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Allies and Assassins, the first in Justin Somper's fabulous new murder mystery series, sees an assassin striking at the heart of the Archenfield Princedom. But who was behind the murder of Prince Anders? Intrigue, plot twists, power games and red herrings will keep you guessing to the last few pages.
Here, author Justin Somper answers a few of our questions - but we promise there are no plot spoilers!
Q: You're best known for your Vampirates series, but your new series seems to be very different. What inspired you to write it?
A: I'd describe Allies and Assassins as a Medieval who dunnit, the idea for which began during a conversation I had with a Welsh librarian who told me about the Eisteddfod that was underway; his daughter was competing to win the Poet's chair.
I discovered that this tradition dates back to the pre-Medieval Welsh court where the poet was a very important member of the court, and I liked the idea of a poet and writer being important. It brought to mind contemporary political characters, like Peter Mandelson, who are at the centre of the MP's 'court'. I got more information about the court and how people sat together within the Assembly Hall to make decisions of state, and I started to think about this new story which was initially called The Prince's Chair.
I also wanted to do something very different from Vampirates, my previous series, so planned that this would be a single book written from the perspective of the 24 members of court reporting to the king about a murder, a sort of 'Who killed cock robin'. But then it started to move in a slightly different direction.
I realised this would be a good project for me because it involved a lot of characters, which I had enjoyed in Vampirates, and I liked writing villains who might be misunderstood, or who are really evil, and I like the idea of them all being shut up in the closed world of the court.
It's about understanding the kind of writer you are and what works for you as a writer. I've never wanted to be someone who churns out the same book every year and that can be put onto you. Even with Vampirates I tried to make each book very different. It's nice as a writer to think that you can probably turn your hand to anything but that's probably not the case for all of us. If you're embarking on another big sequence, you need to know that you can deliver it.
Q: Can you tell us more about the novel's setting?
A: What stressed me most about writing this book was whether I could deliver a murder mystery story, as I've not done that before, but I also wondered if I could get the parallel world where it was set right?
The novel is set in a Medievalesque era, but the element of fantasy enables me to play with how pure Medieval it really is. When I began writing it, I thought it would be nice to have a real historical setting, although then I decided not to set it specifically in Wales but in a fantastical place that feels very real. So the novel has a feel for the Medieval era but is not actually placed in Medieval Wales.
I didn't have to do much research about the Medieval era before I started writing but I did find out more about the court, the King and Queen's retinue and what pre-Medieval Wales was like. I discovered that these regions could be enemies of each other and the rulers could be disposed of, and often were, for one reason or another. It was a bit like the Wild West, with territories close to each other constantly jostling for position and being aggressive.
Q: Did you need to visit Wales to help develop your setting?
A: A lot of the process of writing is a bit like acting, where you have to get inside the scenes and moods of your characters, so because the idea for the novel was delivered by Wales, I wanted to go back to explore the castles and landscape.
I spent a week in Wales, taking a lot of photos and stumbling across things like the boat house that I ended up using in the plot, and a small castle, Gwydir Castle, that I based Queen Elin's quarters on. I really enjoyed visiting that, it was beautiful and there were things like the formal gardens and the mountains rising up in the background that I used in the story.
When you're writing fantasy you still need to make it concrete, to place it in the world, and seeing places like this helps when you are evoking scenes like this.
Q: The timing of the novel is very condensed - what kinds of problems did this present?
A: Yes, the story takes place in just seven days - and that was deliberate. The feedback I've had from teenagers is that the timing adds urgency to the story, which is what I was aiming for. I had in mind TV shows like The Killing which follows the plot day by day; a lot can happen in one day, and it helps you to keep the plotting quite tight. I didn't want to write a huge sprawling Fantasy.
I found that the pace of the novel meant that I had a lot of characters that I had to get to grips with very quickly at the start of the story. In the second book, which I am now writing, I feel I know the characters a lot more now. It's one of the nice things about writing a series; you can layer it more.
Q: So who is your favourite villain in this book?
A: I like Axel [Archenfield's Captain of the Guard and cousin to the prince] a lot, but it's because I'm very like him - if I am akin to anyone in the book, it is him. He has a real thirst for power and is ambitious to get to where he wants to be.... and nothing will stand in his way.
Q: Did you also draw on your own experiences as a writer when creating Logan, the court writer and poet?
A: When I first heard about the poet's chair at court it seemed like a real revelation that the poet could be a key person within the prince's realm. These days, the writer is often seen as a very disengaged person and so it was fun to consider a writer in a more powerful position. It was clear in Medieval times that the role of the poet was in part writing poetry but also telling the story you want to be told - as do PR's of today like Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell.
I drew on my experience in business as well - where there are quite a lot of politics - and TV shows like West Wing to try to think about how this would work and giving it the feel of a Jacobean tragedy - people hiding in the shadows with a dagger.
Q: What is it like writing a murder mystery - how tightly do you have to plot the novel?
A: When you're writing a murder mystery, it's even more crucial to plot your novel. I have become quite adept at plotting, either writing notes digitally or using post-it notes. Allies & Assassins had to be rigorously plotted not just because it's a murder mystery but because I am telling the story from the perspective of a number of different characters. It's a bit like creating a crossword puzzle because you're always moving backwards and forwards through the plot.
I always knew who the murderer was although the character's motive for the murder changed two or three times during the plotting.
Q: What can we expect in book two, Allies & Assassins: Attack (publishing in September 2014)
A: At the end of book one, alongside the murder plot, you have a potentially apocalyptic ending for the court. In book two there's another challenge ahead that is set up at the end of book 1; a rival territory threatens to attack within a matter of days, so Jarrod has to go on the road to forge alliances with other princedoms. It runs within a similar time scale to the first book - and bring in three fabulous new villains!
Q: Has anyone in particular inspired you as a writer?
A: I'm inspired by all kinds of different people and I wouldn't say any one in particular inspired me to be a writer. The close proximity I had with writers, through my PR role, was very inspiring although at first it was also intimidating. I did wonder if the world needed another book.... But being around people like Anne Fine, Anthony Horowitz and Allan Ahlberg - that's incredibly inspiring.
Anthony Horowitz was very supportive in the advice he gave me about writing, especially about setting aside the fear of writing and engaging with it on a regular basis. He would say, 'there's a lot of writing you can do in an hour'. I now quite often write in two-hour spells and it's amazing how much you can get done...
I also remember Anne Fine showing me a chart of how she would progress through her writing and I remember her saying, 'you can write under almost any circumstances, except when you are very upset or ill, and then you just shouldn't bother. So it has been very inspiring and helpful working with other authors.
Q: What do you do to switch off from writing?
A: Recently I've started running, which is quite a good way to switch off. It's nice just to focus on one's breathing instead of firing on all cylinders. And we have two dogs and I enjoy walking them. I've also had a bike for a while but only started to take it out this year and I've enjoyed that too - all the physical things that you can do without thinking!