We have lots to cover today! An interview, some pictures and an excerpt from The Slave City. So it is a long post, but totally worth it! Especially the interview…and the excerpt…and the pictures.
3 years ago, on January 16, 2016, I launched Whiskey With My Book with my review of The Viper and the Urchin (now titled The Bloodless Assassin) by Celine Jeanjean. I soon as I saw the description about an assassin that feared the sight of blood, I knew I had to read it. I downloaded it and read it in one day.
Three years later, The Slave City is Ms. Jeanjean’s third book in this series that I would describe as charming and adventurous. Well, I have a few more words but to see those, check out the review I posted last week.
I invited Celine Jeanjean to be interviewed and here she is to answer my general, personal and possibly impertinent questions! Welcome Celine!
Celine: Thank you so much for having me! And congratulations on your 3 year anniversary!!
Riley: Thank you Celine!
I always like to hear how an author got started writing. What inspired you to start making up stories and writing them down?
Celine: I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. I grew up without a TV so I was a voracious reader as a child, and one of my favourite things to do when I wasn’t reading was making up stories based on what I read. I’d make up prequels, sequels, spin-offs—basically anything that allowed me to spend more time in these worlds I loved.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that it occurred to me to write these stories down, and that was when I realised I wanted to be a writer. But back then it didn’t seem like a feasible way to earn enough money to live, so when it came time to launch myself into the working world, I gave up my dream of being a writer and got one of those sensible corporate jobs.
But I never could fully let go of my habit of making up stories—entertaining myself during commutes (and during boring meetings!) So after a few years of working various jobs I didn’t enjoy, I decided life was too short not to try pursuing my passion. I wrote a couple of novels that I wasn’t happy with, and then one day had the very amusing idea of writing a short story about an assassin who was afraid of blood.
The short story turned into a novel, and then into a series, and I haven’t looked back since!
Riley: Will you tell us a little about The Slave City and The Viper and the Urchin series?
Celine: Of course! The Viper and the Urchin series follows a team of misfits as they get in and out of scrapes and adventures, with copious arguments and banter.
In Book 1 of the series, The Bloodless Assassin, we meet the two main characters, the aforementioned assassin who’s afraid of blood—Longinus, who is also very particular and fastidious about his appearance— and Rory, a scrawny, dirty pickpocket with dreadlocks, attitude, and big dreams despite her very poor background. They clash, they argue, they don’t like working together, but ultimately as they get to know each other better, they become real friends, connecting through the fact that they’re both misfits in their own ways.
As the team grows, we meet Cruikshank, a no-nonsense, cigar smoking female machinist, Adelma, an alcoholic smuggler, proficient brawler, and a walking slab of muscle, and Rafe, a very sarcastic elite fighter (and the self-proclaimed love interest for Rory).
The Slave City is the first book in the series where all five of them truly have to work together as a team. Things go wrong, of course, and adventure, arguments, and general fun ensues!
The series is based in a secondary world, and is Steampunk flavoured rather than hardcore Steampunk. There’s also no hint of Victorian sensibilities or attitudes. If anything the ladies are more raucous, and more inclined to swear, make crude jokes, and get into fights than the boys! Definitely a series for those who like strong female characters and humour.
Riley: There are many things that have intrigued me in The Viper and the Urchin series. I’d love to hear about your inspiration for:
1) Varanguards helmets with lethal ponytails.
Celine: Honestly, I was searching for something really cool to give these elite fighters as weapons. I came across an incredible video of a Chinese martial artist fighting with a chain with a spike at its end. I’d never seen anyone move so quickly or gracefully, so I knew I had to incorporate that in my story somehow.
As with everything I borrow, I gave it a bit of a twist. I also really like the visual of those helmets with the horsehair ponytails, like with the Queen’s Horse Guards. So I combined the two and gave the Varanguards their particular fighting style: helmets with long horsehair ponytails at the end of which are lethally sharp blades. They fight in a dance-like fashion, swinging their ponytails, enabling them to strike opponents all around them.
