Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Soundtracks by A.M. Justice – Guest Post

When I gave a call to a few grimdarklings friends to write submit articles and any other materials they see fit for my blog, one of them asked what topics I’d like to see. I gave him a few, music in fantasy among others. Amanda, like a hawk sensing its prey, swept in and took the opportunity. Which made me pretty happy, because, well, you know, I’m a music addict, so finally someone combined my two love: books and music! Amanda gives us a glimpse how she uses music during her story. This article is rather interesting, so hopefully you’ll like it as much as I do! And now I give the spotlight to her:

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A.M. Justice I’m a Brooklyn-based author, lover of science and wit, sporadic scuba diver, and once and future tango dancer. My characters live only in my head, but they’re real, and I put them through hell.

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Music is as much a part of fantasy as spells and swords. The genre abounds with minstrels and bards, and nearly every fantasy author has penned at least a few verses into their book. I cut my teeth on Tolkien, although I confess to mostly skimming the long, often silly songs sung by Tom Bombadill as well as various elves and dwarves. The same goes for most lyrics in most books—I usually skim or skip them, especially when they’re long or contain silly rhymes.

Yet, I love stories about musicians. My copies of Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall and Crystal Singer series are worn to shreds, and I think what I liked about those books is how the protagonists’ dedication to the art and craft of music-making was central to their character. Music in those books isn’t a break from the action, it’s a central part of it.

Yet, music can be played many ways in a novel. It can advance the plot, convey information, and illustrate character, and I’ve employed it to do all of these things in A Wizard’s Forge, my entry in the 2018 SPFBO. Prince Ashel, the novel’s secondary protagonist, is the first-born child of the ruling monarch of Latha, but he is not heir to the throne because of his gift for music, as his younger sister Bethniel (who is heir to Latha’s throne) explains to the main protagonist, Vic (short for Victoria):

“You should hear my brother. They call him the Crystal Voice of Latha. Not a moniker you’d expect for a prince, but even my parents couldn’t deny the gifts Elesendar gave him.” As the princess prattled on, Vic heard that deep clear baritone that had spread enraptured silence over the audience like butter.

Although Ashel claims to hate politics, he is the son of monarchs, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his talent for music as a political tool when the situation demands it, such as this scene where he meets his nation’s greatest enemy at a soiree in a neutral country:

In the Commissar’s palace, a butler led them into the largest hall Ashel had ever seen. Crystal chandeliers hung from a lofty ceiling covered with mirrors. Lamplight reflected on a floor blazing with red and gold silk. Elaborate costumes bedecked the guests, from chandelier-bumping turbans to an emerald gown with a train so long two yawning children had been employed to carry it.

The butler’s voice echoed across the babble, announcing them: “The Minstrel Jovial of Alna, Master of the Guildhouse in Traine. The Recorder Ashel of Narath, Prince of Latha.”

Jovial led him to a sitting area where courtiers surrounded a sharp little man. “Commissar Parnden,” Jovial said aloud in Betheljin, asking Ashel in mindspeech to put on his best rustic-prince face, “your invitation came as such a pleasure! May I present his Highness, Prince Ashel of Latha.”

Ashel bowed and offered his hand. An enormous diamond strapped to the Commissar’s forehead seemed to crush his neck into well-padded shoulders, so the man looked like he was drowning in orange silk. Parnden clasped Ashel’s hand, his grip soft and his grin malicious. “How is your lovely mother? I was schooled in Latha, you know, and miss the sight of her. But here you are, her very image, if she were a fine young man, that is. Here, sit with me.”

Hiding revulsion behind his stage smile, Ashel accepted a glass of wine while Jovial excused herself to oversee the musicians. Halfway across the room, she dipped her knees to a tall, blond Citizen—the art connoisseur Ashel had met that afternoon. The Commissar smiled devilishly at the man’s approach. “There’s someone else who attended your Academy and knew your mother and father. You ought to meet.”

Ashel stood, his gut twisting with foreboding.

“We met this afternoon.” The Citizen dipped his shoulders and offered his hand; his grip might have broken the bones of someone who had not spent years stretching for chords on a harp. “And now we’ve run into each other again, just as I hoped.”

“Ah, you know each other already?” Parnden sniggered. “And yet the watch reported no trouble today.”

