E. J. Wenstrom - Complicated Heroes and Horrifying Monsters in Riveting Fantasy Adventures

E. J. Wenstrom - Complicated Heroes and Horrifying Monsters in Riveting Fantasy Adventures
E.J Book Cover

E. J. Wenstrom believes in complicated heroes, horrifying monsters, purple hair dye and standing to the right on escalators so the left side can walk. She writes dark speculative fiction for adults and teens, including the young adult dystopian novel Departures and the award-winning Chronicles of the Third Realm War series (start with Mud). When she isn’t writing fiction, she co-hosts the Troped Out and Fantasy+Girl podcasts. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about "Mud: A Dark Fantasy Adventure."

Please give us a short introduction to what "Mud: A Dark Fantasy Adventure" is about.

Mud is about a cursed magical creature who has kept to the shadows in a middle realm that has been torn apart by godly infighting. His only escape from his curse is to become human, which would require he get a soul. So, when an angel comes to him and promises him one, he isn’t about to say no…or ask too many questions.

But of course, the angel wants something in return – because Adem doesn’t have a soul, he can do something the angel can’t: Break into the Underworld and steal back the soul of the angel’s long-dead human love. Unfortunately, the angel doesn’t mention the significant collateral damage breaking the barriers between the realms will cause in the aftermath.

This dark fantasy quest was inspired in great part by how much time I spent with D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a child. The stories have always struck me as so strange and hypnotic. The gods were capricious and the narratives were wild and brutal. As I started writing my own stories, I couldn’t resist playing with the idea of gods who fell short and demigods who pushed back.

"Mud" offers a unique twist on curses: The protagonist Adem, while soulless, is a morally complex character struggling with his existence. What inspired you to explore this character and his journey in the context of a dark fantasy adventure?

As I started exploring plot ideas for this novel, I started to hear the voice of a character. This character was bound and burdened by great magic, and while very powerful himself in many ways, he was also completely at the mercy of outside forces. That’s where the concept for this entire series – trying to give shape in my imagination to the kind of world and situation that would create a creature with this kind of vast desperation, but also hope.

Adem’s life is completely committed to guarding a mysteriously charmed box at any cost, and because its magic keeps luring guardians to it, he always ends up killing them. All he wants is to be able to keep to himself and never cause harm to anyone else again. But the only way out – finding a way to get his own soul – proves to have a very steep cost.

The world-building in "Mud" is rich and immersive, blending elements of mythology with original storytelling. Can you discuss your process for crafting the world of Terath and the challenges and opportunities it presented for your narrative?

Thank you! I started writing fantasy because I’d rather create my own rules than be beholden to the real world. As I got deeper into my series and became beholden to the magical rules of the worldbuilding of the earlier books in the series, I had to eat my words on that concept a bit, but even when it was challenging it was great fun.

Personally, I don’t love the fantasy style of expansive descriptions and paragraphs of the world’s history. I much prefer to stay in the character’s heads and keep the action moving. Because of this, I always strive to fill out the world from within the perspective of the character’s experience and emotional context – as a reader explores a world, every line should be working double time to inform both the world and the characters.

Adem's quest to obtain a soul drives much of the plot in "Mud," leading him on a perilous journey through the Underworld. What themes or ideas did you hope to explore through Adem's quest, particularly when it comes to identity, redemption, and the nature of humanity?

I don’t generally know what themes I’m tackling when I start drafting a story. But somewhere between the first few drafts I start to see them reveal themselves and then fine-tune to draw them out. In Mud, Adem’s story is to a large degree about the fallibility of the hero’s complex. We all want to believe we’re fighting for the right things. But we often get in our own way of that intention.

And maybe I also find the traditional noble “white knight” style protagonist prevalent in so much traditional fantasy to be a little flat, and had some fun breaking the trope a little. Give me a morally grey, complex character any day.

The novel has been compared to works like "The Witcher," "The Sandman," and "Game of Thrones." Who are some of your personal favorite authors in the genre?

Yes, I love these comps for Mud because of its mythological elements, quest adventure story structures, and gritty, moody tones!

Beyond those novels, I read quite widely but find I do enjoy darker and grittier stories most of the time (and the occasional rom-com, too!). Specifically in dark fantasy, some of my more recent reads that I loved have included Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, The Poppy Wars by R. F. Kuang, and The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw.

