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Lee Murray's NZ Speculative Fiction Show - Eileen Mueller

Welcome to Lee Murray’s New Zealand Speculative Fiction Show, an interview series featuring star acts from NZ’s science fiction, fantasy and horror community, including news, insights, and sneak-peeks of their latest performances.

Today's guest is award-winning New Zealand YA and MG fantasy writer Eileen Mueller. Welcome Eileen!

Tell us about your latest release Ezaara: Book 1 in the Riders of Fire series. I heard it took you nine years to write. It must be epic. What’s the story about, and who did you write it for?

Ezaara is an amazing story, but it had such humble beginnings. My friend, Mandi Ellsworth, asked me to beta-read her young adult fantasy manuscript, which was excellent, and I remember thinking, “Wow. I love writing. I could do this.” So, I started.

I had a kid who was dragon crazy, so why not write about dragons?

The first thing I saw was the multi-coloured tip of a dragon’s wing. Then I had to figure out who was seeing it. And why. Now, there’s a girl in a forest clearing, seeing a dragon for the first time. They imprint in a blaze of emotion and colour and she’s swept away from everything she knows.

Right in the first chapter, we find out it’s a crime to talk about dragons in her village, so this is a big deal! We also find out that the dragon she’s imprinted with is Zaarusha, the queen of the dragons. As the new Queen’s Rider, Ezaara must lead the dragons to battle tharuks, cloned monsters who are enslaving the people of Dragons’ Realm.

Why did the story take nine and a half years? My first draft was 223,000 words! That’s the size of three novels, so it needed a lot of work! After 13 revisions, the opening chapters of Ezaara won the SpecFicNZ Going Global contest and I had an offer of publication, but I still wasn’t happy with the story.

Now, I am thrilled with it, and that first draft has become two books, Ezaara and Dragon Hero. Some projects are larger than life, and they just take time.

Where did the inspiration for your main protagonists come from? Are you inspired by people you know?

One of the main protagonists is Roberto, Ezaara’s dragon master, who is tasked with training this ignorant girl from a sleepy backwater. With a dark past, Roberto mistrusts easily and scorns the new Queen’s Rider, until he discovers Ezaara’s talents.

Of course, legally, any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental, but I know some extreme introverts, so I succumbed to the temptation and included bits of their personalities in Roberto’s character.

Tell us about the stunning cover. Why do you think people love dragons so much?

Why dragons? Dragon symbolise adventure and freedom and excitement. I used to paraglide, and there’s nothing like floating in the sky, miles above the world, with the wind tugging at your hair. It really gets your adrenaline going.

I was always terrified that a cover artist would never be able to capture Zaarusha’s beauty, ferocity and magic. Christian Bentulan, my talented cover designer, lives in the Philippines and I’m in New Zealand, so it was 1am when I when he sent the cover for Ezaara through. My phone pinged and I took a look. I was so blown away that I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night!

When can we expect the next book in the series? Is Ezaara the main character in that book, too? How many more are there?

Dragon Hero is available on Amazon now, on pre-order, and will be on everyone’s Kindles on 8 November. And guess what? The cover is even better than Ezaara! Here’s a sneak peek! The dragon rider in this book is Tomaaz, Ezaara’s twin brother. When Ezaara disappears, Tomaaz discovers dangerous family secrets and his world turns upside down.

Dragon Rift, the continuation of both Tomaaz and Ezaara’s stories, will be available early next year, followed by the grande finale, Dragon Strike, in mid 2019. Then there will be a rapid release of several novellas based in Dragons’ Realm – Dragon Healer, Dragon Mage, and Dragon Called. I also have two short stories underway, Silver Dragon and Bronze Dragon – prequels to Ezaara If you sign up on my website, you’ll be the first to get these new adventures, as soon as they’re released.

I hear you have some nasty creatures like tharuks in your stories. What makes a good monster in your view?

A good monster has no concept of our more noble human values, such as empathy, generosity or compassion. They are driven by a need for survival, power and control. Hmmm, much like some humans. So whether you’re writing a young adult fantasy or a contemporary thriller, your human or bestial monsters need ruthless, psychopathic or narcissistic traits.

