Bookburners, Empress of Forever, and Time War: An Interview with Max Gladstone

Den of Geek talked to Max Gladstone about the many projects he has out this summer, including Empress of Forever.

Max Gladstone is having a busy summer. Though Gladstone is arguably best known for his Hugo-nominated Craftverse series, that’s the one universe that doesn’t have a book coming out this summer.

Instead, readers can follow a team of once-Vatican-sponsored operatives trying to save the world from the pending magical apocalypse—or find a way to change normal so the world can survive—in the final season of Bookburners, which launched on June 12, 2019.

Or, in Gladstone’s Empress of Forever, which hit bookshelves this week, readers can meet genius entrepreneur Viv Liao as she navigates a distant, far future, leading a misfit team of gods and monsters against an almost omnipotent Empress.

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And, in July, they can join two rival agents exchanging letters as they time travel in This Is How You Lose the Time War, a novella Gladstone co-wrote with Amal El-Mohtar.

Despite that schedule, Gladstone took a few minutes to chat with us about his projects. When asked how he could keep all his projects straight, he quipped: “You’re assuming that I do keep it all straight! I’ve been leaning heavily on my calendar app and my to-do list, and getting a lot less sleep than usual.”

Den of Geek readers who follow our “Best Online Serial Fiction” roundup will be familiar with Bookburners, the flagship series of Serial Box, a subscription service launched in 2015 that promises “HBO-style storytelling” in prose format. The story begins with Sal Brooks, a NYPD officer whose brother, Perry, in trouble for having a book he shouldn’t have taken, comes to her for help. But the people who want Perry aren’t criminals: they’re covert operatives of the Vatican, tasked with capturing the book—and the demon bound within it—before anything bad happens.

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They don’t make it in time: Perry is already possessed, and the encounter leaves him in a coma, and Sal with the knowledge of the magic that lies just outside her normal vision. She can’t take the knowledge back, so she joins up, becoming a member of the Vatican’s Team Three, tasked with archiving dangerous magical books and hiding magic from the world.

Over the course of the series, magic becomes impossible to hide. Sal and the other members of Team Three: Father Menchú, Grace, Liam, and Asanti, find their world changed in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable. Divergent philosophies drive a wedge between them and the church, and their once sponsors become their hunters.

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Magic’s appearance, in ways that no one can deny (such as the winking Eye of London), requires new strategies, and keeping people safe no longer means hiding knowledge. At the conclusion of Bookburners Season 4, the possibility that the world would break apart completely is a definite threat. And, now, “In its final season, we wanted to push the series, and these characters, as far as we could go,” Gladstone explained.

Bookburners has always been a story about good people who live in a world that’s changing,” said Gladstone. “Old certainties give way. New possibilities gape. Sal and Liam and Grace and Asanti and Menchú start off trying to save the world—but as the series moves into its closing moments, they come to understand that ‘saving’ isn’t enough.”

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The conclusion of the series doesn’t just mean epic stakes, though. It means saying goodbye to a writing team that has been working together for five years. Serial Box models its writing teams after Hollywood writer’s rooms, which is part of what gives the episodes their television-like flare. Saying farewell to both the series and the team is “bittersweet” for Gladstone.

I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished together—these characters and this group of tremendous writers. I can’t speak for the whole group here, but I’ve learned so much throughout this process, from everyone—I think we’ve all made each other just a little bit better. I don’t know if you can ask for more from a group of collaborators.

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Because Serial Box includes enhanced audio versions with every episode, it also means saying goodbye to narrator Xe Sands. “I think of her as another member of the team,” Gladstone said. Although he admits that listening to audio versions of his work frequently make him uncomfortable, Xe’s narration “truly carries me along. Her flare for character is tremendous.”

But as one story comes to an ending, another begins. Empress of Forever throws readers into a completely new setting, based, at least in the beginning, in a contemporary reality. The main character is a genius female Asian American entrepreneur, whose work is stolen by her competitors. Unwilling to let that slide, she sneaks into a server farm to steal her work back, only to wake up in the distant future. But Viv doesn’t let the shock keep her down for long, and soon she’s ready to get back up and make waves, solving the problems of the future.

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“Viv showed up early on in the writing process,” said Gladstone. “I knew this would be a story about—well, a lot of things, but among them genius, power, personal will, and the way genre fiction relates to these things. I wanted to start from some place in the near future, and I was interested in the tech population that embraces the image of the Heinlein protagonist, that tries to embody it as reality. I also liked the underdog aspect: someone at the top of her game taken back to square one in an unfamiliar context. To get what she wants, she has to conquer the world—again.”

Gladstone has written a number of leading characters of color, and characters whole love lives do not mirror his own.

“When I’m writing about someone who’s pretty different from me—Viv’s a queer woman of color—I try to start with areas we have in common: things we both care about, problems we both share,” said Gladstone. “We all know what it’s like to run away from a hive full of bees, to fight as hard as we can and win, to fight as hard as we can and lose. In Viv’s case, she and I have a lot of specific common experiences: we’re both the product of elite educational institutions with which we have complex relationships, we both had pretty bad growing-up experiences (for different reasons), we share a particular kind of harshness toward ourselves.”

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Gladstone continued: “The things we don’t share are a huge part of Viv’s character, naturally, but I approach those differences through commonality—not to mention drawing off of a lifetime of honest conversations with friends who are more similar to the characters I’m writing about, friends who form a constant running audience in the back of my head. ‘What would she think about what I’m writing here? What would she say?’”

With reviewers and critics already throwing around comparisons between Empress of Forever and classic space operas, including Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, I was curious to find out more about the inspirations behind the novel. Many of the usual suspects appeared on Gladstone’s list, including Dune, Star Trek, the Star Wars EU novels, Peter F Hamilton’s Nightsdawn Trilogy, and Bujold. (“You can’t not mention Lois McMaster Bujold when you’re talking about space adventure, of course. It’s a law somewhere.”)

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But one of the less likely inspirations came from well before science fiction was even a genre.

“When I read Journey to the West for the first time at age ten,” Gladstone said, “it felt especially akin to the grand episodic space adventure stories I loved—it’s a massive episodic novel (with a shade of allegory) about magical pilgrims traveling from Tang China to India and fighting monsters along the way. As the story plays out, it feels a bit like Star Trek or Stargate SG-1 in its ‘let’s visit one planet at time’ episodic adventure structure. I always wondered why that basic narrative concept wasn’t the spine of more science fiction adventure—why wasn’t there a ‘Journey to the Stars,’ a space adventure narrative that with a relationship to Journey to the West like the relationship So there are a lot of Journey homages in Empress, some more obvious than others.”

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Despite the time travel in both Empress of Forever and This Is How You Lose the Time War, Gladstone doesn’t admit to time traveling himself to keep up with his schedule, or in writing his collaboration with el-Mohtar.

“We actually did most of the work sitting across a table from each other, which is weird, considering how the project hinges on letters between characters who are rarely if ever in the same room,” he recalled. The first chunk of work took place over a nine-day retreat, and the rest was completed over subsequent visits.

But if he did have access to a time machine, Gladstone would “love to wander around Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was such a meeting point of cultures—dangerous, but full of potential. I wouldn’t want to stay, though. I have plenty of interesting stuff going on in this millennium.”

And for Craftverse readers? They’ll have to either catch a time machine to a future in which another installment has been released… or just wait like the rest of us.

Empress of Forever is now available to purchase via Amazon, Indiebound, or your local independent bookstore.

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This is How You Lose the Time War is now available for pre-order via Amazon, Indiebound, or your local independent bookstore.

You can catch up on Bookburners right now via Serial Box.

Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.