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Astrolabe Gaiden: "Out of the Labyrinth" by Ryan Van Loan
I've been a big fan of Ryan Van Loan for a while. His kindness and optimism is infectious, he's endlessly interesting, and his Twitter feed is always a breath of fresh air amongst all the doomscrolling.
So, I went into his debut novel, The Sin in the Steel, with unfair expectations, only to have them entirely blown away by a swashbuckling tale that delivers hit after hit of high-end worldbuilding, terrific characters, and powerful thematic explorations of trauma, friendship, and self love.
The Sin in the Steel is a rip-roaring epic fantasy that mixes a genuinely unique world with an equally standout magic system. It’s full of characters you’ll root for and despise, who’ll make your skin crawl, and who you’ll cheer on from the sidelines. Packed full of action, tempered by genuinely thoughtful themes about mental health and trust. The Sin in the Steel tells a good self-contained narrative, with a satisfying conclusion, but also leaves the door hanging wide open for the inevitable sequels. In the spirit of A New Hope, Buc and Eld conclude a story, but stand on a precipice of a much larger narrative that promises to blow the scope of The Sin in the Steel out of the water. If Scott Lynch wrote Pirates of the Caribbean, it’d be a lot like The Sin in the Steel.
I enjoyed it so much, I knew I had to invite Ryan to Astrolabe in time for the launch of its sequel, The Justice in Revenge. Ryan does not disappoint with this deep dive into precarious expectations heaped upon sophomore releases.
"When I sat down to write the sequel, I knew I was walking a bit of a tightrope," he says. "But here’s the thing...we often don’t know what we actually want. We think we want more of the same until we’re three quarters of the way through the book and realize nothing new or groundbreaking has occurred and then we feel let down. We think we want to be convinced, but often if we give a series another shot it’s because we’re drawn to the characters and the plot wasn’t quite up our alley. I didn’t realize either of these things right away, mind you. I just knew that I didn’t want my sophomore effort to be taken for a slump and so I threw everything I had at it."
Grab a cup of Tofino Brewing Company's Kelp Stout, and enjoy!
Out of the Labyrinth
There’s a well-worn trope in all creative fields known as the sophomore slump. That is, an artist’s (whether they be a musician, writer, etc.) second attempt often doesn’t hold up as well as their debut splash onto the scene did. The theories on why this seems to be the standard rather than the exception are many: less time, no longer creating in a vacuum, added pressure, one-hit wonder, etc. etc. I can’t speak for everyone, but today I wanted to sneak you back behind the curtain into what it was like for me when I set out to create the sequel to my debut last year, the rip-roaring adventure fantasy with heart that was The Sin in the Steel.
The Sin in the Steel was the origin story of Sambuciña “Buc” Alhurra, a streetrat and autodidact who is the first private investigator in her world. Determined to upend her corrupt society along with her suspiciously good swordsman and partner in crime-solving, Eld, Buc leverages the most powerful trading company in the world (said company is trying to blackmail her and Eld in the process) to solve a mystery empires have failed to uncover and gain the kind of power she’ll need to make her dreams into hard reality. Along the way Buc and Eld run afoul of pirate queens, mages, and the undead...and then the Gods get involved. I could go on, but Aidan covered the book a lot better in his wonderful review over at Tor.com if it sounds like something up your alley.
(minor spoilers for events from Sin follow)
When I sat down to write the sequel, I knew I was walking a bit of a tightrope. Folks who loved Sin were going to be expecting more of the same, and folks who liked it but were on the fence were going to want to be convinced they should see this trilogy all the way through to the end. But here’s the thing...we often don’t know what we actually want. We think we want more of the same until we’re three quarters of the way through the book and realize nothing new or groundbreaking has occurred and then we feel let down. We think we want to be convinced, but often if we give a series another shot it’s because we’re drawn to the characters and the plot wasn’t quite up our alley. I didn’t realize either of these things right away, mind you. I just knew that I didn’t want my sophomore effort to be taken for a slump and so I threw everything I had at it.
