In the world of publishing, there are only a few truths that all writers seem to agree on: Support your fellow writers. Don’t check your Goodreads. And your sophomore novel will be the hardest you’ll ever write.
When I started writing City of Bastards, the sequel to my debut Royal Bastards, I’d hoped I’d prove the exception to that last one. After all, writing had always come easily to me, and I was incredibly excited to revisit the Kingdom of Noveris, to see what happened next to Tilla and Zell and the rest of the bastards. And I had a grand plan for the book, and a dozen exciting set-pieces, and an explosive ending that I couldn’t wait to get into. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out? Everything. City of Bastards is the hardest book I’ve ever written by far, the most I’ve ever struggled as a writer, a labor of sweat, tears, and whiskey. It taught me a tremendous amount about writing, publishing and myself, but now, as the book nears release, I couldn’t be prouder of how it turned out.
Some of the challenges came from the inevitable realities of trying to write a contracted book during a debut year. Not to splash too much water on aspiring writer’s dreams, but your debut year is when the reckless, unstoppable joy-ride of hopes meets the crushing wall of reality. As someone who bases his sense of self-worth way too much on the approval of others, debut year proved a brutal gauntlet of emotional challenges: learning how to do book events, navigating the intricacies of social networks, balancing ‘building a brand’ with preserving mental health, and of course, the Sisyphean struggle of wanting to read reviews and then being crushed after reading a bad review. Just getting through debut year proved way harder than I’d imagined; writing a book on top of that pushed me to the breaking point.
But that’s just the external publishing side. On a book level, City of Bastards also brought with it a host of new challenges as I attempted to complicate the narrative and deepen the world of Noveris. Royal Bastards, the first book in the series, is, in a lot of ways, more straightforward: pitched as meets Game of Thrones, it tells the story of Tilla, the bastard daughter of a powerful lord, trapped between the glamorous world of the nobility and the commoner’s life she’s destined for. After sneaking out of a feast with a crew of fellow bastards, including exiled warrior Zell and clingy nerd Miles, Tilla witnesses her father commit a brutal murder and is forced to flee, framed from the crime.
With City of Bastards, I wanted to go deeper and darker, to avoid the sequel trap of repeating the first and instead find a new story to tell in this world; I probably rewatched two dozen times. I’ve always loved fantasy novels set entirely in a single city, so I decided to forgo the journey-through-the-Province structure of the first book in favor of a murder mystery in the glamorous capital city, Lightspire. I also wanted to get even messier and more ambiguous with the politics, to highlight the way national ideologies are built on shared lies, on the way idealistic groups can be co-opted by sinister and exploitative leaders. And I wanted to dive deep into my characters’ turmoil and grief, into the emotional struggle of living in a society that forced them to always hide who they really were.
All of those proved to be incredibly difficult. The mystery-turned-political-thriller plot kept falling apart under its intricacy and weight. The messy politics turned out even messier than I’d imagined, especially in the light of the political landscape of 2017. And the turmoil of the character’s states was hard to dive into with the weight of everything else, especially when they made terrible choices or paved the way for tragedy.
But now that the book is done and nearing release, I can look on it (and the journey to write it) with both satisfaction and pride. It took a lot of work, a lot of rewriting and revising (not to mention brilliant insights from my brilliant editor), but the final book really is what I hoped it would be. I love how the mystery turned out, how the politics came together, how the characters suffer and come out stronger and wiser. I love the new world-building, like the new cultures we meet and the secrets of magic that we discover. And there’s also an action scene where a teleporting mage gets stabbed with a jagged board, and I love the hell out of that.
City of Bastards was a book that pushed me to my limits as a writer, and I can’t wait to share it with the world. And now… on to Book 3!