Welcome back, bibliophiles! Today, we had the honour of sitting down and talking with fantasy author M.K. Lobb about her debut novel “Seven Faceless Saints,” on the one-month anniversary of its release, where she deconstructs the richly built new fantastical and evocative world of Ombrazia, and guides us through its magic, murder and mayhem, as well as a complex political hierarchy.
In our latest interview, we discovered what’s lurking in the shadows in “Seven Faceless Saints,” the first book in a deliciously dark murder-mystery fantasy dripping with a sizzling romance of Roz and Damian Venturi; all synthesised into one epic story. Inspired by Guilds of Florence, the new, dark YA fantasy “Seven Faceless Saints” transports us to the magical world of Ombrazia which is built around the worship of seven gods, who have each gifted their descendants—known as “disciples”—-with specific kinds of magic.
Unfortunately, those without these gifts experience discrimination as “unfavoured” citizens, striking a nerve with the horrifying, unfair and deceitful ways our contemporary society treats those it deems less. But when a disciple of Death gets killed, the connections between his death and the murders of several unfavoured raise uncomfortable questions about what’s going on in the city—and draw former childhood sweethearts Rossana Lacertosa, a disciple of Patience, and security official Damian Venturi back into each other’s lives.
This YA fantasy thriller book strikes a chord with readers who love the whodunit mystery, full of mayhem, fast-paced world-building, and unpredictable twists with a message at its heart, as well as, shines a light on the sizzling “friends-to-lovers” and “enemies-to-lovers” romance with strong chemistry, angst, worries, dreams, and passion of youth. It offers an optimistic spin to the story with a fiercely independent and strong leader-at-heart female protagonist, one who everyone loves to watch.
The book is a one-part political thriller and mystery, one-part slow-burn romance and one-part spiritual exploration of the power of faith, adorned with lush prose, gripping characters with hidden talents, religious imagery, dark magic, and intricate lore that seems to have something for every reader to cling to as the dark turns and will certainly keep you turning the pages till the end.
This book includes several difficult subjects, including various types of violence (shooting, poisoning, beheading), graphic descriptions of blood/bodies, death of parents/ friends/ siblings, a parent depicted with memory loss/confusion, PTSD and flashbacks, descriptions of war, prejudice, religious intolerance, hallucinations, paranoia, alcoholism, and mentions of self-harm. Please take care of yourself.
Congratulations on your wonderful debut with “Seven Faceless Saints”, which is incredibly engrossing and unputdownable. How does it feel to be a young, published author and receive all the appreciation for your work? Does it feel the way you imagined it to be?
M.K. Lobb: Thank you so much! This is something I’ve been working towards for quite a few years, so it feels pretty surreal. I never get tired of seeing it on the shelves of a bookstore, and it’s so great to connect with readers who have enjoyed the book. It’s hard to say exactly what I expected, but the excitement from people both online and off has been really touching. Writing is such a solitary endeavour that it’s hard to imagine a story existing outside of yourself – or at least it is for me. Once it happens, it’s definitely a strange feeling, and there’s almost this sense of “now what?” that can be tricky to contend with at first. But I wouldn’t change a thing!
I always enjoy learning authors’ stories of how their books go from abstract ideas to tangible products to becoming legacies. Tell us about the process you underwent from writing to publishing SFS. What is one lesson you learned from your debut experience you will carry with you throughout your life?
M.K. Lobb: “Seven Faceless Saints” is a book I wrote solely for myself, at least in the beginning. I knew I wanted to write a murder mystery, and that the story was going to contain all the things I enjoy about young adult fantasy. After failing to secure a literary agent with each of my previous novels, I decided I need to make writing fun for myself once more. It only took me about three months to draft the book, but because I’m not much of a plotter, it required a lot of revisions afterwards. I unravel my plot and get to know my characters as I write, rather than planning it all in-depth ahead of time.
I got quite a bit of feedback from other writer friends at this point! Eventually, I managed to sign with a literary agent who had shown interest in my previous projects, and after yet another round of revisions with her, she was able to sell it to a publishing house. I learned a ton of things from the experience, but a major one is this: write for yourself first. I know it sounds obvious, but when you’re going through draft after draft, you’re really going to want a story you feel passionate about!
What advice would you impart to aspiring authors (including myself) looking for new representation, including querying, rejection, and waiting for publishing deals, given that this could be a lengthy process demanding patience?
M.K. Lobb: Patience is not my forte, and publishing is such a hard industry! Whenever I give people advice, I [tend to] focus on the emotional side of the process. Be prepared for publishing to hurt your feelings – because I guarantee it’s going to at some point – but remember that it’s okay to hope, too. I tried so hard not to be overly optimistic, in case my book never ended up being published. But quickly, [I] learned that every disappointment hurts no matter what. So don’t be afraid to let yourself have dreams and allow yourself to be upset when things don’t go your way.
Writing is a form of art, and art is an expression of self, so those rejections can feel really personal. It’s okay to feel the way you feel. If possible, make sure you have a support system and remember that publication is a marathon, not a sprint! Take breaks and be kind to yourself.
