Jaleigh Johnson is the author of numerous Forgotten Realms novels, her most recent of which is Unbroken Chain: The Darker Road. She sat down recently to talk about darkness, emotional trauma, and ferocious battle—all the good things that come from writing about the shadar-kai.
Q. The Darker Road is the sequel to your novel, Unbroken Chain. Without any major spoilers, can you catch up those of us who haven't read the first one in a while? What's the peril?
I guess you could say Ilvani is the peril—she’s both in peril and she is the peril—heh, enigmatic enough? Ilvani came late to the story in Unbroken Chain, so almost as soon as I’d gotten confirmation that there was going to be a second book, I knew it would be hers. The shadar-kai witch comes face to face with the witches of Rashemen in order to confront a common threat—that’s the shell of it anyway, but there’s a lot of carryover from the first book too. Ashok and Ilvani are both trying to heal from the scars they received in Unbroken Chain, the physical and especially the emotional scars. They’re trying to find a way to move forward, but as with anything relating to the shadar-kai, their journeys are long, hard, and sometimes heartbreaking.
Q. Unbroken Chain was a very dark novel with some seriously adult themes, which one can assume carry over to the next book. How is it, writing in this dark place?
It can be enjoyable, challenging and stressful all at the same time. My editors at Wizards have trusted me and given me great freedom to explore the darker aspects of the shadar-kai, and I’m immensely grateful for that trust, but it comes with a lot of responsibility too. There’s a particular scene in Unbroken Chain—those who’ve read the book know which scene I’m talking about—that was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write. Depictions of the aftermath of rape, torture, and the trauma that comes from them, can be very triggering for people, so it’s all about striking a balance between offering an honest, hard look at the dark side of this society but at the same time not making the violence gratuitous. I credit my editor, Erin Evans, with being an incredible guide and sounding board for these concerns.
Q. You seem to be in the process of doing for shadar-kai what Bob Salvatore has done for drow, Elaine Cunningham for elves, etc. How do you feel about having such a dark, broody signature race?
I do sometimes wonder why the shadar-kai were given to me to write—those who know me know that I’m usually the polar opposite of dark and broody. Funny story, my dentist is a friend and a voracious reader of histories and biographies, and he’d been asking to read my books for a while, so I gave him a copy of Unbroken Chain when it came out, making sure to warn him that it probably wasn’t the type of book he was expecting. After he read it, he was kind of at a loss for words. He said I had an incredible imagination, but he couldn’t believe that a petite, quiet, polite young woman like me could have written “such bloodcurdling stuff,” to use his words. But really, the shadar-kai have been amazing to write about, developing their culture and society, asking the “what if?” questions about everything from their religion, government, and interrelationships to their chances of long-term survival as a people. The shadar-kai live on the knife’s edge in more ways than one, and exploring that through Ashok, Ilvani, Uwan, Vedoran, and the rest has been quite an unexpected joy.
Q. Let's talk about your main man, Ashok. Other than being a badass, this guy has some serious issues. Is he closer to resolving them? Are more character conflicts on the horizon? Where's he heading?
Heh, he does have the angst, poor thing. I think in some ways Ashok is closer to knowing what he wants and being comfortable with his place in the world. He believes in the idea of Ikemmu as a place where the shadar-kai can thrive under the right conditions, and he’s forged strong bonds with his companions in the city. They’ve become the center of his world. In other ways, though, he’s still conflicted, especially when it comes to his spiritual side. He’s still no friend of Tempus, and he continues to struggle with his feelings about the gods. He holds onto life so hard, living eternally in the moment, tempting death at the same time, and all the while trying to cope with the fear and uncertainty of what comes after. That spiritual struggle is what makes him most human and relatable, in my mind.
Q. On the subject of shadar-kai and their emotional extremes: call me a romantic, but I couldn't help but pick up on some tension between a few of your characters, even it wasn't overt. Do you plan to explore some of the brighter emotions, in addition to the dark ones?
I have had some people comment that Ashok needs a girlfriend—oh the angst. I do believe the shadar-kai are capable of the brighter emotions—the introduction to The Darker Road states a lot of my feelings on that point—the problem is, I don’t think Ashok is at a place yet where he can handle those emotions fully since so much of his life has been about violence and pain. I also see shadar-kai relationships as having a different focus than human ones, and I touch on this a bit in The Darker Road. Having said that, as I mentioned earlier, this book is a lot about healing, and I think there are some good scenes between Ashok and his companions that reflect this, the shadar-kai capacity for strong positive feeling.
Q. What's it like writing combats with a spiked chain?
About the Author:
Erik Scott de Bie is the author of numerous Forgotten Realms novels (see his next, Shadowbane, out in October), game design (including the forthcoming Neverwinter Campaign Guide) and quite a bit of short fiction, within and outside the setting. He’s a particular fan of dark fantasy, and drew on Johnson’s Unbroken Chain novels for his work on the Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set. He lives in Seattle, where he is married with cats.