Ashel cursed himself for the biggest fool in Knownearth. “We weren’t properly introduced. Lornk Korng, I presume?” That afternoon, Lornk’s bodyguards could have stuffed him into a carriage before anyone noticed. His heart quailed at the lecture he’d receive for acting the rube in front of the Lord of Relm. And like a buffoon he’d told their enemy that the Lathan Guilds were tired of paying for the war! Elesendar’s Shrine, it was lucky his father hadn’t made him the Heir.

The Relmlord flashed white teeth at him. “Pleased to make your formal acquaintance. How are your parents?”

“Well. The Lathan border expands every day.”

Lornk laughed. “By fall we’ll have regained our rightful lands. Perhaps by winter we’ll have won through to Narath. I haven’t dined at the Manor in”—his eyes rolled over Ashel—“twenty years? Certainly before you were born.”

Ashel returned a tight smile. “Olmlablaire is something to behold, I hear. I look forward to the day when its bannerpoles bear Latha’s flag.”

Jovial came over and rescued him. Nodding to the Commissar, he walked to the dais and picked up his harp. His great-grandfather, a master minstrel, had carved it and won the heart of Latha’s Ruler with it, so becoming her consort. This harp, Ashel thought. Music, not politics. The notes drifted into his mind as he sat. When they assembled themselves, he began to sing.

His voice had settled into a baritone a few years before, and he reveled in its power as the audience’s contempt for a rustic prince from a poor country turned to admiration. Even the Relmlord bent forward, indigo eyes staring intently. In response, Ashel shifted his selections to heroic sagas about Lathan heroes overcoming great odds. He sang of Kara, Knownearth’s greatest wizard, and of how she defeated the beast that rose out of the sea. He sang about Saelbeneth, his ancestor and leader of the Council of Wizards that went to the fabled Direiellene to defeat the evil sorceress Meylnara. Casting a dagger at the Relmlord, he sang of the founding of the Erin Alliance, and how Samantha Farrak sealed the bargain with her death. Snuffling, the emerald-clad woman dabbed her eyes with a silk handkerchief, an action echoed by others around the room. And Ashel reminded them all that Elesendar chose Latha as the home for His newborn children. Latha was the birthplace of humanity, and their spirits returned to Latha when they died, to be reborn as cerrenils in the forest of Kiareinoll Fembrosh. Ashel’s chest filled, his voice broadened when he saw Elesendar shining through a window, adding His light to that of the candles. Good timing, said the showman in him.

When he finished, the audience stood enraptured, the applause slow to begin, but soon clapping and cries slaked his thirst. The Relmlord’s scowl convinced him he’d won a battle in their war, and he gladly answered Citizens’ questions about the Academy and how often it accepted foreign students.

“See, Ashel,” Jovial teased, “you love the glory.”

The hours passed, and the ensemble played country reels mixed with stately waltzes, the courtiers dancing as gaily as Lathan villagers at Landing. When golden dawn shone through the windows, the courtiers and other musicians retired, leaving Ashel and Jovial alone with the Commissar and Relmlord. Jovial curtsied to them, and Ashel returned the bows of the two men. As he turned to leave, the Relmlord grasped his hand.

“Sometimes I forget why Latha is so important,” he said. “Tonight, you reminded me. Farewell, Your Highness, and give your mother my love.”

Ashel’s eye twitched, his sense of victory unraveling. Nodding again at the Commissar, he strode to the exit, Jovial hustling after.

“I thought you weren’t interested in politics,” the master said when they reached the square.

“Do you believe in evil?” he asked, suppressing a shiver as he thought of the Relmlord’s last words: Give your mother my love.

She pursed her lips. “I believe in misunderstandings.”

All those long ballads I used to skim over usually convey information or foreshadowing, and I use music—without the lengthy lyrics—for the same purpose. In this scene, the reader learns something about the telepathic abilities of a young minstrel named Wineyll, who plays a very important role later in the novel. There’s also a hint about the destiny awaiting Vic.

