I’d like to introduce Shawna Reppert, fantasy author extraordinaire! I first became aware of her work through Ravensblood, a full-length novel that begins a really fun urban fantasy series set in Portland, Oregon. Although I enjoy urban fantasies where magic is hidden, disguised, or part of an underground, I found it refreshing to have magic exist openly in the world she created. But the part I loved most was how her two main characters, Cassandra Greensdowne and Corwyn Ravenscroft (Raven), keep pushing at very old and important questions like: can the ends justify the means, are some acts unforgivable, and can someone who’s done really awful things redeem themselves?
Welcome, Shawna! Can you tell us a bit about Cass and Raven?
Corwyn Ravenscroft is a dark mage from a long line of dark mages. He generally goes by Raven, a name that started out as a taunt when he was younger, but a name he later embraced as a badge of defiance when he embraced the dark. But anyone who knows the symbolism of ravens in the various pagan traditions knows that they are not unambiguously dark. I play with that symbolism throughout the books with Raven’s changing relationship with his past and his ancestry.
Growing up, Raven wanted to be a Guardian—sort of magical law enforcement. But despite his aptitude, he was rejected by Guardian Academy because of his ancestry. In his pride and bitterness, he turned to the dark and to William, the most powerful and darkest mage of their time.
William wants a return to the old days, where the most powerful mage was ruler absolute. But William would not be a True King from the fairytales. He would reign in blood and terror and darkest magic.
Raven discovers that he does still have a conscience. It’s rather inconvenient.
Cass—or Cassandra, Raven always uses the formal version—is , when the story begins, a Guardian, and also Raven’s former apprentice and lover. When she apprenticed to him as a young woman straight out of General Academy, he deceived her about the extent of his involvement in the dark. When she found out the truth, she also found out that a ritual he had planned would risk her powers if not her life. She left him and turned evidence against him. Now she is trying to live down her past. Until her past comes to her door, asking for her help.
Cass rebuffs him, telling him that she isn’t about to be the same kind of fool twice. But when a mistimed suicide message brings her to his side while he is still alive, she can no longer deny his sincerity as she is kneeling in his blood, trying to staunch the flow from his wrists. Trust still doesn’t come easily, on either side. After all that had gone before, it would have been unhealthily naive to allow one single act, even one so dramatic, to wipe that all away.
Questions of light and dark only get more complicated. To win a pardon and a return to society, Raven agrees to return to William as a spy. To have a chance of surviving to enjoy that new life, he has to ensure that they defeat William, once and for all. But in order to keep his cover, Raven finds himself performing darker and darker acts.
Raven doesn’t forgive himself quickly or easily for the things he did in William’s service, not the things he did to escape it. It’s a slow and gradual process, and his redemption is hard-won.
With the Ravensblood series, I wanted to create a world where good and evil was not as clear as it seemed at first blush. Not everyone in William’s following is wholly bad, and some of them are there because the felt that the light had left them little choice. Not all who consider themselves to be on the side of the light behave with honor, kindness and compassion.
When I read Ravensblood, I felt Raven may or may not have betrayed Cass when it came time to create the stone. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part, and I may be influenced by Cassandra’s point of view, who feared he might do it but also probably felt deep-down that he couldn’t have gone through with it because it’s just not in him. Abuse victims, caught in the heat of the moment of physical abuse, sometimes make it to a phone and call the police, only to later decide, when things have cooled off, that they don’t want to press charges. Some of that is based in fear (not just fear of more severe abuse but also fear of being alone, fear of being caught leaving, fear of placing children in harm’s way, fear of never finding anyone better, and many other complicated fears that are hard to understand for someone who has never been abused), but also some of them felt that they brought it on themselves, and that their abuser wouldn’t have gone so far as to kill them. Part of the richness of your book is a strong sense I get of this powerful, often misunderstood and over-simplified dynamic that usually leads to talk about ‘why doesn’t she just leave’ or ‘why would she put herself in a position to be lied-to/harmed again.’ I like how the narrative remained dark, suspenseful and edgy, but also by putting us in Raven’s head the reader understood that he wasn’t ‘that kind of guy’ without letting him off the hook for what he’d done and almost done. Care to comment on that?
