Interview with E. J. Beaton, author of The Councillor

I don’t update this blog as often as I should – I’m blaming the pandemic, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it – but today I am delighted to be posting an interview I recently conducted with E. J. Beaton, the author of the very-soon-to-be-released The Councillor.

This is E.J.’s debut novel, who is also a poet (her debut collection is Unbroken Circle,) and it’s clear from the start that she flexes these literary and poetic muscles to the full. Reviews of The Councillor are already rolling in, including a starred review from Library Journal.

The book is available for pre-order from all good bookstores and online outlets (please support your local indie if you can – bookshop.org is a great resource for this) and is released on 2 March.

Book Review: The Councillor by E. J. Beaton - Novel Notions

1. How would you pitch The Councillor in a nutshell to readers who want a reference point?

I’d describe it as Wolf Hall meets The Priory of the Orange Tree – political intrigue, character-driven machinations, and a commoner using her wits amongst the royal milieu.

The main character is bisexual, and the story is set in a gender-equal, queernorm, multicultural world.

2. The Councillor has been described as a Machiavellian fantasy. What does that mean?

The term “Machiavellian” is associated with the politics of Niccolo Machiavelli’s treatise The Prince, which lays out instructions to a feudal ruler on how to lead effectively. It’s a very pragmatic treatise – it’s all about what actually works in government, rather than what is morally right. Machiavelli was living in a fractured country, though, during a turbulent and dangerous time, and he sought stability rather than cruelty. At the end of The Prince, he pleads for a prince to unite Italy and end its “devastation” and sacking. Across his other writing, there are republican themes; he suggests that governments based upon the will of the people are better than autocratic ones. So it’s arguable that Machiavelli was both a realist and someone who hoped for a better society.

I think that a “Machiavellian fantasy” can encompass these things: it can include political pragmatism and strategizing, but its characters can also question social structures. The Councillor has a bit of a dialogue with Machiavellian thought. Lysande confronts the tragic underbelly of “harsh” rule, and considers who has historically paid the price for leaders’ choices – as a less privileged person, she’s aware of the allure of power yet also critical of it.

One thing I definitely don’t inherit from Machiavelli is the idea that women should be beaten into compliance by men! It’s shocking to read that metaphor in his work. It’s also a reminder of why I write fantasy – fantasy writers can try to reimagine the past without the brutal sexism that was rampant in real history.

3. Tell us a little bit about your inspirations to create Elira and its city-states. Did you draw on anything in particular to create such an intricate world?

Multiculturalism was a core part of the world-building. I live in a multicultural city and have family of different cultural and racial backgrounds, so I tried to create a fantasy world that embodied that diversity. Any society has its tensions, but in The Councillor those tensions are more to do with magic, class, and financial inequality – there is no tension over skin colour. We’re far from that level of racial equality in the real world, so I wanted to imagine a world where that was the status quo.

The use of city-states was partly inspired by my reading about Renaissance Italy. Within Italy, a whole plethora of rulers formed ties with each other and warred with each other. I found such complexity – an intricate web of alliances and divisions – richly inspiring for reimagining feudal societies.

Living in a country with many different climates and environments (Australia), I also liked the idea of having a climate-diverse land where you could find desert, jungle, and temperate land all within the same realm. And finally, there are pieces of inspiration from my travels worked into the novel.

4. Talk us through your magic a little bit.

The mind can be a source of joy and comfort, but it’s also a source of pain, as anyone who has suffered grief or mental illness knows. I think that’s why I’m particularly drawn to magic of the mind – the idea that someone could have powers that they employ by thinking, feeling, and concentrating, rather than by physical effort. To me, those powers are just as likely to be extremely dangerous as they are to be helpful.

The White Queen has the power to control minds in The Councillor, which was the starting point for the novel. I wanted to represent the suffering I was going through, in the hope of surviving it. One of the characters says that the mind is what makes you yourself: the threat of mind-control magic is that it may destroy selfhood. It’s like a mental illness that takes a severe hold on your mind. That possibility dangles over the characters as they try to outmanoeuvre the White Queen.

5. The Councillor explores themes of power and privilege, and specifically what happens when someone societally powerless is given power. Why did you focus on this as an aspect of your story?

I tried to keep in mind that the splendour of royal luxury is built on inequality. I was interested in peopling a feudal world with characters who are less privileged – palace staff, soldiers, merchants, low-level courtiers – as well as those who are born to power. Hopefully, the book can still show the regal world, but through the perspective of someone who has a complicated understanding of wealth and class.