By the time Ashel and Melba had sorted their set list and lined up their accompanists, Winder and his daughter Wineyll were taking the stage. Forehead beaded with sweat, Winder beamed as the audience leapt to their feet. Wineyll’s smile just as broad, she bowed alongside him and raised her flute. “Let’s go out front,” Ashel whispered to Melba, and they slipped into the house and squeezed past jammed tables while Wineyll played the first bars of “Wizard’s Last Embrace.” That melody had been written for a soprano to sing, but Wineyll’s tonguing was so lithe the lyrics could almost be heard in the flute’s music. Ashel had tutored the girl when she was young, had played in ensembles with her, but had never heard her embrace a tune so well. Keeping time on a drum, her father opened his mouth, and the sweetest tenor in the Guild washed over the audience. Bittersweet sorrow raised a lump in Ashel’s throat, and his gut ached with lost love. Tears spilled over Melba’s cheeks, and sniffles and gasps swept through a floor filled with off-duty guards and troopers, teamsters and miners, all hard folk wiping cheeks and noses on their sleeves. Ashel blinked at the duo in awe. He’d never felt music like this.

“It’s Wineyll,” Melba sniffed. “She’s projecting.”

Wineyll’s Listening, and the pranks she pulled with it, had netted her more reprimands than any apprentice in Guild history, but Ashel had never heard of a minstrel using the talent to move an audience. “That’s clever stagecraft,” he said, scrubbing his cheeks. “It’s brilliant, actually.” Winder sang about missed opportunities, Wineyll’s flute answered with regret and longing, and he thought of Vic, sitting in one of the galleries above the floor, listening to this. Did tears run down her cheeks? “Just my sister’s friend,” he muttered. But his feet backed toward the exit. Touching Melba’s shoulder, he signaled with his eyebrows he was going up.

In the box, he found Vic with her elbows on the railing, a girl around Wineyll’s age swooning beside her. Ashel watched them from the doorway as the flute wove the soprano’s lament around the tenor’s pleas. As Wineyll descended into a throaty interpretation of the wind, Winder slowed the tempo on his drum, letting his last note of grief fade to silence. Below, a few scattered claps exploded into approval, and Vic brushed at wet cheeks.

Clearing the lump out of his throat, Ashel said, “You didn’t cry when I sang that two years ago.”

Vic stood, sunrise-colored braids looped over cream-colored shoulders. “Ashel, you sang it beautifully. But this was different somehow.”

“Your Highness,” Vic’s friend giggled, curtsying. Vic introduced her, and the girl slipped past him into the hall, winking at Vic as she left.

“Be careful,” Ashel called after her. “Pretty girl like you could end up wedded to a minstrel before she knew it.”

Laughter echoed back to the box. “My mother would kill me if I ever brought one of you louts home.”

“She’s my innkeeper’s daughter and my tailor,” Vic said as Ashel took Lora’s seat.

“Fine work she does too.” He pulled his eyes out of the shadowed edges of her neckline. She’s family, he reminded himself as forcefully as he’d told his friends. “So what was different about Wineyll and Winder’s interpretation?”

She coughed. “I don’t know music, but I liked how the flute took the soprano’s part; it left more up to your imagination as far as what the woman was saying. It made the man’s part more poignant, I guess.”

Ashel leaned forward. “I agree completely. Did you notice how Winder kept the tempo slow, giving Wineyll time to wind her flute around his song? That way, when the crescendo comes, they can play the passage allegro—that’s not the way it was written, mind you—”

“It was very pretty, Ashel.”

“I’m sorry.” Elesendar, don’t bore the woman! He sat back and offered a sheepish smile. “Is it strange for you, hearing that song?”

She looked at him askance. “Why would it be?”

He chuckled. “You, Captain, have a famous wizard for a namesake.” She paled, tiny freckles standing out on the bridge of her nose, her eyes suddenly very green. Shrinejump, this conversation wasn’t going well. Within a minute he’d bored her and angered her. This was as tricky as talking to his mother! He continued tentatively, “Victoria of Ourtown was a member of the Council of Wizards who fought Melynara in Direiellene. That song is about her affair with another wizard named Thabean. She’s saying goodbye to him so she can go back to her husband.”

The color in her eyes dimmed toward hazel, and her lips spread into a bemused smile. “That is absurd.”

He laughed. “It’s a mystery how an Oreseeker ended up on the Council. But it’s a historical fact a woman with your name fought in that war.”

“And had a lover and a husband. She was busy.”

Finally, music is at the core of Ashel’s character, and he relies on it as a source of strength when he is captured by Lornk’s forces and interrogated by Lornk’s son, Earnk. This scene also includes a flashback to Ashel’s childhood, demonstrating how he has always turned to music during rough times.

