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Author M. E. Vaughan has recently released the second edition of her debut novel, The Sons of Thestian, which is a Young Adult fantasy that focuses on a prince fleeing from his kingdom, and the friend that is sent to retrieve him. STARBURST spoke with M.E. Vaughan to learn a little about the book…

STARBURST: What was it like to return to The Sons of Thestian for the second edition?

M. E. Vaughan: I think, if I'm honest, I never really left it. I don't think a writer ever really sees their work as finished, and given half a chance, we would keep fiddling with it forever. As I got into Blood of the DelphiThe Sons of Thestian weighed on my mind a great deal. I actually started the 2nd Edition quite soon after the book was released, and worked on it along-side Blood of the Delphi. It was interesting to work on them together. Going back to The Sons of Thestian felt like returning to the roots - the foundation. It was tricky at times, but pleasant. I was more equipped to deal with the story that I had been when I wrote it.

My time with the characters in Blood of the Delphi meant I had really established a strong relationship with them. It was also a little heart-breaking going back! At the start of the book, they're all still so fresh-faced with no ideas of the horrors to come. I had to adjust my writing to allow for that innocence to peak through. That innocence is gone in book two.

You've said before that you haven't changed anything in terms of the plot, and that readers of the first edition won't need to read the second in order to appreciate the sequel (Blood of the Delphi). Were there moments that you felt the urge to retcon any aspects of The Sons of Thestian for the second edition?

Not particularly. I was content with the story itself - it was the execution that I wanted to improve. I think of the second edition as a sort of house renovation. The walls are repainted, the gutters are cleaned out, the electronics are updated, but the house is the same. I never wanted to change anything about the plot - it did what it had to. But I felt there were ways to improve the reading experience - to make the descriptions cleaner, the dialogue more singular to each character, and the themes and elements of the overarching plot more prominent. There were parts of the book which were murky, because when I first wrote it, I was going in a little blind. Now, the book is an even stronger foundation for the series, and with the work of my excellent editors I think people are really going to appreciate the new edition.

When it comes to your characters, do you have a favourite, or favourites?

I always dread this question! I love my characters a great deal—they all incite something in me which compels me to write them. Some, however, are easier to write than others. For example, Aeron - who readers will meet in Blood of the Delphi - is great fun to write because of the ludicrous way he talks, which is almost entirely in Lemra'n slang. However, subsequently, his passages always take a long time to write, simply because it's so difficult.  
Ultimately, I have to admit that my two favourites are probably Rufus and Zachary. Zachary in particular is a character whose skin I love to slip into. Writing from his point of view is always enjoyable, because he's complex and troubled, and desperately trying to pretend to be something he's not. There are a lot of layers to him, and so he always surprises me. Rufus, similarly is very close to my heart - I suppose I just love writing secretive characters. It helps that they're all sarky buggers!

Personally, I've always liked Zachary because he is clearly a character struggling with the idea of who he wants to be versus the person he feels he needs to be. Was it hard to get this balance right, and did you ever worry about revealing too much too soon?

Zachary took a long time opening up to me about who he was. In the first draft of The Sons of Thestian, he was a villain in every sense of the word. It was hard to see what compelled him to do what he did, other than the sheer delight of being cruel. And because of that, it was hard to see what compelled the others (Marcel and Emeric) to stay with him. I knew there had to be a good reason behind it all, but Zachary played his cards close to his chest, and I didn't really get to know him until I started writing Blood of the Delphi. Here, Zachary's true character had a chance to shine through.

Zachary is driven by a sense of duty, love and guilt. He doesn't see himself as a good man, so he doesn't portray himself as one either. To make up for his mistakes, he decided to be the villain of the story, because he thinks that's what's required of him for the great good. In his heart though, he's not a villain - actually, he demonstrates quite moral, idealistic views, and sees the world in very black and white terms. People are either good, or bad, and he's decided he'll be bad, so that others can stay good. As such you have this heavy contrast between what Zachary does, and what he says. In almost every scene, he threatens someone. And yet, in every scene he demonstrates an innate kindness that contrasts heavily with the picture he is trying to paint of himself. These acts of kindness are unconscious to him - he wants people to see him as a monster, so when he does kind things, he's not motivated by anything other than his own goodness.

