I recently reviewed Obsidian by Suzie Wilde, which is pitched as ‘A gripping Viking tale of one woman’s courage, fighting old and new gods amid the savage beauty of Ice Island’. I love historical fantasy novels and especially books with a strong female protagonist, and was intrigued enough ask Suzie some questions. Here’s what she said.
GG: Suzie, you write very believable characters; they are all flawed, and all have some redeeming aspect. Your protagonist Bera is complex; powerful yet insecure, tender yet sometimes spiteful. What was your inspiration for her?
SW: All characters are a mix of an author’s experience, personality and imagination. You begin with a short acquaintance with the first sketchy drafts, then get to know them better as the plot develops and then in later drafts they make decisions and do stuff. I love the ‘Oh there you are’ moment when, as Kate Mosse puts it, the characters pass from behind to walk in front of you. They can be guided of course but can clearly be seen, like real people, and that’s often when the author gets out of the way so the reader can see them clearly too.
GG: You write beautifully about the landscape of Iceland, or Ice Island as it becomes in Obsidian, and the climactic scenes during a volcanic eruption are masterful. Have you ever seen an eruption, up close and personal?
SW: That’s why we have YouTube! I was a maritime researcher and read many accounts written by people who have experienced these events. There are a few groups I follow on Twitter and Instagram, who post stunning images (#volcano or #iceland will pull up loads).
GG: Bera’s world seems very Viking at first, yet it rapidly diverges from Norse culture, particularly in their belief system; Bera is a seeress rather like a Nordic Völva, yet there is little mention of the Norse pantheon of gods. The dead don’t go to Hel or Niflheim but might lurk as ‘drorghers’ to plague the living. Did you set out to create a whole new world view, or did it evolve as you wrote?
SW: I wanted readers to feel they had fallen through a trapdoor into a world only slightly strange. It’s a carefully researched Norse world, as far as it goes, except I’m not keen on having gods involved. They don’t infest the everyday now, so perhaps they didn’t then. The book is written in English, dialogue included, so I didn’t want sudden Old Norse words. Instead I’ve based these fantasy elements on what we know of their beliefs, so drorgher comes from draugr, the walking dead. By a similar process, as you note, Iceland becomes Ice Island. It’s to suggest to readers a slight ‘otherness’.
Anyone who likes Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis might enjoy spotting a similar ‘Norseness’ with their daemons, the Valar and Eldila, respectively. Tolkien was famously a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. I studied it at UCL, where I fell in love with Beowulf, as so many others have over the years. I envy W.H. Auden, who wrote, years later, to his former professor, ‘I don’t think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.’
GG: You write very evocatively about boatbuilding and the sea. Is that drawn from personal experience?
SW: I grew up beside the sea and my father built boats as a hobby. I love the smell of marine ply. I used to play among the rotting hulks while he worked on converting an old lifeboat. Named the Freya, she went out with the ice after only one summer afloat, when I was nine. Loss is a powerful theme in the trilogy.
GG: Sea Paths and Obsidian are stand-alone books, but they are the first two parts of a trilogy. That’s a huge sweep of a story and an impressive undertaking. Did you have the whole series in your mind when you started?
SE: Bera stormed into my life while I was trying to write a crime thriller. Book 1 was intended to be the whole story – but once I had finished it Bera wouldn’t let go. I was even dreaming about her, and other characters too, even the dog! Luckily, enough readers kept asking me what happens next that I had an excuse to work that out. Each book explores what ‘Home’ means and where do you belong if you always keep moving? I don’t like narrative weighed down with backstory: Sea Paths starts on Day One and always moves forward – why Lee Child loved it – so if you read Obsidian it’s the same, except readers of the first will know more backstory. If you’re someone who wants more detail about a character’s past, then you might like to read them in order. At their most basic, Sea Paths is a revenge thriller and Obsidian a quest, though both have a thriller structure.
GG: Any sneak previews of Book 3?
SW: My editor is the brilliant Liz Garner, whose father Alan has been a hero of mine for years. They both hug a story while it’s forming, as if its magic will vanish if spoken. I’m staying silent about Book 3 until it’s done, except to say that the themes of Home and Belonging are resolved, and that this will be the last in the series. It’s quite a challenge to satisfyingly have new story and characters each time, but not leave anything unresolved across the whole series.
GG: I share your respect for Alan Garner. I learned a lot from ‘The Voice That Thunders’. Suzie, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I’m looking forward to the next, and last instalment of Bera’s adventures.
Obsidian is published by Unbound. Click here for my review on Amazon.