Tharuks are terrible. Cloned by a Commander Zens, who is more of a monster than them, they are numbered and without names. Tharuks thrive on controlling humans, and live in terror of their Commander. With heavy pelts, warthog-like faces, tusks and retractable claws, they walk upright, like men, but unlike men, they have don’t value life. They see humans as a means to an end: dispensable; despised; weak.

They also don’t value one another. Pitted against each other, only the strongest survive. The rest? Well, Commander Zens makes short work of disobedient or weak tharuks.

Having said that, it’s important to show moments where tharuks act out of character. In Dragon Hero there’s a tharuk who likes art, and another who steals ‘pretty objects’, although that doesn’t end well.

Do you want to leave a little excerpt from Ezaara?

Ezaara held the last bolt for a moment, rubbing the sea-blue cloth. She’d been admiring it earlier. She’d never seen the sea, but if it was anything like the rippling pattern of blues flowing across this fabric …. She sighed, placing it on the table. Maybe one day she’d see the real ocean.

Old Bill leaned over the stand, his gnarled hand plucking at Ezaara’s sleeve like a roach clinging to a table cloth. “You’ll like this.” He opened his jerkin and pulled out a scrap of black cloth covered in vivid patterns. “Look.” It was beautiful.

She didn’t want anything to do with Old Bill, but she couldn’t resist. Ezaara leaned in, staring. Dragons—the swirls of color were dragons. “That’s forbidden,” she whispered.

“Go on,” he murmured, eyes glinting. “Touch it. I know you want to.” He held the cloth out.

Someone would see. Ezaara snatched it. Holding it close, she opened her palm and stroked the wing of a golden dragon, then the tail of a bronze. Set against a dark sky dotted with silver pinpoints, the beasts were beautiful. Were dragons really gold, red and bronze? Or was it only the weaver’s imagination?

“How much for this fabric with the wheat pattern?” A woman’s voice startled Ezaara.

She crumpled the cloth and thrust it into Bill’s waiting hand.

A while later, Ezaara is in the forest, when…

Something swished, a sudden breeze stirring her hair. Ezaara jerked her head up.

A dragon was circling the treetops. She recoiled in fear. With a snap of fangs or a swipe of talons, it could kill her. The owl-wort fell from her shaking hands. Ezaara tensed to flee.

But hesitated.

Sunlight played across the dragon’s iridescent scales, making them shimmer. Its graceful wings swished ever closer, rippling with color. This beast was beautiful—beautiful, but deadly. She had to escape. But the tingling grew stronger. The amazing creature circled down toward her. Foliage rustled in the downdraught from the dragon’s wingbeats.

A voice hummed in her mind. “Ezaara,” it crooned.

This creature could talk to her?

“We’re mind-melding, sensing each other’s thoughts and emotions.”

She held her breath, drawn to the dragon. Rich colors cascaded through her mind. Sunshine poured into her soul. Ezaara wanted to soar. She glimpsed a vision—her riding the dragon, flying above the forest, over the Grande Alps and into the blue.

“This is your destiny, to ride with me.”

Warning cries reached her—villagers. If only they knew this dragon, they wouldn’t be afraid.

The dragon’s hum built to a roar inside her. It dived.

Familiar faces shot into her mind. Her family! She couldn’t leave them.

Ezaara’s love for her family was swept aside as energy rushed through her. She was enveloped in a prism of rainbow-colored light, like reflections in a dewdrop. Music from the purest flute filled her heart. For the first time in her life, she felt whole. The energy coiled inside her and she sprang, lifted by the wind, hair streaming out behind her. In a flash of color, the dragon’s scales were beneath her. Ezaara landed on a saddle in a hollow between its wings. She wrapped her arms around the dragon’s spinal ridge, hugging it tight.

It felt so right.

The dragon regarded her with yellow eyes. Ezaara could’ve sworn it was smiling. “I am Zaarusha. You were born to be my rider,” it thrummed. The beast turned. Its belly rumbled and flames shot from its maw.