Uncovering all of this in Blood of the Delphi meant I had to go back and include more elements of this struggle in The Sons of Thestian. I actually feel like I sort of fought Zachary over it - trying to get him to demonstrate his good side in The Sons of Thestian was tricky, because that's when Zachary is at the height of his villainy. He's in so deep, even his friends are started to think it's all gone too far -Zachary has definitely done some very nasty things at this point, and seems willing to do more. With regards to whether managed to get the balance right and not reveal too much, I think I succeeded. Zachary needed to be villain of The Sons of Thestian, and he fulfils that role, whilst still being recognised as a complex character, driven by more than just hate. Readers of the series, however, will get to enjoy seeing how that changes in the next book. What happens when the things that motivate Zachary no longer call for him to be a villain, but a hero instead?

Another character we would like to ask you about is Sverrin. The Sons of Thestian takes place after his death, and he casts a large shadow over the events and characters of the book, yet our picture of him is entirely based on the memories of other characters. What was it like to write a character in this way, do you think Sverrin would have come across differently if he had been allowed a chapter from his own point of view?

One of the big themes of The Sons of Thestian, and The Harmatia Cycle in general, is about Death, and how we treat and react to it. Sverrin is remembered and brought to the reader’s attention through the eyes of Jionathan and Zachary, two characters who loved him very much. As such, he’s idolised—we see him as the characters want to remember him. People in mourning do not tend to dwell on the negatives of the deceased. I tried to balance this out, by having instances where the reader can see and judge Sverrin’s actions for themselves. Jionathan won’t speak against Sverrin, but memories prove that he was a little bit bossy, and somewhat arrogant. Ultimately, however, Sverrin is remembered with fondness for a good reason, and I think had the readers had a chance to properly meet him, they would have liked him too.

If you had to write a new point of view chapter in The Sons of Thestian for a character who didn't get one, which character would you choose, and why?

Oh, that’s a tough one. I’m really not sure, but I wonder how people would have reacted to seeing things from Reign’s point of view. Reign is hated, or disliked by all of the character’s whose perspective we see from, so her fate is a little sealed! I wonder how the readers would feel about her, if they got to see it all from her point of view, or from the point of view of someone who loved her.

You've mentioned before that your choice to include a wedding between two women in a fantasy setting was questioned. In your experience is there a lot of resistance to having LGBTQ characters, and relationships in fantasy books, and settings?

Resistance is a strong word. It’s more about going against the traditional grain. Most people - at least, I like to think - aren’t opposed to seeing representation in books, they just aren’t used to it. We’ve come up with reasons to justify and explain why we don’t have representation—things like ‘it’s not historically accurate’, or ‘it’s not relevant to the story’. These things are born from generations of suppression and the governing of a particular ruling body in the media.

LGBTQ+ representation first started to really appear in adult TV - you would have girls making out with each other, or gritty stories about drugs and the ‘gay lifestyle’. These branded LGBTQ+ stories with certain negative conations - perversion, drugs, depravity… So when LGBTQ+ characters started to appear in other fiction, some people didn’t know what to think. All they’d ever seen of that kind of representation had been coupled with something dark. Even now, very often, an LGBTQ+ character’s journey will usually centre around them ‘coming out’, and how hard it is. They have to battle against discrimination, depression, lack of acceptance from their family, just to be accepted for who they are. And then, more often than not, they die at the end.

And whilst it’s OK to have stories about that, which look at the prejudiced, dangerous side of our society, it a little depressing if that’s all we get. You have to ask yourself - what am I telling my LGBTQ+ readers when I define a character’s entire life and journey on their sexuality and gender identity, and all I do is make them suffer for it.