I am well aware of the abuser/abused dynamic. I have some friends that have survived horrifically abusive situations, and I myself spent over a decade married to a man who was a master of emotional and psychological manipulation. I very much did *not* want that to be the dynamic between Raven and Cassandra. She’s a smart, strong brave woman brought up to value herself, and at the very first sign of danger, she walks out.
I don’t want to dismiss or sugar-coat the evil of Raven’s deception. He himself does not make excuses. In fact, I start the series with what logically would almost be the second or third book of the series, simply because what Raven does prior to rediscovering his conscience is so horrible that I fear readers would hate him an not want to read more.
He is, however, not the classical abuser. He doesn’t have a need to dominate and control—he loves Cassandra in part for how she stands up to him. He apprenticed Cass with the ritual in mind, never intending to fall in love with her, or even to fall in bed with her. When his relationship with her changes from that of mere master and apprentice, he finds it much harder to continue with his plan.
I did write a tiny glimpse into the Raven of that time period in a short story titled Unkindness of Ravens. It’s part of a two-pack of short stories called Duet for Ravens, which is available on Amazon. (The other story is about a very young Raven, and introduces a force in his life which makes his later redemption more possible, from a psychological standpoint.)
As to whether or not Raven could have gone through with it, I almost don’t want to answer that question. Certainly in Ravensblood he proves he is capable of betraying an apprentice to his death, although the realization of the depth to which he’s sunk is the final catalyst that reawakens his conscience. Consider, too, that at the time of Cass’s apprenticeship, Raven was much deeper in thrall to William. He might have gone through with the ritual, and it would have destroyed him utterly. When he comes home to find Cass packed up and left in Unkindness, a part of him is glad she escaped with her life.
Remember that Cass doesn’t fall back into his arms at his first request for help, either. She realizes her continued attraction to him, of course, and aware of the danger that puts her in. She doesn’t even begin to trust him until he proves that he would very literally die than continue to serve William. Raven understands why she doesn’t want to trust him again, and he respects her for it.
It’s your care and awareness in the abuser dynamic that really made the story work for me. I feel like you also helped people understand the emotions beyond the fear and that expectation of betrayal from both characters. It made for a very exciting read!
Just one more question/observation: Both characters have a hard time accepting love into their lives, and they both employ effective defense mechanisms to protect themselves (and others!) from being hurt. On top of that, there’s constantly refreshed evidence that they’re not worthy of love or trust (each for different reasons) by just about everyone with which they have contact. Did you deliberately structure things that way, or did that dynamic evolve naturally as you wrote?
That dynamic is far more a part of Raven’s psyche than Cassandra’s, though is does play a part for Cassandra as well (I’ll get to that in a moment.) For Raven, on a conscious level, it’s a natural outgrowth of not being a sociopath, yet having done things that few people with an operating conscience would be capable of. He has an operating conscience, yet during his years with William he buried it so deep that it might as well have not been there at all—until its screams became so loud he could no longer ignore them. If he didn’t come out of that experience feeling that he was unworthy of love or forgiveness, I frankly would have been worried about him.
Of course, if I left him there to wallow, I would have ended up with a character no one wants to read about. A central part of the series, at least with the first few books, is Raven’s path to self-forgiveness, his reintegration into society, and his learning to build emotional ties with others.
On a subconscious level, Raven’s sense of unworthiness also stems from the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father at a very young age and the guilt he feels over his mother’s death at the hands of his father. (Rightly or wrongly, he feels certain she would have left his father were it not for him.) Add to that a youth where all of his peers and most of the adults around him assume that he will grow up to be the dark mage his father had been before his death at the hands of Guardians, and you have a man who struggles to believe that he is capable of being loved.
