I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of my clients chose to write about characterization for fantasy week. I’m a sucker for strong, unique characters and a huge fan of voice. Also, I was an anthropology and writing double-major in college, so D.B. Jackson‘s wonderful new series, beginning with THIEFTAKER, is right up my alley. A fantasy novel in colonial Boston set in the time leading up to the American Revolution with all the requisite tension and happenings. Sold! (To Tor Books, as it turns out.) Anyway, I hope you’ll check out the new series and that you’ll love it as I do! One lucky commentor will get to check it out for free, so please stay awhile and leave word to let us know you’ve been here or ask some really biting questions. He’s up for the challenge!
She stood as tall as Ethan, and while she looked at first glance to be as slender as she was fair, the appearance was deceiving. He had seen her fight; once, he had felt the bite of her blade. She was as strong and quick and cunning as any man Ethan had ever battled. But her sex remained her greatest weapon. Her hair, her body, her eyes–she was bewitching. Ethan couldn’t help but watch her as she walked, and, he noticed, neither could the men who worked for her. — THIEFTAKER, D.B. Jackson
THIEFTAKER, my new historical fantasy, which will be released by Tor Books on July 3, tells the story of Ethan Kaille, a conjurer and thieftaker who works the streets of colonial Boston in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The book is written solely from Ethan’s point of view; there is never any doubt but that he is the protagonist.
Yet, I have to admit that he is not my favorite character in the Thieftaker books and stories. That distinction belongs to the lovely and deadly Sephira Pryce.
The concept for THIEFTAKER grew out of a footnote in a history book. (What can I say? I’m a nerd; so sue me.) The footnote was about Jonathan Wild, London’s most famous thieftaker, who built a profitable empire by solving crimes for which he himself was responsible. He had men in his employ steal from wealthy Londoners, and then he “retrieved” the stolen goods, receiving not only a hefty finder’s fee, but also the praise of the city’s most powerful citizens, who saw him as the only thing standing between themselves and criminal armageddon.
Upon reading about Wild, I knew that I wanted to write a book about thieftakers, with my hero being an honest man who had to grapple with thieves and murderers, as well as with a powerful and thoroughly corrupt rival. In a sense then, the concept for this series began not with my hero, but with his nemesis. At first my Wild character was a man named Sefton Pryce, but as I worked my way through an initial draft, I found that their rivalry was not nearly as compelling as I had hoped it would be.
That first version of the book was set in an alternate fantasy world. When I began to contemplate rewriting the book as a historical urban fantasy, I also changed Sefton into a woman named Sephira. Immediately upon starting my second draft, I knew that I had made the right decision on both fronts. Fitting my story into a historical setting and blending it with actual events in pre-Revolutionary Boston brought higher stakes and greater intrigue to the murder mystery at the core of the narrative. And making Ethan’s nemesis a woman made their rivalry crackle with tension and energy.
I will admit that I worried about creating a character like Sephira in a historical novel about colonial Boston. Women with as much independence, power, and overt sexuality as she exhibits were rare in that time and place. But the more research I did about Boston, and particularly about women in the city, the more my concerns abated. I didn’t find mention of female outlaws in the texts I read, but I did find many references to women owning and running their own businesses, and to enjoying generally far more social and financial independence than one might expect. Historically speaking, Sephira might be something of an outlier, but that’s all right — she is in my book as well. She is absolutely one of a kind.
Like Jonathan Wild, Sephira has made herself wealthy and famous by recovering stolen items for affluent families who have been robbed by men in her employ. She has toughs who escort her everywhere, and who do her bidding while she keeps her hands (mostly) clean. She lives in a large, beautiful home, dresses impeccably, and counts among her friends the most influential men in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. She has the advantage over Ethan in nearly every respect. He works alone and lives in a small room above a cooperage. He has a few close friends, none of them powerful or rich. Ethan’s only advantage lies in his ability to cast spells.
She is cruel, arbitrary, ruthless in pursuit of whatever she might want at any given moment. She is both calculating and capricious. And she is brilliant, outthinking Ethan at almost every turn. She is also stunningly beautiful. Her voice is low and somewhat gravelly — think Lauren Bacall. The word “sexy” hadn’t entered the lexicon in 1765, when the action in THIEFTAKER takes place, so Ethan would never have thought to describe her that way. But she is sexy as hell, and though Ethan detests her and finds her lack of scruples repellant, he cannot help but feel some attraction to her.
Sephira’s feelings for Ethan are also conflicted. She fears no one, and is confident to the point of arrogance. But she is intimidated by Ethan’s conjuring talents. She has some understanding of how he casts his spells, but by their very nature his conjurings are alien, uncanny, unfathomable, and she does not know how to combat them. And since she occasionally takes on inquiries as a thieftaker that did not result from crimes perpetrated by her men, she sometimes finds herself confronted by other conjurers. In those instances, she is forced to send her clients to Ethan. So this woman, who most of the time needs no man, finds herself with no choice but to turn to her rival for help every now and then.
Ethan and Sephira’s relationship is fraught, to say the least. They are mortal enemies whose hostility for each other often spills over into violence. But they are also intrigued by one another. Ethan finds her alluring; Sephira sees in him a challenge to her own superiority that is at once threatening and fascinating. Like all good rivals, each endeavors to use the dynamics of their relationship to good advantage. When Sephira isn’t menacing Ethan with the threat of violence, she is using all of her seductive powers to bend him to her will. And Ethan relies on his magic, and her unease with his abilities, to keep her and her toughs at bay.
Sephira is by no means the only strong female character in THIEFTAKER. But she is far and away the most important and the most diverting, in large part because her rivalry with Ethan lies at the heart of so much that happens in the book. Turning this key character into a woman did far more for my story than merely introduce a bit of sexual tension, though it certainly did that. It made Sephira Ethan’s perfect opposite: corrupt where he is honest; powerful where he is weak; vulnerable where he is strongest; socially connected where he is isolated; beautiful where he is physically flawed. Her femininity emphasizes these contrasts, bringing them into further relief.
For me as a writer, though, the best thing about their rivalry is that it never ends. Even as other “villains” come and go with each new Thieftaker story or book, Sephira remains Ethan’s most significant and entertaining antagonist. She is Catwoman to his Batman, Kate to his Petruchio, Nurse Ratched to his McMurphy, all rolled into one. Among all the characters I’ve created, she is one of my favorites, in large part because she is part of the most intriguing relationship I’ve ever written.
D.B. Jackson also goes by the name David B. Coe for his epic fantasies in the wonderful LonTobyn Chronicles, Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands series. Check him out!
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