Stephanie Churchill author of Shades of Awakening

Hello Stephanie. You write in no particular time frame, but the world you have created for your characters has a very real feel to it in terms of history. It’s recognisable as a medieval world, but it’s one of your own imagination. Can you tell us a little more about the world in which your character, the girl, Mêlie, lives, and a bit about her, and what her place in this world is? We know she is a slave, but how did she become to be one?

My series (and my story) is classified as fantasy, but that’s not really a fair or full picture. It’s more historical than fantasy, but the fact that it’s purely fictional – the settings and characters are 100% imagined – makes it fantasy despite there being no magic, creatures, etc. So its perhaps more accurate to say that I write fiction, but that’s not really an acceptable category in marketing. The industry requires a little more nuance than that.

My main area of historical interest is medieval Britain, specifically the end of that era just before the Tudors. My series had two primary inspirations: Disney’s Aladdin meets the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses might be more evident to those who have read the books, but the Aladdin reference is a longer explanation. I’ll simply refer to another article I wrote to explain what’s behind this reference!

The fictional kingdom in this story is Agrius, a large island nation off the eastern coast of a broader continent. It has a very temperate climate with mountains in the centre of the island. The great plains of the north serve as a sort of “breadbasket” for the island, where the east is the hotbed of the slaving industry. Prille is the major city in the south and the home of Bellsea Palace where the king lives.

I rooted the politics of Agrius in a dynastic war, much like the Houses of York and Lancaster in England. Going back several generations from the setting of the story takes us to King Ancin. He was an impatient man, brooding and dangerous. His reign was defined by war, for he spent most of it away from Agrius, fighting his enemies. As a result, there was little opportunity to produce an heir. He had other children, but none legitimate. The eldest of these was named Sajen, born to Ela, daughter of one of Ancin’s nobles on the north coast. Ancin’s wife and queen, Thyra, however, failed to provide him with a legitimate son.

One day Thyra discovered she was with child, and Agrius celebrated the news. Everything progressed as it should, but as had always been the poor woman’s fate, her good fortune turned against her. Not long after she gave birth to Vitus, the legitimate heir to the throne of Agrius, King Ancin died. No one expected it, and chaos erupted in Agrius. Someone needed to wear the crown, and most people supported Vitus as prescribed by law. But because he was just a babe, he couldn’t act for himself. Seeing his opportunity, Sajen snatched up his father’s crown.

Not wanting to fight a costly war to dethrone him, most in the kingdom looked the other way during his coronation. Kingdoms ruled by a queen regent raising an infant king are insecure ones. In the end, Thyra fled, fearing for Vitus’ life, knowing he would be a threat to Sajen’s security. She remained obscure, and Vitus stayed alive. The conflict between the heirs of Sajen and Vitus result in the major complications of my series.

It was within this world of dynastic struggle that slavery existed and had for generations. I never really explore in the books where it came from or how it ended up in Agrius. Slavery functioned in Agrius as a generation system. If you were born to a slave, you became a slave. And yet, there was hope. A slave could purchase his or her own freedom (or could have it purchased by someone else). In Anscher’s case, he was a freeman, and he hoped to purchase Mêlie’s freedom.

It seems for a young slave girl, the world is very scary, and often dangerous. It struck me that Mêlie must have thought she had died and gone to heaven when Anscher comes along and wants to marry her.

As he walked away, the full moon broke out from behind the heavy clouds, and a silvery light washed over Anscher’s retreating figure. She knew then that she would wed him.’ 

She must have seen this as a ray of hope that at last her way out of being a slave would be to become a freeman’s wife. It really touched me because you get a terrible sense of gloom of what it must have been like to have no way out of the misery of one’s life. 

Mêlie is a strong girl, despite her slight, malnourished form. Hardship was a way of life for her, and she knew little more than misery. Death surrounded her. She’d lost her elder brother, and soon other members of her family were to follow. Anscher enters her life at a pivotal point, when things could have gone badly for her. Not only was she a slave, but she was also a woman. And despite her strength, she still must play the hand she’s given as she navigates the brutal world she inhabits. Being a woman and a slave implied that men could treat her however they liked; as chattel or a commodity to be used for pleasure and leisure. So when Anscher saves her, she is wary of him at first. She has no reason to believe he is unlike any other man she encounters. But when he proves to be different, reveals his integrity instead, she can’t believe her good fortune. That ray of sunshine brightens her otherwise gloomy world, and she goes about her days from thereon with light steps. She’s been given hope.

I believe the tale is a side-story from your Crowns of Destiny series about two royal sisters and a prince who becomes a king. Can you tell the reader how the idea of slavery fits into that world? And how, when the idea of a ghost anthology was first thought of, what inspired you to write Mêlie into the story?

Slavery provides much of the driving narrative tension in my second novel, The King’s Daughter. It’s a societal problem that my main characters must wrestle with, and like so many societal problems, the answer is vastly complex. We always want simple, straightforward answers to our society’s ills, but unfortunately simple answers aren’t realistic. My characters face the question of ridding their kingdom of a moral evil when that evil also underpins the economic foundation of their world. How do you go about getting things onto a better moral footing without collapsing everything else, creating even bigger problems?

