We’re now in the round of semi-finalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC), and I’m reading and reviewing all of the semi-finalists! Check out my SPSFC Hub for all my posts and reviews for the contest.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t know what to expect going in to this one. The story hooked me from the beginning, though, and didn’t let go from there. Carmen Grey is a potential Clairvoyant, a post-human with psychic powers. She’s taken from her parents, who are all-too-willing to let her go, to be trained at an underground facility for what humanity will face in the stars.
The story is a kind of coming-of-age story as it follows Carmen from a young age through young adulthood. Some of these sections are extensive, such as when the 5-6 year old Carmen is learning how to fight. The intensity of her training means the plot doesn’t really let up for this whole first part, and it’s easy to sit down and binge read this section as you want to know what’s going on with Carmen and whether Janus, her “handler,” will ever reveal more about what is happening. There are a few hints of a wider world here, but they are very few and far between. Belt keeps readers interested by remaining intensely focused on Carmen and the glimpses we see through Janus of other things happening. There is apparently some kind of alien threat that they need Clairvoyants to fight, and the hints about possible conflict between Earth and other humans make for an intriguing world that never fully opens in this book.
The hyper-focused nature of the plot starts to get a little repetitive in the middle section, where I was like Carmen in thinking that Janus and others lacked knowledge of what was happening next. Belt delivers action throughout this part, but it starts to lack the character reveals and wonder that the earlier sections had. The last 20% or so of the book was especially confusing to me. It felt like the first 50% or so of the book had built up to a potentially epic finale, with Carmen coming out and stomping on aliens or, at least, her captors. I don’t want to spoil much, but those expectations were very much subverted. Although I’m not sure I was a fan of how it ended, I will say I’m basically desperate to read the next book and find out what’s next for Carmen and others.
Monster of the Darkis an intriguing first volume in a series. It’s impossible not to be enthralled by Carmen’s story, but it would have been nice to have a bit more payoff for the broader world in this book.
How did you get into speculative fiction? What made you decide to write it?
Like most authors I read a lot growing up. But unlike most authors, I suspect, what led me into science fiction were non-fiction books. My first love is aviation and I’m also interested in cars and history. I spent countless hours reading how the machines worked both in broad and specific detail. As example, I remember when I was at a summer camp and rather than play in the pool with everyone else I was reading turn performance charts for an F/A-18C [an American strike fighter].
If you’re curious they look like this:
One of the camp counselors (highschooler) saw me and asked in amazement if I could actually read that. Never thought what I was doing was strange until then. It wasn’t much of a leap for me to go from studying cars and airplanes to studying future vehicles, then far future vehicles, then vehicles that don’t or can’t exist. My bookshelf was filled with science fiction before I knew it.
As for the second part of your question, I love telling stories and I find the craft and mechanics of storytelling endlessly fascinating. However, what drove me in a lot of ways to write was dissatisfaction in the stories I read and watched. It wasn’t, “I can do this better” it was more, “what if you did it this way.” In many cases the key elements for me was/is intensity, deep character focus, personal in lieu of societal or civilizational threats, and world building that doesn’t require the story to stop to be explained. Everyone has their own personal preferences, for me the four pillars I mentioned are what I specialize in as a writer.
Wow! I have never even seen a chart like that. It’s fascinating how people come to speculative fiction from all kinds of different experiences. As I recall, vehicles don’t really feature much in “Monster of the Dark.” What inspired you to write that novel, with its visceral, psychological feel?
You are quite right. The traditional elements of science fiction such as technology, otherworldly settings, aliens, etc are present in the next books in the series, but not “Monster of the Dark.” When I conceived “Monster of the Dark” (more than ten years ago) I made a very deliberate choice to eschew fantastical technologies or settings to instead keep an extremely tight focus on character. There are hints of it in the background, but I didn’t want any distractions from the central focus.
I was very interested in the tools and methods of social/individual control at the time I was working out the major beats of the story. You, me, everybody has been programmed from the moment we were born to think and act in a certain manner. That can be positive, though there are countless examples where it has been to an individual person’s or people’s detriment.
The main character of the story and the series, Carmen, is unique in that she ages from six to nineteen years old over the course of the story. That she is manipulated and some of the techniques used to do so are obvious, but there are many which are quite subtle. What is also subtle, and in fact was technically difficult to write, were the changes in personality as she matures. A lot of research went into childhood development, abuse victims, and responses to trauma. As Carmen ages I wanted the reader to see who she was turned into, what she could have been turned into, while seeing hints of what she was supposed to but can never be. The tight focus on character is what creates the visceral psychological feel. The reader is with Carmen every step of the way and is in her head as she feels and experiences everything. My intent was to have the reader empathize with Carmen to the point that it feels like they are going through the same trials she is. And while there are moments in the story that are genuinely funny or light-hearted, no punches are pulled.
The long preamble of the past few paragraphs was required for me to answer the question, “what inspired me to write the novel?” I’m an unabashed optimist. It is interesting to see how people fall, there is an entire genre dedicated to it (tragedy). I personally am more interested in how people rise. As I mentioned in the previous question, I like to try to do things differently. The conventions of storytelling have existed for thousands of years for a reason. I don’t wish to shatter those conventions, but to bend or warp them with a purpose and in a way that is meant to enlighten. As prime example, Carmen is written as an inverted power fantasy.
In the typical power fantasy, the character starts very weak then grows, usually in self-knowledge. The climax of the story is the character using the mastery of self (usually represented as martial skill) to overcome their obstacles which are usually an individual (i.e. the villain). Carmen wields extreme personal power even as a six-year-old. She is intelligent (though not knowledgeable), has extreme martial skill, and is described as physically beautiful. Her growth in the mastery of self is not expressed in martial skill but in the wisdom to know WHEN and even IF to use martial skill, as well as her other talents. With that in mind what “inspired” me to write “Monster of the Dark” was the hope it could inspire people to realize that in matters of the spirit, no matter their circumstances and no matter how impossible it might appear to be, they already have everything they need to succeed.
You’ve definitely given readers, including myself, something to look forward to! I was a big fan of the intensely focused narrative of the first novel. I like the notion that it is pushing back against some of the trope-flipping that is common in some corners of sci-fi. Now that you’ve whetted our appetites for the rest of the series, let’s talk about it a bit more. I had book 3 preordered, and it just released. Is the series a trilogy, or are there more books planned? If there are more, how long is the series planned to be? Do you have other writing projects coming up, too?
Thank you for preordering “Cause of Death,” I hope you enjoy it. The Mirrors in the Dark series is planned to be five books long. I’m working on book four (untitled) and it is coming along slowly but steadily. It is a very complicated story for reasons I’d love to say, but can’t mention without spoiling anything. It should be done in early to mid 2023. After this series is done I’ll probably write an epic fantasy trilogy. A lot of lessons learned from the Mirrors in the Dark books have gone into its conception and I very much look forward to writing it. After that I have a near future standalone that is basically a love letter to the pleasure of driving. I also have another standalone, this time dystopian sci-fi. Lastly, I have another sci-fi trilogy set in the Mirrors in the Dark universe but set several hundred years before “Monster of the Dark” takes place. It is about decadence and the fall of societies.
Those are the firm books that are plotted and read to go. All of them are character stories. Character-driven speculative fiction is my lane and no matter what changes with regards to setting, plot, or theme the central focus will remain the same. I don’t know how many stories I have in me, everytime I think I’ve run out of ideas something new pops in my head. For that I’m thankful. Writing books is fun!
Thanks so much for sharing some ideas for upcoming series! I’m sure my readers will be excited to see more. Where can they follow you to keep updated?