Executive Editor Matt Sutherland Interviews Katie Keridan, Author of Reign Returned
When considering the imaginary worlds found in great works of fantasy, it is easy to overlook how ordinary and relatable the books can be to an earthbound reader. For all the dragons and wizardry, characters struggle with average, everyday human frailties and concerns, and, no doubt, these features are the secret sauce that helps youngsters identify with the superpowered protagonists of their favorite books.
Knowing of her experience as a neuropsychologist for teens battling cancer helps us understand Katie Keridan’s exceptional skill at creating an eclectic assortment of characters, certain to draw in readers of all backgrounds and beliefs. As she says in the interview below, Reign Returned “is one small way I can offer a safe place to anyone who feels alone, misunderstood, or unloved. I see you, and you’re always welcome in my world.”
We asked Foreword‘s Executive Editor Matt Sutherland to catch up with Katie to talk about how she developed her writing superpowers, who she admires, and what’s next.
Portals, spellcraft, lands of the dead, invincible swords, and special powers galore—you’ve created a fascinating world, one that mere earthlings can only envy. Please tell us about your creative process. How did the realms of Aeles and Nocens come to you?
I can honestly say there’s never a dull moment in my head, which can be both a blessing and a curse. When it comes to my creative process, I follow the advice of Louis L’Amour, a Western author I read prolifically as a kid growing up on a ranch: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” I definitely have those lightning strike moments of inspiration all authors love, where I won’t even be thinking about a scene and then something will just come to me out of the blue, but those moments are very few and far between.
While it’s not nearly as magical, I treat my writing like a job, because that’s what it is to me. I have regular hours at my desk, where I’m physically in front of my computer, and there are absolutely days when all I do is rearrange the same ten-word sentence, but I’ve learned that’s as much a part of writing as the days when everything flows and I write 2000 words before lunch. I show up and make myself available and give my creative muse the opportunity to join me, and it’s been my experience that the more regularly she sees me showing up, the most frequently she sits down and shares her brilliance.
As far as the creation of my realms, in addition to being a writer, I’m an avid reader and have been since childhood. I like to think Aeles and Nocens were born from the combination of all the fantasy books I’ve ever read melding with my own interests and personality, and out of that mix came the idea for warring realms divided by gold and silver blood. One of the reasons I love fantasy so much is because you can play and create on such a huge scale … like creating two very different realms.
For the realm of Nocens, the vibe was self-centered and ostentatious, all about greed and excess with a hint of danger, and I wanted it to feel like a place readers would visit and go, “Yep, this is definitely where the villains live.” I wanted the realm of Aeles to exist in stark contrast to that: everything is clean and shiny, glass, pearl, and gold, and everything screams, “This is where the heroes live.” What I love, though, is that both realms contain secrets, and appearances can be very deceiving, which is a central theme of this book.
Kyra and Sebastian, your protagonists, not only inhabit different realms but also engage in diametrically opposed occupations: Kyra is a healer, Sebastian an assassin. But their attraction to each other is apparent from the moment they meet. And we also meet same-sex couples and young men like Demetri, Kyra’s best friend, who is not quite ready to face his feelings for another man. In all, the realms of Reign Returned would not be so foreign to a young 21st century reader, at least on a societal level. Was it important to you to create a world with recognizable features for modern readers?
It was SO important to me to create a world with recognizable features, especially on a societal level. I wanted the characters in my book to be a reflection of the people around me. Living in California, my society includes people in the LGBTQ+ community, people who identify as trans, ACE, gender fluid, or queer. To be authentic to who I am and what I believe in, I needed to include them.
In my book, queer relationships are outlawed in the realm of Aeles, and when I was writing that, part of me wondered if I was going too far … would anyone even be able to imagine a world where queer relationships would not only be discouraged, but actually punished? Fast-forward a year later to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, something I never imagined happening. That was followed by the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and Justice Thomas’s opinion that the court should reconsider other due process precedents, including Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized gay marriage. All of a sudden, my book seemed more of a current events novel than a fantasy story.
