Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: Jessica Cluess

Jessica Cluess is a graduate of both Northwestern University and the Clarion Writers Workshop. After college, she moved to Los Angeles, where she served coffee to the rich and famous while working on her first novel in the Kingdom on Fire series, A Shadow Bright and Burning. These days, she sits around thinking about dragons far too much, and enjoys it. You can find her online at jessicacluess.com and on Twitter at @JessCluess.

House of Dragons, the first book of your new YA series, follows five outcasts from five royal houses who compete in the Trial for the dragon throne to rule Etrusian. Each outcast is accompanied by their dragon. Their call to the Trial is a departure from tradition, because it’s usually the oldest, most prepared children of each house who are summoned. What’s the origin story of the premise?

To be honest, the genesis of this project was a bit unusual. I was coming up on the end of my first series with my publisher. I wrote a pitch for a new series and sent it to them. They bought the idea, and my editor and I started work. But after a few months had passed and we found ourselves going in circles, we made a mutual decision to shelve it and agreed that I would write something else. My editor and the publisher couldn’t have been nicer about it, but I was definitely panicking. I was afraid I’d never finish another project.

So I woke up on the third day after we’d agreed to find something new, and I was laying in bed, cycling through my now-customary first thoughts upon waking: “You’ve made a huge mistake, you’ll never be published again, you have no other ideas.”

In the past, I’ve gotten my ideas for projects from an image that comes out of nowhere. The whole of my first series was inspired when I imagined a girl in Victorian dress shooting fire out of her hands. The images don’t have to make sense. So all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I got the image of this tall, regal girl in ornate dress picking up a sword and slicing off her sister’s head. I instantly sat up and wondered where this was going. Granted, it’s a real long way from picturing a girl slicing someone’s head off to a book about trials and dragons with five protagonists. But the image was all I needed—the acorn, basically.

The premise of five outcast weirdoes competing for the throne came about while my editor and I tossed the idea ball back and forth. We agreed that a trial of some kind would be a lot of fun to write. However, there are a lot of contest and trial books out there, and just having it be a dragon empire didn’t give the book enough of a hook. That was when I thought about what it would be like if I or someone else similarly ill-equipped got shoved into a contest for the throne of an empire. Then I considered how the least likely candidates would fare in such a situation. Then my editor observed this was like the cast of The Breakfast Club in a fantasy world, and I knew what I had to do.

I’ve seen this book described as The Breakfast Club with dragons meets Three Dark Crowns. I’ve also seen it compared to the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Do you see it falling in the same vein as George R. R. Martin’s books?

Nowadays, anytime you have a fantasy novel told from multiple points of view that deals with a succession crisis and involves dragons, you’re going to get compared to George R. R. Martin. I would say that if you like those elements of Martin’s work, you’ll probably enjoy my book.

However, there are major differences between us. I’m writing for teens, and therefore, the graphic sex, sexual violence, and incredibly detailed descriptions of feasts aren’t there in a way they are for a Martin book. I should also mention that the climax of my book involves a blond ruler burdened with glorious purpose riding on dragonback while roasting a capital city. When my friends and I watched the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, wherein a blond ruler burdened with glorious purpose rides on dragonback while roasting a capital city, everyone kept sneaking glances at me as I sat there with my head in my hands.

You like taking fantasy tropes and turning them on their head. In your Kingdom on Fire books, you put a new spin on the Chosen One trope. What trope(s) did you want to subvert or flip upside down in House of Dragons?

Subversion’s a dirty old word these days, and kind of rightly so. Again, see the final season of Game of Thrones for why everyone is so sick of it. When I did the “They think she’s the Chosen One but she’s not” thing in Kingdom on Fire, I did it less as a “screw you” to the trope and more out of simple curiosity. “Well, what would happen if they picked the wrong Chosen One?” was what kept me interested. I see what I do as less upending fantasy tropes and more looking at them from a different perspective. In Kingdom on Fire, while the heroine of the series isn’t the Chosen One, there is a Chosen One and she does save the day.

