Anyone who needs a reminder that epic fantasy is about more than cruel kings squabbling over disputed thrones flat-out needs to read Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura. It’s a series like no other in the genre today: devoid of human characters, populated by strange creatures with their own unique histories and cultures, set in a bizarre landscape with no real-world analogues (unless there are some floating islands and city-sized trees out there that we don’t know about), with slow-burn plots that favor deep character-building alongside inventive world-building.
We really can’t say enough good things about them—nor can N.K. Jemisin, who, writing in The New York Times, said “What makes Wells’s ‘new pulp’ feel fresh is its refusal to take the easier storytelling routes of its forebears. Rather than thinly veil an existing human society as alien others, for example, Wells—a master world builder—creates a multicultural world of humanized monsters. The result is breathtakingly surprising and fun.”
Read them already.
That’s a long way of explaining why we’re thrilled to be able to show off the cover of the next (final?) Raksura novel, The Harbors of the Sun, the sequel to this summer’s The Edge of Worlds. Due to be published in the summer of 2017, it will likely wrap up the expansive saga of the once-wandering shapeshifter Moon, who has found a home with his fellow Raksura, and a lifemate in the powerful Queen Jade, but still has a few adventures in store before he furls his wings for the foreseeable future.
Take a look at the wonderful cover below, featuring art by Yukari Masuike and design by Lesley Worrell, and keep reading for exclusive details from Martha on the future of the series, gleaned from our recent interview with her at MidAmericon II in Kansas City.
Your career has gone through a few different phases. In the late ’90s you had books that broke out a bit—you received a Nebula nomination for The Death of the Nercomancer. In the early 2000s, you completed every fantasy writer’s dream by publishing a complete trilogy, the Fall of Ile-Rien. Then, you kind of disappeared.
It was when HaperCollins bought Avon that really hurt me. I lost my editor when she was promoted up. It was one of those situations that happens in publishing.
And now it’s been about five years since Night Shade brought out the first Raksura book, which marked your reemergence into fantasy publishing.
Yes, it came out in 2011, though I wrote in in 2009 and it took two years to sell it.
What has it been like, going through that rough patch as a writer and then coming roaring back? On your blog you said there were times you didn’t know if you would ever sell another book, yet now you seem to have this whole new audience that loves these new characters you’ve created.
I feel very lucky about that. It was very hard. I have a friend who compared it to having a job, and you’re still coming into work when they’ve fired you, but they haven’t told you they’ve fired you. But it gradually occurs to you that they don’t want you around anymore. I did do a couple of media tie-ins during that time, and I sold a few short stories, but there was at least one or two years where I couldn’t sell anything. That was very depressing. I tried to write several novels, I think it was five of them, and they all died on the vine, which is not something that had ever happened to me before.
Then I started The Cloud Roads, and I was very excited about it, and I got a different agent, but it took two years to sell it. The marker was not in a good place at that point, economically, and also it was a very different book, with no human characters. Some people couldn’t get their brains around that. Usually the comeback was, “We don’t know how to sell this.”
Before Night Shade bought it, I was turning down appearances at local conventions that I normally went to and sort of closing down my career and realizing I was going to have to do something else. And then they bought it. Actually they bought the first two—during that period where I couldn’t sell anything, I’d written The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and Emilie and the Hollow World, and eventually they all sold. So that was a stroke of luck, and I’m very happy about it.
It seems people have really responded to these books, and you’re at a point where you’ve written maybe more in this universe than any other you’ve created…
Well, there’s basically five Il-Rien books, and now there are four novels and one on the way [in the Raksura series], plus two novella and short story collections.
Did you have a sense when writing the first book that this was going to be as huge a part of your life?
I thought it would be popular. Shapeshifters are popular, dragons are popular, it’s different. I thought, “I’m finally writing something that’s going to be popular.” And then nobody in publishing liked it! I would take it to conventions and read the first chapter and people would say, “We want to buy this!” But I’d have to say that I hadn’t sold it yet. The reactions from people who’d read the whole book were always really positive, so it was very strange.
Just a major disconnect between what publishers thought the market wanted and what you were hearing from readers? That much have been very disconcerting. Did you ever consider doing what you’ve done with your backlist and putting them out on your own?
I did get the rights to my backlist back, and as I put them out I was learning how to do it. But it’s expensive to do it right, because you need a good cover, and you have to contract for your editing and copyediting, and most of the time I just couldn’t afford that.
Well, luckily they took off (no pun intended). Do you feel like your audience is new readers, or fans you followed you from your earlier books?
It’s a mix. They are a lot of people who found me through the Raksura books who go back and read the backlist, and some who come up to me with the trilogy that have been read to pieces, as well as older readers who say they’ve been longtime fans.
Do you feel that with the next in the series, The Harbors of the Sun, you’ll be closing down the universe for now?
It will be the last one I do with Jade and Moon and Stone and that group, because I feel I’ve taken their stories as far as I can. What I may do is go back and write novellas or short stories about things that happened earlier, because I like those characters, so as soon as I get ideas for those, I’ll write them, but that’s probably going to be the last novel. I would like to go back to the world and take up with different characters. There’s a lot there that is fun for me to work on.
Are you the type of writer that knows everything about the world, or do you discover it as you write it?
I’ve been discovering it along the way. That’s been fun. When I was doing the Il-Rien books, which are second world but based on historical time periods, though they were kind of mixed and matched, I did a lot of research, and I wanted to do something where I was using a lot of weird stuff I’d read and other random research I’d done, but also just exploring with the readers and the characters at the same time. In the first book, there’s a turning city. Originally it was just going to be a camp that Jade and Moon stayed at that night, and I thought, “That’s kind of boring. What can we do that’s more exciting?” I came up with the idea of the steam coming up out of the ground, and thought, what if it’s just turning? So it’s an exercise in coming up with something and thinking, “How cool can I make this?”
I think when you start with a bar as high as, there are no human characters, there’s no grounding in regular fantasy tropes, you might as well…
Just keep going.
And then you have islands swimming around on the backs of giant sea serpents. Do you remember what made you decide to write a book that’s so different from what people think of as traditional fantasy?
After I wrote Gate of Gods, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do another book in that series. A friend of mine had done an SG-1 novel, and I was a big fan of Stargate, so I ended up contacting them and I did a few Stargate: Atlantis. I’d read a lot of sci-fi and space opera but I’d never written any, and when I wrote those it did shake loose a few things. One thing I loved was having characters be able to travel long distances instantly, and I’d been thinking for a while about how to get that into a fantasy novel.
I was trying to loosen up my own thinking and do something different. I’d come up with an idea where Moon was a secondary character, a strange demon-y thing that had been pulled in by a sorcerer from another world, and as I developed it, he kept becoming a bigger and bigger character, and I’d come up with this backstory for him, and I thought, “This backstory is really interesting. Maybe that’s really what I want to work on.”
Is this the first time you’ve had a book that inspired so many fans to do fan art and their own world creation?
Yes, and it’s really exciting. I love it when I’ve heard someone has done fanfic or fan art. I don’t search for the fanfic because I don’t want those ideas creeping into my head, but I do search for fan art as much as I can. I love seeing it and I love hearing about it.
Anything you can tease about what you’re working on?
I’m wrapping up edits on [The Harbors of the Sun]—I decided to go back and rewrite the ending—and I have a short story I need to work on, but I do have an idea for a novel. It’s fantasy, probably more traditional than the Raksura books, though that’s probably not too difficult, but I still want to do some fairly crazy things with it.
The Edge of Worlds is available now. The Harbors of the Sun will be published in Summer 2017.