In the book, Demitri has feelings for another man but because of the laws of his realm, he can’t act on them, not only out of fear for what might happen to himself but what might happen to his parents and friends. Demitri’s story was born from the friends and family members I had growing up in a very conservative part of Texas, where people weren’t allowed to be who they truly were and love who they cared for. As a writer, this book is one small way I can offer a safe place to anyone who feels alone, misunderstood, or unloved. I see you, and you’re always welcome in my world.
As long as human societies have existed, healers have held a position of immense power and respect. Somewhat surprisingly—because patriarchy is so prevalent—women very often played the role. With Kyra, you take things a step further by also making her able to travel back and forth to the land of the dead to retrieve souls. So, she has both medical and spiritual gifts. What historical figures, fictional and otherwise, inspired you with Kyra in mind?
You make an excellent point, and I think perhaps it’s at least partly because societies have tended to be so patriarchal that women have often found themselves in the role of healer. If men are off hunting or leaving the village/town to go into work every day, it’s women who traditionally stayed behind with the other women, as well as the old, the young, and the sick (of course, that’s an oversimplification, and there are other factors at play too numerous to go into here). Healers literally hold the power of life and death in their hands, and I wanted Kyra to fully embrace and explore that idea by also making her capable of recovering souls (called “shades” in the book) who died before their time.
Kyra’s passion for learning about healing and helping others was definitely influenced by Marie Curie, as well as the amazing female physicians I was fortunate enough to work with as a pediatric neuropsychologist, which was my day-job until I was able to write full-time. These women were bold and unafraid to take risks and try new things if it meant a chance of improving the lives of their patients.
Sabriel from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series absolutely influenced my conception of Kyra … Sabriel does whatever is needed, and at one point she rescues the crown prince, which was absolutely my inspiration for having Kyra save Sebastian’s life at one point. I love turning a trope on its head and instead of the prince saving the swooning fair maiden, the fair maiden is competent and powerful and ends up saving the hapless prince. Morgaine from The Mists of Avalon was also influential from the perspective of being caught up in situations bigger than yourself and trying to understand your role in something that’s been in place long before you were born.
While I love books where women are more than capable of holding their own in a fight (think Katniss in The Hunger Games, Tris in Divergent, or Katsa in Graceling), I purposefully went a different direction with Kyra. Her power lies in her healing and her recovrancy, but it also lies in her kindness and her optimism, as well as in her belief that 1) things can be different than they are now, and 2) she can play an active role, however large or small, in bringing that change about. She’s also incredibly intelligent, which was important to me, because I love learning and I’m always trying to further my education even though I’m long finished with school. It was also important to me that Kyra have her own quest and character arc that was entirely separate from her relationship with Sebastian.
Myth and fable—Greek, Roman, Viking, Chinese, Native American, and more—appeal to us because of their timeless themes and morals. Are you an avid reader of the classics? How did they influence Reign Returned?
My maternal grandfather was half Native American, of the Iroquois tribe, and years ago I started on a journey of learning more about my own ancestry. The Iroquois tribe was known for many things, including how they valued the oral tradition of record-keeping and remembering important events, making them not only storytellers but story preservers. The five original tribes created complex government and political arrangements as early as the late 1500s, when such organization was still unheard of in Europe. I was particularly drawn to the fact that Iroquois society was matrilineal, and women played important and respected roles in society. I was inspired by so many stories of medicine women, healers and shamans, as well as the Hopi tradition of the Butterfly Maiden, a kachina (spirit) associated with rebirth … she, in particular, was quite inspirational when it came to creating Kyra.
In addition to that, Greek and Roman myths directly inspired my idea of the Nocenian deities referred to as “Fates” and the Aelian deities referred to as the “Gifters.” The classics have so much to say about good versus evil, learning lessons, failing, picking ourselves up, and trying again. There’s a reason those types of stories become classics, because they’re something we can all relate to. I love taking ideas from the classics, especially about good versus evil, and then tweaking them a little and making things not quite so clear cut or throwing in a few shades of grey so the reader stops merely accepting things and begins to ask questions, particularly about the characters, their motivation, and whether their actions are, in fact, right or wrong.
