If you don’t know Matt Wallace from his no-holds-barred publishing industry podcast Ditch Diggers, or from his epic rants on Twitter, you probably know him for the Sin du Jour novellas. It’s a brilliantly subversive, totally wackadoo contemporary fantasy series about a NYC catering company that services the supernatural communities of the world, from goblin kings to the lord of Hell, and for fantasy fans or foodies, it’s a full meal—seven courses now—rich enough to satisfy the most peculiar appetite.
A few years from now, however, Matt will likely be best known for something else: today, we’re pleased to announce that he’s signed a deal with Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press to publish his first novel—or rather, his first trilogy. It’s a fantasy epic that promises to be just as daring as his novellas. The first book is called Savage Legion, and it sounds primed to grind genre tropes into a fine paste. But don’t take our word for it…
“Savage Legion is an epic fantasy unlike any I’ve read before,” said Navah Wolfe, senior editor of Saga, who acquired the books at auction. “I’ve been a huge fan of Matt Wallace’s work for years—I devoured every Sin du Jour novella as they came out (pun definitely intended). His first epic fantasy blew me away. Savage Legion flips traditional fantasy tropes on their head and uses the tools of the genre to question the structures of our society and the hidden costs of wealth and privilege. Brutal, epic, and full of swagger, it feels like an entirely new creature—grimdark, but tilted towards hope instead of constant misery.”
We got a chance to talk with Matt about his plans for the series, and learn a little bit more about why he’s so ready to see the old ways of the genre crushed beneath his boots. You’ll find our conversation just below the pitch for the series, which should be more than enough to whet your appetite (man, that food pun habit is hard to break).
They call them Savages. Brutal. Efficient. Expendable.
The empire relies on them. The greatest weapon they ever developed. Culled from the streets of their cities, they take the ones no one will miss and throw them, by the thousands, at the empire’s enemies. If they live, they fight again. If they die, well, there are always more.
Evie is not a Savage. She’s a warrior with a mission: to find the man she once loved, to find the man who holds the key to exposing the secret of the Savage Legion and ending the mass conscription of the empire’s poor and wretched.
But to find him, she must become one of them, to be marked in her blood, to fight in their wars, and to find her purpose. Evie will die a Savage if she has to, but not before showing the world who she really is, and what the Savage Legion can really do.
You’ve just finished your seven-course Sin du Jour novella series, which is defined by its unrestrained weirdness. How is writing a book that is 1) a novel, 2) part of a trilogy, and 3) in a genre with clearly defined tropes like epic fantasy going to be different?
It’s funny (less in a “ha-ha” way, and more in a, “Hey, you’re waving that needle awful close to my eye aren’t you—OW! OH MY GOD I FEEL IT POKING MY FRONTAL LOBE I CAN’T REMEMBER MY MOTHER’S VOICE!” way), I told my agent, the utterly wonderful DongWon Song, it took writing this book to teach me that when I began, I had no idea how to write this book. I spent three years figuring out the answer to the question you just asked me. The answer is, it’s completely different and it’s exactly the same—you just have to know where the line between the two exists. I had to learn to bring the genre to me, and stop chasing the styles and voices and stories I’d been reading for decades. I had to realize I wasn’t trying to replicate anything I’d read, I was trying to write What Comes Next, and I had to figure out what that meant to me. The rest was just structure and sustain.
The Sin du Jour series has one of my favorite elevator pitches: “a high-end Manhattan catering company with a clientele of demons, monsters, and other fantasy creatures.” What’s the short and sweet log-line for Savage Legion?
No one is exactly who or what they seem to be in this anti-epic fantasy, set in a seemingly perfect society that maintains its utopian veneer by secretly conscripting all “undesirables” into a sacrificial military unit used as human artillery.
Fans of Sin du Jour might be surprised to see you jumping to the other end of the fantasy genre, from contemporary/urban to epic. What made you want to write an epic fantasy?
Oh, I’ve always wanted to play this room. In fact, the first two novels I ever read all the way through were a Dragonlance book and Beowulf. McCaffrey, Moorcock, Le Guin, Howard, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: I grew up with all of them, good and bad, for better or worse. I love the scope and depth and complexities offered by those giant freakin’ tomes, the long journey, and the evolution of characters, and the exhaustive histories they make possible. My problem was, I’ve always tended to write short. I started out as a short story writer, strictly. It took me a long time to get to a place where I felt I had the stamina to try this.
What kind of tone can readers expect to find here? Will Savage Legion be as over-the-top nutso as Sin du Jour, or are you going for something different this time?
It’s nowhere near as gonzo as Sin du Jour, but you can expect a levity and self-awareness I don’t think we see often in epic fantasy. Crache is a society that has harnessed the height of their intellectual, scientific, and engineering capabilities (at a high cost). As a result, the characters are much more modern. It’s still a pre-industrial society, but they’ve learned from the [mistakes of the] typical epic fantasy society. That’s part of what created the premise for me, imagining what an epic fantasy that was aware of other epic fantasies would look like. So there’s a lot of satire in observation and perspective there. Ultimately, I’d describe the tone as human. You know? It’s serious. Life is serious. These are people risking their lives and everything else they have and hold dear to discover shattering truths and save the people they love. They deal with great loss and great pain. But they’re still people. Humor, laughter, seeing the absurdity in our behavior and actions and systems—they’re all sword and shield for the human psyche/personality. Besides, it’s me. I just plain like the giggles sometimes.
