Author Interview: Alexander Hellene
We sit down with the author of sword and planet adventure The Last Ancestor to discuss The Second Sojourn
Alexander Hellene is either a Renaissance man or a dilettante, depending on whom you ask. A musician, athlete, artist, and law school graduate, Alexander has always been attracted to fantastical tales, since they tend to do a better job of explaining how the world works than just about anything else.
(Copied from his website)
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The Second Sojourn is available, and I have already snagged myself a copy!
I can’t wait to crack it open (metaphorically…my Kindle wouldn’t take kindly to being actually cracked), but if it has the panache of The Last Ancestor, I’m confident it will be a hit! (You can read our positive, long-form review of the first book in The Swordbringer series here.)
Terror strikes the heart of Pysh!
The Global Union has tracked the Canaanites across the galaxy, hellbent on finishing the job of extermination. But first they need to recover a secret, one that will explain everything.
A distress signal from the East brings Garrett, Ghryxa, and their friends closer to the answers about what happened on Earth. The lost ship survives! But to find it they must cross the Waran Steppes, and an endless swamp filled with ancient, deadly creatures.
Pursued by assassins, Garrett must make the hard choices and be a hero like his late father. Escaping the High Lord was just the beginning.
Alexander Hellene generously agreed to answer some questions about his series and this sequel in particular. Prepare to have your appetite whetted for the continuation of this classic sword and planet adventure!
The Last Ancestor was a great sword and planet adventure. Where did you draw inspiration for this series?
Thank you! I’m glad you liked it! Inspiration came from many places. I had recently read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and I loved the strangeness of it, and the freaky aliens. I took inspiration from that, but also from the old Masters of the Universe cartoon and toys. Eternita was a big inspiration for the planet Yxakh—it felt so ancient and primordial and lived in.
I also loved the idea of animal-men. I’ve always been a big fan of anthropomorphic animals and settled on anthropomorphic dogs, which became the Growlers. I thought that having man’s best friend be these hostile, deadly creatures would be fun. It was originally to be solely animal people, with Princess Dhaxiha being the main character.
But I also had this image of a young American teen exploring such a world with one of these dog creatures, and the idea of crashed humans on this world grew from that. The religious aspect came next: Why were humans there? Why had they left Earth? Religious persecution seemed a perfect reason. The Canaanites in The Last Ancestor were pilgrims in a way, maybe a resulting inspiration of my having grown up in New England.
Although The Swordbringer series is intended for Young Adults, it probably isn’t typical of modern YA science fiction in terms of character or theme. Would you say that is accurate?
I’d say that’s very accurate. Interestingly, I never intended The Swordbringer as being YA, though having a teenaged human protagonist and what is essentially a teenaged alien puts it in that category. Still, I didn’t want the series to be “mature” in the violence and sex way, just thematically. Lots of heady stuff I tried to wrap in a package of fun and exploration. I’d like to think I succeeded and that young people can enjoy it as much as adults.
The cover for The Second Sojourn looks exciting! I remember when I was reading The Last Ancestor, I was really pleased to discover that the scene depicted on that cover actually took place within the story. Can we look forward to something similar occurring in the sequel?
Thank you! All credit to Manuel Guzman, aka Lolo. He’s truly a remarkable artist and I’m glad to have found him. Yes, there is definitely a scene in The Second Sojourn like that depicted on the cover. I’ve always been a big fan of books that do that, and wanted my own to capture that same spirit instead of something more generic or just an action pose.
What were some key challenges or highlights you had while writing The Second Sojourn?
I had never written a sequel before, let alone part two in a trilogy. The big challenges were making sure to ramp up the stakes and create a self-contained story with a satisfying arc that also acts as an arc, or crisis point, for the overall story. That, and creating new characters that were not redundant and didn’t overwhelm the reader. I’m particularly proud of Rikkert and Tarleo.