They flew off, leaving her home and loved ones behind.

There’s also an interactive fiction title for younger readers that is set the same world of Dragon’s Realm, is that right?

Dragons’ Realm, A You Say Which Way Adventure, won a Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Youth Novel in 2016. With twenty-two endings, Dragons’ Realm gives kids the autonomy of shaping their own exciting and often hilarious adventures. The Thomson Twins, the school bullies, chase you through a portal into Dragon’s Realm, the world of Riders of Fire, where you can ride dragons, rescue a dragonet who’s the world’s worst singer (with her perched on your shoulder and her tail tight around your neck, you can’t escape her lovely voice!), and even experiment with taming tharuks! Although this story is set in the same world, it’s a light-hearted tale, which kids love.

Attack on Dragons’ Realm is a prequel to Ezaara, for 10-12 year olds. This coming of age tale, through the eyes of three tweens, allows us to experience one of the first tharuk attacks on the village of Horseshoe Bend. Our unlikely heroes must go to battle. Reina becomes a powerful wizard, but her magic is out of control. Benno becomes a warrior, but gets feels faint at the sight of blood. And Jerrick becomes flight-sick dragon rider. How can they overcome their weaknesses and save their village? Attack on Dragons’ Realm is a little different: the book contains one beginning, one end, and three intertwined stories from Jerrick, Benno and Reina’s perspectives. You can read them in any order.

Are you planning any more interactive stories like this?

I already have Mystic Portal - A You Say Which Way Adventure, a fantastical mountain biking adventure where every bike jump takes you into strange new worlds. The Fairytale Factory have six writers working on their You Say Which Way Series, so there are lots of books and boxed sets to enjoy. And, I’ll let you in on a secret: some of their writers are working on a new interactive series! Very exciting.

You’ve won two Sir Julius Vogel Awards for science fiction and fantasy now. Did winning a literary award change your perspective on writing?

Wow! It was amazing to know that fans loved my books that much!

What kind of research do you do for your stories?

I’ve learned about building snow caves, archery, sword fighting, effects of poisons and a multitude of other strange subjects. I’m very lucky to have a good friend who is a forensic specialist, kick-boxer, archer and motorbike racer (useful in my upcoming paranormal romance series). He was also an orc extra in The Lord of the Rings cinematic production, so he’s right into fantasy. To get the dragonback archery scenes right, he gave me homework, making me watch archers on horseback on You Tube for hours!! It was fun.

He’s coming along to the New Zealand launch of Riders of Fire with his swords, bows and arrows, so our guests will be able to experience archery for themselves.

Writers are weird, right? What’s the strangest/most interesting thing about you? Tell us something we don’t know.

Um, this …

And this…

Did you know that I’ve been face to face with a real Komodo dragon?

My only protection was a little wee guy holding a long stick! Yes, a scary moment. See how terrified I was? Although I’m smiling for the camera, I was squeezing the guide’s hand to pieces!

These photos are ancient and not great quality, but these Komodos are ripping a goat to shreds, just a few meters away. There’s also one just off camera, watching us as we walked past. A few more prowled around our bungalows, so we had to make sure we didn’t need the distant bathrooms at night.

What other literary projects are you involved in right now?

I have just had a story accepted for Midnight Echo, the Australian Horror Writer’s Association’s magazine. Teaser: there may be dragons, but I’d never give that away, because I don’t do spoilers!

I am also working on a short story for an online anthology about a menagerie of cryptids (mythological creatures). I lived in Switzerland for six years, so I’ve done some research and discovered a Swiss Alpine Dragon who will feature in that story. I can’t wait, but first I need to write Bronze Dragon, Silver Dragon and get a chunk of Dragon Rift done! I need a time machine or a set of tharuk clones that I could train to write for me!

And finally, you’re stuck in a cave in Death Valley with just your rucksack. What book do you hope is tucked inside and why?

Oh, Lee, what a tough choice! I’d probably sneak a few dragon books into my rucksack, but I’d definitely take your latest novel Teeth of the Wolf and your next thriller, Into the Ashes. Thank you for hosting me.


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