The Big Idea: Jennifer Estep
Posted on April 27, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 55 Comments
Here’s a crazy idea: Books should be fun. That’s Jennifer Estep’s philosophy, and today she’s here to tell you how it informs her “Elemental Assassin” series of novels, including the latest, Tangled Threads. And she has questions of her own for you at the end. Be ready!
So here’s my Big Idea – I think books should be fun.
That’s it. That’s my writing philosophy in a nutshell. Nothing deep or serious here – just fun. LOL.
So how does this relate to my Elemental Assassin urban fantasy series? Here goes.
Back in high school, I discovered epic fantasy books by the likes of David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and others. As I read more and more epic and other types of fantasy books, I realized something – I always liked reading about the assassin characters. Why? Because there were just so many different types of assassins out there – cool assassins, crazy assassins, government assassins, reluctant assassins, psychotic assassins, and every variation in between.
But the more books with assassin characters that I read (in the fantasy genre and beyond) and the more movies and TV shows I watched, the more I realized something – that a lot of the assassins were, well, whiny. Seriously, seriously whiny and all angsty and emotionally conflicted about their profession. It always seemed to me like there was a very simple solution to this problem – quit being an assassin! Bada-bing, bada-boom. Problem solved, angst gone.
Somewhere along the way, I thought it would be cool to write my own assassin character with my own magic and world building. Someone who was actually okay with being an assassin because she knew that there were worse people in the world than she was – real monsters that she could protect good, decent folks from. More importantly, someone who was definitely not whiny.
So I did, and the result is Gin Blanco, aka the assassin the Spider and the star of my Elemental Assassin series. I’ll admit that Gin has a little bit of angst, due to the fact that her mother and sister were murdered when she was a kid, but Gin’s made her peace with being an assassin – and she’s more than happy to pull out her knives when the situation calls for it. With no whining at all.
But back to the fun part. I’m not trying to write the next great American novel with my Elemental Assassin books. I just want to tell a good story – one that’s full of action, danger, magic, and even a little romance. One of my favorite TV shows is The A-Team, if that tells you anything about me. LOL. I like writing fight scenes, and I love figuring out how Gin can use her deadly skills, along with her Ice and Stone magic, to take down the bad guys. That’s why I write about an assassin.
At the end of one of my books, I just want the reader to feel like it was time and money well-spent – and hope that she’s looking forward to Gin’s next adventure.
What about you guys? What are some of your favorite books?
Tangled Threads: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt of the novel. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
First off, A-Team rocks!
I agree there are certain types of characters who have way too much angst for where they are in life. They aren’t teenagers…get over some of it (at least some). My favorite character in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series has always been Eve. Dark witch or ghost, she never makes apologies for who she is…love that about her.
The books sound good! I like Kelley Armstrong’s books & characters as well, especially Elena. I also like Michael Scott Rohan’s ‘Spiral’ series – pretty much o-p now, but very good and adventurous: http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/mike.scott.rohan/spiral/spiral_series.htm
Vlad Taltos – Stephen Brust’s assassin in his series of novels. Never hear him whine about anyting except maybe that the wine was not all that great.
You had me at David Eddings. *lighting a mental candle in remembrance.* Any author who loved him must be read, so to the library, Batman!
I always liked Elena in the Armstrong books. Although yeah, she does whine somewhat, she remembers on a regular it was Her One True who got her into that mess and then kicks his butt in retribution. No long-suffering sighs and pining for her.
My other current favorites are the Mercy books by Patricia Briggs. Mercy’s coyote is outweighed and outclassed by all the werewolves and vamps around her, but she is still the snarky, stubborn smartass.
Don’t mean to be disrespectful here, but using “LOL” in your Big Idea piece doesn’t make me want to read your novels since it comes off as juvenile.
Seleste — Another A-Team fan. Excellent! ;-) I haven’t read many of Armstrong’s Otherworld books, but I did enjoy the book she did about a female assassin. I think Exit Strategy was the name of that one.
Dave — I haven’t heard of that series. I’ll have to check it out.
Heather — I really love The Elenium books by Eddings. That’s one of my all-time favorite fantasy series.
Yes, Exit Strategy was the first one, and Made to Be Broken was the sequel.