I wanted to do something different. I didn’t just want to have walking, talking sexualities -I wanted well-rounded characters with their own agency and stories who represented the diversity of the people around me. Now, one of the future character’s in The Harmatia Cycle will have plot line about ‘coming out’, but that won’t be the pinnacle of their story, just a part of it. I mean - it’s an epic fantasy series about revolution, magic and war… There’s lots of stuff to be done!

Jionathan's initial reaction to seeing two women marry is one of confusion. Was there a reason behind that and did you have any worries about writing it?

Yes. I wanted to address homophobia in its different forms. There are three human countries in Mag Mell – Kathra, Harmatia and Bethean, and each have a different viewpoint on sexual equality. In Kathra, same-sex relations are illegal. It’s a country whose laws reflect a lot of places in our society, where being gay could get you arrested or even killed.

Harmatia doesn’t have any laws on homosexuality, but similarly doesn’t talk about it either. It has a ‘Do it, but don’t talk about it’ sort of policy, which is again familiar to many of us. Some people think that is progressive, but because of the lack of dialogue it causes unconscious prejudices that affect people in different ways.

Jionathan, born and raised in the Harmatia, is homophobic at the beginning of the book. This is not because he’s a bad person, but because he had never seen or discussed homosexuality before. As far as he’s concerned, it isn’t a real thing, because he only has his own experiences to base this on. When confronted with it at the wedding however, he is forced to reanalyse his prejudice for the first time. In the end, he proves to be reasonable and open-minded about it, even recognising and accepting Rufus’s sexuality, which he was blind to before.

The wedding in question takes place in a land foreign to most of the main cast. What was it like creating a fleshed out world (instead of a single kingdom)

It was tough, at times! There were a lot of things to remember and to establish, and I had to do it in a way that (hopefully!) wouldn’t overwhelm the readers.

I think my own nomadic upbringing informed my decision to expand the world and have more than one kingdom, but the plot also really demanded it. I needed Harmatia to be in a certain, volatile state - a volcano on the cusp of eruption, and I also needed Jionathan to escape to a place that was totally contrasting. A place that would challenge his views, and make him see things differently, and encounter people who were unlike those he was used to. As such, it made sense to send him to a different country - somewhere where he could breathe and figure himself out a little.

Creating different kingdoms was fun. I drew on a lot of my experiences and even got to examine the good and the bad that comes with different politics and political structures. Each country has its own issues to contend with, and that’s just the way the world is. I guess what I was trying to say, when I created them all, is that no place is really perfect - and even the ones that look perfect, like Bethean, often have undercurrents that prove they aren’t.

The book serves as a coming of age tale of Jionathan, and we see him grow over the course of the book. In your mind what was the most important aspect of that growth?

Jionathan is seventeen during the first book. He’s been put in a difficult position, where he’s suddenly been named heir to the crown after the death of his elder brother. Despite this, he is treated as a prisoner in his home, and has strong reason to believe that the Queen wants to kill him.

Jionathan lacks courage when it comes to his ruling ability. He doesn’t see himself as capable of leading the kingdom. He’s ashamed of his fear, and feels isolated and alone from everyone around him. The biggest part of his growth then, in the book, isn’t about overcoming the fear, but rather learning to face it. He finds something stronger, a resolution which he lacked, and that is the linchpin that ties the whole series together.

To end with, if you could say one thing to any of your characters, whom would you speak to, and what would you say?

I think a lot of my characters could do with a firm telling off, and then a cuddle. The temptation, of course, would be to have a conversation with Rufus about electronics, and watch him change the world, but I think if I really got the chance to talk to any of them, it would Zachary. I’d have a long conversation with him and tell him some things which he probably should have heard when he was a child. Who knows what could have happened if someone had given him that talk before The Sons of Thestian… The whole story might have ended up very differently. 

The second edition The Sons of Thestian is available from Mag Mell Publishing now.

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