2010 served up several solid debut novels. From Blake Charlton’s fun, throwback-to-the-90s Spellwright (REVIEW), to N.K. Jemisin’s out-of-left-field The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (REVIEW), it was a good time to be discovering some of the genre’s new, young authors. Topping that heap, though, was Anthony Huso’s The Last Page. I’ll let my review do the talking:
The Last Page‘s influences are clear, but many. Huso weaves aspects of Epic Fantasy (in the form of magic books, invading armies and motley assassins), Steampunk (zeppelins, guns and tanks), Lovecraftian Horror (some truly frightening beasts and angry, universe crumpling gods), Urban Fantasy, heavy doses of Mievilleesque New Weird and even a light dalliance with Military Fantasy. With a quilt-like structure (each square built from one sub-genre), Huso’s story and world could easily have become a convoluted, cannibalistic mess, but, instead, he handles it with the aplomb and skill of a veteran writer. The weird world of Stonehold could stand beside the work of contemporaries like Mieville or Newton and never miss a beat.
It’s was a no-brainer that I’d get in touch with Anthony and pick his mind about his debut novel, poetic prose, language and his work in the videogame industry. He didn’t let me down.
Anthony, welcome to A Dribble of Ink! I’ve written a little bio of you above, but why don’t you start things off by telling us something about Anthony Huso that we won’t find in any authorized biography?
When I sit in a restaurant, I line up my wallet, cell phone and keys in a nice row. The OCD is getting worse, generally, with age but it’s balanced out by the fact that my kids leave popsicle wrappers on the coffee table — which forces me to cope with reality.
The Last Page, at its heart, is a love story between Caliph Howl and Sena Iilool and the struggles of their relationship around the roadblocks put in place by their own personal agendas. At the same time, Sena plays a very adversarial and antagonistic role in Caliph’s life as High King. Was it hard to juggle these two sides o the relationship? Which was more important to the story?
It wasn’t easy. I think if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been interesting to write. I like to watch people in public and notice how they interact. Relationships are fascinating. So you’re right, this is a story that revolves around a relationship, though I wouldn’t classify it as a proper romance. As for which side is more important, I think you can’t have the story without both sides, clearly. Now, that said, I found in writing it that whenever there was less of Sena in the text, the book didn’t go as well. I think this is really Sena’s story, even more than Caliph’s.
Was that something you planned from the get-go? Or did Sena come to life in the crafting of the story?
Well, Sena’s importance was certainly planned. But as I said, I did go down different roads, scrapped chapters and what have you that weren’t as Sena-centric. She’s just a very demanding character and she sort of took a stick to me and said “You’re going tell this story the right way. It’s about me.” That’s how it felt sometimes.
I’ve seen a lot of things in Fantasy, but atomic bombs formed from the souls of dead kittens is new. There’s an incredibly adroit symbiotic relationship between science and magic in your novels, one powering the other and adhering to each other’s rules. Combining the logical with the illogical. Where did you even begin when constructing the magic system in your novel?
There’s the dreadful term again: “magic system”. Magic, in my opinion, should not follow predictable courses, which is precisely why I smush together logical and illogical things. Logical plus illogical equals illogical. At least I hope so. Yes, there’s a vague sense of cohesion, that magic exists in the world, but my hope was that magic remained rogue, gruesome, frightening, even silly. Mushrooms erupting in a factory isn’t very grim, but I think it is silly. The main intent behind magic in the books is not to create a system that can be easily rolled over into an RPG. The main intent is to surprise.
By the way, I don’t fault you for using the term, magic system. It’s just something that, like a bur under the saddle, makes me want to buck the rider off and run in the other direction as much as I am able do so while still being entertaining.
Magic, whether it’s systemized or not, has always been an important tenant of Fantasy storytelling. It’s also an important aspect of The Last Page. What does it add to the genre? Could Fantasy survive without it?
I think magic, at its best, allows us to explore the preposterous and the unknown in a way that’s acceptable. It’s different than hard sci-fi in that the writer isn’t making a claim about something that’s probable, or grounded. Rather, I think magic can be a catalyst for commenting on things at emotional level, which I would argue is valuable, especially if it makes a reader uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable helps us learn things. Not that fantasy’s main purpose is to teach lessons or whatever, but you asked what magic brings to the genre. I think magic *is* the genre. Hopefully that also means that it’s a genre of unpredictability and exploration as opposed to a genre of regurgitation and formula.
Another interesting aspect of The Last Page is how the media has an effect on the politics of war. Why was this so important to the story?
Media and the public opinion is always important in war. I didn’t want to get carried away with it, but giving the papers a real presence in the story allowed, I think, for the weight of Caliph’s office to have a real presence, a real voice. The battle for public opinion, I think, had to be present in the novel in order for Caliph’s job to feel real.
