Today I am interviewing Alyc Helms, author of the new urban fantasy novel, The Conclave of Shadow, second book in the Missy Masters series.
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DJ: Hey Alyc! Thanks for stopping by to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Alyc Helms: Thank you so much for having me!
I’ll try to keep it down to ‘a little’. The thing I usually lead with is that I did my undergrad and graduate work in Anthropology and Folklore. That alone explains 75% of how my brain functions. I love stories, I love tropes, I love the structure of narrative, and I love how stories reveal both the particularities and the generalities of a cultural system. My areas of study definitely feed into my writing. I have a whole treatise on different tendencies in worldbuilding that I don’t have room to go into here. Suffice to say that I lean toward anthropological worldbuilding, which comes out through how characters view and interact with the world and the assumptions they make about it (as opposed to, say, getting your worldbuilding out via an omniscient-view history of a location or a custom – nothing wrong with that style. I love that style. I just don’t do it very often myself).
The other 25% of my brain is occupied with the various hobbies I’ve picked up over the years. I’m a big gamer–I’ve written some freelance content for Green Ronin for their A Song of Ice and Fire and Dragon Age lines. I’m a former competitive Scottish Highland dancer, and I still keep my bell kicks a’rockin’ at my local Renaissance and Dickens fairs. I’m pretty handy with a sewing machine (which helps for the making of corsets and costumes for the aforementioned fairs), and I just taught myself to crochet.
DJ: What is The Conclave of Shadow about? What can readers of the series expect in the latest installment? Anything new? Any surprises?
Alyc: Like I mentioned before, I’m a sucker for narrative tropes and structures. With The Dragons of Heaven, I played with the idea of a pulp adventure-style origin story. For the sequel, The Conclave of Shadow, I decided to write it using the structure of a caper story along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven or Escape from Alcatraz—the sorts of stories that depend on complex plans, many players, and many moving parts. Also, things going wrong, and the creative ways that the characters work around those roadblocks.
One of the worldbuilding elements I left (mostly) unexplored in the first book was the role of the Argent Aces in Missy’s world. These corporate-sponsored heroes act as a sort of private army and give the ambiguously motivated Argent Corporation much of their power. In Conclave, Missy reluctantly teams up with several Argent Aces (and drags a few of her old allies along for the ride) to investigate the theft of Argent technology by the Conclave of Shadow. But of course, there’s more going on than just simple theft, and everyone on the team has their own secrets and reasons for helping. Things get… interesting.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing The Conclave of Shadow?
Alyc: The last 20k words of the book are a literal run through to the end. Sometimes when you write, you can get a contact high on the energy you’re channeling. For me, that race to the end was writing at its most breathless.
However, since I can’t really say more without giving away massive spoilers, I’ll say that my SECOND favorite part of the book was introducing and spending some time with a few of the Argent Aces. La Reina de Los Angeles, the angel who guards my real-life hometown of L.A., got a brief mention in the first book. In Conclave, she plays a much more significant role. She’s an old-skool angel, doesn’t take shit from anyone, completely badass, and so much fun to write.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Alyc: Probably the run to the end that I mentioned. However, I have a couple twists and reveals that I hope will be fun and leave them whetted for another installment in the series. I’m a big believer in a book being a complete story on its own, so I don’t leave any threads dangling from this story, but I do set some heavily baited hooks for the next one.
DJ: For readers that have not yet started the Missy Masters series, but are interested, what is the Missy Master series about? Why should they check it out?
Alyc: The first time someone asked me this question, they stopped me about ten minutes into my explanation of interrogating problematic pulp adventure tropes and told me to stop explaining my dissertation topic and try summarizing the book. Since then, I’ve gotten much better at answering this question!
It’s about a young woman whose grandfather was the legendary pulp hero, Mr. Mystic. When she learns that she has inherited his power to control Shadow, she decides to follow in his footsteps and become the new Mr. Mystic. The problem is, she sucks at it due to a severe lack of knowing what the hell she’s doing. She goes to China to train with the ancient Dragon Master who trained her grandfather, because that’s what a pulp hero does. And then her life gets interesting because see what I said before about interrogating problematic pulp tropes.
DJ: What is the universe for the Missy Masters series like? (the environment, weather, people, religion, technology, architecture, government, etc; is it violent, peaceful, patriarch/matriarch, etc.)
Alyc: The world is very much our own, with the exception that pulp heroes exist, and both magic and SCIENCE! are real.
I try to make a distinction whenever I can between pulp adventure and superheroes. Most everyone I talk to is familiar with supers from the comics and the wildly successful Marvel movies. People tend to be less familiar with pulp adventure. But think of things like The Shadow, Doc Savage, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Indiana Jones, The Mummy movies, Big Trouble in Little China, The Rocketeer. These are your pulp adventure tales. The heroes are a little less super-powered; they tend to solve their problems with ingenuity rather than raw power. The stories play out on the level of personal catharses and showdowns rather than world-shattering ones. These are not the epic battles of demigods in the skies above New York. These are colorful characters, chases through back alleys, strange mysteries, monkey paws and glowing McGuffins, witty banter. And fedoras.
Although my books have all these things, I try to ground them in reality. Most of the heroes are sponsored and protected by corporate entities like the Argent Corporation, which I modeled after the real-world Blackwater (which was renamed Xe Services, and has since been renamed Academi. Every time I write about them, they’ve changed their name again). As such, the heroes have a great deal of freedom to operate without oversight, working for an corporate entity with a somewhat questionable agenda.
