It is my pleasure to introduce brand new author, Ricardo Bare. Ricardo is an award-winning video game designer who has worked on such games as Deus Ex and Dishonored, both of which received BAFTA awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for Best Game. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Shock Totem. Jack of Hearts is his debut novel. He lives with his family near Austin, Texas. Welcome to Book Blather, Ricardo.
You’ve obviously been successful as a video game designer. What prompted you to write a book? Or, did the desire to write come first?
I couldn’t say if one came before the other. Fiction and gaming have always been closely related for me. As far back as I can remember I spent a lot of time inventing stories, drawing maps, and sketching monsters. When I was a kid, my dad brought home a Commodore 64 and the first game I played on it was the Bard’s Tale, a type of computer role-playing game. If you’re not a gamer, an RPG is the kind of game which combines game rules, character development, and storytelling. Also, reading was a big part of my family growing up. One of the first books I ever read was John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which I found in my grandfather’s attic (probably because there was no room for it on the already stuffed bookshelves).
High-school is where I seriously started trying to write in a structured way (e.g. here is a story with a beginning middle and end) and that was when some wonderful teachers encouraged me to sign up for creative writing classes.
There were long stretches where I wrote very little, or the writing I did was mostly related to the games I was working on. But I would always come back to writing fiction in my spare time eventually, either late at night, or on the weekends. Jack of Hearts wasn’t the first book I wrote, but it’s the first one that can be shown in public.
Your young adult novel, Jack of Hearts, features a protagonist who surrenders his heart to a witch. Are more books planned in the series?
That’s right, Jack gives his heart to a witch to avoid dealing with something painful in his past, which I think is something most of us can relate to. Many of us have things we wish had simply never happened. And even if we can’t erase the memory, we often want to numb the pain. The problem of course, is that trying to bury painful things, or forget about them never works. It stays with you, and resurfaces when you least expect it.
That’s Jack’s situation. He begged and begged for something to take away his agony. One evening a creature in the twilight heard his cries.
And yes! There are more books planned in the series. Jack's adventures do not stop with Jack of Hearts. I'm working hard on the second book now.
Was there anything (music/books/etc.) that you found to be an inspiration for Jack of Hearts? Or, was it just something that popped into your mind and demanded to be written?
I’ve always loved The Lady of Shalott, which is a very tragic and lovely poem I think. The mysterious curse on the lady and its consequences have always intrigued me. Also, Ursula K. Leguinn’s story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas affected me deeply. It concerns a city whose citizens experience utopian bliss, except it requires that one child be kept in shadow and misery. I was definitely inspired by these ideas for certain themes in Jack of Hearts.
Also, off and on I game with a group my developer teammates, all really talented and inspiring guys. The genesis of several characters and concepts in the book sprang from those interactions.
All of those influences banged around in my brain for a while. And then one day I could see Jack racing across a burning desert, chasing after that dissembler of a wizard, Moribrand, and his giant slave, Minnow.
Oh yeah… and the game development company I worked for went bankrupt and laid everyone off. Which meant suddenly I had lots of time on my hands.
Do you have a favorite author/book? What are you reading right now?
Picking just one favorite book or author would be difficult for me, so I'll give you three! First would be C.S. Lewis. And I bet you think I'm going to say Narnia, but I actually wasn’t enchanted by Narnia. There's some cool stuff in the series to be sure, but I came upon it as an adult after I'd read his other works and found it a little watery for my taste by then. If you want C.S. Lewis's best fiction, read Till We Have Faces which is a marvelous retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Roger Zelazny is also in my top three. He's easy to read and his stories are some of the most imaginative blends of myth and reality. The Chronicles of Amber is probably his most famous work, of course, but For A Breath I Tarry is one of the best short stories I've ever read. If it’s not obvious, I really like stuff that’s mythic.
Last, I'd mention Gene Wolfe. This man is a genius. His writing is sneaky and dense. As in, center of a black hole dense. His Urth of the New Sun series is a master work of American literature.
