SPFBO semi-finalist interview: Emma L. Adams, the author of Death's Disciple

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma L. Adams spent her childhood creating imaginary worlds to compensate for a disappointingly average reality, so it was probably inevitable that she ended up writing fantasy novels. She has a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing from Lancaster University, where she spent three years exploring the Lake District and penning strange fantastical adventures. 

Now, Emma lives in the middle of England and is the international bestselling author of over 30 novels including the Changeling Chronicles and the Order of the Elements series. When she’s not immersed in her own fictional universes, Emma can be found with her head in a book, playing video games, or wandering around the world in search of adventure.

Find Emma online: website
Death’s Disciple links: AmazonGoodreads


First of all, congrats on becoming a semi-finalist and thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Before we start, could you tell us a little bit about the woman behind the story? 

I’m Emma, a British fantasy author who has a slight obsession with dragons. When I’m not writing, I’m either buried in a book, dying horribly in a video game, or lost in an airport on my way to a new adventure. (Generally not all three at the same time, but you never know.)

Was there a clear moment when you knew you wanted to become a writer? Or did you just somehow stumble into the fun?

I’ve always written, and stories have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My first “book” was an atlas of a fictional country I made up when I was five years old. (Whoever would have guessed I’d end up being a fantasy author?)

I distinctly remember the moment I decided I wanted writing to be my career, though. I was ten, and we were writing stories as part of an assignment at school. My teacher noticed that I was really into it and made a comment to that effect, and it was like a lightbulb went off in my head and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

Who are your favourite authors? And did they have a big impact on  your own writing?

My list of favourite authors has evolved over the years. I grew up reading Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman, and I can trace my love of creating fantastical worlds back to the hours I spent immersed in their creative alternative Earths.

More recent favourites include Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Fonda Lee, Leigh Bardugo, and Seanan McGuire, as well as indies like ML Wang, Rachel Aaron, and Travis Baldree. I try to read broadly across genres, though fantasy is my happy place and everything I write tends to have a magical element.

For those that haven’t read Death’s Disciple, can you tell us a bit about it? 

Death’s Disciple is character-driven dark epic fantasy featuring giant war dragons and undead monsters. Yala, the protagonist, is a retired flight squad captain who used to lead a group of dragon-riding warriors into battle for her nation before a simple mission went horribly wrong and ended in the monarch’s mysterious death. Several years later, she receives a series of unwanted visitors to her jungle cabin that lead to her being unceremoniously dragged out of retirement to protect her surviving fellow squad members from a threat linked to the god of death Himself.

How long have you had this story in your mind? What was your initial inspiration and how did the story evolve over time? 

I wish I had an interesting origin story for this series, but “I was bored in the pandemic and started daydreaming about dragons” pretty much covers it. It was early 2021 and I was trapped in lockdown in the middle of England when the idea crash-landed in my head. (Literally, since the first scene I thought of was when the war drake collides with Yala’s jungle cabin.)

When I’m planning a series, I usually start out with a worldbuilding element first and then develop the plot and characters organically from that initial concept. With Death’s Disciple, I started with the gods/Disciples and their elemental magic, and from there, I developed the seed of an idea. What if my protagonist was visited by a prophet who believed her to be a hero chosen by the gods… but turned out to be horribly wrong? (Keeping the details vague to avoid spoilers. Heh.)

I played around with plot and character ideas over the course of several months until I’d nailed down what I wanted to do with the series. I’m a pretty methodical planner, if just because otherwise the ideas get away from me and never turn into books. (I have so many notebooks full of half-formed ideas. So many.) My initial ideas evolved pretty drastically from those first brainstorming sessions and it took me over a year to get around to writing the first draft. Then another year of editing. It’s been a long journey!

Now, fantasy stories often focus on younger characters who are very physically strong, but you chose to focus on a disabled and middle-aged protagonist instead. Where did that idea come from? And was it easy to find Yala’s character voice?

When I started the series, I’d just come out of writing a fantasy trilogy with a younger and more adventurous protagonist. I knew that I wanted to do something different for my next series, and I found that Yala evolved organically in the planning process. When I was plotting Death’s Disciple, I’d lived through a year of a pandemic and felt like I’d mentally aged a decade in the process. I kept seeing publishing articles claiming that readers wanted happy escapism in their books and not cynicism, yet no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t force myself to write something I didn’t believe in, even if it would have been more marketable.

Yala is tired and jaded at the start of the novel, and while she and I don’t otherwise have a lot in common, I wrote her story when I felt like I was stuck in a rut with my publishing career, and I didn’t have the stamina and creative energy I’d had earlier on. To find her voice, I actually wrote the backstory first. (Which turned into the prequel novella Monarch’s Mission.) I wanted to explore the events that led to her end up where she was at the start of Death’s Disciple, and I found myself naturally sinking into Yala’s perspective.

Yala is not the only character who steals the show though. Was it always your intention to write a multi-POV story? And who was your favourite/least favourite to write? 

I spent several years writing urban fantasy, which is traditionally written in first-person and is laser-focused on a single protagonist, and I’ve found that one of the things I like the most about writing epic fantasy is the freedom to explore other viewpoints. (Not that urban fantasy can’t do that, but it’s not the standard expectation.)

I had the three viewpoint characters in mind from the start, but it took me a while to get a handle on their voices, particularly Kelan and Niema. Of the three, I found Niema the trickiest because she’s incredibly naive, but I also didn’t want her to come across as annoying, which is a fine line to tread. I’m happy readers seem to like her!

