Today I am pleased to have Michelle Belanger, who is here to talk about her latest book, Harsh Gods. This is the second book in her Shadowside series, which is published by Titan Books. Please give her a warm welcome.
Hi Michelle and welcome to Book Mood Reviews. First off, can you explain the series in 5 sentences.
Zack Westland is a gamer geek and a linguist who authenticates looted artifacts for a living. He is also an angel – but not the glory, hallelujah kind. If there’s a heaven or hell, he’s not seen them, and his many winged relations are too busy fighting among themselves to discuss the issue. Earthbound and living secretly among mortals, the angelic tribes are embroiled in a cycle of betrayal and vengeance stretching back for millennia. When Zack uncovers proof of a conspiracy to eradicate the members of his tribe, the Anakim, he pays for that knowledge with lifetimes’ worth of memories. Surrounded by dubious allies and unapologetic “frenemies” like Lil, the Lady of Beasts, Zack must put the pieces back together before he loses not merely his past, but his very immortality.
Where did you find the inspiration for your series?
It’s no secret that I worked on a ghost-hunting show for several years. Some aspects of the Shadowside grew out of my work with Paranormal State, particularly the idea of the Shadowside itself. Zack has this ability to step bodily into the world of spirits. It’s innate to his entire tribe, and it allows them to fight entities like cacodaimons on their own turf.
My descriptions of the Shadowside are directly inspired by my own impressions from haunted locations. With Paranormal State, we never went to kindly hauntings. It was always scenes of murder, suicide, brutal suffering – truly the stuff of nightmares. The feel of such places, like there’s some psychic stain imprinted upon the very fabric of reality, inspired my idea of Crossings – the soft spots that allow Zack to step beyond the physical world.
When I describe the lingering echoes at such a Crossing, I am drawing directly from things I witnessed – things that people would never believe outside the boundaries of fiction.
How easy did you find it writing the second book from the first?
Writing the second book was a real challenge – one that surprised me. I’ve written close to thirty books over the course of my career, and never did I get anxious about my process the way I did with Harsh Gods. With each of the first few chapters, I was hyper-aware of continuity, intricacies of plot, issues of character, and, above all, making book two shine even brighter than book one. I’d poured heart and soul into the first book, so that was a tall order. I’m working on book three right now, and the process is still challenging. There is such enormous pressure in a series to make certain all the threads are deftly woven and none of the characters disappoint.
Had you always planned it to be a series? If so, did you have the skeleton for Harsh Gods before you started writing it? Or did it come naturally after you finished Conspiracy Angels?
From the start, I knew this had to be a series. There’s so much to Zack’s world – not merely the magic of the Shadowside, but also the complex history of the angelic tribes. Outside of fiction, I’ve spent over a decade immersed in research on angelology and demonology, studying texts like the Book of Enoch, which features beings that blur the lines. The idea of angels is one held in common with three major world religions (arguably more), and its roots stretch far beyond to the civilizations of Sumer and Babylon. All of that rich mythology comes together in the Shadowside Series, re-envisioned with a healthy dose of “what if?”
The conspiracy that Zack uncovers is a web of intrigue and betrayal stretching back for centuries – millennia, really – and there are many more stories that must be told if the whole thing is to properly unfold. Even as I was working on the initial draft for Conspiracy of Angels, I had a sketch of key details in Harsh Gods. Each of the books focuses on different tribes in Zack’s extended family, and that will continue to be a trend, as each represents a different puzzle piece for the over-arching plot.
How has Zack evolved as a character from the first book?
In the first book, Zack survives a terrible attack that wounds him in mind as well as body. That’s where we first see him, panicked, confused, and experiencing a pain “like a freshly severed limb.” With that for a start, Zack continues through Conspiracy of Angels in crisis mode, and while we get to see his personality manifest during brief, incandescent moments, he rarely gets any chance to really reflect upon these flashes. By Harsh Gods, Zack’s had some time to contextualize his experiences. He knows he’s not entirely human, and he’s coming to grips with that revelation and all it entails. He also realizes that the person he used to be might not have always been the hero – and throughout book two, Zack continually makes choices to change that for the better.
That process of choice is one of the key reasons for angels being the focal point of the world-building. In Christian lore, angels are typically portrayed as lacking free will. Jewish lore takes it one further, seeing angels as beings utterly unable to change their nature: they are made to be what they are – in essence, identity, and role – and they cannot deviate from that divine imperative. Part of Zack’s journey is learning that he cannot change his nature – but he can choose how he acts upon that nature and what it often drives him to do. That line can be a fine one, but it’s significant and worth exploring.