Riley: 2) In The Slave City – the long staircase up the wall to the upper part of the city.
Celine: I was in Spain, in the city of Ronda, where part of the city is perched a top a vertiginous gorge. There’s no river at the bottom of the gorge, and further back, where the cliff is less steep, there’s a zigzagging staircase down to the valley. It’s nowhere near as dramatic as the staircase in The Slave City, but as I mentioned before, I like to add twists to the things I borrow for inspiration. So I turned the staircase into a great snaking thing that climbed up a vertiginous cliff.
Then as far as the myriad of merchants there, they’re inspired by the incredible ingenuity and variety of stalls found all over the place in South East Asia.
Riley: 3) In The Bloodless Assassin – the Wet Market (I was amazed by the description of all the dripping goods in the market).
Celine: This is based on a real market! In Hong Kong, where I used to live, wet markets refer to markets selling fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish. The first wet market I encountered shortly after moving to Hong Kong left a hugely vivid impression on me.
It was the middle of summer, and swelteringly hot and humid. The streets throughout the market were littered with puddles of a murky mix of rain water from a recent storm, juice, viscera, and blood. I walked through it all with shorts and flip flops on, and I have to admit, I flicked a healthy portion of the muck up the backs of my legs. I don’t recommend that part of the experience! But it was such an assault on the senses—it remains one of my most vivid memories of my arrival in Hong Kong.
Then I went to a wet market in Cambodia while it was pouring with rain. The vendors had set up a hodgepodge of tarps and plastic sheets to create a makeshift covered market. Water slipped through every crack, so that there was a constant dripping noise throughout the market.
I combined the two to create the dripping wet market description for Damsport, since the creation of the city itself has overall been heavily inspired by my time in Asia.
Riley: 4) Cruikshank – I have loved this character since I first met her and was pleased to see her get a hefty role in The Slave City.
Celine: I’m so pleased to hear that! I have such a soft spot for Cruikshank.
Part of the inspiration for her came from the fact that I find it a bit frustrating how often main female characters are limited to being young, attractive, and slender. The women I grew up around are really strong, they’ve got muscular arms, strong hands, and they’re really no-nonsense and capable. I’m the odd one out, having very little practical intelligence and being always off with the fairies in my head! So when I created Cruikshank, I wanted to create a character who reflected this idea I grew up with, of women being really strong and capable.
I also liked the idea of portraying an older woman who is single, doesn’t have or want children, and is completely comfortable with who she is and with the life she’s built for herself. Spinsters in the middle-ages were women who earned their living without depending on a man, often by spinning wool into yarn. They were respected members of their community, and back then the term spinster didn’t carry the negative connotation it has now.
So Cruikshank is a modern/steampunk interpretation of this idea of a spinster. She’s completely independent, successful in her career as a machinist, but at the same very warm, and almost motherly, even though she’s completely comfortable with her choice not to marry or have children.
And then I added the huge cog tattoo on her arm and the cigar smoking because it felt right for her, and because it seemed pretty cool!
Riley: I am fascinated with Longinus. He holds fashion in such high regard, is enamored of his own words and at the same time is very intelligent. He often brings an outside-of-the-box perspective to the situation. How did Longinus evolve as a character in your mind?
Celine: At first Longinus was a funny character I wrote to make myself laugh. I just thought, wouldn’t it be funny to have an assassin who faints at the sight of blood? I also added the fashion obsession so as to create more amusing scenes for him to clash with Rory.
But the more time I spent with this character, the more I realised how tragic it was that someone would put so much effort into how he was seen by the outside world. He’s so obsessed with his appearance, not because he’s vapid and shallow, but because he’s deeply wounded from his childhood. He’s actually a very lonely person, who tries so very hard to be a stereotype of an assassin and a gentleman, because deep down he feels so utterly inadequate. His fear of blood is a huge source of shame for him, and to make up for it he controls his appearance with obsessive attention to detail.