I’m not overly fond of subversion because I think it has a certain bratty quality when done poorly. This’ll get me pilloried, but that was one thing I didn’t like about the movie Knives Out. I appreciated that it wanted to take the Agatha Christie big house murder mystery and look at it through a new lens. I think that’s a good idea, but in execution, it felt like “Marvel as I put a spin on these tired old tropes, except sometimes I don’t.” I think we forget that Agatha Christie could out-mystery any of us any day of the week. The woman knew what she was doing because she spent a lifetime doing it. She codified those tropes, because they were highly effective and because she understood why they were effective. Like, the filmmaker understood that an inspector gives a big speech at the end explaining the mystery, but I don’t think he fully understood why, when the inspector isn’t the POV protagonist, it’s not that satisfying anymore.

I am by no means saying you should never experiment. Innovation is necessary to pump new life’s blood into a genre and keep tropes from becoming clichés. Different perspectives offer up a variety of ideas that we might never have considered before. I’m saying that going toe to toe with a master, or at least playing in her sandbox and claiming her toys as your own, requires a bit of humility. If you’re going to subvert, you have to understand not just what you’re subverting but what it does and why it exists in the first place. This is a super, super, super long way of saying I am not smart enough to “subvert” anything. It’s more that I like to play with tropes. As for House of Dragons, there is something I’m doing in terms of tropes, but I can’t say what it is because it’s the endgame of book two.

Ah, fair enough. No spoilers for book two. I’ll say, though, that it looks like one of your favorite tropes is the girl who has to hide her powers—if anyone finds out, she faces fatal consequences. It’s the case for Henrietta Howell, who can light herself on fire, in Kingdom on Fire. So it goes for Emilia of Aurun in House of Dragons. She harbors the magic of chaos, which can cause destruction or certain death for any nearby living creature, animal or human.

I mean, I’m very unoriginal. On top of that, I see a lot of myself in those types of characters. I know what it’s like to believe that you can’t share what you think or feel, that your natural impulses are wrong. Also, a deadly secret is a real good way to spice up the drama. That’s important.

When it comes to character, do you make a distinction between trope and archetype?

Certain character archetypes keep showing up in different stories across different cultures, because they get at fundamental truths of the human condition. As a storyteller, it’s useful to have a familiarity with those archetypes, because they help ensure your characters don’t all sound and think and act the same. Because House of Dragons is set up as the fantasy Breakfast Club, we start off with those very clearly defined character roles: the Nerd, the Jock, the Outsider, the Delinquent, the (murder) Princess. Over the course of the series, I’m trying to make it so that the characters become messier. What happens when the Nerd can’t fix things with her knowledge? What happens when the Jock needs to do something other than fight? How do you move outside of the archetype while still being yourself? As far as archetype vs. trope, I suppose the primary difference is the difference between “the Hero” and “the reluctant hero.”

Emilia is cast as the Nerd who can resort to some dirty moves during the Trial. Ajax (the Delinquent) is the jackass who steals. Hyperia (the Princess) is out for blood, even her own sister’s in order to compete in the Trial. That leaves Lucian (the Jock), the warrior who’s sworn never to lift a sword again, and Vespir (the Outsider), the dragon trainer who had to leave her girlfriend behind. These last two are the most noble-hearted of the group. Did you always have this in mind when working out the group dynamic?

I love calling Ajax a jackass. It is so apt.

I didn’t sit down and say to myself, “Okay, I need me a couple of sweethearts to counterbalance the assholery.” It was more like as the story went along, I saw what I’d need in order to move the plot forward, and who would need to do it.

I will say that I designed Lucian to be noble-hearted and earnest pretty deliberately. I see a lot of male protagonists, in particular romantic male protagonists, who are snarky and cocksure and kind of edgy. I certainly understand why that is appealing, but I wanted to present a genuinely kind, if still somewhat misguided young man who looks out for the people around him and doesn’t have an angle. As for Vespir, the moment I started writing her I went, “You are my cinnamon roll, you are too good for this world.” She has her flaws, of course, because otherwise she’d be insufferable. But I like writing people who are just genuinely good.