Do you have a ritual when you are writing? Is there a particular time or room that you like to write in?
There must be tea. It’s not merely the caffeine (though that certainly helps). It’s the taste and the feel of it. They’re sensory cues that tell me, “This is when we sit down and write.” I have an office on the first floor of my home and this is where I tend to get most of my work done. There’s a big, comfy chair – I’ve never had much luck writing at a desk – and plenty of music. My writing music tends to be stuff like E.S Posthumus or Qntal – symphonic, with vocals but no clearly discernible lyrics, and a bit of a beat. Soundtracks are good, too. Music from the Last of the Mohicans, Gladiator, and the score to the Crow are staples. Perhaps appropriate for the dark tone of the Shadowside, I get my best writing done at night.
How much research do you carry out on your books?
When it comes to research, I can get a little obsessive. Blame it on all my years writing research-heavy non-fiction like the Dictionary of Demons. One of the reasons I chose to write Urban Fantasy was the verisimilitude prevalent throughout the genre. Urban Fantasy plays out against the backdrop of our world – with a supernatural twist to throw the drama of the human condition into starker relief. When a character uses a gun, the writer damned well better know how that gun works, down to correctly naming its parts. The same goes for other familiar real-world elements, from computers to art history.
I may be an expert on the occult, and I’ve got a strong background in history, both of which figure significantly in the series, but I am constantly running into topics that are outside of my wheelhouse. At those moments, I’m grateful for the Internet and a working knowledge of how to do quick, effective research beyond Wikipedia. I’m also a stickler on getting geographic locations described as correctly as possible, and, again, I am grateful we live in an age of Internet wonders. When I can’t make a trip to physically explore a location, I have stalked the place through Google Earth Street View in order to immerse myself in the look and feel of it. Sometimes all that research boils down to a single line of text in the finished draft, but the data collection itself helps anchor the story more firmly in my head.
What do you have planned next?
At the moment, I am hard at work on THE RESURRECTION GAME, which is book #3 in the Shadowside Series. That will be out around this time next year, but fans of the series won’t have to wait that long to get their next Zack and Lil fix. In October, we’ll be releasing a novella, MORTAL SINS. This is a poignant ghost story that tells us what Zack and Lil were up to in the gap between books 1 and 2.
A studio has optioned your series of books for a series of movies, who would you like to see in the lead roles?
Liam Hemsworth is a little on the young side for thirty-something Zack, but he’s definitely got the height and the rugged look. Chris Pratt is another possibility – with his goofy grin, he could certainly speak to Zack’s geekier side. Lil is harder to cast with anyone currently popular – she’s a throwback to the ladies of Film Noir, like Ava Gardner. I keep scouring the screens for someone with enough curve and sass to carry Lil, but I keep coming up short. To complicate matters, Lil is of mixed Middle Eastern extraction, and if I was doing her casting, the actress would have to share a similar background. The same goes for Halley – she is mixed race. Nicole Behari from American Violet is a maybe, as is Amandla Stenberg from the Hunger Games. Tom Mison from Sleepy Hollow would make a great Remy, especially if he grew his hair out again. I think Bruce Boxleitner, who played Sheridan in Babylon 5, would make an awesome Father Frank, and Bobby would have to be Archie Kao, who played Archie on CSI.
Thanks for taking the time out to answer these questions and good luck with the series.
HARSH GODS (Shadowside #2)
The last thing Zack Westland expects on a frigid night is to be summoned to an exorcism. Demonic possession, however, proves the least of his problems. Father Frank, a veteran turned priest, knows Zack’s deepest secrets, recognizing him as Anakim, an angel belonging to that hidden tribe. And Halley, the girl they’ve come to save, carries a secret that could unlock a centuries-old evil. She chants an eerie rhyme…
“HANDS TO TAKE AND EYES TO SEE.
A MOUTH TO SPEAK.
HE COMES FOR ME.”
As Zack’s secrets spill out, far more than his life is at stake, for Halley is linked to an ancient conspiracy. Yet Zack can’t help her unless he’s willing to risk losing his immortality—and reigniting the Blood Wars
ABOUT MICHELLE BELANGER
Michelle Belanger is an author and occult expert most widely recognized for appearances on Paranormal State, HBO, the History Channel, Destination America, and CNN Headline News. Michelle’s nonfiction has been published worldwide, and translated into seven languages. She teaches classes around the U.S. on dreamwalking, energy exchange, and spirit communication..