Author Robert V.S. Redick is soon to release Sidewinders, the second installment in his dark epic trilogy, The Fire Sacraments. You may recognize Redick from his Chathrand Voyage series. Redick has also contributed to the star-studded Unfettered anthologies. Rightfully praised by fantasy mainstays including Patrick Rothfuss and Mark Lawrence, Redick has penned an impressive sequel that manages to surpass Master Assassins, the excellent first novel in the series.
Sidewinders continues the story of brothers and rivals Kandri and Mektu Hinjuman as they try to outrun the consequences of accidentally murdering the warmongering Prophet’s favorite son. The brothers must travel with a caravan across the hostile deserts of Urrath not only to flee their hunters but also to attempt to deliver a letter with monumental repercussions for humanity. The author was kind enough to have a chat with Grimdark Magazine about his new novel, worldbuilding, human nature, structural injustice, and more.
[JF] What should readers know about Sidewinders?
It’s a long, intricate, character-driven adventure fantasy. It’s a war story that refuses to glorify war. It’s a desert road trip. And it’s a family gothic and a meditation on fanaticism and genius and a few more things. It has a lot of humor, but it doesn’t lie about what violence does to the psyche. The plot’s very easy to follow, but there’s way too much of it to summarize here.
I should also mention that it’s a sequel that can stand on its own legs. While I do recommend you start with Master Assassins, some readers have jumped right to Sidewinders, and they tell me it’s a great read even without the context of Book One.
[JF] The Fire Sacraments series is quite different from The Chathrand Voyage in its prose, character, setting, and intended audience. What motivated this shift?
Above all, a need to stretch my wings. It’s very understandable when readers want more of the same, but writers also want to grow, to learn what else we can do. It’s risky, but if we don’t try, we can end up creating ever-paler, thinner versions of our greatest hits.
That said, I also want to follow my Chathrand characters a bit further through life when I can. And I want to write so many other books as well! Tempus fugit, as they say.
[JF] You mentioned in a previous interview that Master Assassins was “ born as a cry of pain and rage at the stupidity of war.” What inspired and influenced Sidewinders?
All my books begin with some inkling of character, but I have to wonder what puts me on the road to discovering certain characters and not others? In the case of The Fire Sacraments, I’d been reading and thinking and silently raging for years about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. About all the lies we were told, the hundreds of thousands left destitute or dead by our smashing of the country’s infrastructure, all the waste and agony that’s on our hands. And that led me in turn to think about so many other wars, and about the horrific fact that we’re a species capable of this collective madness.
No war was ever prosecuted without lies, coercion, and a silencing of dissent. Few are fought by those who make the cold decisions to start them—to send millions of others out to die in them. And the survivors on all sides: those people are left scarred forever in body and mind. I thought I might be able to write an epic fantasy that was more truthful about this, and yet still fun to read. I hope I’ve at least partly succeeded.
[JF] The setting for this series feels very concrete. How did you build this incredibly detailed world?
My feeling about world-building is not that it’s a complex process but rather an expensive one. Expensive, that is, in terms of time and mental preoccupation. Once the inspiration for a story appears (and who knows what makes that happen), you have to obsess about the place, the time, the circumstances, and just let your subconscious engine run and run and take notes all the while. This can turn you into a zombie in your daily life. It can make you forget important commitments and annoy your spouse and kids and dog. And for a long time, you may have little more to show for that investment than notes in a file and some initial forays into the text. That’s all right. That’s what the process requires. But with our accelerated lives and the demands we put on ourselves, it can be hard to accept that.
[JF] The novel explores corruption and injustice that can occur in a health care system. What made you decide to explore this topic through an epic fantasy lens?
First, I should note that this trilogy was well underway years before Covid; indeed Book One came out two years before the pandemic. Of course that just makes the parallels with what’s going on in our world today all the more eerie.
But to answer your question, I was thinking about all kinds of victims of plutocratic empire. About how the Global South becomes the dumping ground for the toxins produced in the north. About how those least responsible for climate change and suffering are dying first. About how we in the north don’t like to admit that our comfortable lives depend on supply chains held at the far ends by cartels and criminals who routinely commit murder, torture, mass land theft, and cultural genocide. And yes, about how even in the medical sphere, the global injustices are vast. Quick example: pharmaceutical companies scour the tropics for useful compounds and genetic material, but tropical diseases remain a low research priority. Why? Because they doubt they’ll make a profit fighting Chagas disease or dengue.
