Philly feels like a pressure cooker of creativity. The rising steam is making it rattle, ready to explode. Some of that creative steam has escaped in the form of a fantasy book. A pair of creative philly geeks have written a fantastic debut fantasy novel called The Duchess of the Shallows.
Daniel Ravipinto and Neil McGarry have written a novel that is easily recognizable as fantasy, but feels new and wonderfully different. Eschewing the grandiose posturing familiar in many fantastic tropes, Duchess of the Shallows is a much more character-centric tale of a 16 year old girl from the poorest part of the port city of Rodaas.
This segmented city is divided not only by physical walls, but by societal ones as well. Someone is always paying off or blackmailing someone else. The societal strata is convoluted, complex, and fascinating. With purposeful prose, the tale of Duchess and her friend Lysander making their way into a secret society is an engaging one that will keep you turning pages.
If you have a Kindle, you can be flipping those digital pages sooner than you think. We’re giving away downloads of Duchess of the Shallows to three randomly selected geeks who comment with their favorite female fantasy characters.
We also had a chance to catch up with this duo of busy geeks who are not only authors, but avid gamers as well.
When did you to start developing stories together?
Neil: We’ve always played RPGs (role-playing games), and back in the day I was a big-time Dungeons & Dragons fan. I even published in DRAGON, forever earning a place in the Geek Hall of Fame.
Dan: Both of us have been writers and story-tellers since we were kids. I fell in love with text adventures (like Zork, which go by the more respectable name of “interactive fiction” nowadays) as a kid, along with the idea of building worlds and telling stories inside of them. Rodaas started in 2006 when we began playing a one-on-one RPG together.
What struck you about the fantasy genre that you decided to write a more character focused novel?
Dan: We’d both read so much fiction as kids that as some point we kind of burned out on the standard fantasy tropes that put plot before character. It was through works like George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” that we learned that wasn’t necessarily the case for all fantasy.
At this point in my career as a reader, I always find personal stakes just so much more compelling than “Will we save the world”? Good characterization can pull me into a story like nothing else, including genres I wouldn’t normally consider myself a fan of. I loved HBO’s Deadwood because of the compelling characters and their struggles, even though I normally don’t like Westerns.
Neil: We both felt that there’s a great deal that just goes unexplored; authors often spend the bulk of narrative space on the Big Evil that threatens the world. We felt that it was just as important to examine how the characters feel about the Big Evil, and how that impacts their real lives and personal relationships. Also, fantasy allows for larger-than-life settings and for elements of the supernatural that influence characters in ways that are just not possible in standard fiction. So it’s fun.
Where did your inspiration for the novel come from?
Neil: We had decided to start an RPG between the two of us, and I just suggested an urban setting with a character named Duchess, and between us we created this Renaissance-style, eternally gray city. Dan invented Lysander, though, and a lot of the stuff about the Red and the Grey.
Dan: Rodaas and its great hill are definitely inspired by some real-life locales. It’s a combination of Rome, Venice, San Francisco and London – some of my favorite cities. We’ll also encounter ideas or images in our daily lives – from cultures all over the world – and just look at each other and say “That’d be perfect for Rodaas.”
With two of you writing, how does the work process go? Do you alternate writing chapters?
Neil: One of us usually will have a sense of how a particular section should go, and that person will write the first draft and hand it off to the other for review. Then we go back and forth until we’ve agreed on a final draft. Generally, I cut out about a third out of anything Dan writes, and he expands what I write by the same amount. I have a background in stand-up comedy, in which brevity is key, but writing fiction often demands more loquacity, which Dan provides. There’s usually very little friction in the process.
Dan: Working that way has really been great, because if there’s a section that just isn’t working for one of us, we can hand it off to the other and say “I’m stuck. What can you do with this?”
We’ve never had a problem with conflicts over the big ideas – the plot, our feel for the characters, the themes that come out in the story. Any issues usually come over very small details – most particularly the wording of a particular sentence, or how to spell a character’s name.
When not writing engaging fantasy, what are you two usually up to?
Neil: I play more Ultimate Frisbee than is good for me, and indoor volleyball in the winter too. That way I can injure myself year-round!
Dan: Both of us are avid gamers – RPGs, board games, video games. We just recently finished a replay of Skyrim. Our creativity comes out in gaming too. Neil created his own RPG system that we used for the original Duchess game called Altonomy, and I’ve written my fair share of games, including text adventures and a card game.
What other projects do you have completed or coming our way?
Neil: We’re about halfway through writing the next book in the series, which we’ve entitled “The Fall of Ventaris.”
Dan: It’s pretty much taking all of our creative energy at the moment. We’re about half-way through the first draft and it’s been really exciting because with so much already established in the first book, we have this wonderfully large and complex sandbox to play in.