The story explores how just a little bit of power can build confidence. It can be transformative. Lysande wants to improve the conditions of people like herself who work for a living, yet she also loves her newfound popularity for its own sake. Power and self-perception intertwine: as Lysande gains influence, she starts to see herself in an entirely new light. She begins to grasp the possibilities for her personal image, and she realises that even a scholar with no aristocratic blood can become a powerful force in her own right.

6. Lysande suffers from a drug dependency, which is, in my opinion, still quite a rare theme to explore in fantasy, and particularly in such a politics-driven novel. Why did you decide to complicate her life like this?

I wanted to portray the experience of addiction honestly, including the process of denial – the way that an addict may know what they are doing to their health, but still try to convince themself that it’s ok. It’s specifically the story of a high-performing person who has become good at concealing her addiction. At the beginning of the novel, Lysande has kept her addiction a secret from almost everyone, and that effort takes a toll on her.

Another aspect was the emotional basis of addiction. Stress, fear, grief, and feelings of inadequacy all feed into Lysande’s desire to use a magical drug. She turns to substance abuse to keep those feelings at bay, putting herself into a calm and blissful emotional state.

Writing this novel helped me to battle some difficult times in my life. Hopefully, Lysande’s story can help someone else out there to feel a little less alone.

7. There are a lot of twists and mysteries in this book. How did you manage to keep so many secrets throughout and was it difficult deciding when and where to reveal them?

I can only hope that they work for readers! My interest in writing is driven by character development and writing style, so the plot and its mysteries required more effort than most other aspects of writing The Councillor. My early readers were really helpful in giving me feedback on whether they had been able to guess something or not. To me, a revelation about character sits behind a meaningful plot twist.

I have a background in Shakespeare studies, and I was inspired by the way that motivation was tied up with some of the biggest plot twists in Shakespeare’s more political plays. I tried to learn from that. When Marc Antony decides to seek revenge on the conspirators in Julius Caesar, for example, he’s expressing how heartbroken he is over the death of his friend, Caesar. I tried to think about when it was important to reveal a character’s motivations, and what emotional factors might cause other characters to misread the situation and miss clues.

8. Lysande’s character is given added complexity with the hints at her desire for sexual domination, which I don’t think I’ve ever read in a mainstream fantasy. I really enjoyed how you dealt with that – and how Lysande both revealed and concealed it with her partners depending on their reactions. It added an element of consent that felt very genuine and is very welcome. Will we see this in any more depth in the sequel?

Thank you for the kind comments. Things have certainly progressed in the sequel! More editing needs to be done, but so far, there’s one relationship in particular where the tension boils over. Some things that are hinted at in the first book are playing out in the second. There might be some rope… [Ed: interest intensifies…]

It’s interesting that you mention the rarity of dominant female characters. The most popular stories featuring sexual dominance do seem to have a gendered trend where the man is dominant and the woman is submissive. That pattern probably speaks to the impact of patriarchy, where men are expected to “lead” sexually and women are expected to respond or react. When creating a non-patriarchal world, I think it makes sense to normalise male interest in submission and female interest in dominance, as well as the opposite combination. Perhaps, if gender-equal worlds become more widespread in fantasy and science fiction, we’ll also become more accustomed to reading about women in a dominant or leading role.

9. Elira is blessed with a queernorm society and it’s fantastic to see these cropping up more in SFF novels. It helps to ground the society and its equal opportunities nature very well. Did you find that one grew naturally out of the other?

I absolutely agree with you that it’s fantastic to see more of these cropping up! Including in your own work, Anna; I enjoyed how seamlessly you included queer relationships in The Stone Knife. I’m fortunate to be writing at a time when we have a multiplicity of writers centring queer perspectives in fantasy, like Tasha Suri, N. K. Jemisin, Neon Yang, and Tamsyn Muir.

The starting point for the world-building was gender. I wanted to create a gender-equal world, one where people had the same opportunities regardless of gender. I liked the narrative roles that this freed up, and the opportunity to totally bypass the oppressed-woman narrative. The same kind of process applied to sexuality – there had to be no discrimination towards openly queer couples, no homophobia in the world.

The original definition of “queer” as strange, as weird, as abnormal and therefore as other, makes the concept of queer relationships as a socio-cultural norm so powerful, to me. I’m always moved when I come across worlds in which LGBTQ+ people are treated as normally as heterosexual people.

I’m hoping to say more about what this kind of world-building means to me in a short essay about bisexual visibility, which will be posted around the time of The Councillor’s release.

10. Lastly, would I die if I petted Tiberus?

He’s an opinionated cobra – his behaviour depends on whether he takes to you. But unless you make friends with Prince Luca Fontaine, his owner, I wouldn’t go dangling your hand nearby… [Ed: duly noted]

Thanks so much for giving us such a great insight into The Councillor. You can learn more about E.J. at her website or follow her on Twitter.

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