As for what I'm reading, I have the honor of working with several teammates who also happen to be published novelists, which I think is a pretty rare scenario. Right now I'm finishing up Black Bottle by Anthony Huso, which is an adroit blend of technology and magic set in a very grim world. If you like stuff by China Mieville, you'd probably like Huso's stuff. Then there's Harvey Smith's Big Jack is Dead which is an incredibly moving piece of Southern Gothic fiction. Finally, I just finished Austin Grossman's YOU, which chronicles the nerdy lives of professional game developers. It’s a blast.
There you go, three of my favorite authors and three wildly different recommendations for what I've been reading recently.
Where can readers go to learn more about you and your book?
Please follow me on Twitter @RicardoBare or check out my website www.ricardobare.com. And a big thank you to Marilee for hosting me on her website!
What’s next for you?
I'm slowly pecking away at the next book for Jack of Hearts. Figuring out which ideas stay and which ones go is always simultaneously exciting and difficult. Doing a second book in a series feels much different. Now there are constraints and canon established by the first book—which is great, but it’s a different problem space (one which I’m familiar with from game development).
In the background, I'm also hoping to release a series of short stories eventually, themed around a creepy supernatural neighborhood—a sort of cosmic drain hole where all the weird-shaped bits get stuck on the grating on their way out.
Can you share a little of your work with us?
I would love to. Here’s the first chapter from Jack of Hearts!
THERE WAS something wrong with Jack.
He should be dead. Any other fifteen-year-old boy would be. Dead as the dunes he marched across. Dead as the bleach-white splinters of glass that cracked under his boots in the sand.
But not Jack.
Jack was only dead on the inside, a thought that made him take a deep breath to see if it was still true, expanding the hollow in his chest as far as he could and holding it. He listened...
Only his thought, echoing: dead, dead, dead.
He exhaled and squinted at the horizon, tugging the hood of his cloak to shade his eyes from the baleful sun. Nothing showed yet in the distant blur except the rumor of foothills, so he slid down the face of the dune that had been his perch and trudged on.
A sudden hot wind screamed across the wasteland and heaved against him. It grabbed his cloak and shook it out like a war banner. He threw his arm up in front of his eyes until the gust expired, then broke into a steady run.
He ran alongside a road made of flashing glass and quartz that had been etched into existence long ago by a firestorm that crossed the entire desert in one day, dividing it in two, east from west. He was careful to avoid stepping on it, hopping over any stray chunks larger than his fist. Heat shimmered above the road, ghosting into the air. During the day, the surface could melt a horse’s hooves into glue, but at night it snaked across the desert, glittering white in the moonlight, guiding travelers who had the courage to cross the waste.
He ran until nightfall. The sun sagged beneath the world, slung itself around, and lurched into the air again. Still, he never stopped to eat or drink, or to answer the needs of a normal boy’s body.
At dusk the next day he spotted a man and a woman arguing beside the road. They paced, dark shapes against a livid sky. The woman made sharp chopping gestures with her hand, and Jack could tell by her shaking voice that she was weeping. He slowed so as not to frighten them.
When the woman saw him, she drew a veil over her mouth and nose and grasped the reins of her donkey tighter. The man stared. Two sacks the size of wine bottles hung from his fists. As Jack drew closer he could see the man’s body tense, read the questions forming in his wind-scarred face.
"I thought you were a sandwight,” the man said.
Jack didn’t respond. It was the same wherever he went. It wasn’t just that he walked through the desert, alone. It was the way he looked, especially in the vague dimness of twilight. How is that boy’s skin so pale? What’s wrong with his eyes? He had heard all of these things before, and even if they didn’t speak the words, he knew they were thinking them.
"Accursed,” someone whispered. A boy frowned at him from the donkey, a protective arm around his younger sister. Their mother shushed them.
Jack let his eyes linger on the siblings. The way the brother glared, ready to defend his sister despite the fear on his face, brought to mind the way Jack had tried to protect his own sister. For a moment, he could almost see her face, her smile—but he smashed down the thought, tearing his gaze away.
He had to stay focused. Stay focused and keep moving, or the Lady would punish him.
Around the family, boxes and saddlebags littered the sand as if they’d been dumped off in a hurry. An incense pole was spiked into the ground, issuing a pungent stench meant to keep sandwights away.