[JF] Master Assassins is present tense with past-tense flashbacks, while Sidewinders is almost entirely past tense. What are the implications of this tense shift for the continuity of the story?
I worried myself sick over this one! I loved the challenge of writing a whole book in the present tense, but it just wasn’t right for Sidewinders. The first book has just one point of view character—Kandri Hinjuman, my long-suffering peasant soldier. I think the present tense helped make the drama visceral and enveloping: “This is happening right this instant, don’t look away.” Sidewinders, however, has six point-of-view characters spread all over the continent of Urrath. Time marches forward for all of them, but not in a uniform manner: the end of Chapter 11 may not be the same instant as the start of Chapter 12. It just felt wrong.
As I say, I worried. But now I’m feeling a lot of trust that readers will get that decision. It may feel odd for moment if you go instantly from Master Assassins to Sidewinders, but I doubt you’ll be thinking about it for long, given how fast everyone gets in trouble.
[JF] The book can be dark and oppressive in content. Does this affect you emotionally during the writing process, and if so, how do you cope with it?
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure it was grim enough for Grimdark! I think of myself more as a chiaroscuro writer, working with sharp bright lights in dark places. The darkness is a world in monstrous trouble. The light is the brilliance in human souls. My heroes, both in life and literature, have always been heroes of perception. They’re the ones who can see what others miss: see a way forward, see the truth hidden in a fog of lies, see the necessity of courage and how to find it in themselves. In real life, that’s Gandhi, Mandela, Carl Sagan, Ursula le Guin. In fiction, it’s Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov and Mrs. Moore from A Passage to India. And even little Frodo, who perceives the necessity of self-sacrifice in setting out for Mordor—something beyond the power of his mighty friends. When I witness that sort of brilliance, I can’t help but be uplifted. But like any sort of light, it’s all the more striking against a backdrop of darkness.
[JF] Given the somewhat critical look into human nature, do you think the book’s overall message is of hope or pessimism towards humanity? Does the balance of power in the book reflect your views of human nature in our world?
I am an optimist. I made a promise to myself long ago not to tell stories that contribute to despair. And so far I think all my books and stories keep that promise.
Which is not to say that they’re light affairs. In Moby Dick, Melville (a great master of chiaroscuro) writes, “There is a Catskill eagle in some souls, that can alike dive into the blackest gorges and sail out of them again, to become invisible in the sunny spaces.” I hope that’s what my fiction does. I don’t leave anyone behind in those dark canyons.
But why dive into them at all? Because to pretend that they don’t exist is to lie. And what pushes me in the direction of despair is the wholesale flight of people (nations, countries) into the arms of comforting lies. No worthy optimism can be based on lies.
As for the balance of power, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to measure it in my novels. Or for that matter, in real life. My Dad had a tiny cartoon clipped from a newspaper taped to a bookshelf in his basement office. I saw it just once as a kid—wrinkled and yellowed with age, buried behind his towers of books on Latin America and nuclear weapons. It showed Martin Luther King being greeted in the afterlife by Mahatma Gandhi. Both are smiling. And Gandhi’s saying, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.” King had more power than J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI; Gandhi had more power than Mountbatten and his apparatus of the Raj. Who could measure that power, or the power of the movements they were part of, until it was proved?
[JF] The White Child and the sky jellies are memorably terrifying. How did you come up with all the monsters in this series?
In a word: nightmares. As in actual horrible dreams. The creatures’ forms are usually half-hidden in the dreams, but that just makes them more terrifying. The dread is often so tangible on waking that it’s a relief when I detail the creature and pull it out of my psyche. In the case of the White Child, the horror-image was part of my childhood: the dreaded THING that just. keeps. coming. closer. As for the jellies: what frightens me the most is their silence as they kill.
[JF] What can we expect from the third novel in the trilogy?
An ending! I’m not being facetious; I want to assure people that this trilogy really is a trilogy, and will come to a true conclusion in Book Three.
Sidewinders also implies that a very, very big event is coming, and that event is certainly the center point of the final volume. The nature of that event is hardly a secret: the last book’s title is Siege, after all.
Beyond that, I can say that the book attends as much to the micro as the macro: yes, there’s war and cataclysm and renewal. The whole world changes in Book Three. And yes, there are personal endpoints, as the characters we’ve followed through hell and back meet their individual fates.
Read Sidewinders by Robert V. S. Redick
Keep an eye out for our review of Sidewinders dropping tomorrow!