Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Interview with Cass Morris, author of The Bloodstained Shade, Book 3 of The Aven Cycle

Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview Cass Morris, whose novel The Bloodstained Shade  has its debut on 31 January.


The Bloodstained Shade is Book 3 of The Aven Cycle, set in an alternate version of Ancient Rome. Tell us about the world of The Aven Cycle.

Aven is a city caught in a time of turmoil and change, struggling to define itself in the wake of a ruinous dictatorship. It’s a bustling, crowded, diverse, vibrant place, in some ways a land of opportunity, in some ways an entrenchment of systemic inequality. Two prominent factions are wrestling for control, torn between embracing change and pluralism or preserving the traditional way of life. Their armies are entrenched in foreign wars; the elders complain about the hedonism and laziness of youth; the state struggles to ensure the populace has food and shelter; immigration boosts the economy and unsettles the protectionist element of society.


Sound familiar? All of that is why I find the ancient world so fascinating. In some ways, it’s so similar to life today -- and in some ways, it’s totally alien, with worldviews and practices incomprehensible or abhorrent to modern sensibilities. Humanity is always wrestling with questions of how to handle economic insecurity, cultural shifts, and political turmoil. At heart, we wrestle with power: who gets to exercise it, by what right or might, and what they choose to do with it.


Where Aven differs from the Rome of antiquity is that, in this version of the world, magic has shaped the course of history as much as war, politics, law, and religion. Adding that additional lever of power complicates both interpersonal and geopolitical relationships in ways that I adore playing with.

You co-host the Hugo Award Finalist podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists. Why ‘for masochists’?

It’s a teasing way of referring to those of us with a tendency to go way overboard in our worldbuilding. The “iceberg principle” of worldbuilding says that there’s far more below the surface than makes it onto the page of the finished product. My cohosts and I are people who have really, really big icebergs, and the way we create them can sometimes seem like self-torture.


Do I need to chart out the major exports and imports of every civilization in an invented world, even the ones the characters never travel to or perhaps even mention? Must I map out the prevailing oceanic currents and trade winds? Is it really necessary for me to not only determine what percentage of the population has a magical gift, but to make a spreadsheet cataloging their demographics, professions, and socioeconomic status? No, of course not. But it’s somewhere between a joy and an undeniable compulsion.


On the podcast, we go super, super deep on a different worldbuilding topic each episode -- religion, government, food, transportation, all sorts of things. But we also talk about ways to sort of backfill that kind of development if you’re a different sort of writer, who doesn’t spend ages playing with maps and spreadsheets and charts first. We’ve been lucky enough to have so many amazingly talented guests join us, too, to discuss their approaches and craft techniques.

How important is detail to you in creating an imaginary world?

Extremely! Details are what make a world feel lived-in and real. I always love an imaginary world that feels like you could go visit it, because the people there have full lives and accumulate all the detritus that goes along with living -- odd bits of furniture, children’s toys, food wrappers, fashion trends, all of that.

Tell us about the protagonists of The Bloodstained Shade. Who is Latona of the Vitelliae and how is she at the start of the book?

Latona is a mage of Spirit and Fire, blessed by Juno and Venus, and while she’s phenomenally talented, for most of her life, she’s kept her power suppressed. In the first book of the series, From Unseen Fire, it starts leaking out uncontrollably, and she ultimately realizes that she has to put it to use in order to keep it from overwhelming her. In Give Way to Night, she stumbles across a threat to the people of Aven and decides to put herself between it and them -- but doing so means challenging a lot of what people expect of her, as a patrician woman.

At the start of The Bloodstained Shade, we find her in a really dire condition. At the end of Give Way to Night, she was attacked by the Fracture mage Corinna, who put her into a sort of magical coma.

Tell us about Sempronius Tarren. Who is he and where does he find himself?

Sempronius Tarren is a man of great ambition and many plans. He believes he has a responsibility, bestowed upon him by the gods, to help Aven become the beating heart of a federation of cooperating nations. He has grand vision for the future -- and, perhaps, grand hubris as well. In pursuing the power he needs to enact this vision, he has kept secret his own magical gifts, because Aventan law prohibits mages from climbing the political ladder.


When The Bloodstained Shade begins, he’s in a winter fortress in Iberia, having recently lifted a siege on a city where some of Aven’s allies were penned in along with a small group of legionaries. His victory was incomplete, however, and his opponents are regathering strength. Ekialde, a war-king of a group of Iberians, has resorted to perfidious blood magic in his determination to purge all foreign influence from the land. Sempronius will have to deal with him before he can get home to Aven.

Corinna, leader of the banned Discordian cult, poses the greatest imminent threat to Aven. How much can you tell us about Corinna and the cult she follows?

Corinna is a Fracture mage, and she’s devoted herself to Discordia, goddess of strife and chaos. Her goal is destruction, and she believes in it with a total purity of spirit that’s both fascinating and horrifying.

I love writing Corinna because she’s such a mirror -- a cracked, splintered mirror -- for the protagonists. There are all these men around her thinking that they’re using her power for their own political ends, but she has her own agenda. Even though she’s doing terrible things, you sort of have to admire her dedication and fierceness. There’s a scene in The Bloodstained Shade where she basically says, “I’m not broken. The world didn’t do this to me; I did it to myself, and no one’s going to take that agency away from me.”

How far did the history - and mythology - of Ancient Rome influence you when you came to create this world?

