Sunday, February 19, 2023

Interview with Alex Thornbury, author of The Bridge to Magic (The Sundered Web Trilogy, Book 1)

Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview Alex Thornbury, whose novel The Bridge to Magic is released on February 21.

The Bridge to Magic is your debut fantasy novel. What can you tell us about the story and what inspired you to write it?

The Bridge to Magic is an exploration of an idea that came to me quite suddenly. What would you do if faced with an approaching terror; fight and hope, be resigned to your fate, or take the path to unknown lands and an uncertain future? What would hold you back? What would drive you across that menacing bridge? 

This concept resonated with me through my own experience of leaving everything behind and journeying to an unfamiliar, red land filled with deadly creatures, both on land and in the sea. I quit my job in London and travelled to a new life with nothing but a backpack stuffed with clothes, a few books and small keepsakes. ‘What if you don’t like it there?’ my friends would ask. And in that question, I heard their deep-seated fear of the unknown. Surely, I’d simply jump on a plane and return. But what if I could not? Would I still go?  

Always we find reasons not to do something, not to reach for a dream or seek a better life. It might be a dream of leaving your job and opening that coffee shop you always wanted, or a move to live by the sea. It takes tremendous courage and strength to leave everything behind: family, friends, security and the familiar. And we look at that insurmountable bridge across the wide chasm to a place we cannot clearly define, to an uncertain future we both long and dread, and we nurse the fear of losing our path back, of making everything worse. And how deep is that fear? In The Bridge to Magic, the approaching horror born of magic that kills all in its path, the Blight, tests it.

What made you decide to write full time and what were you doing before that?

I always loved writing, even as a child. But the true desire to be an author came to me in my teens when I faced my mortality and wanted my life to go beyond the span of years we are given. I always thought there was something notable and perhaps a little romantic about stories outliving their authors. So I dreamt of one day writing a book that would carry a part of me far into the future. But, as with everyone else, work and everyday life got in the way of dreams.

I worked as a materials scientist for 20 years with a career spanning R&D in academia and industry. During that time, I continued to write stories and started many books I never finished. 

Then, some 12 years ago, I found myself between jobs. Feeling suddenly unclogged from everyday work concerns, stories poured into my mind. It was then that I sat down and wrote my first book. It flowed out of me as if the floodgates of my dreams had been ripped open. Unfortunately, the first manuscript was very much akin to the landscape left behind by the said flood. It needed a lot of work to repair it. Still, I never looked back. Even now, after years of hard work, I am still obsessed with writing. It is my driving passion in life. 

Who is Elika, the protagonist of The Bridge to Magic, and what can you tell us about her world?

Elika is an orphan, who was left behind as a young child by her parents when they crossed the bridge. She does not recall whether they made it across or perished and continues to hope that maybe they are waiting for her on the other side. 

For a short time, she had a guardian, but fate found her abandoned on the streets of the city where humanity is likened to weakness. She was rescued and taught to survive by a gang of orphans, to whom she remains fiercely loyal. Many of her actions are shaped by her loyalty to them, as well as the numbing fear of the bridge and what lies beyond it. When she discovers that powerful magic is hidden within her, secrets of her past begin to emerge. The people who left her behind might not be her parents, and worse still she may not even be human. 

The story is set in the dying world, six hundred years after the Sundering War between men and the guardians of magic. The war ended when a demi-god Syn’Moreg sundered their realm, giving half to men and half to magic. Since then, the Blight has been creeping across the remaining lands, killing all in its path. Now it approaches Terren, the last refuge of mankind where Elika lives. Terren is a crowded city, populated by many different types of folk, with their own culture and language, all vying for space. As the Blight slowly claims the lands, food is growing more and more scarce, and survival often triumphs over humanity. 

What is the Blight and why has magic itself been sent into exile?

No one truly knows what the Blight is, until Elika discovers its secret at the end. It is an invisible wall of some intangible power spanning the known world and slowly marching across the land. Only sudden death and decay are signs of it. Nothing appears to stop it. Only retreat is an option. Thus, we come to the last city and the last pocket to hide in, with only the Bridge offering an escape. 

