Please welcome Marina Lostetter back to The Qwillery. The Helm of Mindnight, the first novel in the The Five Penalties series, was published on April 13, 2021 by Tor Books.
TQ: Welcome back to The Qwillery! When we first chatted in 2017 you answered the questions regarding the most challenging thing for you about writing as follows:
"The upside to plotting for me is the focus it brings to drafting a story--the words flow well once I know where I'm going and what I'm trying to say. The downside is my tendency to try to bend the characters to fit the plot. I often write myself into corners because I want events to happen a certain way, but it doesn’t make sense for the characters to make the choices I want them to. " [Interview here.]
What has changed as far as writing challenges for you?
Marina: Everything above still holds true. There is one new challenge I've encountered now that I'm five novels into my career, and that's coming to terms with the fact that each novel writing experience is completely different. I'll start out thinking, I can write this really quickly--draft it efficiently--because I've written a novel before, I know exactly how this will go, but then, inevitably, each book has its own nuances that make drafting completely different process than before. Either I'm trying to tackle a structure that's different, or I'm writing a character that just won't "behave," or thematically things just won't fit together easily. Each creative project is unique unto itself.
TQ: What do you wish that you knew about book publishing when your first novel was published that you know now?
Marina: Book releases are exhausting! There's a lot involved in a writing career besides butt-in-chair writing time. The more writing you do, the more "authoring" you do as well.
TQ: Your prior novels have been Science Fiction. The Helm of Midnight is your first fantasy novel. What appeals to you about writing fantasy?
Marina: I love the freedom of magic. The ability to create in-depth histories and versions of "physics" that have very little to do with reality. I can make monsters, I can make gods, I can built impossible cities.
TQ: Describe The Helm of Midnight using only 5 words.
Marina: I'm going to steal five words from some of the wonderful authors who blurbed the book: Bloody, ambitious, mind-ripping, beautiful, and vicious.
TQ: Tell us something about The Helm of Midnight that is not in the book description.
Marina: The valley of Arkensyre, in which the story takes place, is sealed off from the outside world. It's protected by the gods from the wastelands, where all manner of monsters roam. Only one kind of monster can make it past the god-barrier, and that's varger--hulking creatures that look half-bear, half-dog, which are covered in boils and only have a taste for human flesh. They can't be killed, just reduced to a fog and bottled away in enchanted glass.
But they might not all be as monstrous as they seem.
TQ: Does The Helm of Midnight, the first novel in The Five Penalties series, share anything thematically with your Noumenon SF series?
Marina: I tend to write about characters trying to do their best and be better people, even when their "best" is sincerely awful. Also, in the Noumenon series, the characters start out thinking physics is behaving one way, when really it's behaving very differently. Similarly, the magic system in The Helm of Midnight appears to function a certain way, but there are layers to its functionality that have yet to be discovered.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for The Helm of Midnight.
Marina: Sam Weber is the cover artists. On the front we see a Regulator (essentially a lawperson in charge of overseeing enchantments) in a very specific version of their uniform. White is reserved for a special occasion. I play a lot with color meaning in The Helm of Midnight.
TQ: In The Helm of Midnight who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Marina: Melanie came the most naturally to me, but that might be because I've "known" her the longest. She featured in the original short story The Helm of Midnight is based on, which I wrote a decade ago now. Individually, Krona and her sister, De-Lia, weren't that difficult to write, but I'd say their relationship was one of the toughest to get right. They have a very push-and-pull kind of sisterhood. Sometimes they're rivals, sometimes they're codependent, but there's a lot of love and respect between them, even when their relationship is rocky.
TQ: Does The Helm of Midnight touch on any social issues?
Marina: Part of The Helm of Midnight deals with being a cog in a bad system, and how society can push us to do things we might not otherwise do. Thematically it asks things like, what are our individual roles in upholding broken systems? In what ways can we use bad systems to try to do good things regardless? At what point are we truly bad people, and the system doesn't matter? Does intent matter? Do the ends ever justify truly terrible means?
There's also a lot of focus on bodily autonomy.
TQ: Which question about The Helm of Midnight do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Marina: I wish more people would ask about the deities, because the Valley's creation myth and the gods' roles aren't just set dressing or back story. They're extremely integral to the plot of the first novel, as well as the over-arching plot of the trilogy. Essentially, the Valley has five gods, which correspond to the five kinds of magic: Time, Nature, Knowledge, Emotion, and the Unknown. But there's also a sixth deity, the Thalo. The Thalo created the world and the monsters, but not the humans. It sees humans as unfit, poorly formed abominations. Its sinister influence is a constant drive in The Five Penalties series.
TQ: What's next?
Marina: I have another book coming out this year! ACTIVATION DEGRADATION is releasing on September 28, 2021. It's a thriller-esque sci fi novel set in Jovian space, featuring soft robots, queer space pirates, action-adventure, and unreliable narration.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Marina: Thank you so much for having me!
The Helm of Midnight
The Five Penalties 1
Tor Books, April 13, 2021
Hardcover and eBook, 464 pages
Hannibal meets Mistborn in
Marina Lostetter’s THE HELM OF MIDNIGHT, the dark and stunning first
novel in a new trilogy that combines the intricate worldbuilding and
rigorous magic system of the best of epic fantasy with a dark and
In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of
terrible power—the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master
craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a
serial murderer who terrorized the city.
Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these
murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a
deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.
It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of
madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths
left in his wake.
Marina J. Lostetter (she/her) is the author of Noumenon and Noumenon: Infinity. This is her first foray into fantasy. Originally from Oregon, she now resides in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. When not writing or drawing she can often be found reading spec-fic, or playing it (she enjoys a good zombie-themed board game now and again). And she does it all while globetrotting. Visit her online at https://lostetter.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @MarinaLostetter.