And some forces in the book work behind the scenes. Sebastian suffers the consequences of failing to keep a promise, as if there are powers in place to enforce a set of rules or laws of nature. Are we to understand that the Gifters or Fates of the Realm play this role? Can you talk about the supernatural in Reign Returned?
One thing every society faces is how to deal with the supernatural, or that which seems to defy explanation. I didn’t want to get into the complexities of creating religions for each realm, but I did want a sense that both Astrals and Daevals believe there is some force out there separate from themselves that functions independently of those living in either realm. In Aeles, they have deities known as the Gifters, and each one is associated with a different gift; for example, Caritas is the Gifter of Charity and associated with love, kindness, and helping others out.
In Nocens, their deities are in the form of three Fates, one who governs the past, one who oversees the present, and one who plays a role in the future. I think so much of what we define as supernatural has to do with our point of view. My characters use spells as easily as they breathe, and to you and me, such “magic” would be completely supernatural, because it’s not part of our society. In a world where magic is the norm, I wanted there to be some acknowledgement of something beyond the characters’ comprehension, which led to the creation of deities and generally agreed-upon standards of behavior in each realm, as well as consequences of failing to live up to such standards.
Your characters each have a cypher, a spirit animal serving as an aide, some with a great deal more experience than others based on their roles with previous Astrals or Daevals. As it turns out, Sebastin’s Cypher, Bartholomew (Batty), is a bat who worked tirelessly throughout the centuries for the benefit of the realms of Aeles and Nocens. And, in a nod to evolution, perhaps, you describe a transition from the reign of beasts (Nerudian the dragon) to the human-like Astrals and Daevals—assisted as they are with animal cyphers. What was it like to create animated animal characters? Batty and Kyra’s Aurelius the lynx steal many a scene in the book.
I’m a huge animal lover, so animals have always been a big part of my life and it’s no surprise they’d make their way into something I wrote. I truly believe we can learn so much from nature, so I liked the idea of each character being assigned an animal to provide them with lifelong guidance, wisdom, and support. Aurelius, a lynx who is Kyra’s Cypher, is the quintessential teacher … he takes his job very seriously and sees everything as a teaching moment that can be turned into a lesson. He’s very set in his ways and believes there’s a right way and a wrong way to do anything. I wanted Sebastian’s assigned animal guide to be the exact opposite … Batty is a fruit bat, so he’s not large or even slightly intimidating. He loves food, especially sugar, even though he doesn’t need to eat, and he doesn’t always come across as particularly intelligent.
That being said, as the book progresses, you learn more about Batty and just how truly special he is. So much of this story is about passing judgment on someone or something and then learning more and realizing you might have been wrong in your initial assessment. I was excited to write about Batty, in particular, because so many people still have terrible misconceptions about bats and think they’re gross or disgusting when they’re necessary parts of a healthy ecosystem and some of the best pollinators to exist. Every Cypher has their own personality, and they were so incredibly fun to create. I could probably write a novella just about the Cyphers and their histories … and maybe someday I will!
LeBehr, the bookstore owner, and her Cypher, Mischief the cat, serve as keepers of knowledge, such is the breadth and depth of the store’s collection of books. And she plays an instrumental role in helping both Sebastian and Kyra discover who they really are. We should all be so lucky as to have a LeBehr’s Bookstore around the corner from our home. Can you talk about the importance of books in your life and the people who helped you discover them?
