- and TV-land, my Immortals gain power when they kill each other, but only if they use an Immortal knife (now known as a Syakaran knife), made with a core of the wood of an Ajnai tree. Immortals are super strong and fast, and can heal magically… but they don’t need to drain. They just need to eat well.
It turns out that the last Immortal still lives on, if powerless. He learns how to regain his powers, and does so, and in order to avoid losing them again he goes on a vendetta against all Aenuks and the one remaining Ajnai tree he knows of. Once the world is rid of both, he will never be at risk of losing his powers again.
Obviously, Llew and Jonas can’t let him succeed.

What is the significance of the magical trees – Ajnais – to the Healers?

The Ajnai trees allow Aenuks to heal without burning or killing. An Aenuk can even heal from a Syakaran knife wound by touching an Ajnai. In HT, there is only one Ajnai left after a previous attempt to rid the world of them. Llew believes that if Ajnais grew everywhere, then Aenuks could live free without being a danger to others. In fact, they would be a huge asset, able to heal anyone without the negative side effect.

How have you found the characters developing over the course of two – and three – novels?

Llew’s big change has been through having been so independent and only able to rely on herself, to finding true friendship and love (in all its forms). She loses nothing in relying on others, and she is still a strong young woman, but she is even more so with support behind her.
Jonas begins HT as a good soldier doing as he’s told, where and when. Through developing feelings for Llew and refusing to kill her, he begins to break the rules he’s followed his entire life. He develops independence, and must learn to deal with the consequences that comes from making one’s own decisions, whether right or wrong. It’s a hard journey for him.

The novels have certain themes. Can you talk a bit more about these themes and why they are important to you?

Particularly when I was writing WT, discussions of rape culture were rife online. It was as much a wake up call to me as it might be to any potential perpetrators out there, and I realised how it has affected me and my tendency (or lack thereof) to speak against the guys having a laugh over what amounts to sexual assault (I call it out for what it is now). Personally, I’m no good in a conflict situation, but I figured it was the sort of thing I could explore through my writing, and, in fact, it’s been fun. In HT, I show a fairly standard, spontaneous sexual encounter, and a rape (yep, sorry), and I wanted to counter those in WT with a more healthy, if also more rare sexual script, so to speak, where permission is sought before a kiss, and again for each step following; undressing, touching, cuddling… I’ve continued exploring that theme into Magician’s Touch, which is still in drafting phase, and I have shared example scenes from both books on my Facebook Page as a Valentine’s Day treat earlier this year.
As for the “but we’ve always done it (that way)” mentality, my initial wake-up call came from reading a wee story in a magazine many years ago about a lady making a lamb roast. Her daughter asked why she cut the ends off the roll of meat, and the woman replied, “I don’t know. It’s how my mother did it. Perhaps we could ask her.” And when they did, her mother replied, “It’s how my mother did it.” Now, luckily, the grandmother was still alive, and so they asked her, and she said “So it would fit in my (small) roasting dish.” And I just found that wee tale so eye-opening. Why do we do things? Why are we taught to do things a certain way? Is it still relevant in the modern world? It is this mentality that has led to the way Aenuks are treated in my world, and it is only through questioning it that things can change, and be better for all. So, although Jonas has a hard road ahead of him, he is a catalyst in this shift in beliefs within the world at large.

What brought you to writing fantasy in the first place, if that isn’t an impossible question?

I’ve always enjoyed reading fantasy tales, for a start. From when I was a kid reading Grimm fairytales, through to now. I love door-stopper books. Generally, the thicker the book, the more excited I am. I just love settling in with a bunch of characters I can grow to love, which is what happened when I first read Eddings’s The Belgariad, so that was the true beginning. However, I also love “chick lit”, and SciFi, and contemporary fiction that might come under mystery, or crime, or romance. The wonderful thing about fantasy (and SciFi) is that it can be all these things. Many (most?) fantasy stories include some romance, there’s often an element of mystery, there’s likely to have been a crime of some sort. Fantasy is unlimited in its potential. Sure, historically, western fantasy has been limited to medieval-type worlds and a certain selection of character types, but that’s changing, and there is so much still to explore through such a vast medium.