One of the lessons, if you will, that more grimdark fantasy seems to want to impart is that being a good person is the mark of a sucker, and that only once you grow up and get wise to the callous cruelty of life can you succeed. I see this as untenable and, frankly, as juvenile as the idea that life is a field of buttercups. As bad as the world is sometimes, and it can be so bad, if lots of people weren’t fundamentally decent we would be living in a reality that is even worse than I hope we can imagine. Sweet, kind people—who have flaws, yes—do exist, and they don’t always come last. I think it’s important that not everyone is a shark.

As the protagonists find themselves working together during the Trial, themes of imperialism and the spoils of war emerge. The priest and priestess who run the Trial are all for upholding the status quo of expanding Etrusia. Not out of defense, but because it’s always been done and has never been questioned. What do you think about critiquing imperialism with characters who have to work together instead of with characters who have to compete against each other?

One of the main reasons I wanted to make the magic system of this world order vs. chaos is that I think life is about achieving a balance between those two, not trying to crush one or the other. In book one, we see the problems that result from being a slave to order and tradition. One of the major issues the priests have, as you’ve said, is that they aren’t upholding tradition because it’s relevant and useful. They’re upholding it because it’s the way things were done in the past, and since things worked out back then, they believe they’ll work out exactly the same now. Of course, that’s not how life operates. Tradition is important, as is having knowledge of your past and understanding it. But you can’t live in the past, and you have to always be open to receiving new information and adjusting yourself to that information. That doesn’t mean you blindly accept anything new that comes down the pike. Book two will delve into the issues surrounding chaos and radicalization. But the moment you become complacent, you become unable to grow and to change.

So to get back to the five kids and their increased understanding of the major flaws that exist in their world, it’s sort of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The teens all have different issues with one another, and Hyperia is undoubtedly the biggest antagonist amongst them, but there comes a point where they realize that this world is more complex and troubled than they imagined and that the adults, at least the ones who currently have the most power, are not helping matters. There’s this moment of awakening that happens to all of them. Part of growing up is realizing that the world isn’t as easy to digest as you thought. It’s one thing to fight a bunch of other people to win a throne, but when you realize that you’re essentially rats in a maze, should you still be competing?

So, about Hyperia: With her cutthroat MO, she comes off as imperialism personified. Of the five, she extols the power of Etrusia the most. Lucian makes an astute critique of her: she takes orders without a second thought, without considering the implications. She could easily be the evil baddie of the group, but spending time with the others seems to mellow her out a bit. How did you strike a balance between her cutthroatness and her human side?

It’s important to understand where a character is coming from. That doesn’t necessarily mean you condone that character’s actions, but you have to see them as a human being. It would’ve been easy, maybe, to make Hyperia a guard dog of the empire solely because she’s evil, man. But I think it’s the job of fiction to empathize with everyone, not just those on the side of the angels. Empathize is not inherently the same as sympathize, of course, but you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of someone you fundamentally disagree with and see what shaped that person. Even the vilest among us have admirable qualities.

One thing I discovered about Hyperia early on is that she’s actually, in a weird way, the most selfless of the protagonists. She does horrifying things, like killing the only person she loves, in order to perform her duty. She is willing to sacrifice everything she cares about for the sake of doing the “right thing.” She wants only to serve the empire and the people within it. She doesn’t want to be empress because it will make her happy; she sees it as what’s expected and right. I also didn’t want to turn Hyperia into an ice cold Murder Girl. Killing her sister isn’t easy for her. She struggles horribly with it throughout the book. She’s not a sociopath, and she’s not without feeling. The fact that she has the capacity to love makes her, to me, even more chilling when she does horrible things. She wants to be conscientious and dutiful, and both of those are good qualities. The problem is that she takes them to an extreme, and I’m very wary of extremes. You cannot excuse what she does, but hopefully you can understand why she does it. The people who committed most of the great evils of history absolutely believed they knew what was right and were willing to pay any price to achieve it.