And so although he’s funny and ridiculous at times, he’s actually a very smart and accomplished man. He’s just a bit eccentric, and you have to see past all his flouncing about in silk!
Riley: You are traveling in Asia. What do you like best about your wandering life? What do you like least?
Celine: I absolutely love arriving somewhere new and exploring. I love the freedom of being able to decide I want to move somewhere new, packing up my things, and heading off on a new adventure. This is part of the reason I write the books I do—I like to create new places for people to discover.
That sensation of stepping off a plane/train/bus, having the smells, sights, and sounds wash over me, and not understanding the language—that is one of my favourite things. I get to collect so much inspiration, and then I get to feed it back into my writing, which is fun!
As to what I like the least—that’s a tricky one, because even the negatives don’t bother me much. But travel delays is probably the biggest one. Anyone who has spent a chunk of time in Thailand will tell you that things there run according to ‘Thai time’. That means expect 2-3 hours delay for your train, minimum. Your bus might take an extra 4 hours to make the journey for some unplanned reason.
But I don’t mind that. I’ve sat in countless bus stations writing away on my laptop, not minding that I had to wait around. That’s the big advantage of being a writer—delays are just extra writing time disguised as inconveniences!
Riley: What books have you read recently that you really enjoyed?
Celine: I’m reading The Golem and The Jinni at the moment, a historical fantasy novel based in New York in the late 19th century. It blends Jewish and Arabic mythologies and it’s beautifully written.
I also recently binged on a lot of Terry Pratchett books—The Witches books in particular. Phenomenal female characters in there that made me laugh out loud. If you like Cruikshank and you haven’t read the Witches, I recommend Wyrd Sisters to start, and Witches Abroad to follow.
My most recent Steampunk read was The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. Fun, witty, rollicking adventure.
And towards the end of last year I read the whole Conqueror series by Conn Iggulden, a Historical Fiction series which follows the rise of Genghis Khan and the incredible way the Mongols briefly conquered most of Asia and Europe. Fascinating stuff, and a really engrossing read.
Riley: Can you tell us about what you are working on next?
Celine: I’m putting the finishing touches on The Dollmaker, the book following The Slave City. And I’ve started work on The White Hornet (working title), which is the book coming after that! I’ve got a few more books planned for this series, which I’m excited to get out there.
Farther on the horizon I’m planning a completely different trilogy that’s more traditionally steampunk than The Viper and the Urchin. It will be based in Victorian London, and it will be quite dark and gothic in feel. Inspiration for now is very much coming from Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein.
Riley: I can’t wait for the series to continue! And your dark and gothic series idea sounds like something I would devour! Thank so much for being here today Celine!
Celine Jeanjean, is French, grew up in England, lived in Hong Kong for half her twenties, and now she floats around the world as a nomadic writer.
When she’s not writing she can be found swimming with black tipped reef sharks, hiking in the jungle, or sitting in her hammock, reading a good book.
Her books feature badass female characters, quirky misfits, and lots of humour and adventure.
The best place to connect with her and keep up to date with what’s going on book wise and travel adventure wise is over at her newsletter:
New joiners get a free novella from The Viper and the Urchin series as a welcome gift, too!
Excerpt from The Slave City
“You do know talking to yourself’s the first sign of senility?” a voice at her elbow said.
Cruikshank turned to find Rory grinning at her.
“You do know that eavesdropping is rude?” Cruikshank replied with a wry smile.
Rory’s grin widened. “Just practicing ahead of our mission. Spying needs good eavesdropping skills, right?”
Cruikshank gave the girl an amused look. Rory was fond of “practicing” eavesdropping—almost as fond as she was of “practicing” stealing and picking pockets.
She was so slight that she looked as though a breath of wind might knock her over. She had put some weight on since her days as a scrawny street urchin, but no matter how much Rory ate—and she ate quite a lot—she didn’t seem to get any bigger.
Her small frame looked all the smaller for the masses of hair that dwarfed her. It was matted and clumped in thick segments that looked more like rope than hair, trailing down her back. She had taken to wearing small copper rings and tubes in it, slipping them up some of the ropelike segments.
