I recently had the pleasure of reading The Shadow at the Gate, the second book in The Tormay Trilogyby Christopher Bunn. I reviewed the first book in the series The Hawk and His Boy in March (view that interview here). As it was for that first book, I found myself wanting to reread The Shadow at the Gate the moment I finished it. I have yet to award an indie author a 5/5 star rating on Amazon (I gave The Hawk and His Boy 4/5 stars). This book will be the first to get a 5/5 star rating from me on Amazon (I’d give it a 9.5/10 on a 10-point scale). It is, in a word, exquisite.
The Shadow at the Gate is a gripping read. It is action-packed from start to finish. I never wanted it to end. Fortunately for us, there is still one more part of the story to be told in The Wicked Day.
The Shadow at the Gate is a story of dark versus light, or evil versus good, yet it also reveals the necessary balance that exists between the two forces.
“…the things of light can be inferred by the darkness, for the shape of shadow only exists out of opposition to the light.”
Throughout the story are references to dark and light energy. The light is beautiful and restorative:
“The air around the singer seemed to shimmer, almost as if the sunlight had been caught by the woman’s voice and was coaxed to slow and thicken in attentiveness to her sound.”
The dark is accompanied by a feeling of cold and damp and of dread:
Darkness deepened in the hall, thickening until it was a presence—a vapour drifting through the air like smoke. It was difficult to breathe.
“Come closer,” said the thing.
There is beauty and wisdom in the text as well. I felt a sense of connection to our world as I read about the beautiful land of Tormay and the challenges faced by its people. I can’t recommend this book enough.
The three books of The Tormay Trilogy are suitable for all ages from Young Adult (YA) up, but I know some tweens and teens that would enjoy it also (parental discretion advised). The Shadow at the Gate (The Tormay Trilogy) is available at Amazon.com for $2.99. The first book in the series, The Hawk And His Boy, is just $0.99!
Interview with Christopher Bunn
Cookie’s Mom: Hello again, Christopher. Thanks for speaking with me today.
Christopher Bunn: Hi, Sue. Thanks very much for having me by again.
Cookie’s Mom: Please tell us about The Shadow at the Gate.
Christopher: The Shadow at the Gate is the second book in my epic fantasy series, The Tormay Trilogy. It continues the story of the young thief Jute as he tries to stay alive and figure out why so many people suddenly want to kill him. The book also includes a couple other substantial subplots that weave in and out of Jute’s story.
Cookie’s Mom: Where did the book’s name, The Shadow at the Gate, come from?
Christopher: The book’s name is key in terms of plot and theme. The second book introduces what I would term the secondary layer, or depth, of evil that then goes on to figure prominently in the rest of the story (though, I might add, it is not the last layer). The shadow referenced in the title is a serious personification of evil, a character who has been waiting unseen offstage in the first book, unseen but orchestrating many of the events that happened in The Hawk and His Boy. In The Shadow at the Gate, that character makes his entrance.
However, the character of the shadow is not evil itself, but only one of many manifestations of evil. I attempted to make that distinction in the trilogy, as there are some interesting (and troubling) implications in the thought that evil might exist as something external to creatures (human or otherwise).
Cookie’s Mom: What factors were the most important to you when writing this story?
Christopher: Writing this story was definitely a balancing act in many ways. I wanted to write a good story, of course, but I also wanted to write a story that a young school-aged version of me and an older version of me would both want to read. I also wanted to see how the main themes of good & evil, family, regret, death and sacrifice would play out. I didn’t write the story, of course, as a showcase for those themes, as there’s nothing so tedious as stories written specifically to communicate a message. That sort of thing is propaganda or marketing. It’s usually a waste of time, unless you’re hell-bent on revolution in Russia or selling toothpaste.
Beauty was also another important consideration in this story. Even though I painted with a lot of darkness in The Shadow at the Gate, I wanted to include glimpses of beauty. We need beauty in our lives. We crave it, like water, even if we are not conscious of our thirst. Mind you, I’m not using the aesthetic definition of beauty. Rather, I would define it as the summation of the key elements of goodness: faith, hope, and love.
Cookie’s Mom: The characters in The Shadow at the Gate are very believable. You have spoken about moral compass in the past (see Christopher’s guest post on “Moral Compass and Character”). How did this guide your writing of The Shadow at the Gate?
