I’m stingy with my all time favorite reads book list. Only books that I really enjoy and will read again make it on the list. Mortis is one of those books.
Mortis is a school that takes children off the streets during their early years and trains them to be killers from the time they can walk. They graduate at sixteen and either pass a test to become a master assassin or die–if they reach the age of sixteen.
“In Mortis, failure means death.”
The school reminds me of an evil Hogwarts. There are secret passages, traps, crazy staircases, and the teachers are master assassins. The students live and die by the assassin’s Code. But what if the Code is wrong? What if you don’t want to kill defenseless people?
That’s where Jane comes in. To say that she’s conflicted would be putting it mildly. Yet what’s a girl to do when putting her convictions first puts her life and the lives of her closest friends in danger?
The result is a fun ride with characters you love. Come and meet Hannah, read an excerpt, and see if Mortis is a book you’d like to read as well.
In which I ask Hannah a few questions so we can get to know her better. ;)
Me: Do you consider yourself a Christian author or author of Christian fiction? What do you think the difference is?
HC: I am a Christian author because I am a Christian and I am an author. I don’t write Christian fiction—there’s really nothing definitively religious about any of the stories I write (at least so far). All authors pull from their life experience and personal beliefs, though, so my personal worldview is evident in my writing. Overarching themes of good defeating evil, redemption, and faith are there in the text, but they aren’t really why I write. I write to tell a good story, one I hope readers of any faith can enjoy.
Me: A little birdy told me that you moonlight as a librarian when you’re not writing. What type of library do you work at, and how did it influence your choice of audience and genre?
HC: I’m a children’s and teen librarian in a public library. My library system has a wonderful focus on fostering a sense of community for local kids and teens, so I get to spend a lot of time working with young people of all ages. I am a passionate advocate of building life-long readers, so in a way working with teens did influence my decision to write for this age group. I like writing for teens because (having been one myself) I know that this is the age when kids really start to come to terms with the world around them.
I write fantasy for a couple of reasons. The first is the easiest: I like reading fantasy. The second is more serious. I believe that everyone faces dark times and hardship in life. Fantasy offers worlds where evil and darkness can be defeated—often by a young protagonist. Teens might feel disenfranchised and powerless in the real world, but reading fantasy—or fairytales, or dystopian fiction—gives them a chance to see someone their age choose to face down evil and defeat it. I hear people complain that fantasy is just “escapism,” which frustrates me. All good literature is escapism. It’s taking your mind out of this world and putting it in a fictional world, where you can vicariously experience the joys and struggles of another person. It is a way to learn empathy and gain a greater understanding of the world and the human condition. And sometimes readers of all ages need a safe place to escape to. If one of my books can give young readers a safe haven for an hour, or give them the courage to look at the world around them with new eyes, then I will consider my writing career worthwhile.
Me: Mortis is an unusual book in setting and character. What made you decide to write about a school of assassins? And would you share a little about your world building process?
HC: The easy answer is that my protagonist, Jane, lives in a school that trains assassins. I knew this as soon as I mentally “met” her—I always begin a story with nothing but the sense of a strong-voiced character and a few crazy ideas about what kind of problem that character may face. The fantasy world grows up around my characters as I write. But not in an organic, easy-as-breathing way. I have to work on it. I research a lot, which might sound odd since I write fantasy, but in the pursuit of crafting a believable story world I’ve researched everything from the history of opera in Paris to the religious practices of ancient Assyria. Consistency is the hardest part of worldbuilding, for me. Tiny details are just the tip of the world-building iceberg, but they’re all the reader sees. If I give a soldier a red uniform in one chapter, and then forget and turn it yellow in the next chapter, the reader will think I’m talking about a different army. This might seem really obvious, but I’m the kind of writer who can blithely have the same character alive and dead at the same time (not in a vampiric way—I just forget that I already killed characters on occasion).
Me: It’s interesting that your stories start with the characters and the setting and story come from them. One of the things I liked best about Mortis was the characters. Who was easiest to write? Hardest? Which one is your favorite?
HC: Jane, the protagonist, is my favorite character; I like her quiet strength. It takes a long time to write a book, though, so I am invested in all the characters, even the villains. Felix was the hardest character to write, because the annoying guy kept changing his mind about whether he wanted to be a villain or a hero. I killed him in a fit of exasperation while I was writing an early draft of the story, but he refused to be so easily silenced—he was reincarnated in the next draft.
Me: Can you tell us something about Mortis that you know but isn’t in the book? Perhaps share some back-story on a character or something about the setting?
HC: I like to consider how the secondary characters of any novel would view the events of the story. In this story, I found myself wondering about Sapphire and Zel, two of Jane’s classmates who are also training to become assassins. Sapphire makes a lot of dark choices out of fear—I was fascinated by the moral quandary made evident in her life. Is it bad to do evil things if that is the only way to survive? I played with this a little in Mortis, because Sapphire’s choices are such a contrast to Jane’s. But I didn’t really have space to go into Zel’s life or backstory. Imagine being trained as both a healer and an assassin. Unlike Jane and Sapphire, who had friends to protect them inside their dangerous school, Zel is only alive because of her value as the apprentice healer. She’s really, really bad at most of her classes. She can’t play chess to save her life. And she’s shy, but she knows the names of every student in her school because she’s basically the school nurse—she sees all the injuries, everything from scraped knees to near-death dueling wounds. Zel is a young woman trying to serve both life and death, balanced between hope and fear. And that’s all I can say about her for now.