But Rory’s most unusual trait was her eye color: they were blue. Damsians were a dark people—dark of skin, dark of eye, and black of hair. Rory had the dark skin of a Damsian, and at a glance, she could pass for one. But her blue eyes marked her out as having foreign blood too.
Growing up abandoned on the Damsian streets, she had no idea of her parentage, and Cruikshank often wondered what had happened to her parents. Her rough childhood never seemed to hold Rory back, though. She was one of the most positive and enthusiastic people Cruikshank knew.
“If you ask me,” Rory said, “it’s worth the journey to Azyr just to help them Azyrian rebels get their revolution underway. No person’s got the right to take away someone’s freedom and make a slave of them. That just ain’t right.”
“Don’t forget that’s the unofficial part of our mission,” Cruikshank said. “We can’t be seen to interfere with the way other countries or cities are run. That would put Damsport in a very tricky position politically.”
Rory tapped her nose. “Me and unofficial missions are like kin. It’s like picking pockets—you don’t go around advertising you’re a thief.” She gave a little laugh. “Or an assassin, for that matter.”
Cruikshank followed her gaze to where Longinus was fussing over the porters carrying one of his trunks.
“Careful, careful!” he called. “This contains priceless alchemical equipment. Gently, gently.”
The porters inched the trunk down to the ground, following Longinus’s instructions. Cruikshank was amused to notice that Longinus had them wearing gloves. They were burly men, dark-skinned and sweaty, and their ragged, dirty trousers were incongruous next to the clean white gloves Longinus had given them.
Longinus opened the trunk and inspected the contents. “Good, good. You may continue. And remember, if you drop the trunk, the wrong liquids might mix together and cause you to die a most agonising death.”
Cruikshank frowned. “That’s not true, is it?”
“Nah,” Rory replied with a smile. “Just something to scare people into doing things the Longinus way. One of Adelma’s sailors were gonna load his stuff on the ship for him, and Longinus nearly bust a vein when the sailor picked up his clothing trunk and threw it onto the deck. He’s hired his own porters now and is paying them extra to do it all the way he wants. The time it’s taking him, I hope he’ll be done before the ship’s ready to cast off.”
Cruikshank shook her head. “He’s an odd one, that boy.”
Everything about Longinus was conspicuous, from the way he spoke to the way he dressed. Right now he stuck out like a whore in a convent, with his teal silk shirt, burnt-orange trousers, and hat with an elaborate teal-and-orange feather arrangement.
He wore his hair almost down to his shoulders, and somehow, it always looked as though he had just stepped out of the barber’s. With his thin moustache and elegant, jewel-encrusted sword at his hip, he looked as though he belonged to a bygone era, not to the fast-developing industrial city of Damsport.
The porters picked up the trunk again, under a constant stream of warnings from Longinus.
“He ain’t happy to be bringing his precious alchemical equipment,” Rory said.
“You’re telling me. I’ve had to listen to his endless complaining ever since he found out the official purpose of our mission.” Cruikshank turned to Rory. “What about you? Are you ready?”
“Cruikshank, I own, like, five things. ’Course I’m ready.”
Cruikshank slung an arm around Rory’s neck and pulled out a cigar. “Well, lovey, in that case, we’re not far off ready to leave. Rafe’s already on board, checking on supplies, and Longinus should hopefully be finished with his fussing in an hour or so. We’d best get ourselves on the ship and get ready to cast off. You excited? I remember when I was sent on my first mission. I could barely sleep the night before.”
“Am I excited? Going to a far-off city? Adventuring, thieving, and spying? Nah. Actually, you know what? It all sounds duller than ditchwater. I reckon I’ll just stay here.” Rory winked.
Cruikshank grinned back at her.
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Note: The first book in the series, The Bloodless Assassin (formally titled The Viper and the Urchin) will be free February 2-5. That will be the perfect time to start reading the series if it is new to you.
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