Books have always been my safe place, a place I can go where no one judges me or expects me to be anything other than who I am. They’ve always been my refuge and my escape when the real world is too much. I was fortunate to grow up in a house surrounded by books. In Reign Returned, I mention a guest bedroom being converted into a library in order to store all the books Kyra’s family owns, and that’s definitely based on my own childhood experience of watching my dad build more bookshelves to house all our family books. My mom read out loud to me and my sister for years before we went to bed, and I’ll always be grateful to both my parents for instilling and supporting my love of reading. My grandparents gave me books as birthday and holiday presents, and my bedroom shelves were overflowing with The Saddle Club, Hank the Cowdog, Ramona Quimby, The Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew, and so many more beloved series.
Our town also had a fantastic public library that soon became my second home, and that’s actually where I got my first job, reshelving books. I worshipped the librarians there, seeing them as all-knowing figures who guarded the most important thing in the world—books! I will always appreciate how they took my passion for reading seriously and never treated me like my love of books was just a phase or questioning why I was checking out a certain book. They were wonderful about helping me find whatever I was interested in and even set aside new books they thought I might like when they came in.
I completely agree that everyone ought to have a LeBehr in their life, which is why I created that particular character. While I don’t want to spoil anything, I can say she’s only going to become more important in future books.
You’ve done an admirable job inventing words to populate the vocabulary of Reign Returned—“felserpent” being my favorite but there are numerous others. How did you go about visualizing, sounding out, and generally approving a new word for the book?
I love different languages in fantasy books, even though I have no doubt I unintentionally butcher the pronunciation. While I’m not at the Tolkien-level of creating entire languages for my realms, I do like throwing in words and phrases where it makes sense. In thinking about those who lived in Nocens, I studied Celtic and Gaelic languages, and some words I use are real, whereas others were created based on old or existing languages. For those in Aeles, I used a lot of Latin and components from other Romance languages. I think it just adds another layer of world-building to consider the language a character speaks and make decisions about whether it sounds hard or soft, whether words contain a lot of letters or the bare minimum, and whether it’s considered an “old” or “new” language within the story.
Which fantasy writers do you admire, past and present, and why?
I will always be grateful to Marion Zimmer Bradley and Ursula K. Le Guin for paving the way for female fantasy authors and for offering lessons on phenomenal world-building, which is one of my favorite aspects of writing. Tolkien will always be the reason I’m adamant every fantasy book ought to come with a map. I’m not sure John R. Erikson views himself as a fantasy writer, but his Hank the Cowdog series introduced me to the idea of talking animals who have their own agenda and it absolutely influenced my idea of Cyphers, as did The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman. I love Laini Taylor’s work and admire how she doesn’t shy away from “big” issues, especially in her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, where we’ve got angels, devils, star-crossed lovers, and the apocalypse. I love Marissa Meyer’s work because she knows her characters inside and out and they just come alive and leap off the page and take on a life all their own. AR Capetta’s characters have both a strongness and a fragility about them at the same time that I’m obsessed with.
My go-to, “I will buy anything this person writes” fantasy author is Garth Nix and has been since I discovered Sabriel as a teen. That was one of the first books I remember reading where the protagonist is an eighteen-year-old female who sets off on a quest where she ultimately saves the crown prince. I was like, “Who is this girl going out and making things happen and not sitting around waiting to be told what to do?” I wanted to be like Sabriel so bad, and I’m so grateful for the Old Kingdom DNA floating around in my books. My dream is that someone, someday, finds inspiration within the pages of my books and uses them as a launching point for their own writing career.
What’s next for you? Will we hear more from Kyra and Sebastian, Aurelius and Batty?
I’m on the second round of edits for the sequel to Reign Returned, and you are absolutely going to hear so much more from our little found family. The sequel is going to delve into some pretty deep issues … for Kyra and Sebastian, finding each other and remembering who they are and who they used to be is just the beginning. Now the real work begins. How will they start the process of reuniting the realms and bringing peace between Astrals and Daevals? How will they reveal the truth about their past to those who’ve known them all their lives? Has their arch-enemy, Tallus, also returned? Will Kyra be able to recover Sebastian’s mother? Will Sebastian be any nicer to Batty? What other secrets have yet to be revealed? I can’t wait to share the next book with readers, coming Fall 2023!