Me: I was also intrigued with Zel. I wanted to know more about her. Perhaps in a later book…like maybe a sequel to Mortis? [fingers crossed] What are you working on now?
HC: Right now I’m working on my latest NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project, which involves taking the 100K words I wrote in the span of one (extremely sleepless and caffeinated) month, and turning it into an actual novel, with actual characters moving through a plot that makes sense. There could be a sequel to Mortis; right now it lives in my head and in a very sloppy, very rough draft on my computer. Whether or not it sees the light of day depends on publication variables.
Me: And before you leave us, what is one thing you’d like your readers to know?
HC: Thanks for reading (or thinking about reading) Mortis! As a writer, I’m thrilled that you chose to venture into my story-world of assassins and second chances. As a librarian, I’m just happy that you’re reading—whether or not you picked my book. Keep reading!
She elbowed through the last of the crowd and emerged at his side, grinning. “I can’t wait to see his face when you win.”
Anyone else would have counseled caution. Felix found himself answering her grin. He tossed Willy his coat and rolled up his shirtsleeves. “It’s not his face I care about.”
“She’s here,” Willy said, answering the question he hadn’t asked.
His eyes rose to the stands again, and found Jane at once. He could see her fury in the tilt of her chin, in the inscrutable line of her mouth. She hadn’t spoken to him since the challenge.
Willy elbowed him. “Focus, Felix. She’ll get over it.”
“Is that supposed to comfort me while I face possible death?”
“If you die defending her, she’ll die of a broken heart a few days later. Just like in the ballads.”
Felix pulled his attention back to the ring. “You haven’t quite mastered the solemn tone of a dueling second, Will.”
“Yeah, well, I’m more used to being in the ring myself.” Willy straightened up, her hand settling on her own student sword. “Here he comes.”
Kade paused in the doorway, raking the room with a glance that laid ownership to everyone in the stands. He swaggered his way to the ring.
The school rioted in response, half the crowd cheering for Felix, the other half chanting Kade’s name, a rhythmic battle of sound. Felix ignored the noise. Kade preened in it, bowing and then bowing again, a sharp nod that set the bells in his hair jingling.
Then Kade deliberately swept his gaze over the audience. His stare fastened on Jane.
Felix saw Jane’s smile vanish, her expression brittle. His fingers tightened around his sword hilt. “Kade, this isn’t a player’s stage. Are you here to fight or to amuse the crowd?”
Before Kade could answer the hall fell silent, a stillness enforced by the masters’ presence in the doorway. Black robes brushed the floor as they strode to their places around the ring, one master for each of the twelvespikes holding the rope boundary.
Felix entered the dueling circle. He should have been afraid His gaze turned to Kade’s sword with its sixteen gold rings around the hilt, marking the older boy as a member of the senior class.
The sword in his own hand bore only fourteen gold rings.
He performed the requisite bow to his opponent.
“Begin,” one of the masters said.
Kade’s sword snapped forward. Felix felt the grind of steel against steel through his wrist and up his arm. His feet slid across the floor, sword flashing from strike to block to lunge without conscious thought.
The noise outside the ring hammered at him: Willy bellowing, “Hit him, Felix!” from the edge of the ring, catcalls when Kade stumbled, moans when the older student recovered and attacked again. The razor edge of Kade’s sword grazed Felix’s shoulder.
Kade drew back, smirking. “Want to give up, boy?”
Felix transferred his sword to his left hand and Kade bore down on him, forcing both their blades sideways. Felix slammed himself into his opponent. For a moment they strained against each other, feet planted on the floor in stubborn refusal to give way.
Kade’s hand twitched to the right and Felix wrenched free, hooking a foot around Kade’s leg and jerking the older boy off his feet.
The cheering from the stands vanished in a collective indrawn breath.
Felix stood over Kade and let his eyes rise to the stands, just for a moment.
Jane’s expression hadn’t changed, but this time her anger swept through him like a sturdy kind of warmth. She nodded to him, just once.
Willy flung herself into the ring, howling with delight, and the hall shook with the cheering, the stands rattling, the vaulted ceiling vibrating above them.
Felix remembered to breathe. The lightning-sharp anger of the fight sizzled inside him. It took an effort to hold his sword steady.
He could kill Kade. He’d won the duel.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Kade hissed, arrogant even in defeat.
He wanted Kade dead, but not yet. Not like this.
Not with Jane watching.
He leaned down so only Kade would hear. “Next time you think of coming near her, remember this. Remember what it feels like to greet death.”
The tip of his blade flicked once, leaving a triangle of blood at the base of Kade’s throat.
Felix’s eyes bored into Kade’s. “Remember that Jane is mine.”
He sheathed his sword, turned on his heel, and left the ring.
Excerpt used by permission.
Didn’t I tell you it was good? And it just gets better. :D