You wrote about seven other manuscripts before choosing “Seven Faceless Saints” as your debut novel. What prompted that decision? And did you have a specific origin point, or maybe an “aha! this is it” moment of inspiration for this book?
M.K. Lobb: To be honest, I didn’t exactly choose “Seven Faceless Saints” as my debut novel – it just happened to be the one that got me in the door. I think I definitely knew it was better than my previous manuscripts, because every book helps you become a better writer, but I never really had an “aha” moment. So much of publishing is luck. You need to find an agent who’s interested in your concept, and passionate enough to help you revise it. Then you need to find an editor or publisher who feels the same way and can pitch it to their team in a way that allows them to make an offer. I’m not saying skill isn’t involved, but there’s so much to be said for having the right book at the right time and putting it before the right people. “Seven Faceless Saints” is the one that finally made it all work, so to speak. What’s that saying – “You have to keep throwing things against a wall to see what sticks?” It’s definitely a bit like that.
Once the original concept for “Seven Faceless Saints” established, how did you build a plot around it? Did you have a clear readership in mind since the beginning, or did your strategy change as the story moved from your mind to paper?
M.K. Lobb: I’m not much of a plotter, so I essentially worked backwards. I knew who I wanted the culprit of my murder mystery to be, but I had to figure out the “why” and thread all those little clues into the story. I also knew I wanted two characters on completely different sides who got brought together by this mystery. I love the drama of forced proximity! After that, it was a bunch of moving plot pieces around and adjusting things to fit my characters’ personalities. I never feel I fully know them until I get to the end of a first draft, and then I have to go back and rewrite with a new, deeper understanding. There was a lot of rewriting in general, especially towards the end! It’s hard to give specifics without major spoilers.
In terms of readership, I always knew I wanted “Seven Faceless Saints” to be for older teens drawn to YA fantasy because of the elements typically associated with the genre: an interesting magic system, a strong romance subplot, and characters learning who they truly want to be.
Writing a murder mystery is no easy feat combined with an enemies-to-lovers dual-POV angst-filled romance with unique character arcs. How did you unpack the difficult push-and-pull of not giving away too much while burying the clues, yet preserving the elements of surprise, joy, romance, faith, agony, revenge, and melancholy on every page?
M.K. Lobb: Oh man, it was actually very difficult! This isn’t an interesting answer, but it all came down to the revisions. There was so much adding and then pulling back. I think murder mysteries, in general, are so tricky, because you’re always going to get people who guess the culprit at once, and then people who feel the resolution came completely out of the left field. I really felt like I needed to write to hit some middle ground there.
When it comes to building tension on a character level, I find it a lot easier to do when writing from both perspectives. Especially when the characters have a complicated past the way Roz and Damian do, there’s so much to play with. They have such different perspectives and focus on different elements of the mystery, so while it required a lot of trial and error, it’s definitely satisfying to weave everything together in the end.
I loved how the world-building climbs throughout the novel with incredibly vivid and immersive imagery and a mastery of sharp, cutting prose that transported me straight to the magical world of Ombrazia. What influenced your choice of Guilds of Florence as the setting for Ombrazia? What were your key takeaways as you created this intricate, layered ambience with lush visualisation?
M.K. Lobb: When I plot a new book, I always start off by developing my world. As you note, in this case, the city of Ombrazia was inspired by the seven major guilds of Florence, Italy. Historical fun fact: there was a time during which Florence’s economy was more or less run by these guilds. They had their own city watchmen, and the people who weren’t part of a guild lived rather poor lives in comparison. Eventually, this led to unrest and rebellions. I thought this was a really interesting way to set up a city, mainly because of all the potential division and hierarchies I could see arising from it. Of course, Florence was also very heavily religious during this time, which got me thinking about how a strict system of belief might interact with a system like this. I decided to link them directly through my creation of the seven saints, which lent to that vaguely creepy religious aesthetic I’m so fond of.
There’s also some excellent socio-political commentary about class, privilege and the exploitive ways of society towards those it deems lesser. Was it motivated by any historical or contemporary event, or did that come as a natural part of the complex political hierarchy to you?
M.K. Lobb: I have my bachelor’s in political science and have been employed in various government jobs, so I think this part of world-building comes very naturally to me. I don’t think I can create a fictional world without considering all the conflicts and inequities that might arise within a certain political structure. I’m also very interested in how institutions such as churches affect the political landscape. A lot of the comments on privilege and exploitation in the book arose from the idea of those historical guilds and what it might feel like to be on the “outside,” so to speak. The prejudice that people faced – and still face – when they don’t subscribe to the dominant belief system, and the rage that comes from feeling helpless in the face of something like that heavily influenced it.
As you say that “Roz is my rage and Damian is my regret,” how much of their experiences, expressions, and attributes do you resonate with? While we’re at it, tell us how you went about creating their distinct voices, while they faced similar dilemmas in life, with romantic tension rippling below the surface. How do you view their evolution and where are they headed next?