Most of Argent’s operatives use SCIENCE!; magic of the type that Missy uses and is surrounded by is rarely encountered by the general public. When it is, it is dismissed as explainable natural phenomena or special effects. This might seem like willful blindness, but as Missy points out at one point in the first book, look at how many people don’t believe in evolution or climate change, and there’s far more evidence for the reality of both those processes.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Alyc: Mr. Mystic is your typical pulp hero. Missy Masters is not. She’s an activist, a pacifist, she worries about doing the right thing for the right reasons. She knows that community action is the most effective way to make a difference in the world, and that this is a complicated and slow process, but she also craves the satisfaction of having her individual action be the catalyst for meaningful change. She wants to be a hero. Sometimes that works out for her. Sometimes that white knight tendency is what trips her up.
Although I don’t explicitly state it or have Missy think much about it in these terms, Missy is genderqueer. At first she takes on the identity of Mr. Mystic because nobody will take her seriously as herself. She’s dealing with grief and loss and wants to be someone else as a way to step away from her grief and seize a bit of agency. But in taking on the Mr. Mystic persona, she finds a part of herself that she didn’t realize was there, and it becomes more and more essential to who she is the longer she inhabits the role. Eventually, it stops being a role and becomes just another aspect of her personality.
This is mostly a quiet little transformation that takes place in the background, but it’s what I find most interesting about writing the character. The transformation Missy undergoes (and is still undergoing) in her heroic journey is one of the narrative throughlines I’m most excited about.
DJ: What were some of your influences for The Conclave of Shadow and the Missy Masters series?
Alyc: Many of the pulp adventure stories I mentioned above were central influences. For The Dragons of Heaven, I also spent a lot of time researching China and Chinese cultures and folklores (and also issues of media representations of Asian characters). For The Conclave of Shadow, the setting ended up being a huge influence. Most of the action takes place in San Francisco, and I got to explore many parts of the city as part of my research. I’ve hiked up to Muir Woods and out to Lands End, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, taken the ferry out to Alcatraz, and visited the California Academy of Sciences on several occasions to block out the big fight that takes place there. I haven’t yet done the sixteen mile walk between the seven hills of San Francisco, but it’s scheduled for later this summer. I feel like I owe it to Missy for what I put her through.
DJ: What was your goal when you began writing the Missy Masters series? Is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across to readers when the story is finally told?
Alyc: I have two competing philosophies that get mentioned in the first book, and that I explore in different permutations in the second book. The first is the idea of right action—that is, doing the right thing for the right reasons because how and why you do something informs the outcome. Right action is something that Missy aspires to, but sometimes falls short of the mark.
Counter to this idea of right action is a conundrum first introduced by Missy’s nemesis, the dragon Lung Di. He points out to her at one point that idealism is a series of compromises waiting to happen. If right action is Missy’s ideal target, then those compromises are the winds that knock her off course.
Over the run of the series (for which I have a clear arc and an ending in mind), Missy is going to have to figure out a way to resolve the seeming conflict between these two ideas. Right action is good to aspire to, but it is complicated by differences in subjective experience—i.e., right for whom? Idealism is all well and good, but it sometimes lacks an understanding of nuance, and compromise can be the corrective for that.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from The Conclave of Shadow that you can share with us?
Alyc: Strangely, the line of writing I’m most proud of is the title I made for a museum exhibit on the Argent Corporation. I think it comes from my anthropology background—I’ve had a hand in creating a few exhibits and displays within exhibits during my grad school days. I’d give anything to curate my fictional exhibit. I had way too much fun describing the different displays of Argent through the Ages: A history of looking forward.
DJ: Now that The Conclave of Shadow is released, what is next for you?
Alyc: I have a completed secondary-world fantasy in an Italianate setting. I really let my anthropology brain go wild on the worldbuilding for that one. I often describe it as Game of Thrones meets Queer as Folk, though it bears more resemblance to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, and the underlying structure that I built it on is the structure of a disaster movie. My agent and I are currently trying to figure out how to convince a publisher to consider a queer and PoC-filled doorstopper fantasy from a relatively new author.
I’m also doing research on Gold Rush era San Francisco and hoping to start soon on the third book of the Missy Masters series, which will have elements of time travel and Weird West—because you can’t have a pulp adventure series without a bit of time travel!
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Alyc-Helms/e/B00K2E451Y
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about The Conclave of Shadow that we haven’t talked about yet?
Alyc: The Ambulatory Octopodes, a pair of Shadow Realms denizens, are my favorite new background characters. They fight evil with a Louisville Slugger.
DJ: What is your favorite tea (because really, it isn’t an interview with me if I don’t talk about tea at some point)?
Alec: Lapsang Souchong. It’s like drinking a campfire.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Alec: Thank you again! It was fun to let the brain foxes run loose.
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*** The Conclave Shadow is published by Angry Robot and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
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The line between enemy and ally is thinner than a shadow’s edge.
Ever since she saved the spirit guardians of China by selling out to her worst enemy, Missy Masters – a.k.a. the pulp hero Mr. Mystic – has been laying low. But when knights serving the Conclave of Shadow steal secret technology from a museum exhibit on the Argent Aces, everyone looks to Mr. Mystic for help. If Missy doesn’t want her masquerade blown, she’d better track down the thieves, and fast.
But stolen tech turns out to be the least of her problems. Recent events have upset the balance of power in the Shadow Realms, removing the barriers that once held the ravenous Voidlands in check. Their spread threatens destruction in the mortal realm as well… and only the Conclave stands ready to push them back.
In a world of shadow, telling friends from enemies is easier said than done. But if she wants to save San Francisco, Missy will have to decide who to trust. Including her own instincts, which tell her that something is stalking her with murder in mind…
Alyc Helms fled her doctoral program in anthropology and folklore when she realized she preferred fiction to academic writing. She dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances at Renaissance and Dickens fairs, gets her dander up about social justice issues, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes.
She’s a freelance game writer and a graduate of Clarion West, and her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, to name a few.