Wait, wait…you want to write fun fantasy assassins and you haven’t read Brust? Epic fail.
And while, IMO, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional LOL as an emotional signifier, in this piece they seem extraneous. Remove the LOLs and the emotional impact of the related passage is unchanged. It makes Ms. Estep seem…nervous? Impulsive? It’s surprising, anyway.
“What about you guys? What are some of your favorite books?”
Well currently I’m loving Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers Of London” books, and Martin Millar’s “Lonely Werewolf Girl” novels.
I loved the first Ellenium trilogy. (One of my favorite characters was, of course, Faren.) The second trilogy wasn’t as strong, IMHO. I liked all 10 of the Begarion books. But both series suffered from the same problem: the longer they went, the bigger the plot holes became. He reminded me of a crazy uncle who told great stories but the stories would completely fall apart upon closer inspection, so you’d have to turn off some critical thinking and sit back and enjoy.
But yeah, all of those books are in my Comfort Books pile.
Chris — Well, that wasn’t my intent.
Seleste — I keep meaning to get the sequel too, along with her young adult series. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it as well.
Skwid — There are tons of books that I should and want to read that I just haven’t yet. Too many books, too little time. Nope, not nervous. I just like to have fun with guest blogs and laugh and joke around. That’s probably why I use all the LOLs.
Crypticmirror — I’ll have to add those authors to my list to try too.
What are some of your favorite books?
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Heather — I enjoyed both of the series, but I thought that the first Elenium trilogy had a stronger story. It seemed like there was more at stake in those first three books. Have you read The Redemption of Althalus by Eddings? It’s a good story, and I like that it’s one, self-contained book.
Greg — That one is a wacky, funny read.
I really enjoy your books- they are a totally fun read!
I’ve loved Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind series, as well as Butcher’s Dresden Files.
Jason — Thanks! I appreciate that. I like the Dresden Files a lot, especially Bob the Skull. He’s such a great wisecracking character. I also like Jenks in The Hollows series by Kim Harrison for the same reason.
An assassin who isn’t angsty about their chosen profession and works with stuff classified as “Ice” and “Stone” magic? Okay, I’m intrigued.
I liked the Hawk and Fisher series by Simon R Green. Pair of guards who are vicious fighters but you root for them because of the other guys are worse and they have lot of funny quips.
You asked about favorite books. I’ll keep this specificaly to urban fantasy. I’m currently having a ball with Larry Correia’s “Hard Magic” from Baen. The mixture of magic, guns, and a 1920s America (with dirigibles and tommy guns) is proving an intoxicating combination. And yes, it’s a heckuva lot of fun.
I just went over to B&N and got the eBook of “Spider’s Bite,” so I WILL be giving the series a test drive.
I apologize for the fact that it’s no longer the days when I could go over to Fictionwise and just buy an entire series on spec and save it for later, or I’d simply get all four and add them to my (very large) stack.
I have a question about the cover art. The whole “Girl with a Weapon, Viewed from Behind” cover has been done quiet a bit. As a free marketer in good standing, I assume it is done because it helps sell books. Are you concerned that it is becoming overdone to the point that your books have difficulty standing out?
I think my favorite assassin character was Titus Pullo.
Gray — Glad the books sound interesting. I hope you get a chance to check them out.
Aurian — I haven’t read that series, but I’ve enjoyed other books that I’ve read by Green.
Geoffrey — Tommy guns and magic? That sounds like an awesome series! I’ll have to check it out. I hope you enjoy Spider’s Bite. No problem at all. I appreciate you giving the book a shot in the first place.
Zanzibar — You question reminds me of a post that Smart Bitches, Trashy Books did a while back on the fact that so many urban fantasy heroines wear belts on the book covers (and yes, my heroine has on a belt in all the covers).
I think every genre has images that appear over and over again on the covers, like the woman in a period dress on a historical romance cover or aliens on a sci-fi cover. Most of the time, I think that the images help tell folks what the book is about. For example, I wouldn’t expect to see a woman in a historical dress on the cover of a sci-fi book and vice versa. I’ve been very pleased with my covers. The artist is Tony Mauro, and I think he’s done an excellent job capturing the feel of the books.
As for whether the similar covers make it difficult to stand out, I don’t know. Covers are important, but I think there are a lot of other things that go into someone buying a book — genre, the back cover copy, etc. It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what makes someone want to try a new author.