One hand clamped above Ashel’s elbow, a yawning guard knocked on a wooden door and pushed into a small office lined with shelves. A tea tray sat upon the desk separating Earnk Korng from the door. “Join me, will you?” The younger Korng gestured toward the chair facing his desk. Next to the tea lay a pen, an inkwell, and the declaration they wanted him to sign. Elekia of Reinoll Parish, elected Ruler of Latha, who came to her position through subterfuge and malicious intent… Eyes avoiding the document, Ashel took a cup of tea and accepted an offer of honey.

Earnk uncovered a basket of scones and held it toward him. “My cousin Elsa made these.”

Grime gathered round Ashel’s cuticles, traced the whorls of his fingertips. Hardly the hands with which to dine in refined company, but he took a scone. Butter and citrus melted on his tongue. “My compliments to Cousin Elsa.”

“I thought we should share morning tea together,” Earnk said. “Would you like some jam?”

Wondering at Earnk’s purpose, Ashel spread some preserves on his scone. “Did Elsa make this too?”

“She did.” Earnk took a bite. “What can you tell me of the Blade?”

His gut clenched, but Ashel leaned back in his chair and swallowed more tea. “We have a song about her:

The Dagger is tricky, sneaky and sly
And the Blade is as sharp as a harrier’s cry
She’ll tweak Relman noses and tickle their ribs
And run a blade up their ass, she’s a quick little nib

Earnk scowled. “Clever. Did you compose it?”

“No.” He forced a grin. “A Loremaster named Laelin wrote it.” He waved at Earnk’s notebook. “You might want to write that down.”

Earnk obliged him and scratched a note. “So many admire her?”

Ashel raised his eyebrows. “You do.” He’d practiced this sort of game among Trainer Citizens and Eldanion nobles—he could almost enjoy this.

A hint of pink appeared above Earnk’s eyebrows, but his expression remained chiseled. “Do you love her?”

Ashel spread his lips in a sly smile, covering consternation. Why did Earnk keep asking about Vic? Was it on his father’s behalf, or his own? She never spoke of Earnk Korng, but now Ashel wondered if he had two rivals for her. “There’s a song called ‘The Wizard’s Last Embrace.’ Do you know it?”

Earnk shook his head.

“It’s about a Relman wizard named Thabean, who loves another wizard named Victoria.”

Earnk’s eyebrows shot up, and he took a quick sip.

“They fought together in the War of the Council and became lovers,” Ashel continued, a knot of satisfaction in his belly, “but Victoria was already married, and she returned to her husband.”

“I see. I’ll let Elsa know you enjoyed her scones, and we’ll talk again tomorrow. Don’t break anything,” he added to the guard.

† † †

Ashel woke face down, a filthy blanket clenched between his teeth, the cell pitch dark. Last he remembered, he’d been curled into a ball, arms covering his head while guards kicked him. Each day began with tea and buttered scones in Earnk Korng’s office and finished with guards beating Ashel senseless. On alternate days, the Relman Listener stuck needles under his fingernails. “Why are they doing this?” he groaned.

Geram shifted on his cot. “They’ve surely asked a ransom for the prince and must know who you are by now, by the Ruler’s response.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Ashel whispered. Elekia of Reinoll Parish, elected Ruler of Latha, who came to her position through subterfuge and malicious intent… The thought died, swamped by memory.

A narrow sliver of light spills into his room, broken by a furtive shadow. His sister darts to his bed and huddles against him, her hands over her ears. His tender backside makes moving hard, but he scuttles aside to make room and pulls the covers over their heads. Mother’s voice lashes, Father’s strikes. Words obscured by closed doors, each volley stings like a switch.

“I’m sorry, Beth,” he whispers, hugging her tight. “I’m sorry they woke you.” Sorry he caused this fight, and all the other midnight battles between king and queen.

“Sing to me.”

In a shaky whisper, he begins a lullaby, and the melody proves a better shield against their parents than the blanket. Within a few measures, crystal notes, high and clear, wrap them both in a field of blue. Bethniel’s head weighs heavy on his arm, and his tempo slows with each rise and fall of her chest. His voice trails off, and his eyelids droop.

Throughout his captivity, Ashel calls upon musical scores as a shield and lyrics as a weapon against his enemies. Music forms the core of his being and is central to the part he plays in the novel’s climactic battle.

I hope these scenes have piqued your interest. Many thanks to Timy for inviting me to provide a guest post! A Wizard’s Forge is available for the Kindle on Amazon or as a paperback through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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