Christopher: I’m glad you found the characters believable. That’s always an anxiety of mine. These days, I have very little objective perspective on my characters, due to the fact that they’ve been living in my head for so long. There were two main things that helped me create the characters. First, all of the main characters that had at least a decent amount of dialogue and personality were based on real people or amalgamations of real people. I borrowed heavily from my past in that regard. I really hope I don’t get sued because of this.
Second, I freely let my moral compass (essentially, my worldview, philosophy, etc) influence and instruct how my characters behaved. I suppose every writer does this to varying degrees. With some, like Dickens or Chesterton or Dumas, it’s extremely easy to see that in action. With others, it’s more difficult. At any rate, the things that I believe in, things such as evil & goodness, humility, the value of courage and sacrifice, etc., create, I think, a logically and internally consistent view of the world that, when applied to the creation of characters both good and evil, generates equally logical and internally consistent personalities.
Cookie’s Mom: You maintain such suspense in this book. It never lets up. How do you manage this?
Christopher: You know that old writing tip about how, when you write a story, you take your character and have lots of bad things happen to them? I might have gone a little overboard with that.
Cookie’s Mom: You wrote this as one story and later broke it down into the three books of the Tormay Trilogy: The Hawk and His Boy, The Shadow at the Gate, and The Wicked Day. Did you know the path this story would take from the beginning or did it unfold for you?
Christopher: Very early on, I knew where the story would begin and where it would end. I also had quite a few scenes tucked away in my mind, but I wasn’t exactly sure how the story would get to them. A lot of unfolding happened. And then a lot of rewriting happened.
Cookie’s Mom: The book is so well organized and so well paced. Despite the complex web of characters, lands and plot lines, I never felt confused or lost.
Christopher: Thank you for that compliment. Organization and pacing become much more difficult with longer books like this one. At one point in the process, I had to stop writing and create a flow chart for the subplots, as well as a companion flow chart for the characters, in order to see if they surfaced in a regular, evenly spaced fashion.
Cookie’s Mom: In addition to creating a flowchart, did you create an outline for this story? What did that look like?
Christopher: When I first began writing, I was foolish enough to think I could pull it off without an outline. However, after a couple hundred pages, I wised up. I stopped and made an outline. It had a lot of question marks and empty spots to begin with, but I began filling in the storylines of the various plots as the months (and years) progressed. I had to tweak it quite a bit, though, due to unanticipated characters appearing in my mind and declaring their inclusion in the story.
In addition to an outline, I wrote huge amounts of backstory. History. I think I wrote about 100 pages or more of history. Character studies. Stories that I needed to know in order to truly understand what I was trying to write. If I ever combine all three books of the trilogy into one single book, I might include all that backstory in an appendices.
Cookie’s Mom: What sort of research did you do before writing or as you went along?
Christopher: I didn’t do any specific research for the trilogy. However, that said, I think I’ve been researching my entire life. While the story is a fantasy, set in a make-believe world of magic and strange creatures and the like, it’s heavily autobiographical in terms of themes and characters and motivations. I think I started researching this one back in third grade…
Cookie’s Mom: How much of this book was written in your head before you began writing it on paper?
Christopher: Only a few scenes were in my head before I started writing, more than ten years ago now. However, I tend to write in my head when I’m doing other things (so don’t get too close to me if you see me driving on the freeway, as I’m probably not concentrating on the road). That’s always been a habit of mine.
Cookie’s Mom: This book speaks largely of the opposition between the light and the dark. How did your representation of the dark and the light forces develop? Was it pure imagining, was it based on a personal faith, or was it perhaps influenced by some other works that you have read? The use of language to convey light and dark is brilliant.
Christopher: The relationship between light and dark is one the main themes in the trilogy. Light and dark, or good and evil, are central in how I personally see the world. I’m a Christian and, due to my faith, I’m fascinated by the permutations of how good and evil can play out in human lives. Not just fascinated, I’m also painfully aware of how important the problem of evil is, as well as its corresponding answer. Despite being a Christian, when I set out to write the Tormay Trilogy, I was not interested in proselytizing for my faith. I think that sort of writing, like the propagandizing we were discussing before, usually makes for very dull reading. I merely intended to write a diverting story. However, we can never escape ourselves (should we ever?), so a certain amount of my views on evil and the nature of good were, of course, going to color the story. If that’s allowed naturally, more as a product of the subconscious, I think one ends up with much better art. I think C. S. Lewis wrote an essay on that topic, but I’m sure he was much more logical and persuasive about it.
