Reflections on Remnas #2: When the Crow Smiles

This is an essay that I wrote on When the Crow Smiles for a book event. It is actually the third book in the series but, chronologically, it happens at the same time as Flower in the Gale. It is also my personal favorite:

In the folklore, crows have long been held to be tricksters and harbingers of death, the perfect symbol for my third and personal favorite novel in the Tales of Remnas. It spotlights the second key couple in this complicated tale of honor, betrayal and the redemptive power of (unexpected) love. Caska the Ghastly Smile is a dark elf assassin, a slave trained to ferret out the ruling family’s enemies and take care of the dirty work no honest noble would sully his hands with. She dreams of one thing- freeing her people from the bonds of slavery- and with the Elvenfolk on the cusp of civil war, she is closer to that goal than ever before. One man stands in her way, Sigrund Talrun, right hand man to Ranarth, the wicked elven king.

Sigrund has gone to extreme lengths to prove his loyalty to Ranarth only to find his fealty questioned at every turn. Treason is a crime that Sigrund, who prizes allegiance above anything else, cannot forgive and he jumps at the chance to hunt down the rebellious Caska before her revolution can spread any further. He must chase her beyond the border of the Summerlands to the cold mountains of northern Remnas, forbidden territory for one of the Elvenfolk. Try as he might, the sins Sigrund has committed in the name of the king are taking their toll on his conscience. The cracks are forming in his resolve as he must confront the man that his liege truly is as well as the person he is by association.

Crow is a story that isn’t always easy to like. Sigrund has done some things that are hard to forgive. He’s pompous, a stuffed-shirted, entitled and does his best to remain a toady to a despot. An odd choice for a ‘hero,’ but his crisis of conscience makes for a compelling conflict as he goes through the emotional meat grinder. However, as his soul gets stripped down he just might find his true self under all of his old prejudices (and that he’s a freak between the sheets). Caska is his foil. While no less dedicated to her own cause, she has no delusions that while her goal may be just, her methods take her down a dark and bloody path. Her one indulgence is her strange fascination with Sigrund, a man she should have every reason to hate. In laying his vulnerabilities bare, she might discover a heart that is untouchable is not as invulnerable as she thinks.

When the Crow Smiles was definitely the easiest and the hardest manuscript I’ve ever written at different times during its production. I think wrote the first two-thirds of it in less than a month while working a full time 9 to 5 on top of that. I recall cranking out the outline in one weekend. I usually start my preparation phase by coming up with a few very vivid key scenes to act as tent poles that I build the rest of the story around and it felt like I had more than usual. I had been plotting this story in my head pretty much from the moment I wrote the last quarter of Flower Among the Ashes. From a very brief interaction in the first book between Caska and Sigrund, I knew that this was a pair that would almost as important as Rekki and Arshé.

Just as the story was entering its final act, it became apparent that my grandmother was entering into the end stages of a long running battle with dementia. The work stopped when she was admitted into hospice care and stopped eating shortly after that. It was close to two months before I felt like I wrote face this story again. Even then it was slow going except for a hand full of scenes like Sigrund’s heartfelt plea to Caska near the end very. There would be days when I would just stare a blinking cursor for thirty minutes, write a few lines, delete them. At the end of the day, I felt good if I had a few workable paragraphs. Eventually, I did win the battle and was able to put ‘The End’ after the last sentence. I think what I came up with is one of the best books that I will ever write.

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