One thing that really stood out to me about The Last Page is the prose. You had me reaching for a dictionary more than that time I took a low-level Japanese class. But, at the same time, the prose in the novel is buttery smooth and full of wonderful imagery and sharp dialogue. Striking that balance between dense language and readability isn’t easy. What about your dense, complicated prose-style is so suitable for this story?
I mean, others would argue that I didn’t strike a balance and that it is overly baroque. I’m glad you found it pleasant to read. I’ve been really happy with the number of positive reviews and people who have enjoyed the prose. It’s surprised me because I didn’t set out writing this thing to please anyone but myself. The fact is that I pick words very carefully, based on the way they sound and the number of syllables in them and the sounds and syllables of other words in proximity to them. I hear a kind of rhythm in my head which is hard to explain. Certain words will violate that lilting rhythm and so I change them out. Other times I specifically want to violate the rhythm.
In the end, it’s important that as I read it, the text not only communicates what I’m trying to say, but does so with words that I find atmospherically and contextually supportive based on their sound and appearance on the page. If that makes no sense, I apologize. To sum it up the main point of your question, I think I use crazy vocabulary in order to struggle with and describe crazy things.
I loved the footnotes. Any chance we’ll see more of those in your future work? Perhaps in a more fleshed out fashion, full of anecdotes and tangential (but interesting) stories and information, like those found in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?
There will be some footnotes in the sequel, similar to those found in book one. I try not to tangent much or wander away from the action, but since this is essentially the same story, some more footnotes feel appropriate.
Good, poetic prose can be hard to find in the Fantasy genre, especially in Epic Fantasy. What authors, Fantasy or otherwise, do you feel spin the best sentences?
I have a profound respect for Laird Barron’s ability to craft a lovely sentence. If you haven’t, you should read him. Not for the squeamish though. Peake’s Gormenghast is of course a masterpiece. John Harrison also writes beautifully and I love Miéville. These sorts of writers inspire me.
Speaking of language, the one featured in The Last Page features its heavy share of umlauts, breves, cedillas and carons. Were you, or your publisher, ever worried that this might scare awar potential readers from a debut author?
I can’t speak for the publisher. My editor at Tor said something to the effect of, “I think we can get away with it.” For me, personally, it was a way of reminding myself visually of how foreign the world is. I just wanted the world to feel familiar but to keep sort of punching you in the face that, no…no, I’m not that familiar…you only think I am.
There’s also a very cool alphabet featured in The Last Page that allows you to visualize The Unkown Tongue, the language that calls upon many of the novel’s magical elements and, eventually, ties into the plot. What went into the creation of that alphabet? Did you sketch the glyphs yourself?
Ah, you like that do you? How’s about I provide you with the font. Yes I drew these by hand, scanned them in, tweaked them on the computer and then got them organized into a proper font. There you go. Now you can write something in the Unknown Tongue…and so can anyone who grabs the file. As with any script of power, caps only. Lowercase letters are empty.
Oh yeah, look at that! It’s my name in the Unknown Tongue! Wait, that’s probably not a good idea…
The Last Page is roughly categorized as an Epic Fantasy, but it shares roots in New Weird, Steampunk, Urban Fantasy and Horror as well. What led you down that path, rather than sticking more closely to a tried-and-true genre?
I have little interest in tried and true. What’s to be done there? If you fail in tried and true that’s even more brutal than if you fail in an untested arena, isn’t it? Weird things are just cool. I love them. My favorite video game of all time was not a mainstream best-seller. It was a little known title called Thief: The Dark Project put out by Looking Glass Studios. It was brilliant. It was also a huge risk.
Speaking of video games, during the daylight hours, you work for a video game company. How has working on an interactive medium influenced you as a writer (which is traditionally a passive medium)?
I think it’s the other way round. I came to video games because I saw in them, mostly based on the experience I had playing TtDP, a compelling way to tell a story. I still believe that’s possible. While I might take issue with the very on-the-rails experience of a game like Call of Duty 4, there’s no doubt it was one of the most compelling story-telling experiences I had in a game. Almost an interactive movie more than a game. In that regard, I consider it a success despite other failings. One thing I can say about video games and writing is that when they work well together it’s an extraordinary experience. Who can forget Ryan’s “Will you kindly…” from Bioshock? What a brilliant reveal.
Everyone’s got an author who they consider criminally under-read. Who do love to read and feel they deserve to find an even broader audience?
Well, if you’ve never read Kelly Link, you absolutely should. The same goes for Laird Barron.
Thanks for joining us, Anthony! Best of luck with Black Bottle and your other future projects! Any parting words?