Note we’re not talking about sexual confidence. Raven, after the awkward adolescence of his backstory, grows into a man proud of his ability to attract partners. His confidence in his abilities to sustain a romantic relationship is another thing entirely. Also, for those who haven’t read any of the series, I want to stress that Raven is far from lacking self-esteem in other areas. In matters of intelligence, education, culture, and magical ability, he is justifiably proud and extremely confident. And he hides his emotional vulnerabilities behind a wall of cold reserve.
Again, to remain a compelling character, he has to overcome that sense of unworthiness, but a small part of it will always linger deep in his core. Likewise, the cold exterior melts somewhat over the series, although he will always remain a bit formal and distant, especially with people he doesn’t know well enough to trust.
Raven’s issues with trust have both practical and deep psychological aspects. On a subconscious level, children who are abused at a very young age have difficult trusting as adults, as do children who are bullied. What saves Raven from being hopelessly destroyed on an emotional level is that there are a few positive adult influences that came into his young life from time to time. His mother, before she was murdered. A Guardian who found him alone in his father’s mansion after his father fell in the last days of the Mage Wars and took care of him until his mother’s brother accepted custody. Cassandra’s aunt Ana, who had been his teacher in General Academy and later brokered the deal for his pardon.
On a practical level, Raven has learned that very few people see beyond his name (though this changes somewhat later in the series as he proves himself through his work with Guardian International Investigations.) Also, in the beginning of the series, he finds it hard to trust people who have very little practical reason to trust him.
Cass is, by far, the most psychologically healthy of the two. She was raised by her aunt Ana, who is kind and loving and, in Jungian terms, is very much the Wise Old Woman. Yet I was very fortunate to take a class on character development early in the formative stages of the series, as I mention in the blogs your readers will see in the coming weeks. It was co-taught by a stage actor and a psychologist. The psychologist made me realize that Cass’s early youth would create vulnerabilities she had to overcome. Her parents are killed when she is very young, too young to fully grasp what death means. No matter how loving and nurturing Ana is, a loss like that at an early age will feel like an abandonment, and will leave emotional scars. In Cass’s backstory, those scars cause vulnerabilities that the dark mage Raven can exploit.
By the time Ravensblood begins, Cass is much stronger psychologically and therefore much less easy to manipulate, and Raven is trying not to be the sort of person who would seek out and manipulate someone’s insecurities. Cass, however, is trying to prove herself, both to herself and to society at large, after the mistake of unknowingly apprenticing to a dark mage. Her past makes her largely an outcast among her colleagues in the local Guardians.
By the beginning of Raven’s Wing, Cass has been promoted to Guardian International Investigations, made up largely of brilliant mages with quirky temperaments, and where she is not the only one with a shadowed past. There she comes fully into herself.
That Cass has difficulty trusting Raven in the beginning of Ravensblood is not a sign of weakness but of strength. He has deceived her in the past, has been witness to, if not party to, acts of dark magic that few people would contemplate. She’d be stupid to trust him until he proves himself, but once he does so her loyalty to him is absolute, as is her trust.
Well, her trust in his intentions is absolute, though in Raven’s Heart they disagree pretty dramatically over one particular point in method. But I can’t go into that yet. Spoilers!
Shawna Reppert is an award-winning author of fantasy and steampunk who keeps her readers up all night and makes them miss work deadlines. Her fiction asks questions for which there are no easy answers while taking readers on a fine adventure that grips them heart and soul. You can find her work on Amazon and follow her blog on her website (www.Shawna-Reppert.com). You can friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter, where she posts an amazing array of geekery. Shawna can also sometimes be found in medieval garb on a caparisoned horse, throwing javelins into innocent hay bales that never did anything to her.
I have a couple of fascinating guest blog posts coming up from Shawna about dark heroes and attractive villians! The first of those should be up in about a week.
Among other places, you can find Shawna's books here. And be sure to look for Raven's Heart. The release date is February 6, 2016. You have plenty of time to read the rest of the series before then!