Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Interview with Alex Evans, author of Experimental Magics

Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview Alex Evans, author of Experimental Magics.

Experimental Magics is your first novel in English. What made you decide to write in English?

It's no secret that in order to have as wide a readership  as possible, you have to write in English, especially if you write "non-standard" fantasy (non-medieval, non-romance, etc…). I was used to translate from French to English, but mostly technical texts. So during the lockdowns of the last two years, I decided to try my hand at translating or writing short stories in English. Some were actually accepted by various magazines, like here: So, since it looked like I was writing acceptable English, I decided to translate my latest novel. Experimental Magics is actually the second in a series (the translation rights to the first one are owned by my publisher, Actusf), which means I had to use the three or four first chapters to align with what happened in the first book.


You have written many novels and short stories in the steampunk and fantasy genres. Tell us about those.

Most of those stories take place in the same world: Nor. The peculiarity of this world is to have a magic that appears and disappears, following a cycle: it is present for 600 years, then disappears for 400 and then, the cycle restarts.  Since these are long periods of time, people usually forget how life was exactly "in the time when magic existed" or "in the time when there was no magic". When magic is present, it can be used as a source of energy by an entire class of wizards. When it's absent, you have to make do with "non-magical" technology, just like in the real world. Naturally, its disappearance and reappearance leads to a period of adaptation with technological, social and ideological upheavals. Moreover, there is a "mystical price" to be paid for the use of magic and a good part of the "technical issues" faced by wizards is to manage it. Finally, just as with oil or coal, magic use has social, political and environmental consequences.

This world is not steeped in Western and Judeo-Christian culture. There are no good or bad magical creatures. There is a whole supernatural ecosystem. There are gods/goddesses, but they are not normative and don't care much about humans. Symbols or creatures that usually get bad press in fantasy novels are rather positive: the rat, the snake... Sexuality isn't usually seen as something shameful or exceptional, so people aren't obsessed with it. Finally, many societies are matriarchal or matrilineal and have family systems very different from most fantasy novels. This also leads to a different vocabulary and symbolism: women are not associated with liquid, emotions or intuition, men are not associated with strength, movement or logic. However, do not imagine a nice PC world: conflicts and violence are still there, as well as ultranormative ideologies.

In the case of Experimental Magics, it takes place at a time when magic has just reappeared before having been absent for 400 years. Humankind has been forced to develop "ordinary" technologies and we are witnessing an industrial revolution similar to that of our 19th century. Also during those 400 years, a new ultranormative religion has destroyed most of the documents related to magic, so when it reappears, nobody knows really how to use it. But with the rational and optimistic mindset of the industrial revolution, people see it like any other scientific discovery: something which can have a practical use. They study it in the laboratory, look for industrial applications … The new wizards are researchers working in labs and soon, engineers building magic machines, oblivious of the mystical price

What are the challenges of translating your own work?

I quickly realised that I could not just make a translation. The whole flow of ideas is different from one language to another. Sometimes, you have to invert the order of several sentences to have a better effect or simply make sense. I almost rewrote the whole story from scratch, then got it edited by a native English speaker. I also had to get rid of some humour and cultural allusions which would be meaningless to someone who isn't French and I changed quite a lot of names because they didn't have an appealing sound in English (the protagonist, Adrienne is called Constance in the original version). At the end, it was a much bigger work than I thought!


Is there a difference between genre fiction in French and English?

A lot. First, French readers love their sci-fi/fantasy in the form of graphic novels and are far less keen on written novels. Also, big publishers would rarely consider publishing a speculative novel in general and more specifically by a French author. On the other hand, they gladly publish the translation of relatively old foreign language blockbusters (GOT, The Witcher or Harry Potter, to name a few). Therefore, the readers have less choice, and writing speculative fiction in French is mostly a niche activity for small publishers or indie authors.