Adem's struggle with his own actions and desires, particularly his compulsion to protect the magical box at any cost, adds layers of complexity to his character. How did you navigate portraying his internal conflict and evolution throughout the story?

I really wanted Adem to be a character that was both incredibly powerful, and also incredibly powerless over his own fate. Because he has grown so used to the ways in which he has been bound and trapped by his curse, he’s hit a sort of comfort zone with it—and of course, over the course of the story, the way other characters respond to the box he is bound to protect change his understanding of his role in guarding it. This created a lot of space to flesh out complexity in his relationship to it as the story unfolds.

He starts the story desperate to be free of it no matter the cost, then slowly comes to understand that there is a lot at stake with what the box holds within it, and finally, rues that he has gone to such lengths to sever is bind to it. I think a lot of this shift was really driven by my desire to keep the goalposts moving on him over the course of the book, in a way that felt true and realistic.

Readers have praised the depth of characterization in "Mud," particularly Adem's journey and the supporting cast of characters. Can you discuss your approach to character development and how you crafted such compelling and multi-dimensional personalities?

If characters feel complex, I think it’s because I build them in layers, in a way. My first drafts tend to barely scratch the surface and focus on just getting the bones of the story in place (though Mud was my first novel and I didn’t fully understand what I was doing yet, so this time I spent far too much time trying to get my language just right, only to demolish it all in later drafts once I knew the story better!)

For me, character development becomes a tug and pull between letting the character drive from motivations so the arc feels organic, but also applying my sense of plot and tension to keep the situation escalation and becoming increasingly complex until the characters’ backs are against the wall and there’s no way out but through—or in this case. fist-fighting an immortal deity to the death.

So one draft to the next, I parse out all those elements more and more, add more dimension with each new revision, and really try to inhabit the story from the characters’ perspectives rather from the outside.

As the first installment in the "Chronicles of the Third Realm War" series, "Mud" sets the stage for future adventures in the world of Terath. What can readers expect from future installments, and how will Adem's journey continue to unfold?

Each of the novels focuses on the same core set of characters, but is told from a different character’s perspective. Just like Mud, each of these novels features mythology-inspired quests and deeply flawed heroes who are very complex and perhaps a bit difficult, but always try their very best. Meanwhile, the Third Realm War is beginning to unfold around them and cause havoc to the realm, while the gods are wholly missing in action. No one is going to get out of this mess unscathed.

What draws you to the fantasy genre?

I started writing fantasy because the idea of getting to make up all the rules for myself appealed to me. When you write, say, a thriller, there are all sorts of minute but crucial details that must be right – would the kind of gun the murderer had make that exact sort of mark, from that distance? How does this type of lock work, and can it be hacked? I didn’t realize until much later in the series that keeping track of your own rules can be just as challenging – but it’s a very fun creative challenge, so I’ve learned to embrace it.

Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like of you?

I’m an early morning writer – 5am. I like to get it in before the rest of my day starts making my mind busy and tired. Writing every single day isn’t the best approach for everyone, but for me, I find it helps me to believe the story is moving forward even on the days when it feels like it’s not. I also find that the more consistently I write, the more my subconscious mind remains at work on the story’s behalf, and solutions for plot issues and other creative thinking for the story will come to me at random even when I’m not at my laptop.

I’m not sure about interesting, but I’m a definite panster – trying to plan anything out for plot has only ever ensured that the story will come out totally different in the end.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m revising a manuscript about a set of witches who used to be the best of friends, but then a trauma and a dark secret tore them apart. At the start of the story, their former professor’s will forces them back together, but instead of reconciling to carry on their professor’s legacy, they opt to avoid the trauma of their past at any cost and start killing each other.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

You can get updates on my work – and occasional sneak peeks – by subscribing to my newsletter. I’m also on TikTok, Instagram, Threads, and Facebook as @EJWenstrom. You can also learn more about my books at EJWenstrom.com.

Mud (Chronicles of the Third Realm War, Book 1)
E. J. Wenstrom

Adem is cursed to guard a magical box for all eternity and spill the blood of any who tries to steal it. When a demigod offers Adem what he longs for most—a soul of his own—he doesn’t hesitate, and he certainly doesn’t ask questions. Surely any price is worth it to become human…right?

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