Cookie’s Mom: You weave much wisdom into this book that, while it applies to the land of Tormay and its people, may also be applied in our own lives. How did you manage to include such pearls of wisdom in the text?
“But obligation,” he said, “must be chosen afresh every day, particularly for those who rule, for the power of the ruler brings with it a temptation to order one’s world so that it no longer contains opposition and all the painful weights of duty.”
“Water is mine, and you are mine as well, for my blood runs in your veins now. I’ll not compel you to do this. If compulsion is not married with choice there is a hatefulness in it that can’t help but lead to destruction in the end. I ask you to do it of your own choice, for such a choice will be strong and there’s more to you, Ronan of Aum, than a sword.”
Christopher: Er, pearls of wisdom? I’m flattered you think so. I’m really not certain how such things appeared in the story. I prefer listening rather than speaking in my day-to-day life, so I must be listening to someone wise (my wife probably). I’m really not wise myself. I think I slept through most of school, or, at least, skulked in the back row with a paperback novel secreted inside my math textbook.
The second quotation you used is from some dialogue spoken by Liss Galnes. It’s interesting that you would pick a selection from her. The Liss character was one of a handful that showed up in my mind, completely uninvited. She wrote herself from her very first scene. It’s almost as if she dictated her dialogue to me. That said, those pearls all belong to Liss (and they do, which will only make literal sense to anyone who has read the trilogy).
Cookie’s Mom: We’ve talked before about the authors and books that have influenced your writing. Have you read any good books lately?
Christopher: Well, I just started reading David Mamet’s new book, The Secret Knowledge. Regardless of one’s view on politics, he can certainly write. He wields a heavy pen. I also just read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links. I know she isn’t typically regarded as one of the great lights of literature, but, hey, I think she’s fantastic. She knows how to tell a story, and Hercule Poirot is right up there with Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. Other than that, I just read a book on Famines and Plagues to my five-year-old. He picks a book to read before bedtime each night. Last night, he picked that one. The first paragraph was a remarkably bloodthirsty opener, something along the lines of “Famines happen when people no longer have access to food. This causes a condition caused malnutrition. The stomach distends and the limbs become stick-like. Starvation and death then occur.” The section on Plagues was pretty unsettling. He loves books like that. Odd little boy. He must take after his dad.
Cookie’s Mom: Christopher, when can we expect to have the third book in the trilogy, The Wicked Day, in our hands? Please say it will be soon.
Christopher: The Wicked Day is done, sitting on my hard drive, and patiently (no, impatiently) waiting for the artist to finish the cover.
Christopher is expecting to publish The Wicked Day sometime in August. I’ll post an update on Cookie’s Book Club when it is available.
Cookie’s Mom: Finally, Christopher, Just for fun, will you answer the desert island question? If you were somehow stranded on a desert island with a water-proof backpack (perhaps you floated on it from the shipwreck), what three things found in your backpack would you be grateful for having had the foresight to bring on your journey in the unlikely event of an emergency?
Christopher: I guess if I were stranded, my backpack would contain one of those Acme Inflatable Hydrofoils (you know, the ones that are about the size of a nickel – you sprinkle some water on them and they inflate into a thirty-foot cabin cruiser equipped with long-range fuel tanks, fully stocked refrigerator, satellite radio, small tube of sunscreen, etc.), my Kindle, and…hmm…oh, my wife. She actually knows how to pilot boats and do ocean navigation, so I’d let her drive while I would read on the bow.
Cookie’s Mom: Thank-you for speaking with me today, Christopher, and thanks so much for writing The Hawk and His Boy and The Shadow at the Gate. I have loved these stories!
Christopher: It’s been my pleasure to chat, Sue. I’m glad you enjoyed the books (it kind of feels like you’re complimenting my two sons). Best wishes to you.
Christopher Bunn (1969-still alive) was born in California to parents of extra-terrestrial origin. After working a long and not-so-illustrious career that did not include a stint as a mule skinner, six months lost at sea on a life raft provisioned only with a crate of bananas, two years as a prize fighter, several shameful terms in Congress, nor a brief time spent in the circus as a lion tamer, he began writing novels in order to chronicle his life and the lives of other people who did not exist (exerpt from Christopher Bunn’s biography on Amazon.com).
Christopher is one funny guy! If you want to know what he’s really been up to, check out his blog, Scribbles and Tunes.