Greg — I keep meaning to get the DVDs of Rome to watch, along with Spartacus.
My favorite list is long, but as far as a fun read goes … I just finished reading Rachel Aaron’s The Spirit Thief. I’ve been in such a reading slump lately–just bored with everything–and this light, admittedly derivative novel, was a hella lot of fun and a breath of fresh air.
I’ll second (or third) the recs for the Vlad Taltos novels.
My absolutely favourite assassin of all time must be Havelock Vetinari, a bona-fide graduate of the Assassin’s Guild, currently lord and patrician of Ankh-Morpork.
“In his youth, he attended the Assassins’ Guild, where he studied languages (the guild being the most proper place for wealthy families to send their children for education regardless of their specific vocation). It seems that Vetinari was particularly interested in classical arts of camouflage, defying the guild’s policy of all-black dress in favour of dark grey and dark green. He was failed in his stealth course on account of his teacher never seeing him in classes. This, replied Vetinari in his own defence, was to his mind the entire point of the subject.” (source: http://wiki.lspace.org/wiki/Havelock_Vetinari )
Here he is, lovingly brought to life by Jeremy Irons in BBC’s “The Colour of Magic”. He now dresses in black because, according to the Diskworld books, (a) he does want to be seen and (b) he has better things to think about than what clothes to wear:
P — I’ve got The Spirit Thief on my to-be-read pile. It does look like a fun book.
Laur — Ah, Terry Pratchett. His books are always so quirky and clever. Thanks for posting the video. I actually like Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler the best out of all of his characters. Have you read Good Omens by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman? That’s a great book too.
Here’s and epic fail for you – none of your books are at the library here :(
None at the local bookstore either.
Now I have to write your name on my hand so I will remember it next time I’m in a real town :)
Now assassins I could talk about all day.
Assassins, I think, are generally written as whingey simply because it takes a lot of effort to write honestly and effectively about a sociopath who’s perfectly fine with- or at least indifferent to- his profession, said profession being murder for hire. I mean, if that’s the main character, the one who’s going to carry the reader through the book. As a villain, an assassin’s POV is fine to dive into for limited periods, followed by a nice hot shower.
So with an un-whiney assassin as POV character, you’re left with black humour, or, if you try to go about it honestly, what I ended up with in one of my stories. Steve Pattee over at Horrortalk called it a great story, but ‘depressing while being mean’.
It’s just easier to go all Grosse Point Blank about the subject, innit?
If you want to see what a non-whiny sociopath assassin might look like, watch “Repo Men”. with Jude Law. It’s a horrible movie, but Jude’s character starts out as a non-whiny assassin. His partner is non-whiny the whole way through. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s also damn hard to make them someone the viewer can root for, because, well, they’re sociopathic assassins.
About the only way around this is to make them “good guy” assassins who enjoy killing, but only kill people who are “worse” than they are.
This grand tradition (sometimes absurd) is currently carried on by “Dexter” on TV right now, but was seen in the vampire Lestat, the other vampire Blade, and so on and so forth.
Dave — Well, I hope you get to check the books out sometime. You could always ask and see if any of your other local libraries have them.
Michael — You raise some interesting points. Lawrence Block wrote a book about an assassin that was a little more humorous, and Barry Eisler has his John Rain series about an assassin. I remember watching Grosse Point Blanke but it’s been awhile. John Cusack was in that one, right?
Greg — I haven’t seen Repo Man, but when I think about assassin movies, I often think about The Professional with Jean Reno. I agree that it’s hard to make an assassin the good guy. Gin does what you say — she kills people “worse” than she is. I don’t think it’s limited to assassins though. To me, it’s more of a Robin Hood type trope — doing a bad thing (stealing, etc.) for a good cause (helping the poor).
The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whelan Turner
Awesome YA fantasy.
I also second Ben Aaronovitch, Patricia Briggs, Rachel Aaron.
And there will be a new Vimes book in the fall. Which I am sure will have a healthy does of Vetinari.
Anne — I read The Thief a few months ago. That’s another series that I need to get caught up on. I loved the twist in that book. I thought it was so clever.
