Wanderer, travel-blogger, chef, preservationist, fantasy author; Tej Turner has fitted a surprising amount into his young life. But of course it’s the latter pursuit that concerns us here. Having brought us the gritty and surreal urban fantasy of The Janus Cycle, Tej has now leaped into full-fledged epic fantasy with The Avatars Of Ruin series, book one of which, Bloodsworn, manifests in our realm from today (By which I mean it’s available from Elsewhen Press)!
Eager to know more, I caught up with Tej and plied him with questions…
You’ve a popular blog that relates your journeys around the planet. How does all that travel influence your writing? Is the new series’ world inspired by any particular place or places?
I think my travels almost certainly have influenced my writing, some ways are obvious and others are more subtle.
In regards to writing fantasy, I have experienced a lot of things which will be familiar to readers of that genre. I have been lucky enough to glimpse a wide range of landscapes and climates during my life so far – everything from deserts, to jungles, high-altitude mountain ranges, salt flats, tropical archipelagos, and much more – and familiarised myself with a wide variety of cultures. I know what it is like to be an outsider in places which feel quite strange, make friends and enemies along the way, and have to use my wits to get by… sometimes even finding myself in sticky (or even dangerous) situations.
That said, my experiences are individual to me, and there are plenty of people out there who are not as well-travelled as I am but have an abundance of life skills and knowledge in areas which I lack. People tend to primarily write from what they know, but I think that should be thought of as a starting point rather than a limitation. It is very possible to write about things one hasn’t experienced firsthand if you are prepared to do the research, have enough imagination to put oneself in the shoes of one living it, and the skills to write it convincingly.
This new series takes place in a medieval second world, and thus, like much of its ilk, draws upon a combination of historical inspirations and imagination. The first book, Bloodsworn, mostly takes place in a country called Sharma, which is quite Mediterranean in its climate and European in its landscape and culture. Throughout the rest of the series, there are plenty of other parts of this world which will be explored – such as tropical jungles, snowy mountain ranges, floodplains, and more – and each one of them has its own unique set of cultures which I have spent time fleshing out, drawing my insight from places I have been, my knowledge of history and geography, and my own creativity.
One thing that is quite different about the world of The Avatars of Ruin (compared to most settings in epic fantasy) is that it has three moons, and this has many consequences for the way that its people live. They seldom dwell too close to its coastlines or risk seafaring because their ocean’s tidal patterns are much more dramatic and unpredictable than our own.
Bloodsworn focusses on a group of villagers and your debut novel, The Janus Cycle, is about the denizens of a nightclub. It seems to me you favour telling stories about whole communities rather than an individual ‘main character’. Is that a deliberate choice or just something that feels natural to you?
Most of my writing is primarily character-based. I usually craft the initial framework of the story through the protagonists; it is their individual journeys and interactions with each other which form the initial skeleton of the story, whilst the world – its geography, and the cultures which inhabit it – are the flesh, and I embellish over time.
With both of my projects so far (my urban fantasy novels and this new epic fantasy series), it made sense to tell the story through a variety of voices rather than let a single protagonist take precedence over the story because I am not a big fan of messiah-like narratives where one main character is wholly benevolent and the morality of the story is a black and white tale about two ‘sides’ polarised as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. I don’t think the world that we live in is that simple, and fiction is a reflection of our world. Most people are the hero of their own story, and we all have our own agendas and motivations behind the decisions we make, most often prompted by our circumstances. I like to tell tales which reflect that nuance by populating them with people who are mostly different shades of grey. For a character to be believable, their motivations must be understood.
Bloodsworn does have its heroes and villains, but none of its ‘heroes’ are completely heroic, nor all of its villains inherently evil, and most of its other characters are neither but have their own set of aspirations comprehensible to their situation.
As for the ‘main’ characters of this project… there are probably about five of them who have equal claim to that title, and I have aimed to make each of them equally flawed and yet relatable in some way. There are also plenty of other characters whose perspective the reader will share during the story, all of whom will become understood in some way along the way, and most will get an opportunity to shine at some point.
I like the map of Sharma and Gavendara (I’m a sucker for fantasy cartography). Did that come early in the process of writing, helping you visualise etc?
I did draw a map quite early in the formation of this series, but it is one which has changed during subsequent refinements over the years. Regarding your earlier question (about my travels inspiring my writing) one of the things which changed was that I increased the size of the map and added a more diverse range of geographical terrains to it shortly after I returned from my travels in Asia.
As someone who has studied history (both in an official capacity at University and in my spare time), I understand how important geography is to shaping the cultures of the people who dwell within it. In some ways, drawing a map can almost write a story for you. If there is an imbalance of resources, it is quite likely that people will be warlike because they will have a history of competing with each other. Mountain ranges, seas, and rivers are natural borders, and will often create a cultural divide. Settlements located close to strategic resources will be greatly contended for by imperial powers, and thus heavily fortified. I could mention dozens – perhaps even hundreds – more.
I think that having some kind of background in history and geography (even if it is one acquired one’s leisure rather than in an official capacity) is something which can greatly enrich the work of authors who write epic fantasy, as it can provide them with both inspiration and an understanding of how complex societies are and how they evolve.
The new series—The Avatars of Ruin—promises to take us from an idyllic, bucolic existence into a long and bloody path toward vengeance. Would you say loss of innocence is the overriding theme of Bloodsworn and the upcoming sequels? And if not, what is?
Yes, loss of innocence is a theme which occurs in much of my writing, and this new venture is no exception.
Bloodsworn is, partly, a coming-of-age tale (as most of its ‘main’ characters are between 16-18 years of age at the beginning of the story) but most definitely an adult novel with mature themes. It is also a bit darker than many readers might initially expect, and many of the tropes associated with its initial premise are discarded for a more grim and gritty tale.
Bloodsworn: Book I of The Avatars of Ruin series
“Everyone from Jalard knew what a bloodoath was. Legendary characters in the tales people told to their children often made such pacts with the gods. By drawing one’s own blood whilst speaking a vow, people became ‘Bloodsworn’.
And in every tale where the oath was broken, the ending was always the same.
The Bloodsworn died.”
It has been twelve years since The War of Ashes, but animosity still lingers between the nations of Sharma and Gavendara, and only a few souls have dared to cross the border between them.
The villagers of Jalard live a bucolic existence, nestled within the hills of western Sharma and far away from the boundary which was once a warzone. To them, tales of bloodshed seem no more than distant fables. They have little contact with the outside world, apart from once a year when they are visited by representatives from the Academy who choose two of them to be taken away to their institute in the capital. To be Chosen is considered a great honour… of which most of Jalard’s children dream.
But this year the Academy representatives make an announcement which is so shocking it causes friction between the villagers, and some of them begin to suspect that all is not what it seems. Just where are they taking the Chosen, and why? Some of them intend to find out, but what they discover will change their lives forever and set them on a long and bloody path to seek vengeance…
“Classic epic fantasy. I enjoyed it enormously”
– Anna Smith Spark