When we as authors decided to write this anthology, I knew I wanted to write my story centred at one of my favourite locations from The King’s Furies — Croilton Castle in the Honor of Cilgaron on the east coast of Agrius (which was inspired by Raglan Castle). The lord of that castle is not a particularly nice man. As a starting point for my story, I asked myself, “What happened at Croilton when all the slaves were freed?” Lyseby, the city nearest the castle, is Agrius’ center of slaving. Lyseby, as my characters would know it, would witness an enormous and cataclysmic change. How would Lord Cilgaron react? Would he play nicely with the edict of his king and queen?

Artists impression of the gardens in their heyday about 1620 by Ivan Lapper 2003 Raglan Castle

I decided that no, he would not. And thus, my short story was born. What would it have been like to be a slave living and working at the seat of Lord Cilgaron’s slaving empire? And how could I make it a ghost story? The answer seemed pretty obvious to me.

We see the story wholly through the eyes of Mêlie, the slave girl. She is such a tragic character. She goes through so much, losing her friends, her lover who seems to have turned against her. Ghost stories are often tragic but is this how you intended to portray her, as a tragic femme fatale almost? 

First, I have to explain that one of my all-time favourite novels is Jane Eyre. To say I love tragedies is kind of an understatement. So yes, of course I intentionally set out to write her in that way. Digging into pain gives authors almost immediate access to a reader’s heart, and it’s difficult not to want to capitalise on that instant connection. When you write about pain, you know you stand on common ground with humanity, for who among us has never experienced pain? Most of the time, we see our characters rise above the pain and tragedy of their story, overcoming the obstacles. And there is certainly a lot of satisfaction in that. But this was a ghost story anthology, and I needed to find a different way to get my character through the pain, ending it on a sweet, if sad, note.

I absolutely loved the Crowns of Destiny series and was sorry when the last book, The King’s Furies, finished. It was one of the best pieces of literature I’d read for some time. Your writing style, your storytelling and the characters, not to mention the world-building, it was superb. I’d love to read more about Casmir and Irisa. You gave a little taster at the end of the King’s Furies for what happens to them. However, it would be lovely to read more books in the series. I’d love to see more about the peoples of Croilton and what happens to them too. What are the chances of that happening?

Writing about Casmir and Irisa, along with other family members in my three books, was one of the biggest and most surprising delights in my writing. Casmir was one of those characters that dominated his scenes. I’d never intended to give him his own book, but he muscled his way in, and I could not deny him. He turned into my favourite character. (Can authors admit this without making their other “children” extraordinarily irate with them?) Leaving him to begin work on my fantasy series inspired by Sargon of Akkad and ancient Mesopotamia was very difficult. I was actually stuck in my writing for so long because I wasn’t clicking with my new characters in the same way I clicked with Casmir!

However, because I loved the world and setting, the characters and stories of the Crowns of Destiny series so much, I couldn’t leave them completely. I knew that Casmir and Irisa’s time in the spotlight was done, but I didn’t leave myself without options. As I wrote the ending of The King’s Furies, I intentionally wrote an ending that would allow me to pursue these characters in a spinoff series. I began the first book in the series before setting it aside to begin work on what is now my current work-in-progress. I haven’t abandoned it though. I do fully intend to get back to it after I finish my current trilogy. It won’t feature Casmir, but he will definitely make appearances.

Thank you, Stephanie for visiting my blog and providing us with some great answers!

It was my pleasure! You asked some great questions. Thanks for having me! Can I have some cake now?

About Stephanie

Being first and foremost a lover of history, Stephanie’s writing draws on her knowledge of history even while set in purely fictional places existing only in her imagination. Inspired by classic literature, epic fantasy, as well as the historical fiction of authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Anya Seton, and Bernard Cornwell, Stephanie’s books are filled with action and romance, loyalty and betrayal. Her writing takes on a cadence that is sometimes literary, sometimes genre fiction, relying on deeply drawn and complex characters while exploring the subtleties of imperfect people living in a gritty, sometimes dark world. Her unique blend of non-magical fantasy fiction inspired by genuine history ensures that her books are sure to please of historical fiction and epic fantasy literature alike.

Stephanie grew up in the Lincoln, Nebraska. After graduating college, she worked as an international trade and antitrust paralegal in Washington, D.C. She now lives with her husband, their two children, and two dogs in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Purchase her books here

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And don’t forget Sharon Bennett Connolly is back tomorrow hosting Samantha Wilcoxson for our final hop, but if you’ve missed any of the stops along the way, below is a schedule so you can click on the links and catch up with them all!#

Thanks for joining us!

October 3rd Sharon Bennett Connolly : History the Interesting bits
October 4th : Judith Arnopp
October 5th: D. Apple
October 6th: K.S. Barton
October 7th Paula Lofting: 1066: The Road to Hastings and Other Stories
October 8th Samantha Wilcoxson:
October 11th Simon Turney
October 12th Lynn Bryant: Blogging With Labradors
October 13th Jennifer C Wilson: Historical Fiction With Spirit
October 14th: Stephanie Churchill

October 15th Sharon Bennett Connolly: History the Interesting Bits