I read in an interview with Lois McMaster Bujold where she said something like, “I envision my audience as a hospice nurse. When she comes home from work at the end of the day, she doesn’t need somebody to lecture her on the human condition; she needs somebody to hand her a drink.” I’ve always loved her summary of the author’s job, and it sounds like something you’d agree with.
I read the first Gin Blanco book and enjoyed it very much. I did think, though, that her personality as displayed in the book and her personality as described by herself and others were at odds. She tells us how she’s wonderfully patient and can do all kinds of things because she’s the Spider blah, blah, blah, but when there’s a problem, she goes charging off into danger just like any other dipshit hero. That astonishing patience seems to be only in the descriptions, not in the behavior.
Still, that’s a small quibble, and the book was mostly a lot of fun. Glad to hear there’s another!
Corylea — I think that’s a great quote, and you’re right — I do agree with it. When I read, I want to be entertained, and those are the kind of books that I want to write too — just fun, action-packed reads. Glad you liked Spider’s Bite. I see your point, but I think that if heroes didn’t go charging off into danger sometimes then there wouldn’t be a story — or at least maybe not that interesting of a story.
Corylea@31: A lot of real people believe themselves to be different from who they really are. (Ask any editor who has to read the slush pile. Everything in it was written by the next Hemingway, at least according to the cover letters.) A hero with delusions about herself seems more realistic to me.
Thanks for the Bujold quote. I think I’ll be paraphrasing that soon. (grin)
When I think about assassins, I always end up going back to Stephen Leigh’s Slow Fall To Dawn and associated books. An old read but a good one.
Dave — It is a really great quote, isn’t it?
Mike — I haven’t heard of that one. I’ll have to check it out.
I really like the Queen Betsy books by MaryJanice Davidson. Betsy is hilarious and laughably shallow – at least on the surface (ha!) – but if you pay attention to what’s going on, it’s actually pretty scary. From another viewpoint, these are undeniably horror books. It’s only Betsy’s sweetness and light that keeps them sweet and light. I especially like it when even that falls away and a hint of the seriousness of her situation shines through. If even she can’t laugh at what’s going on, sh*t has gotten real.
“Repo Man” and “Repo Men” are two different movies, by the way. “Repo Men” I have not seen; sounds like No Fun to me, but “Repo Man” (1984, Harry Dean Stanton), is a hoot: pathology, drugs and aliens in L.A. I’ve always wanted to see it on a double bill with “Liquid Sky” (pathology, drugs and aliens in New York).
Brust’s Vlad Taltos series is definitely recommended.
In Pratchett’s “Pyramids” is a fabulous chapter describing the final exam for the students at the Assassin’s Guild. Worse than LOL, it’s snorting coffee out your nose funny.
@31: she needs somebody to hand her a drink.
@37: “Repo Man” and “Repo Men” are two different movies, by the way.
Yes yes. I’ve seen both. Repo Man was fun, weird, wacky, strange, and fun.
Repo Men was… hm… It tried to be dark but ended up trying to be a lecture on the human condition as mentioned in @31. And the main characters were, well, sociopaths with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Hm. Hannibal Lector had no redeeming qualities, but he was interesting to watch. Repo Men was a bit of a chore. They were sociopaths, but uninteresting sociopaths. Not very smart. Not very clever. No secret history slowly revealed over time. No “tortured by their parents” flashbacks to explain their condition.
In fact, they’re probably close to a real criminal sociopath one might run into today. Nothing special about them other than the complete lack of empathy to prevent them from committing horrible violence against innocents.
But they start out both of them in non “whiny” mode. Jude’s character might become what folks might call “whiny” by the end of the movie. But his partner stays in non whiny mode throughout.
I don’t think Titus Pullo ever whined about anything. Maybe he’s a better example. And the series is definitely entertaining to watch.
Despite the fact that this doesn’t seem to be my particular cup of tea I’m glad that more authors are writing fun books rather than worrying about whether it portrays the human condition or has a deep message. Reading is supposed to be fun and sometimes it seems like these ‘Epic Fantasy Novel’ or ‘Dramatic Science Fiction’ authors forget that detail in crafting their great vision.
When my wife spots me reading one of this fun focused book she refers to them as my ‘Brain Candy’ because they have no real value but they satisfy a craving.
