I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Jean Horwitz about her upcoming Middle Grade fantasy, THE DEMON SWORD ASPERIDES.
I’m a huge fan of Sarah Jean’s previous work – including the CARMER AND GRIT series and THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE, so I jumped at the chance to get an early peek at her latest.
It was exactly as fun and magical as I hoped it would be. I loved it. I think you will too.
Tell us a little bit about your latest book, The Demon Sword Asperides.
The Demon Sword Asperides is a fantasy adventure about a two-thousand-year-old talking demon sword who tricks Nack, a young aspiring knight, into wielding the sword’s power in exchange for Nack’s soul. The two embark on a quest to restore Nack’s honor with his clan but find themselves forced into a battle against a recently resurrected evil sorcerer – a sorcerer who just happens to be Asperides’s former master.
The Demon Sword Asperides has already gotten starred reviews. Kirkus called it “…quirky and fun but also nuanced and complex” and Booklist said it’s …endlessly inventive and terrifically funny….” Can you tell us a little bit about how this story came to be? What was your initial inspiration? And how did the story grow and change as you wrote it?
The idea for the story came to me watching a Chinese fantasy show on Netflix. In the show, two young heroes find themselves stuck in cave fighting a murderous giant tortoise (as one does). The protagonist dives under the tortoise’s shell and proceeds to take a tour of its inner workings (it’s a really big tortoise), where, among other things, he discovers a very obviously evil, no good, very bad sword. Like, the sword is whispering and hissing at him with the voices of the dead! Its power clearly makes him feel ill! It is oozing black smoke! And yet, our hero is like, “Yeah, seems legit,” and plucks the sword from inside the tortoise and harnesses its dark magic to help kill the tortoise monster. Then he just trucks around with this very obviously evil sword and like…no one really comments on it? It’s astonishing. Like, “Ah, I see you have been compelled to grip your creepy ancient sword so hard you draw blood. That seems fine!”
And I just thought it was so funny that everyone in the show was ignoring how obviously bad news this sword was. Then, to make my spouse laugh, I started doing a funny voice whenever the sword would appear on screen (especially when it was accompanied by those creepy indecipherable whispers). And then I started thinking…wait, but really, what does the sword think about all of this? It’s obviously somewhat sentient. How did it occupy itself, stuck in that cave for hundreds of years? What does it think of its new wielder?
The sword ends up being a manifestation of a different mystical material on the show, and the plot obviously diverges from there, but the idea stuck with me. And so the demon sword Asperides was born.
Nack Furnival, for this part, is a direct transplant from another story I worked on a few years ago. He was an aspiring mythic hero in that book, desperate to try and get into a hero academy – so not that different from an aspiring knight! That story wasn’t working, but I loved Nack, so I plucked him out of that story and put him in Asperides.
I originally thought I would write this idea as a short story for adults, but the minute I realized that Nack would be a great addition to it, I also realized it had to be a middle grade novel.
There is so much to love in this book. One of my favorite things was the names for the entities Nack and company encountered. Gasper-cats, angel blades, were-cats, whirlpools, no-crows, plague lizards, sleeping sand – the list is endless. Can you tell us how you came up with some of these and if you have a favorite (or two)?
It always tickles me when people like my names for things, because the names are something that I either have an idea for right away and love (like gasper-cats) or never really have an idea for and just put a funny placeholder in and somehow the placeholder never changes (two words: plague. lizards.) And sometimes there’s no obvious difference in reaction to the names I put thought into versus the ones I think are so bad they’re funny, which just goes to show! Ha.
A few origin stories of my favorites: Gasper-cats come from the old wives’ tale that cats will sit on your chest while you sleep and steal your breath. I came up with angel blades because demon swords obviously need a counterpart, don’t they? And an “angel blade” sounded like something a virtuous storybook knight would definitely wield.
Whirlpool is just a word that already exists, so I’m afraid I can’t take credit for that one!
One of the things I love the most about your books is your world building. Do you have any tips for writers who are trying to create their own unique worlds?
I am not usually an “In a world where…” writer, and by that I mean I don’t usually come up with a concept for a story world first. For all my published novels, I always thought of the characters first and built the fantasy world around them and their character’s arc/journey. I look at my character and think about what they want, what they need, and what circumstances have to exist in the world for them to be the way they are. So, assuming I have the idea for a demon sword and a young protagonist and an evil sorcerer, I ask myself some basic questions. What are the swords used for and how? What sort of world is this that thirteen-year-olds are carrying around swords? What other kinds of magic are people using and how are those kinds of magic judged by their society? Once I have answers to those basic questions, I have a decent foundation for a fantasy story world and can add details from there.
This seemed like a book the author enjoyed writing. What did you have the most fun with? Were any parts surprisingly difficult?
I did have fun writing this book! I had the most fun writing Cleoline’s point of view, probably because it’s the most over-the-top. There is a dinner scene with Cleoline, her landlord Waldo the Wise, and the evil sorcerer Amyral Venir that is probably one of my all-time favorite scenes that I’ve written, and nothing too substantial even happens in it! I just think it’s funny.
I have the most difficulty with fight scenes and keeping track of where everyone is, what they’re doing, which hand they’re holding their sword in…and then you have to be entertaining and build suspense and manage the pace to keep the reader excited, too! You may notice I have a lot of fight scenes that fade to black…
What would you like readers to carry with them after they finish reading The Demon Sword Asperides?
I will just be thrilled if people enjoy the book and it brings a little fun, joy, and tenderness into their lives, even if just for a little while. We could all use some of that these days.
THE DEMON SWORD ASPERIDES is out July 11, 2023. You can enter to win a copy over at Goodreads through July 10.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your process with us Sarah Jean. Want to learn more about Sarah Jean and her work? Visit her website.