Of Glass & Guilds: How Brian McClellan Forged Epic Fantasy In the Shadow of Lightning

Brian McClellan reveals how he built the glass-based industrial magic system for epic fantasy In the Shadow of Lightning.

The book cover for Brian McClellan's In the Shadow of Lightning
Photo: Tor Books

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When we first meet In the Shadow of Lightning protagonist Demir Grappo, he is on the cusp of his first major military victory. As a magic-wielding leader and a member of one of Ossa’s ruling guild-families, young Demir has a bright future ahead of him. But when a miscommunication on the battlefield leads to the horrific sacking of a city, Demir flees his power and privilege to become a drifter with no greater responsibilities. “I liked the idea of taking one of these people who was just very naturally gifted and really quite brilliant from childhood, and giving them a moral center that is different from the world in which they exist in,” McClellan tells Den of Geek via Zoom, when asked about Demir. “And I wanted to take a character like that and then destroy them.” He does, and it all happens in the book’s gripping prologue, immediately pulling readers into this world of industrial magic and political intrigue.

Nine years pass, and perhaps nine more would have, if not for the murder of Demir’s mother—an event that pulls the character back into the dangerous and desperate world of the Ossan elite, as it faces the potential end of its magical resources. “In the Shadow of Lightning is, at the very basic core of it, is about a civilization that runs on industrial magic, and the consequences of that magic running out,” McClellan sums up. “Character-wise, it’s about a failed prodigy who is forced to return home and be the person that he ran away from because his mother has been murdered, and he has to solve that problem, take revenge, and also deal with the wider consequences.”

Demir is only one of several POV protagonists in In the Shadow of Lightning, but his story is a engaging human starting point for a new epic fantasy trilogy from the author of the celebrated Powder Mage series. Like the Powder Mage trilogies before it, the Glass Immortals trilogy is set in a world of “industrial magic.” Here, magic-forged glass of various colors called godglass is used to enhance natural abilities or statese.g. auraglass augments charisma, while cureglass augments healing, and so on. While anyone can use godglass, there are those who are born with the ability to control glass. They are called glassdancers, and Demir is one of them.

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McClellan said he had been thinking about building a magic system with glass since about halfway through the process of writing the Powder Mage series, but it took a particularly productive conversation with his wife while they were in a London hotel for a convention for the idea to settle into something he wanted to move forward with. “I went through lots of different iterations of how to use glass in a magic system,” says McClellan. “There was a point at which I was trying to figure out how to work out like demon summoning that you would trap in glass balls. And I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of like Pokemon. That doesn’t really quite work with my style.’”

McClellan’s thorough exploration of this industrial magic system is one of the strongest elements of the epic story, as the author follows questions about how such a resource would impact a society’s various systems. “We landed on these little glass baubles that enhance people, depending on the impurities in the sand that they’re made with,” explains McClellan. “And so that turned into, ‘OK, this would be an industry, like a major industry in the world.’ And then that extrapolates to, ‘How does it affect the economy? How does it affect the wars? How does it affect individuals?’ And then, from there, it started snowballing into the world and the characters and how everything would interact.”

In addition to Demir, In the Shadow of Lightning gives us three other POV character through which to explore the complex world of Glass Immortals: Kizzie, Idrian, and Thessa. Kizzie is an Enforcer, and a bastard from one of the most powerful-guild families in the empire. She is also one of Demir’s childhood friends. “When Demir is forced to return to the capitol,” teases McClellan, “one of the first people he goes to is Kizzie because she shares his moral center. Even though she is the type of person who is sent to break knees when needed, she always tries to be as honest as she can and to deal fairly with people.” As the story progresses and war looms, Kizzie’s must decide where her loyalties lie: with the family who has never accepted her, or elsewhere?

McClellan calls Idrian one of his “almost anime-style action characters.” A Breacher who works in the elite military wing of the Ossan military, Idrian wears armor made of a godglass stronger than steel, and carries a sword and shield in an era of muskets. “Basically, his job is to break the line,” explains McClellan. “He is sent in to just absolutely wreck the infantry and create openings for his own battalion.” Idrian allows McClellan to give a military perspective of this world, one that is complicated by a “childhood madness” kept at bay by a godglass eye. However, when the creator of said magical eye is murdered at the beginning of the book, Idrian is left to wonder what his future might look like. “‘If this madness advances, I can’t be a soldier anymore, I can’t be trusted to defend the people that I care about and love and do my job,'” McClellan says, channeling the Idrian mindset. “And that creates a bit of an existential crisis for someone who considers himself a bit of a blunt instrument. [He wonders] ‘I’m sent in to destroy things and and to protect the rest of my troop, but what happens when I can’t do that job?'”

Finally, we have Thessa, whom McClellan calls “our reader’s window into the magic system of the world.” Thessa is a godglass engineer who studied under one of the great masters of silica engineering. When Demir sets about solving the mystery of his mother’s untimely death, Thessa becomes a natural ally as Thessa’s master was also murdered, seemingly because he had a secret alliance with Demir’s mom to figure out why the world’s magic is running out. (Don’t worry—this is all revealed in the book’s first few chapters.) “This leaves these two who don’t even know about each other at the beginning of the book as the heirs to this tiny conspiracy to try to save civilization,” says McClellan. Thessa joins this group of ragtag outcasts Demir is putting together, launching a story that is only the first in Glass Immortals‘ much larger narrative.

With In the Shadow of Lightning, McClellan has created a new and fantastical world to explore, grounded by a political mystery and four fascinating characters. What does he hope readers will find in it? “Ultimately, I write for people to enjoy the book,” says McClellan. “I don’t like to have a lot of time spent on on philosophizing and things like that. I like it to be an adventure novel, at its core.”

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On the other hand, says McClellan, he is not the same writer who published Promise of Blood almost a decade ago. “I’m getting older and changing a little, as a writer and a person,” he reflects. “I think In the Shadow of Lightning probably has a lot more things I want people to just think about—not necessarily for any direction. I don’t want to revolutionize the world, or how people think about finite resources or anything like that. But, in some ways, it’s less about the magic system, and the industrialized kind of world I’ve created and a lot more about the characters and about having compassion for people who don’t think like you, or act like you, and are from different backgrounds than you. And I think that’s probably more of the core of what I wanted to do with this series and these characters: [to build] interpersonal compassion and thoughtfulness and maybe help myself as an author and a person to develop that [too].”

In the Shadow of Lightning hits bookshelves on June 21st. Order your copy today.