Dear Reader, it’s here that I should let you know that I cut my teeth as a fantasy reader on Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb, Kate Elliott, etc. I’m a character writer first, but I also believe in twisting, intricate plots. One reviewer called them labyrinthine and they weren’t wrong. I don’t hold back, I don’t provide primers, and I don’t tie up every loose end into a beautiful bow. I think that’s what draws a lot of deep fantasy fans into the genre, but it can be a bit challenging for folks that are newer or crossing over from an adjacent fan space…all that to say when I threw everything I had at The Justice in Revenge I may have overdone things a bit. A smudge. A tad.
OK, OK, perhaps a lot.
I remember the look on my agent’s face when I walked them through my thirty page outline and they gently suggested pruning a plot line or three. DongWon was a formidable editor in their own right before becoming an agent (they edited Mira Grant’s Feed series, worked with Brent Weeks, and signed James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series before leaving Orbit), so I took their advice to heart. I trimmed, I cut. I wrangled the Minotaurian labryinth down to something approximating the one from The Shining. Formidable, but not daunting. I was feeling quite proud of myself until I got my edit letter back from my editor at Tor and she pointed out that the labyrinth of plot, while full of awesomeness, still wasn’t quite working. I’d love to say that, ever-professional, I did not let out a stream of expletives, but rather got down to the task and rainbows shone whilst I did so. Unfortunately, I got that edit letter back when the pandemic was just hitting us, well and truly. I was in full promo-mode for my upcoming debut (and trying not to dwell on what releasing a debut in a pandemic would do to the dream I’d been working towards for the past decade) and I was supposed to be diving into the third and final book in the series.
So, I may have cursed my fate and felt sad for myself for a minute, but I am a professional and it wasn’t too long before I was back at the page, blade in hand to begin cutting...only I didn’t know where to begin. There’s nothing more horrifying for a writer than to sit down at the keys, look at the page, and nothing to happen. No inspiration, no clarity, not rat-a-tat-tat of the keys. Silencio.
Two things fended off the rising panic for me in that moment. First, I put myself in the shoes of my future readers (not hard because I’ve been reading fantasy since I was eight.) I thought about what sequels I really loved and why, and what expectations I thought I had versus what actually fulfilled those expectations. Second, I remembered why I started writing this series in the first place.
I’ve talked about this before in other places, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it here, but I mentioned that despite being a heavy outliner, I’m a character driven writer. This series started with a young woman’s voice slipping into my mind one night. Let a man think you weak, let him think you helpless, and he’ll never see the blade until it’s planted twixt his ribs. With a line like that I just had to know more and that’s what led me to discovering Buc, our streetrat autodidact determined to upend her corrupt society no matter the cost.
Now Buc had the power she thought she needed to do just that. Only Buc isn’t the only character in Sin or Justice. She has her partner in crime-solving Eld for one, and a whole host of important secondary characters as well, all with their own hopes and dreams. I won’t spoil anything, but once I started thinking about their motivations—Eld’s and this mysterious figure we encounter who is pulling strings (and blades) from the shadows—I saw the path through the labyrinth and distilled that down into the pitch that’s on the cover of the book today.
It goes something like this: The Justice in Revenge takes a turn from pirates to politics as Buc and Eld find themselves facing the deadliest mystery of the career. Featuring boardroom intrigue, masquerade balls, gondola chases, street gangs, and shapeshifting mages, Buc pits herself against wrathful gods, hostile nobles, and a secret enemy bent on revenge. She and Eld will need every trick in their arsenal to survive. Luckily, extra blades aren’t the only things Buc has hidden up her sleeves…
I followed that path out of the labyrinth and along the way I discovered how I could pull you, Dear Reader, along with me through that twisting maze that led to the two most favorite words of any author: The End. I hope you’ll join me and Buc and Eld on this next adventure.
Ryan Van Loan is a Fantasy author who served six years as a Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (PA National Guard) where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan. His work has appeared in numerous places including Tor.com and Fireside Magazine. His debut novel, The Sin in the Steel (Tor Books), Book One in the Fall of the Gods series came out in Summer 2020, the sequel, The Justice in Revenge followed on July 13, 2021, and the conclusion to the series, The Memory in the Blood drops Summer 2022.
The Justice in Revenge is available now from Tor Books.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
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