We were joined by awesome debut author Megan O'Keefe, who spoke to us about her book, Steal the Sky, which will be out in January! As she described it, Steal the Sky is about a con man and his best friend who try to steal the airship of a mean lady. Things go sideways and they get involved in a coup...
This is an adventuresome book! So we dived a bit into the worldbuilding that Megan had put together.
The first thing we talked about was this substance called "selium," which she says can be pronounced either with a long or short "e." It's a gas with special properties, mined through "firemounts" - volcanoes, in other words. It exists in the earth's crust and bulges up in hot magma areas. It's mined by "sel-sensitives," who are magic users attuned to this particular substance. These magic-users can control the selium in different ways, depending on their level of skill.
Megan said she was "allergic" to the Aristotelian concept of elements, i.e. earth, wind, fire, water.
Selium is used for many things in this world, one of which is for lift. Some of the sel-sensitives can just move the gas; others can change its colors or do more destructive things with it. The miners are not sophisticated users. Sophisticated users are seen as dangerous and pogroms are used to get rid of them. Also, overuse of selium magic leads to a disease called bonewither.
I asked Megan how she explored the selium system and discovered new things about it. She said that if a person can change the color, why couldn't they change the texture, or other things? The underlying backbone of the system needs to be known to the author, but mysteries can be left for readers.
Megan told us about her research. She studied geology in college, so the geological research she did for the book was a refresher. She looked up upswelling. She created an Australia-sized continent with lots of volcanoes, where the earth's tectonic plates are moving slowly - more slowly than the one over Hawaii. There is lots of spreading, and there are earthquakes, though none occur in this book. The seismic activity does have some mythological implications for these people.
Socially, she said that the native Katari people of this land were pushed off by the Valathean Empire, who sent them off to less seismically active areas. There is a belief that they can take back their land when certain conditions are met. The Katari are more accepting of sel-sensitives. Sel-sensitivity is not genetic, but is caused by the environment, ingesting the groundwater, etc. However, Valatheans thought it was genetic. The story takes place three generations after the conquest, so those Valatheans who live on the Scorched Continent have a new identity. Of course, the Valatheans gave the continent that name. Their own area of the world is jungle-y. Megan says that the city where the story takes place is like a frontier outpost, with a degree of lawlessness.
In fantasy stories, Megan explains, often characters develop powers they shouldn't have, and people come to get them but they are saved by revolutionaries. In the case of this character, nobody saved him, and he was experimented on. Eventually he got away from them, and now he cons and harasses them to release his anger and get back at the people who hurt him.
Another character in the story is Ripka, the female protagonist and watch captain. Her motive is to care for things. She grew up low-income and watched refugees from the war come through. She's facing tough moral decisions. There is something of the feel of a Western to the aesthetics in this book, including the sense of expansion and the desperation and hope in the city.
The two ethnic groups, Katari and Valathean, are on the cusp of full integration. There is some friction between these groups but as yet the Empire has a stranglehold. Megan told us she got a lot of her inspiration from England's trade empire, and influences from Portuguese and Dutch history.
She told us there are "two and a half" points of view. The "half" is a Katari who shows up every five chapters. It's not clear if she's a bad guy because she has complex motivations and is seeking revenge in complex ways.
Overall, this is a secondary world fantasy, with a world not related to earth.
I also asked Megan about the flight of the airships. These are like sailing ships with a wood body and sails... except that the typical sailing ship wouldn't work well in the air because it would have no way to steer. Selium provides the lift, but the ships also have ailerons and propellers and flight control surfaces. Megan says she got her research for this from her own experience as a private pilot. There are no dirigibles, but "fliers" look something like Chinese or Nile river barges with buoyancy sacs above them. Note: they still have ailerons!
The Scorched continent has a monsoon season. This causes more bugs, while more water animals start coming in from the coast. Animals in this world include marsupial rats, goats, rock cats (the size of savanna cats). There are poisonous bugs and aggressive, softball-sized bees. Also, giant spiders the size of your hand!
Rajnar asked about volcanic vugs, the pockets where gemstones form. Apparently, in this world selium can form into stones under the proper circumstances. There are extremophile creatures, but they are not (yet?) encountered by the characters.
Megan told us that people in this world wear glasses. That has some technological implications. We asked, "why wouldn't they then have telescopes?" However, a lot of different technologies come together to create something like a glass bottle or a pair of glasses or a telescope. Faience glass, which was made in Egypt, did not involve the kind of grinding technology necessary for a telescope. It's also tricky to get glass to be clear (rather than translucent). Megan told us, "For me, everything follows something else. They [the people in this world] want to read longer, but why? What is important to them?"
I asked about the Black Walk. This is a method of capital punishment unique to the city featured in Steal the Sky. Normally, people will go around this volcanic area - a hot aquifer covered over with a layer of shattered obsidian. People who are stripped and asked to walk across it will quickly lose their shoes and then their lives, being cut and then burned to death.
I asked Megan if she had a favorite thing about this book. She said it was the friendship between the protagonist and his best friend. She said it was special because it was a really solid friendship, despite being tested multiple times. In particular she said she felt that friendships aren't usually given enough weight and importance, that they are treated as too fragile in many stories.
There are also sequels coming up! Book 2 will take us to a southern coastal city with different cultural mores, and different architectural style... and an island prison off the coast, while Book 3 will give us a peek into the Valathean Empire. Megan says she also has novellas planned.
Thank you so much for joining us, Megan! It was really fun to explore your world and your worldbuilding process. The book will be out in January, so look out for Steal the Sky...