‘The Empress Game’ is Rhonda Mason’s debut novel and the start of a new space opera trilogy. Prior to this she had the short “Love’s Consequence” published in ‘Modern Magic: Tales of Fantasy and Horror’. In ‘The Empress Game’ we follow the warrior Kayla Reinumon as the fate of her home world rests on her shoulders.
Science Fiction (SF): First off if you could tell us a bit about your latest work, ‘The Empress Game’?
Rhonda Mason (Rm): Hi there! Thanks for having me! I was once asked to give a tweet-length description of The Empress Game, so here it is:
Exiled and hunted, fighter Kayla longs to return home. She can—if she wins an intergalatic tournament and puts her enemy on the throne.
For a longer description, here’s the back of the book blurb:
One seat on the intergalactic Sakien Empire’s supreme ruling body, the Council of Seven, remains unfilled, that of the Empress Apparent. The seat isn’t won by votes or marriage, it’s won in a tournament of ritualized combat in the ancient tradition. Now that tournament–the Empress Game–has been called, and the females of the empire will stop at nothing to secure political domination for their homeworlds. Kayla Reinumon, a supreme fighter, is called by a mysterious stranger to battle it out in the arena.
The battle for political power isn’t contained by the tournament’s ring, however. The empire’s elite gather to forge, strengthen or betray alliances in a political dance that will shape the fate of the empire for a generation. With the empire wracked by a rising nanovirus plague and stretched thin by an ill-advised planet-wide occupation in enemy territory, everything rests on the woman who rises to the top.
SF: How did you find Kayla’s voice for the series?
RM: Kayla’s voice is very natural for me because we share the same dedication to family. (Though obviously I’ve never had to knife someone in the gullet over it…) On her homeworld of Ordoch, the females are larger and stronger while the males are smaller physically and usually more gifted psionically. Kayla is a badass, a royal ro’haar, born to be one half of a bonded pair. She’s born and trained to protect her twin brother from all physical threats, and her twin or il’haar, Vayne, is born and trained to protect her from all psionic threats.
Once her twin is killed, along with almost all of her family, and she’s forced to go into exile, she’s left with no one to protect except her younger brother. That’s where Kayla’s voice comes from. She’s hardwired emotionally to protect, and she has one living soul left across all galaxies to keep safe, her younger brother Corinth.
Every choice she makes, every word that comes out of her mouth, is focused on that goal: doing everything in her power to provide for Corinth.
Whenever I wondered what Kayla’s reaction would be to a given event, I took it back to that emotional directive—protect her surviving family with her physical strength—and her voice flowed from there.
SF: Did you use any real life inspirations or references while working on the novel?
RM: I’m not really one for “real life inspirations,” but heck yeah, I used a LOT of references for my fight scenes. It’s really important to me that they be plausible. My secret (don’t tell anyone!) is that I make wire figures out of pipe cleaners and work those figures through the moves. (Ridiculous, right?) But I can’t bear to have fight scenes that you couldn’t possibly execute physically.
In The Empress Game, Kayla uses a variety of hand-to-hand combat techniques, and then there are the techniques involved with the four weapon choices of the Game. I did a lot of research to make all of the fights as accurate as possible. This included researching judo takedowns, rapier fighting (my research took me to early modern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries for that), MMA techniques, bōjutsu (here I went with a karate style) and tae kwon do for the empty-hand fighting techniques. I have a background in karate and tae kwon do, but I still did a lot of research to make things as realistic as possible.
And while I make up a LOT of the science/futuristic elements off the cuff, (come on, it’s Space Opera!) I still do research the science of some of it. My biggest research focus has been on the mechanism of the Tetrotock Nanovirus and how the nanobots might use the materials available in the human body to self-replicate. Also, my husband is a Marine Biologist, so I run things by him for plausibility. (You should hear our dinner conversation about enzyme catalysis! We’re a thrilling pair, I tell you.)
SF: Aside from Kayla, who is your favorite character in the first novel and why?
RM: Honestly, I really enjoyed writing about Kayla’s major opponents in the Game. I loved exploring how fighters with different strengths and skillsets would challenge Kayla in different ways. All of the women involved in the Empress Game come from different backgrounds, since she’s the only Wyrd in the group, the only trained ro’haar, and it’s neat to see that that doesn’t necessarily make her unbeatable.
I suppose my second favorite character would have to be the Clanesta Sovien Warren. She and her sister hail from country where they rule as co-leaders of a clan system. Both Sovien and her sister are HUGE in stature. This is Kayla’s first glimpse of them in person:
“The older, Sovein, had a ten centimeter height advantage on Kayla—and she was the smaller of the two. The younger, Urveina’s, sleeveless tunic showed off arms thick with enough strength to wield a tree as a weapon. Her shoulders surpassed both Trinan’s and Vid’s for width. The Clanestas spoke to their companions with their hands, their language being half verbal, half somatic. Their palms could have been bear paws for their surface area, but their gestures were graceful, the fingers quick and agile. When they strode by with steps of matching lightness, Kayla knew their holovids had undersold them.”
I loved writing a character where Kayla couldn’t rely on her typically greater height, reach and muscle mass. Add to that Sovien’s innate superiority and the unspoken assumption that she would win the Game, and she was a lot of fun to write.
I love that when it comes to the Empress Game, winning, for Kayla, is not the sure thing she’d thought it would be.
SF: When starting the novel did you have a trilogy in mind or did it evolve into one as you took pen to page?