Second, most French sci fi fantasy novels don't fit in one specific genre, like "military Sci-Fi" or "Epic Fantasy". If I take the example of a few authors translated into English:

-Bernard Werber's Empire of the Ants trilogy sci-fi, alternate points of views between humans and the inhabitants of an ant colony.
- With his Cardinal's Blades uchrony Pierre Pevel was writing flintlock fantasy before the term was invented.
- Aliette de Bodard, who writes in English, has several unique and diverse worlds
- The indie author Alan Spade (The Ardalia Trilogy) also has a very unusual world

Uchrony and Steampunk are also more popular than in the US, especially as a YA genre, and with very different narratives. For Steampunk, this is linked to French history throughout the 19th century: roughly between 1800 and 1870, France went through 2 revolutions, 2 empires, 2 republics, 2 foreign invasions, countless coups, riots and risings (I might have forgotten some!), all that while going through the Industrial Revolution. Then, in 1871, to everyone's surprise, it became a model of stability and democracy in Europe. That's enough to write a lot of novels

 Experimental Magics describes a world where magic has returned after a long absence. Why did it disappear and why has it come back?

Aha! Well, the full nature of magic is a twist in one of my future books, so I don't want to spoil it, but among other things, there are several parallel worlds and magic simply flows from one to another.

Your protagonist, Professor Adrienne Imlay, is a scientist who also has magical powers. What problems does this create for her?

Some humans have the ability to sense and manipulate magic. Contrary to what you often find in fantasy novels, that does not make them the chosen ones and does not mean they have to go to a school or an apprenticeship to learn how to control it. In real life, you can have some natural gift, like the perfect soprano voice and an ear for music, but have no inclination to become an opera singer! In addition, imagine you live next to a magic place or object: you can "hear" background magic like a background noise at any time. Finally, the mystical price for magic use is prohibitive, a problem I develop in the following books.

Adrienne lives on a continent where a new religion has destroyed all information on magic after its last disappearance. She spends her childhood in a very backward country where this religion has its most radical form: anyone with her abilities is executed. As an adult, she has moved to a more liberal country, but which is still under the influence of that religion. Besides, the authorities believe that those who can wield magic can create accidents or mischief (in the case of Adrienne, they are quite right) and try to identify and monitor them. That brings all sorts of questions: how do you manage people who have not done anything wrong, but have the inherent potential to create a disaster?

Politics also plays an important part in this story. Tell us more about the world and the country where Adrienne lives.

The world is quite similar to ours, except there are two moons which make for a very complex and powerful system of tides. There are countless islands and four continents (the fifth one has been destroyed in the magic equivalent of a nuclear catastrophe). The two most populous continents are simply called the North Continent and the South Continent. The South Continent used to be the most technologically advanced when magic was present. Since its disappearance, it has plunged into decadence and wars, while the Northern Continent has developed steam technology and is now the most powerful. However, with the return of magic, the balance of power might shift again…

Adrienne lives in the North Continent, in Deshwan, a country whose inhabitants used to be nomads (think Turkey or Hungary). Contrary to most fantasy novels, it's not a kingdom, but a democracy. The story takes place in the run-up to elections with very controversial issues and candidates: one is ultra-religious and another one ultra-nationalistic. As the story unfolds, Adrienne discovers secrets about both of them and has to face a hard choice.

A reviewer has suggested that the book will appeal to readers who enjoyed “the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan, the unusual magic of the Powder Mage, and the treasure hunts of Tomb Raider”. What do you think?

Apart from the 19th century setting and the protagonist being a female scientist, I don't think there are many similarities with A Natural History of Dragons. Adrienne is not a lady, she doesn't rely on men, has a limited supply of diplomacy and is caught in an epic struggle (I'll expand on the social background of Steampunk protagonists a little later).

I think the mix technology/magic/gods of the Powder Mage is quite in line, as well as the treasure hunts of Tomb Raider in the flashback chapters when Adrienne is a child.

How do you research your stories and how do you go about creating a believable world?