"How is it you wander the open desert in the day?” the man asked, licking his cracked lips. "You have no incense.”
"A man came this way,” Jack said. "His name is Moribrand.” He said it with little inflection. His words flowed out evenly, not too fast, not too slow.
Recognition flickered across the man’s pinched features, then anger. "Yes. I met him. The pig-faced piece of dung robbed me.”
"Swindled,” the wife said under her breath.
The husband flinched. "Quiet, woman!” She turned away to stifle a sob, and he glared at her until she hushed, and then said to Jack, "What do you want with him? He claimed he was a wizard.” The husband grew braver in his anger. He took a step closer, jaw clenched, head thrust forward. "Is he a friend of yours?”
"I’m going to kill him,” Jack said, and he shifted his cloak, revealing the grip of a sword that hung from his back.
"Kill him?” The man halted. He eyed the sword, a wary frown dragging his face down. "Kill a wizard? But...”
The children were whispering to each other, but Jack could hear them.
"He’s only a boy,” the girl said.
"No he’s not,” her brother said. "Now be quiet for once.”
Their mother shushed them again, her breath hissing.
Their father eased back and nodded. "He wanted to buy my pack horse. I refused, of course. I’m a trader. I need the horse to carry my goods. But he offered two sacks full of gold.” He shook the two bags he held. "He showed me the gold. It was real!” He glared at his wife, daring her to contradict him. "But now it’s turned to dust with the setting sun. Dust!”
The man upended one bag, and a column of sand poured out. "What will I do now? I dumped everything I own into the desert and gave him my horse. What will I do now, with only a donkey to carry my children, and a pile of dirt, tell me that, eh?”
Jack stared down the length of the glass road, now a deep purple in the fading light, and pictured Moribrand riding for his life, reins lashing from side to side. The wizard would widen the gap between them significantly, at least until he killed the animal. He might even make it out of the desert before Jack could catch up.
He let his gaze return to the children and tried to think what might happen to them. Without his goods, their father would arrive at the city of Spiral as a beggar instead of a merchant.
Jack had never been to Spiral, but if it was anything like he’d heard, they were doomed. It wouldn’t be long before a slaver clamped chains around their necks.
Not that it mattered to Jack. They were just strangers passing on the road, weren’t they? At least, that’s what his mistress, the Lady of Twilight, would say. She would mock him for even considering their situation for more than a heartbeat. If they were in trouble, it was their own fault for trusting a man like Moribrand. A wizard. So let them perish. Even now, seeing the fear on their faces, imagining them in shackles or dead in the sand, he couldn’t feel the slightest twinge of sympathy.
Except, he had made a rule hadn’t he? Rule number one was Obey the Lady. That was her rule. It was the only rule she had, but Jack had made his own secret addition. Obey the Lady, but Don’t think like the Lady was rule number two. He had to. Otherwise, it was too easy to be cruel.
Jack opened a satchel at his side and plucked out a rough gemstone. "Take this to the market in Spiral. I think it might be worth more than the horse you lost.”
The man’s eyes widened at the uncut opal, a slice of tangerine against white palm, but he refused to touch Jack’s hand. After a moment, Jack flipped his hand over, letting the stone fall into the dirt, and walked away, following the tracks of Moribrand’s new horse.
THE SUN burned in the sky.
This day marked the four hundred and fifty-second day of Jack’s hunt for the wizard Moribrand. He had chased him beneath the Mountains of Black Glass all the way through to the Fire Stairs, and before that he’d found him dreaming up schemes like a rat in the City of the Sword Worshipers. Moribrand always managed to slip away. But each time, Jack came closer to catching him. At every turn, he forced the wizard to alter his plans, pack up, and flee for his life.
Now Jack stalked him in the Desert of Night Walking, where traders said the sun melted a person’s will long before he died of thirst. If he survived the heat, a wandering sandwight was sure to scour the flesh from a traveler’s bones and snatch his soul. Even if he carried incense to ward off the sandwights, he had to avoid the firestorms that screamed through the desert during the day and boiled the sand into glass. Warnings Jack mostly ignored.