I also really loved the magic in your world, both the elemental powers that are so intricately tied to religion and of course the necromantic powers. How did you come up with the magic systems? And what type of Disciple would you be if you lived in your world? 

Thank you! I started with the concept of elemental magic tied to natural forces, and the deities evolved as an extension of that. In my previous series, Relics of Power, magic is channelled through Relics that contain pieces of the gods’ power, but the gods themselves have no control over what humans do with that magic.

For this series, I wanted the gods and magic to be more explicitly linked. Disciples have to be personally chosen to wield a deity’s power, and that power can just as easily be turned on the user if the deity is displeased. For instance, the Disciples of the Flame have to burn offerings to their god in order to use His power, and the consequences of disobedience can end in a fiery death. The resulting high stakes and tension built into the world were endlessly fun to explore – not to mention the consequences when the god of death gets involved!

As for what kind of Disciple I’d be… I’m partial to the Disciples of the Sky. Being able to fly would be incredibly useful in so many situations. (No more sitting around in airports!)

Now, what do you think makes Death’s Disciple stand out from the crowd? Who is this story for and why should people pick it up?

I’d like to think that the older protagonist and the interesting worldbuilding are elements that make the story stand apart from others. Death’s Disciple is for readers who like character-driven dark fantasy that’s a little bleak but has a core of hopefulness buried under the darkness. Also, giant war dragons.

What are your plans for the series? Will we be seeing more of these delightful characters? Do you have a clear path laid out or are you just going with the flow? 

Death’s Disciple is currently planned as a four-book series and I’ve had a plan outlined from the start (though it was also initially planned as a trilogy, so anything can happen!). I’m a plotter, but I also like to let the characters develop organically, and sometimes they make choices that surprise me.

Seeing as this is not your debut novel, I am curious to know if there were any lessons you’ve learned that you implemented while writing this book? 

I’ve learned a lot over my years of writing, and I think the main lesson I had to re-learn with this particular book was that every novel is different. The story was more complex and challenging than anything I’d written before, so I had several phases of doubt over whether it was working. The trouble with having written a lot of books is that I have a tendency to compare my books to my past work as much as to other people’s! Very luckily, I found a amazing new editor (*waves at Sarah*) who completely obliterated all my doubts about pushing the series ahead to publication!

I know you’ve been part of the indie scene for a while now, so would you like to share why you chose to self-publish your books? And did you ever consider switching to traditional publishing for new projects? 

I started out trying to get an agent with my first novel, a children’s book, back in 2010. I collected rejections for a few years and also wrote more books, and eventually ended up signing with a small press for my novel Darkness Watching. I have a knack for completely missing trends, and nobody wanted YA paranormal in 2012, but I also didn’t have the budget for self-publishing at the time (though I’d been researching the process).

I published the full Darkworld series with the same small press, but I quickly realised that I was doing most of the marketing myself and that I wanted more control over the publication process. Since I still wasn’t having any luck with agents and had amassed a small mountain of rejections, I decided to try self-publishing my next completed series while I waited to hear back from the latest batch of queries. That series was the world-hopping fantasy Alliance series, which I had an inkling was too weird and cross-genre to be of any interest to agents of publishers. I published the first book, Adamant, in 2015, and I’ve never looked back.

I wouldn’t necessarily rule out querying agents in the future, but I’ve become accustomed to the creative control of being indie. I love being able to try out new marketing avenues, or hop between genres, or launch a new project on Kickstarter. I like the idea of being hybrid, though, so if I had a project I felt was better-suited to traditional publishing (like my poor neglected children’s books), it’s an option I’ll keep on the table!

Also, you’re not a SPFBO newbie! Why did you decide to enter Death’s Disciple into this year’s competition? And has it been a different experience than your first time around? 

I first became aware of SPFBO midway through 2021, and I always intended to enter my first epic fantasy novel into the contest. The Lost Sentinel was cut in the first round last year, which I’d expected, as the level of competition was intense and there were so many fantastic books in the running.

I knew that Death’s Disciple was a stronger book than The Lost Sentinel was, but I had my doubts that it’d make it any further than my first entry, simply because there were even more amazing-looking books in the contest this year. It was a little intimidating, but I’ve also found that there have been more eyes on the contest than last year, and the added visibility was helpful enough that I knew I wouldn’t regret entering even if I didn’t make it through.

While (nervously) waiting on more SPFBO updates, what will you be working on?

I’m currently editing the sequel to Death’s Disciple, which I’m hoping to publish later this year!

Finally, I wanted to give you the opportunity to answer a question that I didn’t mention, but which you would have liked to have been asked! Please share any fun tidbits about your book/author journey that you want! 

At first I couldn’t think of any questions you didn’t ask, but one I sometimes get is which of my other series I’d recommend reading after Death’s Disciple, as the sequel isn’t out yet. It’s also pretty different tonally to my Relics of Power series (at least the first book), although they’re both epic fantasy. Instead, I actually consider Death’s Disciple to be the spiritual successor to my Order of the Elements urban fantasy series, which takes place in a version of Earth where the magic-users created their own alternative dimension called the Parallel. There are elemental mages and undead necromancers known as liches, ruled by the king of the dead, and the protagonist is a gamer with gaps in her memory and a penchant for running into trouble. I adore the series, but I launched it at the start of the pandemic, which wasn’t exactly a good time for publishing books!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all the questions. I am wishing you all the best with your writing and in the competition. Feel free to leave any parting thoughts that you want to share with our readers. And enjoy celebrating becoming a semi-finalist! 

Thank you! I’m honoured that Death’s Disciple met your expectations and advanced to the semi-finals, and I’m incredibly grateful to have been offered the opportunity to share my words!

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