Fantasy Focus: Historical Fantasy Featuring N.C. Koussis

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic FantasyRomantic FantasyGrimdark, Urban Fantasy, and Epic/High Fantasy.

This month I’m focusing on Historical Fantasy, that fascinating subgenre that adds the fantastical to real places and times.

I’m privileged to talk to N.C. Koussis, author of The Kiln of Empire.

Thank you for joining me to talk about your writing and about historical fantasy!

Thank you for having me!

First, will you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

I’ve been writing full-time since March 2019 after a series of injuries and family bereavements left me a nervous, anxious wreck. After being inspired by my incredible wife to start a creative project, I took up writing, because I’d always loved it. I had written stories when I was a kid but got discouraged by wanting it to be perfect. I loved Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Game of Thrones, so fantasy was the natural choice of genre for me to write in. I still have a day job, of course, and I run a local writers’ club. I’m also currently studying a PhD in neuroscience.

Will you talk a little about The Kiln of Empire?

I’d love to! The novel is set in a fantasy Constantinople, but imagine instead of Christianity, they worship their ancestors. From the afterlife, the Ancestors (as they’re known) bestow on their lineage powers—imagine a baker, who blessed by his forefathers, bakes bread that never goes stale. A potter whose glazes never chip. And of course, there’s the power structure baked in (pun intended): the ruling class are basically superheroes. The Ischyroi that rule the northern province have the strength of ten men. There’s the other side to that, as well: if you’re not blessed, if you’ve done something to majorly piss off your ancestors, they curse you. Now instead of baking bread that never goes stale, now your bread never rises, no matter how much yeast you put in. So, there’s a whole dynamic around that. You can never truly know what your forefathers think of you, either, though the clerics in the novel claim to know through auguries.

The novel opens in the middle of a revolt against the ruling family, due to a series of blunders by the emperor and a Senate who has whipped up fervor in the people, because they want to see him topped off. I won’t spoil it, but the main character, the emperor’s granddaughter, is forced to make a series of decisions to stop things from going from bad to worse.

Your writing is considered historical fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

That’s a difficult question! If I was to take a stab, I would say that it’s fantasy that is far more grounded in reality. Generally, the world has followed a similar path to our own, with maybe a little creative license for magic flavor or some other exploit. Game of Thrones would probably be a step too far into high fantasy, but you can see the obvious elements of historical inspiration. I think it actually started as a much more grounded series without the magic, dragons, and the Others, though I’ll probably get a bunch of angry fans in the comments telling me that’s wrong! I think a good rule of thumb is if you can see the historical inspiration very clearly, and it’s not too different from our world (it could be set on Earth), then that’s historical fantasy.

What first drew you to writing historical fantasy?

It sort-of fell into my lap, really. I’ve always been fascinated by the Eastern Romans; by their heroes who were not only incredible fighters and generals but cultured men and women, who loved poetry and read and wrote voraciously, and were incredible orators, too. Some of our most famous speeches come from the Greeks, Syriacs, Illyrians, and the Romans, etc. who came from all over to live in Constantinople, the greatest city of the age. If it wasn’t for the Eastern Romans coming west and taking all their knowledge with them (and also having it plundered by the Venetians and Franks in the Fourth Crusade, look it up) then the renaissance wouldn’t have happened, and Europe might’ve looked very different to today.

I want to tell their stories, because until recently, historians have largely ignored them. And I say ignored, not forgotten. As though Rome fell and Europe plunged into a Dark Age, and there wasn’t a second Rome just a few thousand miles east that lasted another thousand years. I have my own theories as to why, but I’ll leave the historiography to actual historians. As to why fantasy—historical fiction didn’t inspire me because I still love fantasy and magic, so I wanted to bring those elements in as well.

How do you balance the historical with the fantastical?

Another tough question! If I was to describe my process, I suppose I start with a basis of history, then bring fantastical elements in and thoroughly think about all the different facets of how society would change if that magic/exploit was real. Like a what if scenario. Throughout the process, I try to keep it grounded as much as I can.

I think it’s interesting that you start with the historical aspects! I read somewhere that George R.R. Martin did something similar (with his basis being the War of the Roses), although whether that is accurate, I can’t say with authority. Would you say that there are some similarities between historical fiction and urban fiction in the real-world basis?

For sure. Keeping things grounded keeps the suspension of disbelief strong, which is very important to maintaining reader immersion.

Does writing historical fantasy require a lot of research?

Hell yes! At least a couple hundred hours in total over the past couple of years went into researching The Kiln of Empire. In that novel, I’ve had to do so much research into how people lived in the Eastern Roman Empire, especially across the class spectrum, because ordinary people lived very differently to the patrician class. I think people like to see that genuine care for history and realism, even in this subgenre of fantasy. Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean you can make things up wholesale!

What are some obstacles to writing in this subgenre?

The time it takes to research, I suppose. It’s not quite as much as historical fiction, but it’s close. The size of the market, as well! Speculative fiction is a pretty small market, at least when compared to evergreen genres like crime or romance, so a subgenre of that is going to be even smaller.

What are some of its strengths?

Yeah, on the flip side, I think if you find your people, you can find the most loyal following that a writer could ask for.

How do you get in “the writing zone”, so to speak?

It’s difficult, I won’t lie. I have ADHD, so I can’t speak to neurotypical brains, but personally I’ve got two modes: hyperfocus; or so anxious I can’t focus on anything and get overwhelmed. I guess I’m glad for the moments of hyperfocus, where I’m able to write for hours and find that I’ve written thousands of words. But on the other edge of that sword is that I forget to go to the toilet and eat and drink. That’s probably not the healthiest thing! I make sure I have a goal, too, however small (say, let’s write 100 words today). I find that more often than not I end up writing way more than 100 words. One of the biggest things I can recommend that has helped me is to just sit down and start writing something, even if it’s crap. You can always go back and edit later.

Who are some of your go-to authors?

Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Harris, Emily St. John Mandel, and Nnedi Okorafor. They all have very different styles, but I feel like I become a better writer and a better human after reading them, and they’ve all inspired me in different ways.

Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to talk about?

I’m working on the prequel to The Kiln of Empire which should be drafted later this year (it currently stands at 38k/110k, but I’m giving all my focus to BITP). I’m also putting together a novella set in the same world that I should be able to give out to people for free. I’ve also thought about making all my e-books free like I’ve seen some authors do, when I release them. I can’t give the specifics, but I’m working with some people at the moment for BITP, so if you want to keep updated, make sure you follow my blog!


About the author:

NC is a Greek, Anglo, and Kamilaroi man who swam with a great white (once) and nearly drowned in the Zambezi (twice). Between ill-advised water adventures and checking heads as a neuroscientist, he writes fiction that reimagines the past with a splash (or a deluge) of magic. He runs his local university’s writers’ club, which provides advice and workshops for emerging student writers. Yell at him on Twitter at @NCKoussis. His blog at nckoussis.substack.com is about his writing journey and historical inspiration for characters, places, and cultures in his novels. His latest novel The Kiln of Empire will hopefully be coming soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s