Talking about imperialism also means talking about place and setting. The fantasy Breakfast Club tours throughout a European-esque empire of dragons and magic. What’s your historical reference point?

While House of Dragons on the surface resembles a secondary fantasy world, it’s our world if the Roman Empire never happened and a dragon empire rose instead. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice details like Karthago is Carthage, or the Hibrian Isles are the British Isles. Hyperia even summarizes the story of Coriolanus to the gang at dinner since she’s a Volscia, and Aufidius, the Volsci leader, is supposed to be her ancestor. That means my influences were all up in the air. I was popping around and grabbing what I liked. Having the dragon riders start in the Italian peninsula and then work their way out through Europe and Asia and Africa allowed me to have multiple cultures on display, and the riders marrying into the different areas they settled allowed me to have a diverse variety of people among the noble families competing for the throne. Lucian is from northern Africa, while Vespir and her girlfriend, Antonia, are Mongolian. But the way the world’s constructed means that race doesn’t create barriers; the class system does.

I love the details you put into the dragons. So many different kinds! And as we see in Vespir’s scenes in the aeries, there is a proper way to groom and take care of them. Dragons also reveal social hierarchy, the best ones, of course, being reserved for royalty. They can even experience flameout when they’re overworked. How did you come up with this part of the worldbuilding?

Making up the dragon stuff was the most fun I had on this book. These creatures are simultaneously symbols of great status and also, like, flying horses. Coming up with the practical Care and Keeping of Your Dragon was the best. I loved giving them little comfort goats for company. I’m a simple bitch. All I want is an awesome pet. I also liked juxtaposing how grand they’re perceived to be with how scary, goofy, bratty, and even cuddly they are. The difference between what is expected and what actually is becomes one of the running themes of the series. When it came to most things dragon related, I simply asked myself what would be fun to see. I also looked at the parameters of the story, of what needed to happen, and then asked myself how the dragons could work into that.

This being your second series, how does the experience of putting it together compare to writing your first?

In some ways, it’s easier, and in some ways it’s much harder. It’s easier in that I have better instincts for what’s working, what’s a plot dead end, etc. I understand how to save myself time and energy. It’s harder in that every time I sit down to write a book, I remember how difficult it is, how long the journey, and how much I’ll hate it before I’m done. House of Dragons 2 will be my fifth published novel, and I still feel like I’m relearning how to write whenever I open my laptop.

At the start of your career, you’d written an adult fantasy novel that didn’t get any response before you moved on to young adult fantasy. How has the YA crowd been treating you?

It’s five books in, so I can say they’ve treated me very nicely! It was so fortuitous that my adult fantasy didn’t get published, both because it could’ve been better and because the YA world has been so kind to me. I’ve made some of my best friends here.

What have responses from young readers been like to your writing? Do you have any favorites?

I was at an event a couple of years ago where this adorable little eleven-year-old girl came up and very shyly told me that A Shadow Bright and Burning was her favorite book. I melted. My first series was written for the younger YA crowd, like twelve to fifteen, because it was the story I would’ve wanted at that age. I’m always deeply grateful when an adult tells me they liked my series, but when a kid tells me that, it’s just the best feeling, because I wrote it for them.

So when can we expect House of Dragons 2 to come out? What can you tell us about it?

We’re aiming right now for summer 2021 to publish. I’m making the final big structural changes to the book as we speak, so I’m confident we’ll hit that deadline. As for book two, I can say that if book one was about winning a throne, book two is about keeping it.

Do you have other writing projects in the works?

I have another young adult fantasy I’m sketching out whenever I have time. I call it my “cannibal vampire mafia crime fantasy bodyguard romance,” which always gets a reaction of “Huh?” I also have several thousand words written of an adult fantasy novel, which I love. I hope to God it sells.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about House of Dragons?

I know that a reader has gotten to A Certain Moment in my book, because I always receive a text message that just says, “HOW COULD YOU?!??!?!” Then I laugh and make another martini out of children’s tears.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.