I don't really do much research. Most of my inspiration comes from real historical periods about which I had already read. The "antique-smuggling industry" of Gandarah came from the real antique trade in places like Egypt in the 19th century. The idea to make Adrienne a child digging for old artefacts came to me when visiting an exhibition about Tutankhamun. There was a photo of one of the boys working on the excavation. One of the archaeologists apparently thought it would be fun to photography him with a priceless gold necklace around his neck. I looked at the photo and thought: what the Hell was going through the head of that poor working kid when the shot was taken? There was a story worth telling there!

Why did you choose to write a story about a scientist?

I always preferred stories about peoples using their brains rather than their muscles, or worse, deus ex machina or miraculous rescuers. As a kid, I loved the Lieutenant Columbo series. Those stories are much more interesting than a story about a warrior or a princess who can't see beyond the tip of his/her nose or a wizard getting his/her magic through some inborn gift. Plus, since my magic has some rules, a wizard actually needs to think before using it. Many people in my family are/were researchers and discussions about lab shenanigans were common at the dinner table when I was a kid. I always imagined sorcerers and magicians as scientists of their times, people acquiring their knowledge and skills though hard work and trial and error, rather than some "gift". Also, if magic had really appeared in the middle of the 19th century it would have been studied just like physics or chemistry: if a magic spell has always the same predictable effect, that means magic has rules!

What writers have influenced you and who do you enjoy reading now?

Apart from general literature writers, Robert Howard would be number one. The Scarlet Citadel was what drew me to read fantasy when I was 13. I still enjoy reading sword and sorcery: some other subgenres take themselves too seriously. The authors I like have with unconventional worlds, humour and plenty of adventure: Chris Gooding, Joe Abercrombie, or Sam Sykes.  I'm currently reading a sci-fi novel: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

You mention the importance of your travels - where did you go and how has it affected your writing?

A few month ago, with my kids, I made a list of the countries I visited, and I came up with about 35. I stayed for a long time in some, in others just for holidays.

My books often talk about travels or peoples who have travelled, both physically and symbolically. As for a particular influence, I would say that West African and Russian history and folklore have left many marks in my stories. The shadow of the Talking Baobab stands somewhere behind Adrienne's potted moonflowers and Adrienne herself has the temper of Baba Yaga or one of her daughters!  Other details are visual: the city of Branes looks a lot like a mix between Prague and Paris, while Isria would be a mix between Trieste and 19th century Singapore.

What does the steampunk genre mean to you? 

First, aesthetics. I don’t especially like gears and cogs, but I like the theatrical side of the 19th century looks and I absolutely love pre-Raphaelite painters and Art Nouveau.

I also like the fact that, since it's a relatively new genre, it has fewer conventions (quests, mentors, damsels in distress…), so you can write what you want, including plain fun adventure stories.

Finally, steampunk is sometimes the occasion to look back on the 19th century and reflect on what it has brought to the world (industry, new technologies, but also pollution, wars...).

As I said, French steampunk is quite different from its English counterpart. If you read the most popular books in English literature of the 19th century (Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle…) you notice that they all talk about polite people trying to sort out their problems politely. If you read popular books in French literature, you have Les Misérables (the protagonist is a former convict), The Count of Monte Christo (the protagonist is an escaped convict) or Arsène Lupin (the protagonist is a thief) and so on. As I said earlier, France had a history of major political instability throughout the 19th century and you can feel it the books of the time as well as in modern steampunk, where most stories deal with working class or marginal heroes, oppression and revolutions. So, what happens if you add magic to the mix?

If there was a film of Experimental Magics, who would direct it?

I have no idea, but I wish I could do the setting and the costumes!

Will you publish more books in the series?

Yes. I plan to publish more novels and short stories taking place at different time and in different places in this world. For Experimental Magics, this is meant to be a trilogy. The working title of the next episode is The Road to Cazal: Adrienne embarks on the steamboat to get to a conference crucial for her career. Unfortunately, she is forced to make a stopover in Gandarah, her native city, and that's when everything goes haywire…

About Alex Evans:

After travelling around the world, Alex Evans has settled down to juggle an absorbing job, a lively family and the craft of writing. She loves folklore, ancient history and hates clichés.
Her blog in English and French can be found at

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