#31 Corylea – I love that quote. Thanks!
If I want to be depressed, I’ll watch the news.
I don’t think Titus Pullo ever whined about anything.
He did a bit right at the start of season one, and again towards the end when he had his little breakdown. But then he snapped out of it and slaughtered an entire arena of Gladiators.
Eridani — The Betsy books are a lot of fun. And you’re right. All these crazy things happen to her but she still manages to keep her sense of humor intact.
MA — I haven’t read that particular Pratchett book, but I’ll have to give it a try.
Greg — The movie sounds interesting. Isn’t it the one where folks get new organs and if they can’t pay for them, then Jude & Co. come in and “repo” them?
Beth — I think reading should be fun too.
Anne — The news is almost always depressing.
Crypticmirror — Now, I’m really interested to get the Rome DVDs …
Repo Men, by Eric Garcia (originally published as The Repossesion Mambo)
The movie sounds interesting. Isn’t it the one where folks get new organs and if they can’t pay for them, then Jude & Co. come in and “repo” them?
That is the movie. Though my point was more along the lines of it being uninteresting. It does have at least one non-whiny assasin, though, if folks were interested in *that* part.
He did a bit right at the start of season one
Hm. I can’t recall.
But then he snapped out of it and slaughtered an entire arena of Gladiators.
Ah yes, I do recall that one. Good stuff that. Thirteen!
Now I’d like to watch the whole season all over again.
David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series.
Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series.
TOPPER and RAIN IN THE DOORWAY by Thorne Smith.
And there was this one book called KARMA GIRL. Can’t remember who wrote it at the moment, though . . .
Greg — I’d probably watch it just for the take on the assassin. Assassins, spies, thieves, conmen — I just like stories about those kinds of characters.
Johnny — You just made me laugh. Glad you liked Karma Girl.
Beth: “When my wife spots me reading one of this fun focused book she refers to them as my ‘Brain Candy’ because they have no real value but they satisfy a craving.”
There’s a whole category of books I refer to as “Popcorn” because they are light, fluffy, and are gone very quickly. Books that are just fun may or may not fall into this category; popcorn novels usually don’t have many other redeeming qualities, and many books that are just for fun nevertheless say something about the human condition. (Bujold definitely falls into the “fun but a little profound” category.)
I’ve learned not to look down on anyone for what they read, unless it’s truly turgid prose of the Dark and Stormy Night school. I can’t stand truly bad prose.
B — I agree and to each his own. I think folks should read what they want to and what they find entertaining and interesting.
What you and other people say about your books sounds hopeful. “Fun” is definitely the key word.
Third, unless I missed some, the recommendation of Steven Brust’s Vlad series. (He’s also an old friend, so I’m not an objective source exactly.)
(Really can’t stand even the idea of Eddings or Brooks, though; I remember them appearing, and my seeing them as the very dregs of the cheap exploitation wing of the fantasy genre.)
David — I’m definitely going to check out that series after all the recommendations here. Eddings and Brooks were among some of the first fantasy authors that I remember reading and made me want to read more in the genre, so I’ll always have a soft spot for them.
Well I have read all of your books so far and I have fallen in love with them this is one of my favorite book sieries I’ve ever read.
Some good books that I highly recommend would be the ciurqe du freak seiries.
And lastly I am going to make a suggestion to try to make a movie based off of this, it will not be close to as memorable as the books but it would be fun to happen. Happy reading to all
I wanted to thank John for allowing you to post some thoughts about your series, and to thank you for writing such an interesting character and world. I’ve picked up the first book and am avidly reading it every spare second I have. Your writing style is a perfect fit with the type of books I prefer.
I’ve read so much Urban Fantasy that I’ve lost count of the series and authors, but the Black London series by Caitlin Kittredge is one of the best I’ve read. That said, the Elemental Assassin series is by far, without a shadow of doubt, the absolute best series of books I have ever read. The author has created a masterful blend of suspenseful writing, mixed with characters so real you feel that you know them personally. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this series. I’m not particularly fond of romance in my Urban Fantasy reads, but this series has just the right amount to make it believable, but not soppy. Gin, Finn, Sophia, Owen and co feel like friends and I cannot wait for the next chapter of their lives to unfold infront of me, sweeping me up and taking me on the ride of my life