Other than that, it took some work getting the prologue right—should it be in the present and then flash back in chapter one to explain how our crew got to Pysh, or vice versa? At my awesome editor Emily Red’s advice, I kept it chronological. Then, at my great beta reader’s advice, I made the journey start with a bang before getting into the more prosaic travel portion. I think it worked much better.
The Last Ancestor boasted some spectacular locations, but the ending took the characters out of the bounds of the established setting. Can we look forward to equally detailed new settings in the sequel?
You sure can. I’m a big fan of incremental world building. I like teasing new locations and then getting to them later on. Hence the relative mystery of Pysh, save for the one Pyshan character in The Last Ancestor (Pason) to hopefully whet the reader’s appetite to see what Pysh and its culture and society are like in The Second Sojourn. I do more of that in The Second Sojourn as well. A little mystery goes a long way, as long as there is some payoff.
What about new monsters and people/alien groups?
Lots of them. We have the Pyshans and their more refined culture, as well as the Waran, nomadic warriors who live far across the river to the east. And both lands are filled with flora and especially fauna both domesticated and deadly. That’s not even getting to the disgusting things that live in the giant swamp our heroes have to cross…
How did changing up the characters’ situation impact the thematic message of the story?
Our characters are still strangers in a strange land without a home, exiled from Earth and still not safe despite Pysh’s relatively welcoming nature. Compared to Kharvalar it’s like heaven, but danger abounds and the Canaanites have gotten soft in the intervening year. So thematically there’s still a lot of danger and a sense of being unsettled as the Canaanites try yet again to rebuild their lives in an alien environment. And of course, they’re still being chased by those hellbent on their destruction. Nothing is easy!
Thematically, there’s still the sense that, no matter how they try to fit in, the humans and their faith bring changes that are not always welcome to their host nation.
Who was your favorite character in The Last Ancestor? Are there new characters in the sequel that you are excited to share with readers? Do we get to see more from any of the supporting cast?
Garrett and Ghryxa are my favorite. Their relationship is fun to write, and I wanted to make sure they each had their arc and that Ghryxa wasn’t just along for the ride. Dhaxiha and Yhtax were also fun. I liked how their personal changes drove the story.
As far as supporting characters in The Second Sojourn, I had a good time giving Tracy an expanded role and getting to know him more than just his little part in The Last Ancestor. It was also good to give Julie and Gregory a very satisfying arc that will continue into book three. My favorite new character was Rikkert. Always cool to write that “frenemy” character. The Waran were also a personal favorite that I hope readers dig as well.
What do you think The Last Ancestor did well that you hope to continue or expand on in the sequel?
I like to think The Last Ancestor took relatively simple themes of bravery and faith in the face of deadly peril, and trying to live up to obligations, and couched them in a fresh, exciting way. Those themes are expanded, as well as that of being a disruptive agent of change, even if unintentionally. Lots of the importance of duty and obligation and staying true to oneself and one’s beliefs despite temptation to throw it all away for an easy out.
Do we get to meet any other human survivors of the original crash onto this alien planet?
That would be telling, but let’s just say that our characters are just as interested in this, and wanting to know that is what drives the bulk of The Second Sojourn. Are they still there? Who sent that signal, and are they friendly? That sort of thing. Some journeys are worth undertaking even if the answer isn’t clear. You have to have hope and you have to have faith that all of your struggles are worth it. Leave no man behind, or more appropriately, if you have 99 sheep safely with you and one goes missing, you go after that one!
What do you hope your audience comes away with from The Swordbringer stories?
Great question! A few things: that family and duty and honor matter. That it is important to maintain your culture and your ways, but that some changes are good even if they are tough. That leaders make the hard choices and try to salvage the worst situations. That reading can be fun and exciting and not dragged down by despair and nihilism—there is always hope!
And ultimately that you can have “Christian fiction,” or at least fiction with Christian themes, that is still fun for anyone regardless of their faith, if any, and that it doesn’t have to be boring or preachy. And lastly, that it’s good to forgive and it’s never too late to make amends.