For our ASH AND QUILL Blog Tour stop, author Rachel Caine shows us just how much The Great Library had changed!
Guest post by Rachel Caine
Thank you for inviting me to talk about Ash and Quill today! I’m going to do that by way of telling you a little bit about the evolution of the series over time, and give you some actual examples (gasp!) of the different starts it had. If you like seeing being the writer’s curtain, this is your chance!
Sometimes, an idea is so compelling, and yet so nebulous, that it floats around in my brain for quite a while. I can trace the first iteration of this particular idea way back to something I worked on, periodically, as early as 1987, if you can believe it. Those versions (thankfully!) don’t survive in any form I can access now, but I kept coming back to an idea of a fantasy-based world in which magic had a very central, administrative function, and had its own military arm. At that point, it was more about “magic” than it was linked to an alternate history idea, so it’s hard to even see the connection.
But the original title of the work in progress was “The Honey House,” and I envisioned it initially as series of linked short stories. The Honey House was the central clearing house where all the various factions of magic, and their supporting military and administrators, shared space. (It was built around an actual apiary, and the administrator of the entire compound had a magical ability to use the bees as weapons to enforce her will. Violate the rules, get stung.)
So here’s a selection from that draft of, oh, 2006 … and as you can see, it’s very much medieval fantasy-based.
The place of execution looked larger than he expected, even given the stories.
Scholar Jon Averil, feeling very small indeed, paused to stare up at the looming black outline of Blackhaven Keep. Even set in one of the wildest and most forbidding landscapes it had ever been his misfortune to traverse, the keep was remarkable for its lack of welcome — sheer, sharp walls, with a decidedly stubborn-looking turret. It was still a long, sheer climb to reach it, and already he was wishing that they could turn back to the relative, if dour, comfort of the town in the gray valley below.
His horse — a big rawboned gray, perfectly suited for the brutal pace of travel they’d been following these last few weeks — turned its head to try to nip at his knee. He controlled its ill temper with a gentle hand on the reins and heard a muffled, annoyed oath from behind as someone noted that he’d stopped.
A brown horse paced around on the narrow inside track, and Captain Kya Ferris’s face turned toward him in the dim predawn light. His breath plumed white as he sighed.
“Let’s just get on with it,” he said. “It’s been a long damn ride. The men are cold and tired, and there’s no good news waiting above or below. Waiting won’t improve matters.”
Jon grunted. “Mayhap. But I’m not made of iron and piss like the rest of you. This twists my guts.”
“Stop whinging. You’ll do what needs doing.”
He sighed, and another white cloud of breath tattered on the freezing wind. “Aye, I will, but I don’t have to rush to get to it, do I?”
“Yes,” Ferris said. “You do.” He was a tall man, gray-eyed and dark-haired, sporting a week’s growth of travel dirt as they all did. Not especially a handsome figure, but solid and strong. His eyes were his finest feature, silvery and deep and direct. No, his second finest, Jon reflected, as Ferris gave him the rare gift of a smile. Hearts melted, at that smile. Jon’s certainly did.
“Very well,” he said. “At least it’ll keep us from freezing our asses in the wind.”
“It’s not an ass. That’s a horse,” Ferris pointed out blandly. “I thought Scholars knew these things.”
Jon cursed him in four languages, rather well, and shifted his weight to let the gray horse know it was time to begin the long uphill pull to the castle. Behind him, he heard the clink of armor and creak of leather as the rest of Ferris’s Company followed. Horses’ hooves rattled loose debris down the slope. The road was hard-packed and well maintained, but still worryingly steep. Ferris twisted in his saddle and passed the word behind to his soldiers to go with care.
“I’ll be fine,” Jon said waspishly.
“I know you will. That nag is as surefooted as a goat, even if you’re as clumsy as a drunk on stilts.”
This, at least, was a blatant blank-faced lie. Only three days before, during one of their evening respites, Ferris had put him through dueling practice. Jon supposed Ferris was still angling for a rematch.
The memory of Ferris’s smile stayed with him, and led him to more distracting and far more private musings — not that he’d burden Ferris with them. It wouldn’t be prudent. Soldiers, especially those of Ferris’s rank, kept their romantic adventures — or misadventures — strictly off the road.
Sadly, Scholars didn’t have such luxury. Jon hadn’t seen home in years. When not actively missioning, he was riding circuit of the territories, conducting remedial training and administrative duties. The life of a Scholar was not as settled as that of a mere Librarian, no matter how senior.
He cast another veiled glance at Ferris, who was quiet and alert at his side. The other raised a silent eyebrow. Jon shook his head.
No, it wouldn’t do to even consider it. Especially now.
Especially in light of the grim job ahead.
They rode a while in silence, perhaps a quarter of an hour, perhaps more. The setting sun crept golden along the tops of the crags as nightfall advanced. The sky was a dark blue, very clear, and the wind continued to push in cold, steady gusts, flapping their heavy fur-lined cloaks. Most of the soldiers would be thinking about warm hearths, fresh food, comforts they’d left behind. None of that would await them above. If they were lucky, they’d have some relief from the wind and camp fires; if not, a hard bed of stone out in the open.
Ferris held up a hand and brought them to a halt. Behind them, the noises of the straggling column continued, gradually resolving to the nervous clops of standing horses, the creak of armor, and the heavy breathing of fifty soldiers, their horses and spare mounts.
“Gatehouse,” Ferris said, and nodded ahead. Jon blinked. He’d been studying the sunset, and so had missed the lantern hung across the trail. That would be the point of no return. Not that there had ever been any point of return. “Be polite, Jon.”
“I’m ever polite.”
“Oh, aye,” Ferris agreed, patently disbelieving it.