What books can you point to that inspired you to take on the genre in this way?
I was inspired by just as many terrible books perpetuating road kill tropes as I was by good books, honestly. Authors who showed me a lot of the directions I wanted to go in are Kate Elliott—who, in my opinion, should rightfully be one of the giants of the field—Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin, and Zen Cho.
Sin du Jour seemed like a universe where anything could happen, and did. How are you approaching your worldbuilding in this trilogy?
It’s much more grounded, but in a lot of ways I think it’s way more subversive than any of the Sin du Jour books, because I’m not just playing around with the tropes and archetypes of the genre to amuse myself, I’m actively trying to annihilate them. Part of my process was listening repeatedly and obsessively to YouTube compilations of the “History and Lore” segments produced as special features for each season of Game of Thrones on DVD. They’re basically short animated videos with actors and actresses from the show narrating different subjects from the history and folklore of the world, far beyond what you see in the HBO series—really delving into the books. It’s this really wonderful thing, but it also provides a detailed roadmap of George R.R. Martin’s worldbuilding. It’s almost like a blueprint of proto-epic fantasy. So, every time I identified a major element, I either excised any trace of anything similar, or did the exact opposite of that element in Savage Legion.
Tell us about your protagonist, Evie. What makes her the perfect lens through which to view this world?
I think of Evie not just as the kid who always did the opposite of what she was told, she’s the kid who didn’t know what to do until they were told what not to do. She’s intensely loyal. It’s one of her deepest defining traits. But she has to choose that loyalty, and it’s never easily chosen. You want to follow a character like that into a totally unknown world, I think, because they’ll naturally go places and push farther and harder than your everyday person will.
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You are very vocal on Twitter about… well, everything, but particularly about how writers need to be aware of the damaging tropes they put into their books because of genre conventions. What fantasy tropes to you view as most in need of squashing?
Sexual assault as a plot and/or character device can’t be squashed into fine enough paste for me. Which feeds directly into how women are portrayed in an overwhelming amount of mainstream fantasy fiction: relegating them to the tavern wench, the princess, the prostitute, etc. Victoria Schwab actually just wrote an entire thread about this that was spot-on, but it’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by many authors and readers and editors for a long time, and rightfully so. But I think it was Victoria who pointed out if you don’t have enough women in your novel that they can have a conversation with each other, and have that conversation be about something other than a man, then you’ve screwed up.
On the heels of all of that is this absurd attachment to a medieval and apocryphally white European history as the default framework for epic fantasy settings. Basically I don’t ever again want to hear someone say, “Well, there are no people of color/no women in positions of power or influence/a sexual assault on every other page because that’s just the way it was back then” when defending a shitty fantasy novel. It’s past time to recognize there are precisely two reasons authors continue to regurgitate all of that crap: 1) It’s been hardwired into them to view the genre that way and it doesn’t occur to them to imagine anything else. 2) They’re writing exactly the world they want, in which manly men perform manly deeds and women are docile, subservient, and practically if not literally begging to cede control and power to their male counterparts.
Your editor Navah says the book is “grimdark” but also “hopeful.” Was it important to you to write a book that saw hope for the world, in light of [gestures broadly to everything around us]?
For me, at least in terms of Savage Legion, it was less about hope and more about the idea of revolution. Pretty much everything I’ve written over the past few years has had some theme of revolution shot through it. And revolution is an ultimately hopefully concept, even if the cause itself is hopeless. That’s one of the major overriding themes in all the new Star Wars movies, with which I connect deeply. That, and one cannot choose the Porg life, the Porg life must choose them.
If it’s not too soon to ask, can you please provide an out-of-context quote from the book to get readers pumped to read Savage Legion?
“Do you know what the most dangerous thing in the world is, Slider?”
“The alley between Wan’s butcher shop and the gambling parlor in the Bottoms?”
Ku the wind dragon begins puffing air in short bursts through the spiky tubes on his back.
From the way Edger’s shoulders rises and fall, she realizes this is the way he laughs out loud.
“That may very well be the most dangerous place you know,” he says, “but what, in your unusually vast observation, is the most dangerous thing?”
“I don’t know. A really, really big sword?”
Again, that reedy puffing “laughter.”
“You are as funny as you are wise beyond your years, but no. The most dangerous thing in the world is a story.”
Dyeawan is immediately intrigued.
“Which story?” she asks right away.
“The kind of story in which people believe utterly. The kind of story they believe in so fiercely they’ll leave their lives in the mud to protect it. You see, Slider, people do not fight for nations or rulers or causes or even land they believe to be theirs by some imagined right, not really. They fight for stories, about heroes and gods and long past ancestors who were one or the other or both. So, you have to be very careful which stories are told to the people.”