“So, what’s your book about?”
“Uhhhhhhh . . . .”
Thieves’ Quarry, volume II in the Thieftaker Chronicles, my series of stand-alone historical urban fantasies, comes out from Tor Books on July 2. It is a murder mystery, set against the backdrop of the British occupation of Boston as it began in September and October 1768. My lead character, Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker and conjurer, investigates the murder by magick of nearly one hundred men aboard a British naval vessel. Along the way, he stumbles across a fight among thieves over a cache of smuggled pearls.
So I suppose you can say that the book is about conjurings, murder, smuggling, and Colonial era politics. And that actually sounds pretty interesting. I could sell a few books answering the “What’s your book about?” question that way.
But I find that what my books are about for me, and what they are about to my readers, are not always the same things. This is not at all a knock on my readers -- we all read books for different reasons, and I know that I take from the books I read different things than the author might have intended. Reading is an interactive endeavor. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but it is. As readers, we each bring a different life experience to the books we read, and so we cannot help but take something unique from the narrative experience.
Sure, every person who reads Thieves’ Quarry is going to find a story about murder, magic, and politics. They’ll follow Ethan as he tracks the killer, grapples with his rival in thieftaking, Sephira Pryce, and interacts with the other characters I first introduced in Thieftaker.
But, if they wish to, they will also find themes of loyalty and betrayal, of duty and sacrifice. They will see portraits of frayed and broken families. They will follow my hero as he struggles with echoes of his past, some of them distant and thought-provoking, others immediate, visceral, and terrifying. That last is probably the most important part of the book for me. As far as I am concerned, at root, Thieves’ Quarry is about Ethan revisiting episodes from his past and being forced to acknowledge the consequences of the poor decisions he made in his youth.
Put another way, it is about a man who is slipping into middle age and thinking about where his life has taken him.
Let me pause here to offer a very brief anecdote that you all might find a bit odd: My wife is a biologist, and she has a colleague who studies birds. At the very beginning of his career he studied sexual response in a certain species. He was a young man at the time, he was courting the woman who would become his wife, and with whom he would soon start a family. Now, thirty-plus years later, as he nears the end of his career, he studies aging in the same species. So, for all you amateur (and professional) psychologists out there, why would I be so interested in writing novels about a middle-aged thieftaker who is coming to grips with the decisions he made in his youth? (Hint: It’s not because I’m a thieftaker.)
I love the all the stuff relating to my plot -- the mysteries, the magic system, the blending of fiction and history. Coming up with the storylines for the Thieftaker books is tremendous fun, and when I am able to piece it all together to create a mystery that confounds and twists and ultimately satisfies, it is remarkably gratifying. Which I suppose is another way of saying that if you read the Thieftaker books because you really enjoy the stories, or because you find yourself fascinated by the historical setting, or because you like the voice and the character, that’s great.
When I’m writing, though, I’m thinking about all those things and then some. I am delving into the emotions and minds of my characters, exploring themes that are important to me not only because they relate to my narrative, but also for reasons that might have nothing at all to do with Ethan Kaille or Colonial Boston. I would never say that Ethan is anything like me. He’s not. He’s braver than I am, he’s led a life filled with ill fortune and sadness, he’s a loner. None of those things is true of me. Aside from our advancing middle age, we have precious little in common. But I relate to him as I would a close friend, and when I write his scenes I focus on his emotions in ways that most of my readers probably don’t. (In fact, if they did, I would be worried about them.)
This is why I really hate the question that appears at the beginning of this post. “So, what’s your book about?”
Sometimes I want to answer, “It’s about life and death, the human condition, the meaning of friendship and enmity, the transformative power of love and the devastating impact of loss. You know: stuff like that.” Because that would probably be the most honest answer I could give. The problem is it would tell the person asking almost nothing about the book. At least nothing that they really want to know.
So instead I say, “It’s about murder and magic in Colonial America. Oh, and there are thieves and smugglers, too. Sounds cool, doesn’t it?” That’s also an honest answer. And it sells more books.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasy, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, came out in 2012 and will soon be available in paperback. The second volume, Thieves’ Quarry, will be released on July 2, just in time for the July 4th holiday. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.