Ahead, the door of the gatehouse swung open, and a small party of armed and armored men spread out on the trail. It was still shadow-dark under the rocks, and one man in the opposing party unshuttered a lamp to illuminate the scene. The Blackhaven soldiers seemed professional enough, and well armed. That was good. A professional guard meant less chance of a mishap later on, when feelings ran high.
Jon dismounted, feeling the numbness in his legs burn as blood flow returned with a rush, and adjusted the weight of his thick black tabard. It was heavy leather, worked behind with chain armor for a discreet sort of protection, and on the breast in white was the symbol of the Scholar — a book, with the flame of knowledge hovering above.
However, the guard’s attention was fixed on Ferris, in the unerring instinct of one killer for another. Ferris’s campaign clothes were plain and well-worn, with the insignia of the Honey House in gold thread. His rank was simply denoted by the broad silver torc around his neck, the symbol of captaincy and lifetime service.
Ferris bowed. Jon mirrored him, felt a wincing stretch in his back, and let his hood drop back to bare his head to the freezing wind. Seemed but polite, as no one else was covered.
“I am Captain Kya Ferris, carrying royal letters,” Ferris said. “They go only into the hands of your Duke.”
The guard frowned, and Jon saw the man’s eyes move toward him. “You come with a Stormcrow. Bad news?”
Ferris’s face remained blank. “Scholar Averil’s business is ever his own.” He passed over the scroll, watched patiently as the guards pored over the unmistakable red wax impression and finally, after what seemed an endless muttering time, sent a coded lantern message to the castle and allowed them passage. They mounted again, and continued the long ride up.
“That was exciting,” Jon said, for lack of better.
Ferris watched his breath chase away, tattered white by the never-ending wind. “Oh, aye,” he said. “Bound to continue so. Does it bother you?”
Ferris jerked his head behind them. “Being looked on with distrust.”
“They’ve reason enough. I’m no mere Librarian, after all. Stormcrow is apt enough. Surely you’re used to distrust, as a soldier.”
“Surely,” Ferris agreed. “But I kill folk for a living. You only steal books. Seems hardly fair.”
So … can you see the DNA of the story in here, and how it changed and grew? The central relationship between Scholar Wolfe and Captain Santi is there, though I’ve completely changed the characters. The idea of confiscating books is there, though not yet fully defined. The setting is Generic Medieval, though I do think at least I got some use out of the weather there.
It’s also very much an adult story vs. YA, because the main characters are likely in their late thirties/early forties. It doesn’t have the flavor or atmosphere of The Great Library, yet the core idea–confiscation of illegal books–is still there. I kept moving back and forth, seeking the perfect grounding for the story. This obviously wasn’t it.
Here’s another snippet that’s a bit illuminating:
“You wish to view the books,” the lady said, and her eyes moved from Jon’s face to study the device on his tabard. “Of course, honored Scholar. We will comply with the law. Please follow me.”
He exchanged a glance with Ferris and fell in behind the woman’s trailing blue skirts. They passed through the vast round chamber of the inner keep. This was the dining hall, floor thick with rushes to keep out the damp and chill, tapestries of rich colors and strange designs on the walls. Blackhaven favored reds and golds, he found. The tables were long, polished, carefully maintained and no doubt as ancient as the keep itself. A massive hearth at the end blazed against the cold, and as they passed by it, he smelled fresh-cut applewood.
Behind the dining hall, a closed door. The lady took a massive ring of keys from the belt on her waist and unlocked it, swung it wide, and went in to light candles.
As with most keep’s libraries, this was small — probably no more than twenty volumes, painstakingly assembled through the generations. Jon took the first lit taper and went to the shelf, pulling down the first three books to lay them on the reading stand.
“I thank you for your kindness, my lady,” he said, putting on his lenses. She was a shadow near the door, next to Ferris. “I shall not require you to stay.”
She didn’t move. He looked up, over the tops of his spectacles, and could not make out her expression.
He heard her breath catch, and saw her falter. Saw Ferris’s hand flash out to steady her. After a moment, she pulled away and gave them both a shaking nod.
“Find something, Scholar,” she said then, in a low and trembling voice. “Please find something you can take back to the Great Library. That may be our only immortality.”
“It is the only sort of immortality for any of us,” Jon said, as gently as possible. “Flesh fails, my lady. Knowledge endures.”
Kind of neat. Full of stuff I’d write differently now, but there you go.
You might see shadows of these events pop up later in short stories about The Great Library, but it’ll be vastly changed, of course; I just thought you might enjoy seeing part of the story evolution!
The Great Library series itself has evolved, even after the publication of the first and second books, which is an odd thing to admit. I had, I thought, a firm idea of just how large the story was (and let’s be honest, I’ve been doing this work a long time, and can pretty accurately guess how many books it takes to tell the story I’ve imagined!).
But this series? It surprised me. When I began writing Ash and Quill, the third book (July 11!), I began to run into real problems. I realized I hadn’t properly understood the scope and practicality of what they had to overcome, and what real change was going to look like. Try as I might–and WOW did I try!–I could not fit the series into three books.
Which is a bit of bad news when you’ve confidently told people it will be three books, and also, your contract is for three books.
I had to rush back to my publisher and explain the problem, and they were very kind and understanding, and extended the contract to cover five books instead of three. Which means that I get to tell the story the way it deserves, and it will be the full, rich experience I wanted to give my readers.
And Ash and Quill is out July 11, 2017!
I hope you’ll join me for the rest of the epic journey.
Questions or comments? Leave them here, or you can contact me at via my website (rachelcaine.com), on Twitter @rachelcaine, or via the Facebook fanpage, rachelcainefanpage.
Reading has always been magical. I’m glad to be a reader, fan and writer, and to be in the community with you. Thank you.