October 1, 2015

On sequels

I remember about four or five months before City of Stairs came out, I sat down with a friend for dinner. He’d read it, and liked it, but said, “I do think at the end you set up the sequel a little bit obviously.”

This surprised me. I said, “There isn’t going to be a sequel.”

That, in turn, surprised him. “Are you sure? I thought you were setting that up.”

And I said, honestly, “No. I really didn’t.” I’d thought at the time that it was very much a Casablanca ending: people going off to go great things, with big changes about to happen in the world… which the audience would never see, because the real story was the decision to act – not the actions themselves.

I still think City of Stairs works that way. It’s a standalone, exploring Shara Komayd as she struggles to understand the history of her world and her own place within that history, and what she should do next. She comes to a very final decision at the end of that book, and that decision will heavily impact the next two stories – but those two stories are not explorations of her continuing to make or act on that decision.

There would be no point to that sort of story, really. She’s made up her mind about who she is and what she’s going to do.

And I knew that. So, initially, I didn’t want to write another book set in this world at all. In fact, the book I proposed to do after City of Stairs was sort of a superhero SF book, about power, grief, and meaning – but when my editor got it, he sort of said, “Look… You did a lot of work building the world City of Stairs is set in. And people will want more of that. Why not consider writing something set in that world?”

I realized he was probably right, but I was extraordinarily reluctant to see what else would happen in that world. Because I think I knew that the next thing that would happen would be bad.

***

Shara ends the book deciding to reject the status quo, and instead advocate for idealism, humanitarianism, and change.

But we all know what happens when idealism encounters reality. It doesn’t go well.

As such, I was so loathe to explore the logical continuation of that world that I actually proposed writing a prequel – but that didn’t really work, and we all knew it. So I sat down and started to look at what sort of story I should write next that would be set in this world.

And the obvious subject was death.

If you tell someone you don’t believe in a god or a higher power, the eventual question they’ll ask is probably, “But what do you think happens after you die?” This dilemma – of what happens to the soul in a godless world – becomes much less abstract in a world in which there once were gods who could provide their flock with an afterlife, but then the gods themselves were murdered and died.

So the question I found myself facing was – what happened to these afterlives? What happened to the countless souls in these lands created to exist after death?

I thought that was intriguing. So I started thinking about that. And I realized I’d already created a Divinity of war and death – Voortya. She was mentioned in City of Stairs but never truly explored, so that would give us a lot of opportunity.

Originally I was going to create a whole new character for this story. I decided she’d be a woman, she’d be military, and she’d be struggling with her past deeds in some kind of military conflict. I knew the story would feature the discovery of a material that could give the whole world a huge shove into modernization. And I knew things would go wrong, and the military would get involved.

But I also knew that my heart wasn’t really in this setup as I wrote the outline. I wasn’t invested in this story, not really. And it wasn’t until I got to the part where things went wrong and the military got involved that the story turned around – because that was when an old character showed up on the page: Mulaghesh. And when she did, I suddenly felt the story gained energy, and I wanted to keep her on the page as much as I could.

And then I wondered – why not make the main character Mulaghesh?

So I did. And suddenly it all made sense.

***

City of Stairs is a novel about a world trying to accept the history of one nation – the Continent – and trying to move on.

But there was an unexamined half to this equation – the nation of Saypur.

Saypur is very much a modern nation. It is industrialized. It is democratized. And it boasts a huge military, and it is very aware that its military is how it got to be where it is as of the events of City of Blades. It is a fiercely patriotic nation, whose whole self-identity is defined by past military conflict. It is a nation that prefers war and control over pacifism and negotiation.

So it made sense to have a soldier as the protagonist of City of Blades, which is set in the city of war and death, dealing with the sudden eruption of modernization and change occurring right before her very eyes as the world makes movements to abandon its tolerance for massive warfare.

There are definite similarities between City of Stairs and City of Blades. They’re both fast-paced espionage thrillers set in a fantastical world, with lots of action, humor, and elaborate setpieces.

But City of Stairs is, I think, about the possibility of change. In City of Blades, the change is underway, but the main character, aware of the attitudes of her nation, must decide if this change could actually stick. Because she knows that the status quo only ever changes with massive upheaval.

If City of Stairs struggled with doubt and history, City of Blades struggles with hope, civilization, and sacrifice. Is civilization the elimination of violence and cruelty? Or is it simply the diversion of violence and cruelty into more socially acceptable avenues? And, more importantly, whichever definition you choose – can civilization last?

What if people sacrifice to make a world, but that world never really comes to be? What if people don’t get what they feel they’re owed, what they deserve? What happens to those who gave everything and lost everything when the whole world changes right underneath their feet?

I’d say it is a darker book, yes – but this was probably an inevitability, simply due to the story. But, to my surprise, it might be a more hopeful book despite that, in that it explores what can be changed, what can be done, and what ground can be gained.