So, so much. The social history, particularly, was my guide in developing Aven’s world, because I love thinking about how people across time have negotiated the thousand details of their daily lives. Though none of my characters have direct historical analogs, I took inspiration from many figures -- the Gracchi brothers, Cornelius Sulla, Germanicus, Agrippina Major, Fulvia, Cato, Cicero, and so many others.


As for the mythology, it forms the basis both of the magic and of the alternate world. Aventan magic is elemental and bestowed by the gods; different gods rule over different elements. As the Romans had not only the twelve Olympians but absolute buckets full of other gods, there are a lot of ways magical talent can manifest and be expressed! Then, Roman legend gave me one of this world’s major turning points: rather than quarreling over where to found their city and which of them should rule, Romulus and Remus determined to split their duties and reign together, settling not on the Palatine Hill as in our history, but on the Aventine -- thus, Aven, rather than Roma.

What about the role played by maps in bringing an imagined civilization to life?

I love maps so much! Just playing with them always gives me so many ideas for different directions a story could go. The entire Iberian plotline came from exploring the slightly-unreal map I was creating and imagining what stories might be happening within its borders.

How do you see the series evolving?

The characters are grappling with some big questions about how to structure a society, what role magic plays in that structure, who gets protected and privileged by the current paradigm, and what room there might be to challenge and reform that paradigm. As the story goes on, the factions wrestling for control are going to make bolder moves. Those who benefit from the system as-is will clench their fists around their control, and those who don’t are going to find out what they have to break in order to build something better.

Publishers Weekly refer to the importance of “multi-layered politics-both mundane and supernatural” to the series. What is the particular pleasure of writing – and reading about – such complex societies?


I love being able to give windows into lots of different peoples’ brains. No society is a monolith, and even within a faction, there can be different yet equally valid viewpoints on what to prioritize or how to achieve goals, how to negotiate what’s gained and what’s lost by decisions. I think political stories are most interesting when each side has logical concerns and defensible positions -- even the ones I wildly disagree with, and even if the policies they build out of those concerns are abhorrent to me. The conflict becomes so much juicier when no one’s entirely wrong.

Tell us about your role as Research Editor and Worldbuilding Specialist at Plato Learning, a company which runs mythology-themed summer camps. What happens on such a camp and what is your role?


We train young demigods to be heroes! I started working with Plato as the Quest Director at their camp in Richmond two summers ago -- and yes, that’s the best job title I’ve ever had. My job then was directing the immersive, interactive theatrical event that is the climax of each week: the Quest, where the campers have to uncover secrets, defeat monsters, and generally save the world from destruction. It’s basically LARPing -- they have foam swords, make cardboard shields, craft potions, and take the reins in deciding how the story plays out! It’s incredibly fun. My job now, having joined the company full-time, is helping to shepherd the development of the Quest stories for all the camps, as well as developing ways to boost our story engagement year-round.

You were Academic Resources Manager at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. How do your academic interests affect your writing or are they very different?

They’re inter-related, certainly. My whole life, really, has been the intersection of storytelling, education, and performance, and that was my focus at the ASC just as it is with Plato Learning.

My academic work taught me to be a good researcher, and that’s where I developed a lot of my language and communication skills, particularly my love of rhetoric. Because that work involved a lot of stagecraft, I also tend to think theatrically when I’m crafting scenes in my brain -- where I place characters in space, what “stage business” they’re doing while talking, things like that.


That work also gave me a greater appreciation for the importance of story to human life. We are story-making creatures, instinctively, and the tools of communication we develop to share those stories just enthrall me. Our brains do such cool things!

Have you got any other projects underway or are you focussing on The Aven Cycle?


I’m currently working on something that will draw heavily on my Shakespeare life, actually! It’s a second world fantasy, but that world will look a lot like early modern London, and it’s built around the idea that theatrical performances could literally create magic. Something so special happens in that space between the actor and the audience, especially in theatres with universal lighting, as Shakespeare’s playhouses had. They’re creating the story and all its attendant emotions together, and when it’s going well, you can feel the energy, buzzing about in the air. So in this project, I’m thinking about what might happen if that collective heightened emotion became a source for actual magical energy.

What do you like to read and are there any shows, films or games that you enjoy?

I read more within the fantasy genre than anything else, and I love big chonky epics full of complex characters, like Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga. I’ve been on a real historical murder mystery kick lately, though! Some of my favorite authors there are Deanna Raybourn, Katharine Schellman, and Sherry Thomas.


TV-wise, I’m hopelessly addicted to Dancing with the Stars and The Amazing Race. I also finally watched Andor and was completely enthralled. I’m a Star Wars geek from way back, and that show keyed into so many things I’ve always loved about that universe and its scope.


As for games, I love Mario Kart and the Civilization series, and I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs -- especially the Star Wars/Genesys system, but I’m currently in an ongoing campaign of Star Trek: Adventures that’s been wonderful fun.

Preorder The Bloodstained Shade here:
Apple | B&N | Kobo | Books2read

About Cass Morris:

Cass Morris is a writer and research editor living in central Virginia. Her debut series, The Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy. She is also one-third of the team behind the Hugo Award Finalist podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists. She currently holds the position of Research Editor and Worldbuilding Specialist at Plato Learning, a company which runs mythology-themed summer camps and other educational programming. Cass provides dramaturgical research and developmental editing for the camps' immersive, interactive theatrical experiences. Previously, she worked as Academic Resources Manager at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. She holds a Master of Letters in Shakespeare studies from Mary Baldwin University and a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at Mario Kart.

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