You are working on the third book in the series. What hints can you give to your readers?

Things are really tough for Jonas, in particular. As mentioned, he’s gone from being the darling soldier son of a nation to stepping out on his own and taking the consequences that come from that. I’m not trying to say that making one’s own decisions is a bad thing, but more that there is a learning curve involved, and sometimes (often?) doing the right thing can be a tough road.
There are new characters to meet and, hopefully fall a little bit in love with. Llew and Jonas will continue to grow as a couple and as individuals. And my goal is to create a satisfying resolution for my Readers.

From your bio, it’s clear that you love horses. How has that informed your writing?

Ha ha, well… it was another draw to the fantasy genre, for sure. And I like to think I’ve managed to give both Llew and Jonas’s horses a little more personality than simply being modes of transport. In Jonas’s case, he’s had his horse for years, and Chino (named and modelled after my own miniature) also acts as a confidant when things aren’t going so well for our hero. Llew’s Amico adds just a touch of comic relief here and there.

On your website appears the motto “Hang ‘em first, try ‘em later”. Is this a reference to your stories, and what is its significance?

My debut fantasy series (HT, WT, MT) is set in a largely pioneering-type setting, loosely based on New Zealand and America in the late 1800s, so it’s mostly a tip-of-the-hat to that time. And, I suppose, it’s where HT all starts… with Llew’s hanging, with not much of a trial.

Which seven books would you take with you to a desert island?

Seven? Gosh, that seems like so few… Oh, no… and one of my favourite series (Emperor's Edge, by Lindsay Buroker) is (initially) seven books long, so it would be tempting just to take those, but, but… Can I buy an Omnibus? I don’t know of a collection of the entire series, and I couldn’t just take a part of it, unfortunately. OK, let’s think of some real comfort reads…
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander/Cross Stitch, I think would have to be there. I know this is the start of a series, but this book in particular is a real keeper and come back to.
Iain Banks’s The Crow Road as the first book that cemented me as a Reader (with a capital).
Brent Weeks’s The Black Prism, although, again, it would be hard not to take the rest of the series, which is set to be five books long… but this first book is a great love of mine.
You know? I would be tempted to take my Gormenghast trilogy (omnibus), even though I only read the first two books. It’s a long slog of a read, but, ultimately, it’s a rather entertaining one and I do love Steerpike (and I can picture Jonathan Rhys Meyers while reading… nice).
And for a real light, comfort read, I’m thinking of The Cosy Coffee Shop of Promises by Kellie Hailes, which I’m not sure if it’s available in physical form, but let’s pretend it is (if I’m taking my Kobo, I’m taking more than 7 books!) because it is a delightful comfort read that will provide me warm fuzzies if I start to feel lonely.

What are you reading at the moment? Or watching if not reading?

I recently finished re-reading The Emperor’s Edge series (to book 7), nearly six months after I first discovered and devoured it the first time. Anyway, I finished that and was wondering what to read next, and Kobo went and had a wee sale, so I grabbed a few never-heard-of-befores… and I’ve now read Aimee Easterling’s The Complete Bloodling Serial, which I thought was fairly well written and full of potential, so I am now reading her follow-up Shiftless. I’ve never read a werewolf story before, so it’s all new to me, but quite interesting how the human and wolf personalities can be blended, yet remain separate.

(You can find the first book in the series, Healer's Touch, at AmazonBarnes & Noble, the Book Depository, Kobo, iTunes and Smashwords)

About Deb E. Howell

Deb E could never write a *short* story for English class assignments. She took up writing stories as a hobby in high school, often sharing these with her friends at lunch time, but pushed fiction to the side for the sake of a few serious years of science writing for under- and post-graduate study in Zoology. Then it was time to adult and get paying work. Eventually, she landed a job that didn't occupy her mind fully enough, and soon pen joined paper and a fantasy novel had begun which, after several false starts and some shaping and moulding, turned into Healer's Touch.

Deb lives near Dunedin, New Zealand with her family and a menagerie of pets.

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