M.K. Lobb: Roz and Damian are both very much a part of me, and I resonate with both of them in different ways. Roz is angry at the world. She’s very focused on justice, and simply can’t abide [by] what she perceives as arbitrary rules informed by a system of belief that can’t be proven. It’s the same rage I felt as a teen, and it really touches every part of your life. Damian, on the other hand, is struggling with what he’s supposed to believe. He’s beginning to question what he’s been taught, but looking too closely will cause his entire worldview to crumble, and that’s so hard to reconcile. At the same time, he’s filled with an all-consuming sadness he doesn’t quite know how to bear. I know that kind of inner turmoil – I’ve felt it.
Both Roz and Damian are trying to cope with these big emotions, but they’re on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. Damian is a wallower and Roz lets her anger drive her, and this is what influenced their voices for me. The focus [is] on past regrets versus the focus on changing the future. The misery versus the hunger. Going forward, I think Damian is going to have to learn to move forward, and Roz is going to have to learn that some things must simply be accepted as they are.
Overall, what was the hardest challenge you had to overcome while writing this book? Were there any significant scenes, ideas or subtle moments you deliberately excluded while drafting?
M.K. Lobb: The hardest part of writing “Seven Faceless Saints” was definitely balancing the world-building, the progression of the murder mystery, and the character relationships. There’s so much to sift through when it comes to each, and I had to decide which elements were going to make the cut. I could have written an entire book solely about Roz and Damian’s relationship, or the history of Ombrazia, its politics, and its saints. I really had to think about what I wanted to include, and how I was going to include it in a way that fits into the narrative. As I said, there were a lot of drafts, and I ended up adding and removing stuff over and over again. I did end up having to cut a lot of scenes that showed more of the secondary characters because they just weren’t driving the plot. Doing that is always sad, but I tell myself revising is all about making tough choices. Especially when you have to stay within a certain word count!
Let’s ease the tension a little with some quick fires. Which of the Saints do you think you would serve if you lived in Ombrazia? Would you have magic or any other powers?
M.K. Lobb: I love this question! I like to think I’d be a disciple of Patience, mainly because I just think it would be cool to make weapons. That said, I’m probably more of an unfavoured rebel at heart (i.e. someone without magic). I would definitely be out there questioning the saints and railing against the system. My only power would be my complete inability to keep my thoughts to myself.
If you can bring your characters to come alive on screen and give your imagination a sense of reality, who would be your dream cast?
M.K. Lobb: You know, I’m not sure I really have one. All of my favourite actors are far too old to play a couple of teens, and I honestly don’t know that many to begin with. I’m not much of a pop culture buff. I think I would want to give some up-and-coming actors the chance to play the characters and put their own spin on them. I think it’s fun when studios cast people about whom the audience doesn’t have any preconceived notions.
While reading your book, I was mulling over the idea of how fascinating it would be to create a cinematic/literary universe of your own or their spin-offs, given the creative liberty that fantasy fiction brings with interconnected storylines. What do you think of this concept?
M.K. Lobb: I always love a vast fictional universe, but I sure don’t want to write one! I think the world I’ve created in “Seven Faceless Saints” could have a number of interesting spin-offs, but I’m the kind of writer who gets bored easily. I’m not sad when it’s time to move on to a new project – I’m usually relieved! I think I just like the excitement of something different. That said, maybe I would reconsider after a few years away from this world.
How do you keep yourself motivated while managing your workload and personal life as a published author? How do you tackle the risk of burnout, and what is your go-to self-care routine?
M.K. Lobb: I’m certainly not always motivated! I seem to go through phases where I want to do nothing but write, and phases where I can’t stand the idea of sitting still to work. When the former strikes, I really try to capitalise on it, so I’ll sit and work for hours upon hours. I think what motivates me most is just having a story I’m passionate about and wanting to see it out in the world. Similar to Roz, the all-consuming want is what drives me.
When it comes to burnout, I don’t think I’m the ideal person to give advice, as I’m very deadline-motivated. When I know I have to get something done, that’s when I work the hardest. At the same time, I’m totally disorganized, so I don’t have any sort of trick or plan for my writing sessions. That said, I try to break up my writing sessions by going to the gym or going for a walk. I need those endorphins, and I get really antsy otherwise. Moving my body and blasting some metal core lets me forget about the publishing stress for a bit!
Before we wrap, how’s the sequel, “Disciples of Chaos” coming along? Can you tease anything for us about what we may expect next?
M.K. Lobb: “Disciples of Chaos” is nearly ready for advance copy readers! I can’t say a whole lot, but you’ll definitely see more of the secondary characters, and you’ll get to see Damian become a bit unhinged. You’ll also get more backstory when it comes to the saints, specifically Patience and Chaos. Last but not least, we’re going north to Brechaat! I’m excited to move things away from the heart of Ombrazia for this book.
Don’t miss the atmospheric and sinister “Seven Faceless Saints,” an utterly addicting murder mystery fantasy woven with a tantalising romance that is unputdownable.
Get your copy of “Seven Faceless Saints” here.
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