Sarah Beth Durst knows the spirits in the trees.
As you will read in the interview below, it is oftentimes our connection with the natural world that leads to the best fantasy ideas.
It is also the reason author Terry Brooks loved The Queen of Blood. As his webmaster, we talk about books every week. I’m usually reading the same novel that I was the previous week, being so busy. But Brooks is a voracious reader, finishing several books in a matter of days.
Two months ago, he gushed about The Queen of Blood, describing the nature spirits, the massive trees, and the compelling characters. He gave the book a blurb, something he doesn’t do for just any book. “What a great story! A truly wonderful fantasy novel which doubles as an allegory for our own earthly struggle between Man and Nature. Filled with fresh ideas and excitement, told with verve and heart. This book deserves a wide readership, and I think it will find one.”
I have learned over the years to trust Brooks. Some of the books he’s recommended? The Golden Compass. A Name of the Wind. Red Rising. Annihilation. And many more. I asked the editor of The Queen of Blood for a copy and was soon just as enchanted as he was.
And now, luckily, Sarah Beth Durst took some time off making protective charms to talk to Unbound Worlds.
Let’s hope the nature spirits don’t find out!
UNBOUND WORLDS: The Queen of Blood is in bookstores this week! Tell our readers about the book and its characters Daleina and Ven.
SARAH BETH DURST: Yay! I’m so happy it’s out in the world! It’s such a surreal yet wonderful feeling when a book hits the shelves — you spend so long tromping around in a world that only exists inside your own head, and then you invite other people in to adventure with you.
My new book, The Queen of Blood, is the first book in a new epic fantasy series from Harper Voyager called The Queens of Renthia. It’s set in a world filled with nature spirits… but these aren’t sweet, frolicking pastoral sprites. These spirits want to kill all humans, and only certain women — queens — have the power to control them.
Daleina is an idealistic young student who wants to protect her family and right the wrongs in her land. But that’s not supposed to be her destiny. In truth, she’s a mediocre student with only a modicum of power. She has to work hard to even be on the same playing field as others. Her only true “magic” is her determination. She joins forces with Ven, a banished warrior, to fight against a growing number of spirit attacks.
At its core, the series is about power — who has it, who wants it, what you do with it, and what it does to you.
UW: The world-building here is wonderful. Humans living in massive trees, surrounded by spirits that want the humans dead. Why trees? And how did you come up with the types of spirits you would use in the novel?
SBD: This book was born in a moment of supreme klutziness. I’d just arrived at a writing retreat in the Poconos, and I was walking up to my cabin — each writer was given an adorable wood cabin nestled beneath the pine trees — and I was marveling at the trees, reveling in the bird song, and not watching my feet. I tripped. Fell on my face. Cut my lip. And that’s when I had the idea: bloodthirsty nature spirits!
There are six kinds of spirits in Renthia: fire, ice, water, air, earth, and wood, and I wanted them to be both beautiful and deadly. Once I made that decision, I was free to make them as glorious as I wanted. My favorite is an air spirit that looks like an ermine with bat wings — I picture it as looking a bit like Falcor from “The Neverending Story.” Except this Falcor wants to rip your limbs off and feast on your flesh.
UW: How did you go about making Daleina and Ven compelling? Did the world-building help you do this or were they formed first?
SBD: Daleina and Ven grew out of their world. With Daleina, I knew I wanted to write about an ordinary person who does extraordinary things, but it’s her experiences with her family and the spirits that shape her. With Ven… I started with an image of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, crossed with a bit of Robin Hood, and then let the story transform him into his own person.
UW: As his webmaster, I speak to Terry Brooks often. He raved about The Queen of Blood several months ago, having gotten an early copy. What does his opinion mean to you as a writer?
SBD: Okay, this requires backstory. Cue the flashback music and swirly light effects.
About 30 years ago: I’d read pretty much everything in the kids’ section of the library and was much too shy to venture into the teen section where all the teens hung out. So my mom brought me up to the fantasy shelves in the grown-up section and handed me a stack of books. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks was one of them. I’d never read a story like this, with a world that enveloped me so completely and a quest that made me want to pick up a sword and traipse off into the wilderness. I fell in love with epic fantasy and knew this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: I wanted to write fantasy.
About 20 years ago: I was still determined to be a writer and had just completed my very first novel-length manuscript, but I’d never met a real, live author. I think in the back of my mind, I assumed all writers were mythical. Or dead. Then I saw a flyer stapled to a phone pole, “Book Event at MIT Coop: Terry Brooks.” So I went, and after Terry Brooks finished signing books, he talked to me for forty-five minutes, being wise, inspiring, and encouraging. I left elated and feeling as if I could do this! I could live my dream! Terry said so.
About 10 years ago: I’d just published my first novel and was scheduled to be on a panel at NY Comic Con. I saw that Terry Brooks was also going to be there. So I gathered up my courage, introduced myself to him, and told him how much he’d inspired me a decade earlier. A few months later, he emailed to say he’d read and liked my book! After shrieking loudly enough to scare the cat and then dancing around the house for a while, I kept writing, because that’s what writers do.
Present-day: Despite being incredibly busy with his own new book, Terry Brooks took the time to read an early copy of The Queen of Blood and send me one of the best emails I’ve ever received, which included the quote you’ll see on the book itself. I hadn’t expected him to even remember me — we’d only met twice, a decade apart, and I’m certain he’s inspired hundreds of other writers in the meantime. But he did remember! And he said such wonderful things!!
His kind words about my book mean so much to me because he and his books helped shape who I am. And I know my ten-year-old self would be turning cartwheels if she knew.
UW: As you said earlier, The Queen of Blood is your first foray into adult fantasy. How is writing for adult readers different from the young adult? Is there a difference? Or is it all marketing?
SBD: The writing process itself is the same. You create characters, fall in love with them, make terrible things happen to them, and then watch them come out the other side. (That’s the important part: seeing them push through their adventures. That journey is why I love fantasy so much and why I believe that fantasy is — or can be — a literature of hope and empowerment.)
There are some key differences, though.
When you write for kids or teens, you’re often writing about firsts: first adventure, first friendship, first love, first taste of independence, first time saving the world.
When you write for adults, you’re deliberately NOT writing about firsts — it’s not the first love or first loss, and more importantly, it’s not the first for the reader either, which means you can play with reader expectations, fulfilling them or subverting them or both at once. You can build on a shared literary history. I don’t have to tell you what nature spirits are; I just have to tell you that mine are bloodthirsty.
UW: You contributed to the anthology Unfettered II, the short story set in this universe. What else do you have planned in this setting?
SBD: I feel like this world has so many stories in it, and I can’t wait to tell them! Book two, The Reluctant Queen, comes out in July, and book three, The Queen of Sorrow, will be released ten months after that. I’m so very excited about these books! I’m loving writing them. It’s been one of the best writing experiences of my life, and I am so thrilled and excited to welcome readers to this world!
UW: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!
SBD: Thanks so much for interviewing me!
The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst is in fine bookstores now! Journey through nature and its danger if you dare!