He found a brown heap on the side of the road the next morning. Vultures squabbled for position around the carcass, their shadows long and wild in the light of the dawning sun. He scattered the carrion birds with his passing and spared the dead beast a glance. Moribrand’s horse, run to death. Its flanks were caked with dried sweat and blood, lacerated with a crisscross of whip wounds.
It seemed like an age since he had dreamed boyish dreams of fast horses. He would have wept for the creature back then.
JACK RAN ON.
Not long after passing the dead horse, he wondered if the waste would finish his work for him. There were signs—bladders squeezed dry of every drop of water, spare clothing tossed aside, and discarded books Jack couldn’t read—all forming a trail of debris leading to his quarry.
A clutch of rocks punched up from the sand near the road. In the shade, he found the ashes of a fire the wizard had made by burning a set of robes. The blackened pile still issued wisps of smoke, which meant Moribrand couldn’t be far now. A tangle of scorched bones that probably belonged to a lizard sat next to the fire. On the flattest part of the rock face a vulgar image had been scrawled with chalk. It depicted a cloaked boy, abused and come to a cruel end. Jack imagined the wizard, sweating and wild eyed, scratching out a last insult against him.
He squatted and plucked the remaining nub of chalk between his thumb and forefinger. He might have laughed at the wizard’s futile gesture, but the humor withered before it could reach him. Besides, it might be a spell of some kind.
Jack flicked the chalk away and rejoined the glass road. Where it met the horizon, mountains bulged into view, edges blurred by the heat. Dunes and sandy plains gave way to foothills. Shabby low bushes clung to life in the shade of stones, rooted in deep cracks. He saw a wild hare. The creature stood to pound a warning into the hard-packed ground with its long foot and then bolted away.
The tracks of other travelers multiplied alongside the road, so Jack figured he was nearing a settlement or an oasis. Cresting the next rise, he spotted a compound hunkered around the intersection of the glass road and a dirt road that coursed west along the edge of the foothills. A salmon-colored wall of rammed earth encircled the compound. Inside, clusters of large canvas tents billowed, reinforced with tall central poles. He thought it might be a mining camp of some sort.
He’d heard how powerful Barons were willing to risk everything for the valuable resources they could plunder from the fringes of the desert, despite the dangers. In all likelihood, slaves toiled inside the walls, dredging up gems, bones, or salt from furnace-hot excavations.
At the gates, soldiers with glinting helmets and spears, their faces half-veiled, watched the crossroads with suspicious eyes. More patrolled the walls. Incense poles spiked around the perimeter released black greasy smoke into the sweltering air.
He was sure Moribrand was inside. After slogging for days on end through the desert, half-starved, the wizard would be unable to resist whatever comforts this settlement offered.
Jack looked up. It was nearly midday, which meant he would soon be at his weakest. Already, he could feel his strength diminishing, pulling away from him like a slow tide. His senses would be their dullest, his limbs more leaden. Almost like a normal boy. Almost.
It was also when his mind was most prone to wandering, which was the best reason he had for finding somewhere to hide until nightfall. Besides, no one walked the desert in the day, not without incense. The guards would spear him before he came within ten paces of the gate.
Turning back, he abandoned the road and scrabbled over the rough boulders that littered the hills, searching for a niche to hide in. He found a narrow cleft in the ground with just enough space for his body and squeezed into the cool darkness.
Jack remained dead still, watching the shadows creep across the ground, unconcerned with the scorpions and lizards that scratched over his skin in search of prey. Nor did he flinch at the rasping moan of a sandwight that swept past.
Before long, it happened, as it usually did when he could do nothing but wait, when the influence of twilight was furthest from him. It was his encounter with the trader’s children that had started it this time. He noticed his hands shaking, then sweating. His breath quickened.
Jack couldn’t stop his mind from drifting back to a time when he was another boy, when he played on emerald grass under the shade of a giant oak. The memories lurked, crouching within him until he became still, then crept out like priests in a boneyard, beckoning with gaunt hands and counterfeit smiles, onward, deeper, so they could crush him with an unbearable grief.
An age ago, Jack would have cried out in despair, but instead he watched the memories as if they belonged to a stranger. Inside, he was numb. Inside, there was no reason for him to cry out, because the grief could not touch him. Because Jack had no heart.