One of the things I love most about snagging an ARC is being able to read it before most everyone else, and – sometimes – being able to ask the author questions about the book and their characters. I am so happy to welcome Catherine Schaff-Stump whose book The Vessel of Ra (The Klaereon Scroll Book 1) is being released today, 12 September.
The ‘Vessel of Ra’ refers to our heroine Lucy Klaereon, who is destined to fight the demon/god Ra, or lose her soul in the attempt. While traveling in Venice, Lucy tries to drown herself in the Grand Canal. But she cannot escape her fate that easily, and is rescued. Her rescuers claim they can free her from Ra, but they have their own agenda. Meanwhile, Octavia, Lucy’s older sister, is in hot pursuit. She has been trained since birth to kill Lucy when Lucy loses her battle with Ra. At the ritual to free Ra, the two sisters clash with devastating results…
Are you intrigued yet? Take a look at that beautiful cover below:
Luckily, I have Cath here with me today to answer some questions about her book.
You start your book in 19th century Venice – what is it about this time and place that appeals to you and is essential to your story?
Cath: Venice at this time is a very remote location for the English traveler. People like Byron have forged into the great unknown as part of the Romantic movement, the search for the rustic overpowering. As a city, Venice has long been in decline, and at this point in history, it is literally a pawn on the chessboard, buffeted between the French and the Austrians. It has a reputation both as a place close to ancient civilization, and a place off the map. It’s also a place where the West meets the East, as the Venetians connected those two parts of the merchant world, and has a culture that reflects those influences. Obviously, it’s the perfect place for a Gothic family like the Klaereons to take a vacation, as it is a cutting edge stop on the Grand Tour of Europe at the time, and it is a gateway to the one stop they must make outside of Alexandria, Egypt. Couple that with it being a great location for a declining family of alchemists, and it seemed a great place to start The Vessel of Ra.
Your book is about demons! And some of them turn out to be Egyptian Gods banished into the abyss by King Solomon. Historically speaking, there is likely to have been significant cultural and religious exchange between Egypt and Canaan. Starting around the fourth century, Christianity suppressed the worship of Egyptian deities and a lot of the practices were adapted to fit Christian theology. Is there some underlying commentary here?
Cath: Well, yes. Historically, Christianity has proven to be the universal recipient of religion, and an old practice of Christianity has been to integrate pagan practices into accepted religion. This occurred not only in Egypt, but also in Rome, Britain, and Ireland, to name just a few examples. There are spots in the world where folklore merges with Christianity, such as Arthurian legend and Norwegian folk tales. In the case of The Vessel of Ra, there is obvious extrapolation on my part. A legend of the Middle East tells about how King Solomon enslaved the djinn and made them do his bidding. It seemed a small stretch to imagine Solomon banishing deities as well.
You mention that the seed for The Vessel of Ra was planted way back in 2002 with a grandson of the characters in this book. Do you want to tell us a bit more about that?
Cath: At the time I was writing a story inspired by the Harry Potter series. I asked myself how a certain character in that series could have come to be the way he was. In one of those moments of rare inspiration, a voice in my head told me he would tell me the story. That voice belonged to Errol Klaereon, who you will most likely meet in Book Five. He told me about the Klaereon family, demon Binders for generations, and how the Potter character was intertwined with that family. I went on to write thinly disguised original fiction as fan fiction in a very supportive community, but the story grew beyond its humble beginnings, stretching across 90 years and four generations. Much has changed since the early formation of the story: I backed it up in time, the characters diverged and evolved from their original portrayals, but in its essentials the story remains the same.
The Vessel of Ra ends on a bittersweet note, with questions still to be answered and possible quests looming in the future. What are your plans for this series?
Cath: This is the series of my heart, especially now, when I believe that people need to hear a story about grim conditions in which personal bravery can ultimately make a difference. The second book will continue the story of Octavia, Lucy, Carlo, and Drusus, and introduce the next generation of characters. Currently I have sketched out eight books. There will be more exploration of the Borgias, the Klaereons, the Egyptians, and the Claudians. New magical families will be introduced, and we’ll be visiting other locations around the world. While the story will be very dark in places, ultimately the series will explore issues of redemption, heroism, loyalty and friendship.
Sounds fascinating! I’m looking forward to Book 2. Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from Book 1 – the bit in the beginning where Lucy is rescued, which I really like.
