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The Diabolic

SJ Kincaid

In THE DIABOLIC (Simon & Schuster) we are introduced to Nemesis, a being who is created to serve and protect one person only. For Nemesis, this is the galactic senator's daughter, Sidonia.

So when the senator's political meddling puts Sidonia's life in danger, it is up to Nemesis to protect her, even if this means becoming more human than she - or her makers - ever thought possible.

Here, we asked author SJ KINCAID to tell us more about THE DIABOLIC:

Q: You've mentioned that The Diabolic was inspired by I, Claudius (written by Robert Graves). What made it such a striking story for you?

A: The only filmed version I've seen is the BBC miniseries from the '70s (my mother loved it when it first aired and insisted I give it a chance). I went into my viewing of it with a sense of skepticism, especially when I saw how much like a stage production it was.

I soon forgot all about that. The acting, the writing, the sheer fascinating quality of the story just sucked me in and the flashiest sets and best CGI in the world wouldn't have made the least bit of difference.

I think what I found compelling was the sense of being swept into this other world, the world of these decadent Imperial royals, and the sense of knife-edge peril that lurked between these aristocrats even as they drank wine together and smiled at each other. It's just a fascinating story I make sure to rewatch every few years.

Q: Why did you decide to take your story into space?

A: I've always loved science fiction, ever since I grew up fastened to the TV whenever Star Trek: The Next Generation was on. It made me something of a dork when I grew older, but when I was young, it was a huge influence on me.

I love space stories because they hold total freedom of possibility. I love the idea that we're not alone in this universe, and that the fascinating explorations of humankind aren't confined to the limits of our own atmosphere.

Q: Do you like the idea of actually travelling in space? If they sent people to Mars, would you go?

A: Yes! I want to go to space! The minute space tourism is affordable, I am up there. Regarding Mars, though, it would be a one-way trip as returning is thought to be impossible.

Much as I'd love to be a pioneer, I love foggy, rainy days, and I would hate to live totally surrounded by bare crimson terrain. For a (return) visit? Oh yes. For resettlement? No.

Q: How did you go about creating the space setting for The Diabolic?

A: I always love creating new worlds. For The Diabolic, I first envisioned the primary setting - the Chrysanthemum, the 2,000 interlinked starships in a six-star system - where the royals live.

My world-building always begins with the setting where the primary action takes place, and from there, often a lot of the narrative comes to me.

Q: Can you remember what sparked the idea for Nemesis herself, the 'Diabolic': a bodyguard whose sole purpose is to live and die for its charge?

A: The Diabolic began as a single page where Nemesis meets Sidonia for the first time, and to be honest, I am not sure where Nemesis or Sidonia came from.

I started and stopped a lot of manuscripts in that period. I wrote many, up until around 30,000 words, before abandoning them, but this single page of Nemesis meeting Sidonia kept drawing my attention back to it.

Nemesis sees Sidonia and is surprised that her nose has never been broken, noting that Sidonia is a 'real' girl... That single part alone raised so many questions in my mind about Nemesis.

What I knew: 1) she came from a violent background, 2) Sidonia did not, 3) Sidonia is considered real, Nemesis is not. From there, I built the character. I felt I could explore her emotions but through the frame of a person much more constrained than myself - someone who dehumanizes herself. Nemesis was just a means of exploring many of the same feelings we all have but through a much darker lens, and it was fascinating for me as a writer.

Q: Nemesis doesn't understand humour; how did you offset that so the story didn't become too dark?

A: Hmm, that's an interesting question. My last series, Insignia, was meant to sway back and forth in tone between silliness and some truly dark moments - even despite the very dark moments in The Diabolic, I still think I wrote some darker stuff in Catalyst.

With that one, I had to worry about how dark it was, because a book that starts off silly doesn't necessarily prepare a reader for what's coming in the dark moments. You can't pull a bait-and-switch on a reader, so I had to be a bit more careful with content there.