Throughout their history, magic was seen as being wild, untamed and destructive. It came from the ethereal sphere of life and is an alien intruder in the domain of man. It is the pestilence that upsets the natural order of their world. As the story proceeds, we learn that what men call magic is a creature in its own right, ruled by the tsaren, its guardians. It is blamed for every natural and unnatural ill that befalls their world, including the Blight. After the Sundering War, the tsaren and magic fled across the chasm to the other half of the world, leaving this half for men to live in. 

What happens when Elika discovers that she has magical powers? What dilemma does she face?

Destroy every echo of magic and you will stop the Blight, or so the priests say. When Elika discovers that she is harbouring a powerful echo of magic, she feels like a traitor to mankind. To save the last pocket of humanity, she must either destroy the magic within her or sacrifice herself by crossing the Bridge to the Deadlands. Except, she is terrified of the Bridge, and of the fate that awaits her there. She wants to live in her own familiar world, and she is certain the Bridge would never allow her to cross alive. But she also wants to save mankind and those she loves from a certain end. Slowly, she comes to realise that she cannot have both; she cannot stay and save them. 

The story is described as a “dystopian fantasy”. What does that mean to you?

To be honest, I had not considered this story to be a dystopian fantasy, and I probably would not call it that myself. To my mind, Dystopia and Utopia are at the extremes of social order systems, and perhaps akin to the black and white concepts of good and evil. I am not certain this story is truly a dystopian fantasy, not in the way like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley’s Brave New World. Like many fantasy stories, I think The Bridge to Magic simply mirrors certain dystopian elements of our past and present world. The governance and social order are not too different to that of our own world, where good and bad are often balanced. But then, I am not a philosopher or a literary expert, so happy to let others decide whether or not it’s dystopian. 

Is the story pure grimdark or does it contain elements of hope?

I would say hope is the major element of the story. It is the light that breaks through its grimdark nature. When faced with an extreme threat, it is only natural that hope or its absence becomes a dominant force guiding people’s thoughts and actions. In the end, both those who lose hope and those who are driven by it come to face the bridge. Some seek escape, others seek a new future. The two are not always the same. 

Who are your favourite authors or greatest influences in the Fantasy genre and why?

Without a doubt, Robin Hobb is my most favourite author, and also my greatest influence. I love her style of storytelling, their character-driven nature, the elegance of her writing and the subtlety in her world-building. She made me want to be a better writer, to focus on the characters, to give them their unique voice, and let them lead you through the world. Whenever I gleefully praised myself over what I had written, I would open one of her books, sigh and slink away back to my computer to delete, delete, delete and try again. 

For the same reasons, I am also a fan of Patrick Rothfuss and George Martin. Edgar Allan Poe also had an influence on my writing. I particularly enjoy dark and forbidding tales, and that creeping, chilling sensation of terror as you read them. I like to incorporate those elements into all my stories. 

Has your love of and interest in science found an outlet in your writing?

I think my writing is more of an escapism from science. In our mundane world, there are boundaries within which I work, the physics of the possible and the impossible. Through my stories, I can break through those boundaries into another world where anything and everything is possible, where the different realities are limitless and real enough to touch. The type of realities where I can feel the texture of dragon scales, hear the sleepy rumbling in its throat and sense the tingling of magic pulsing up my arm. It is the reason I love fantasy; my mind is free and unconstrained. 

What about The Sprite Catcher, which is scheduled for publication in July 2023? What can you tell us about the novel?

This one is my true literary baby. It was meant to be my debut and the book that outlived me. I have been working on it for 12 years. When it was time to release it, I got cold feet. So I decided to take a break from it and wrote the Bridge to Magic as my debut. 

The Sprite Catcher is very different to The Bridge to Magic. It is set in an empire divided between two races of man, the short-lived Sapiens and the long-lived Luvidi. Magic is ever-present but only mastered by the elusive third race, the Elexes.  