Carlo was seventeen, returning from a delivery as it neared dawn when he rescued the English girl.
Pulling his coat collar up, he sidestepped merrymakers. Only the bravest tourists came to Venice. The wealthy English came here with the idea they would see an untamed city, the bits and pieces left of the Roman Empire. The English artists pretended to be broody and affected by things they knew nothing about. Carlo desired to push them in the canals after taking their money, buying bread with their affected coin. There were many children in Venice who would appreciate the bread. But since Carlo worked at staying unnoticed, the tourists stayed dry.
A woman laughed, echoing and lewd. Carlo glanced in her direction, watching her and her companions hail a gondola to the side of the Grand Canal. She was painted white, artificial color splotching her cheeks, and wore a tall, powdered wig with the moon decorating its high apex, stars sprinkling throughout and down to her forehead. Glitter dusted her neck and almost bare breasts. She was grotesque, hardly a human being at all, as though she had fallen from the sky.
A gondola glided toward the small party, the thin boat and eager driver ready. Carlo’s eye left the revelers and spotted a little girl beyond them. Slightly down the pier, the girl stood in a black dress with large, lacy sleeves. She stared at a bird, a hawk or falcon perched on a lamp above her. It flew at her and she leaped into the water, her feet breaking the surface of the canal, her body sinking, finally swallowed entirely by the water.
Stillness froze over the scene. No one reacted for a shocked second, and Carlo wasn’t certain if he’d really seen the girl at all. Momentum pulled him forward as the falcon turned its beady eyes on him. Save her. Not a request; a command he heard inside his head. Since Carlo was inclined to save her, he peeled off his cloak and hat on the way to the water’s edge, cast off his shoes and dove into the canal after her. He would consider the talking bird after he had seen to the task at hand.
Carlo’s fingers needled through the water as he kicked down toward the girl, surrounded by the cloud of her dress and petticoat. Carlo caught her around the waist and she draped over his shoulder like a shawl. He fought for the surface, his chest tightening, her dress floating across his vision, before they burst into the night like a buoy. The noise from the surface world smacked into his ears as he sliced his arms and legs through the water, back toward the canal’s edge. Was he too late?
Revelers stood near the edge of the pier. They weren’t alone. Many Venetians had come, along with some Austrian soldiers.
“He’s got her!”
“Break it up!” said an Austrian in uniform. “There’s nothing for you to see here!”
When Carlo reached the canal bank, he carried the girl away from the submerged cobblestones in front of the crowd, which had gathered to see the girl drown. His chest heaved. On his hands and knees, he gulped in air.
The Austrian soldier handed Carlo his cloak from where he had dropped it with his shoes. Carlo snatched it, his hands shaking from chill and adrenaline.
“No need to be like that,” the soldier said.
Carlo ignored him. He wiped his hands on the cloak and rifled through the inside pockets, finding a small bottle containing a clear liquid. He leaned close to the girl’s chest and heard nothing. Carlo frowned. Yes, he’d better do it. He tipped the bottle to her lips.
A voice rang out from the crowd. “Don’t let him! He’s the poisoner’s son!”
No, he was the poisoner’s grandson, but Carlo did not correct. It was more important for him to make sure he was getting the right dose down the girl, not too much nor too little. She was so small. He poured a tiny dribble down her throat and massaged her neck, forcing her to swallow.
“Someone should get more soldiers.”
“No, he’s an apothecary. He’s going to help her!”
“Go for a doctor!”
The girl inhaled and coughed. Water burbled from her mouth. Her eyelids fluttered as she tried to sit up. Then she fell back down. Her heart was beating for now.
The falcon landed on Carlo’s shoulder, its claws sharp, digging and shredding his shirt and skin. Take her away.
The obvious place to take the girl would be a doctor’s home, or Austrian headquarters so the military could identify her. Carlo wrapped the girl in his cloak, bottles inside clinking, herb packets rustling, the girl shivering. He planned to take her back to the apothecary.
The soldier stepped in front of him. “Let me take her.”
“You know where I live. If you want her, you can come for her.”
Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. Her young adult Gothic historical fantasy The Vessel of Ra is available from Curiosity Quills in September, 2017. Catherine lives and works in Iowa with her husband. During the day, she teaches English to non-native speakers at a local community college. Her most recent fiction has been published by Paper Golem Press, Daydreams Dandelion Press, and in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Catherine is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump, cathschaffstump.com, and unreliablenarrators.net