RM: I actually intended The Empress Game to be a standalone. The first novel I shopped around as a writer was a high fantasy novel, the first in an intended series. While it got a lot of positive attention from editors and agents, everyone eventually passed on it because it couldn’t stand alone. So when it came time to write The Empress Game, I knew I wanted to go for a standalone and had no plans for a trilogy.
Of course that meant that Titan Books asked me, “Could you turn this into a trilogy?” /facepalm. You can never please the industry, I tell you! But luckily, their offer gave me the chance to explore Kayla’s character more, and push her even farther beyond her limits. I’m really enjoying working on the second book at the moment. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to turn this into a trilogy and work with the characters I love.
SF: As a now planned trilogy, without spoilers what can you tell us about what is coming next?
RM: I love that you consider this a “planned trilogy,” that’s so cute. ;-) Let’s call it a “by the seat of your pants!” trilogy. A “hold on tight, who knows what the heck is going to happen!” trilogy. J
Honestly, I find it impossible to give hints for books 2 and 3 without revealing what happens with The Empress Game! Who wins? Who loses? Who, after all is said and done, comes out on top? And what can the outcome be when a group of the empire’s finest decide they know what’s best for everyone and set out to cheat at an intergalactic tournament that will decide the fate of the empire for years to come?
You’ll just have to finish The Empress Game for yourself and wait for book 2!
SF: If ‘The Empress Game’ made it to the big or small screen, who would you like to see cast as Kayla?
RM: This is tough because I never use real life people as models for my characters. I know that a lot of writers do, but I just can’t. That said, if I had to choose….hmm. Even though she’s technically too old for Kayla’s age, Angelina Jolie has to be my first choice. From Lara Croft to Salt, she’s played so many badasses, I know she could do Kayla justice.
More realistically on the age scale? Hmm. Zoe Saldana? I loved her as Gamora and Uhura. She’s got the fire, intensity and badassery to pull of the character of Kayla in a heartbeat.
SF: Great call on Saldana! We’re hoping she pops up more as well! With a full trilogy ahead of you I have to ask, do you have any other novels in the works?
RM: I do, actually! While The Empress Game trilogy is a space opera, my first love is epic fantasy, and I’m really looking forward to getting back to my roots in that genre.
I’m about 120 pages into a fantasy novel set on a chain of volcanic islands, with an interconnected island nation culture. The islands have no naturally occurring metallic ore so all of their building materials/weapons/modes of transportation are limited to materials such as wood, bone, stone, fibers, sharks’ teeth, etc. For the first time in my life, I am gaga for worldbuilding! The limitation of having no metallic ore provides fascinating opportunities for ingenuity and it’s amazing how much the worldbuilding is driving the plot.
Surprisingly, Silmande (the lead character) is not a butt-kicker, if you can believe it. (I am in love with weapons and hand-to-hand combat!) Instead she’s a force to be reckoned with through sheer determination and her magic powers. She has a rare gift (no spoilers!) that, over the course of the story, she comes to realize is much darker and soul-consuming than she ever thought.
SF: If you could write a science fiction or fantasy novel with any other author, living or deceased, who would it be and why?
RM: Is it fair to say I’m too much of a control-freak to work with another author? ;-) That might be true, but if I had my druthers, I would KILL to work with Melanie Rawn. Her characters are simply amazing. She’s the be all and end all for character, as far as I’m concerned. I’d love to have had her insight to breathe more depth into Malkor, and to see what else she could come up with. She has been my literary hero since I picked up Dragon Prince in seventh grade.
SF: What are your favorite space operas in film and on page?
RM: To be honest, most of my reading background is in fantasy, so I’m not a great one to ask about space operas on the page.
My very favorite of the space operas I have read is Rachel Bach’s FORTUNE’S PAWN. It’s the first in the trilogy of the Paradox Series, and I heard a rumor she’s going to return to that world after she finishes her current fantasy series.
I would also recommend John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR for the amazing job Scalzi did with the voice of the main character. It’s truly stunning.
Most of my space opera enjoyment is on-screen. Here are my faves:
Guardians of the Galaxy
Star Wars (IV-VI)
Farscape (A Rhonda Favorite! you just have to get past the Muppets….)
Battlestar Galactica (Some people call this “military science fiction” but it really concerns itself mainly with the social repercussions of decisions made on a small and grand scale.)
And in terms of soft scifi (but not quite space opera due to milieu)
The Edge of Tomorrow
SF: Thank you for your time, is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
RM: Thank you so much for having me! While I have people’s attention what I’d most like to say is: there is no “convenient” time to write. If you’re thinking, “I’d love to write, I wish I had the free time,” or “I have a great story idea, I’ll write a book once I retire,” you need to know that for us authors, there is no such thing as “free time.” If you want to write a book, you need to maketime. Now. Sadly, we’re not sitting around in our silk smoking jackets, eating bonbons and writing all day. J I work full time as a financial editor for Nasdaq, and let me tell you, that job and the overtime is demanding! But I have stories to tell, words to put to the page, so I make time. I live in Florida so my friends are enjoying the beach, hitting a BBQ year-round without me while I spend my few spare moments writing. It’s about dedication, time-management, and quite honestly, sacrifice.
Anyone can write a book. I truly believe that. All it takes is an insane amount of drive and dedication. So if you have a story to tell, if you dream of someday being a writer, know that your “someday” is now. There is no such thing as “free time.” Go. Make that time. You can do it!