Alaneas, an Elexes, is alone of his kind, who wants only acceptance from the world of man. Then he learns that his destiny is to tread the dark path of the Sprite Catcher, for he alone can catch and imprison the ethereal, child-like sprites. To do that, he must kill their human keepers, as their life essences are bound. To the rest of the world, the Sprite Catcher is deemed to be an evil shadow who hunts the light, and there are powers who oppose and try to kill him. Though the sprites appear to be benign, mischievous creatures of light, it is whispered that long ago they were instrumental in the destruction of an ancient race of magic wielders. Alaneas seeks to unravel the truth of their origin and why the Ancients of the world fear and revere these child-like creatures. 

As Alaneas delves deeper into the shadow-world, he realises the task will claim more than he is willing to surrender, for to save the light, he must embrace the dark. And can he sacrifice the woman he loves to entrap the sprite that empowered her rise to emperor's consort?

You grew up in England, where you loved history and castles, but moved to Australia, a very different country and landscape. How did that change come about and how did it affect your writing?

Having lived in chilly — though beautiful beyond words — Scotland for 7 years as a student, I felt like I needed a dramatic change in weather. So we came here 17 years ago for the sunshine and the lifestyle Australia offered. My hubby is also a scientist, and in our field of work, there were many more opportunities here than in the UK, primarily because of the mining activity. A decade ago, we set up our scientific consultancy business with mining and their supporting companies as our clients. This transition from full-time to part-time work gave me much more time to write and learn the craft of storytelling. Crossing that bridge to Australia allowed me to achieve my life’s ambition. Without a doubt, I would not be where I am now had I not made the journey. 

As well as Fantasy, what other genres do you enjoy and why?

I am fond of regency, piracy and fantasy romance, especially where there is a good dose of humour and wit. Unfortunately, they are also rather distracting to my own writing, as they are hard to put down. There is a romantic inside us all, I guess. 

I enjoy the classics from the 1800’s in horror, gothic and folklore genres. In particular, I am a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. I love reading atmospheric tales in the dark by the fireside with a glass of blood-red wine in hand. Now and then, when some strange literary whim takes me, I like to bask in the sunshine with a book of poetry from different eras, mostly the 1600-1800s. I enjoy beautiful, evocative writing that can make your heart race with some intangible emotion. 

Are you working on a sequel to The Bridge to Magic?

Absolutely. Book 2 is titled The Rogue Mage. The first draft is written in its entirety and is now being edited. I am working to a deadline of December 2023 as the release date. The cover for The Rogue Mage will be revealed in a few weeks. It is stunning; designed by Alejandro Colucci. I am enjoying writing and editing the story as much as I did the first book. The sequel continues Elika’s adventure in the new lands, where she finds the world ruled by mages, and men are born into indentured bondage. Elika accepts that her magic is a part of her and decides to use it to help mankind fight against their oppressors. But dabbling in powers she does not understand, draws the attention of the guardians of magic, and the dreaded demi-god Syn’Moreg.

Why is the series named “The Sundered Web Trilogy”?

It is named after the main underlying premise of the trilogy. When Syn’Moreg sundered the world in half, he also sundered the Great Web of life binding the three spheres of existence. The chasm which Eika must cross to the other side is the rupture in the fabric of life and magic. The consequences of this, and the reason for Syn’Moreg’s destruction of the world, will be further explored in Book 2. Elika will soon discover that her past is linked with the Sundering Wars and the bridge across the chasm. She will learn that she may be the key to mending the Great Web. But first, she needs to confront the spider who guards it in the Abyss.

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About Alex Thornbury:

Alex Thornbury grew up in Cheshire UK, and developed a deep love of history and fantasy thanks to the many castles she visited as a child. Though she grew up to be an Alchemist by trade, she never stopped fantasizing about other worlds, dragons and epic battles. She has abandoned her Alchemy and potion making career, and is now a full time author of high fantasy. After all, who does not love to build new worlds and meet its wondrous inhabitants?

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