With The Diabolic, the story launches into this dark tone from the very first chapter of the book. You know exactly what you're getting into, so I didn't have to worry as much about going too dark.

Having said that, a story can't just be one bad thing after another. If you're doing your job right as a writer, there are highs and lows within the story, and moments of humanity to balance out the breathtaking acts of cruelty. I think it's just a matter of having a feel for your story as you write it and making sure it remains readable and not too entrenched in one emotion.

Q: There are two strong female leads in the story - Nemesis the Diabolic, and the villain, Cygna. Did you deliberately choose to put two women against each other?

A: Despite my love for Livia in the original I, Claudius, my diabolical grandmother figure wasn't originally going to be a huge villain in the story. However, as I wrote, the Emperor Randevald - originally my big baddie - just wasn't doing it for me.

His role removed him too much from direct interaction with Nemesis, and for a protagonist and villain to have a really interesting dynamic, they really need to have a powerful, emotionally charged connection. Even once Nemesis had a reason to feel extremely strongly about the Emperor, he didn't have a reason to reciprocate that animosity due to the fact that she was posing as someone else.

Cygna, however, was the sharpest tool in the shed; the woman behind the curtain with a keen insight into everyone around her and perceptive enough to regard Nemesis with distrust.

As soon as I clarified her in my mind as that character, I knew she'd be a better villain, both because she impressed me as an adversary, and because she had reason to both interact with Nemesis and dislike her. So she became my main villain, and Randevald more her ungrateful son who doesn't realize his mother is the mastermind behind his power.

Q: You also explore hierarchies and how characters with difference are discriminated against in this world - Nemesis is perceived as less than human; the robotic Servitors to have no feeling; and Tyrus is isolated for his 'madness'. Why did you want to explore this aspect of society in this story?

A: One thing about human beings is that we repeat the exact same mistakes and societal structures - just with minor variations and different labels - time and again.

The hierarchies of The Diabolic would naturally be extremely different from the ones we see and understand now, as humanity is very far from Earth and we've had thousands more years to disassociate from the cultures of ancient ancestors, and we've achieved the technology to drastically alter almost any physical aspect of self at will.

So what would delineate people? I mentioned that this story began with a single page of Nemesis seeing Sidonia and thinking Sidonia is a 'real girl' (therefore Nemesis is not). So I immediately had an idea of a divide in status there from the very beginning.

As soon as I determined Nemesis' role - an artificial human created solely to protect Sidonia - it was easy to extrapolate that this is a society that would not hesitate to craft other artificial humans to serve other functions, hence an entire underclass of them (the 'Servitors'). So there is automatically a huge divide there.

And just as, say, ancient Roman elites displaced Roman commoners from their jobs by using slaves, I knew there'd have to be a great mass of people who are not 'created', yet not elite, who also exist in this universe. Additionally, with technological progress, most anything could be done by machines, most anything could be automated, further exacerbating these divides.

In Tyrus' case, it's not his madness that isolates him but his awareness that his own family is very likely to kill him at any sign of strength. The madness is his weapon of choice. A madman who isn't in touch with reality surely can't plot his uncle the Emperor's death - or can he?

Q: You've said The Diabolic is a one-off book, but would you ever want to return for a sequel?

A: I won't rule anything out. I wanted to do a standalone because it is always so stressful doing a trilogy. You also have to keep a lot of material on hold to fuel you for the next books. Standalones are great because you can blow everything up now.

Q: Any news on a film deal?

A: At this moment, right now? Nothing yet. But there is interest.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: A humorous middle-grade science-fiction manuscript.

Q: Where and when do you write? Where can't you write?

A: Right now, I always right at Panera Bread, a chain coffee place near me, usually in the morning to mid-afternoon. I cannot write anywhere public, and I can't write anywhere I sleep.

Q: What was the best writing advice you've been given?

A: Keep persisting again and again until you reach your goal. Don't let rejection get you down.

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