When I first heard the title Merchants of Knowledge and Magic, I immediately perked up – just the idea of that, of people who trade in knowledge and magic, already had my attention. And the more I heard, the better it sounded! So when there was an opportunity to take part in a blog tour, I jumped at the chance to interview the author Erika McCorkle about her incredibly unique, incredibly diverse fantasy!
Me: so why this genre? Why fantasy?
McCorkle: Basically, I didn’t start off wanting to write a fantasy novel. I was just creating stuff for my own amusement, and writing it as a book was the only option I had as a child. At no point did I ever sit down and say “I want to write books. Now, what genre will I write?” No, rather, it was like “Well, I have this world inside me. Guess I’m going to make a novel series out of it.”
Me: I think that’s both sensible and beautiful. Next question: why did you choose to write about non-human characters? I ask as someone who is always delighted to read about sapient non-humans! But what kind of work went into that?
McCorkle: The nonhuman species of my world started as ‘Pokemon’, literally. I was a child and had gotten into the Pokemon anime. I was intrigued by the cool monster designs, so I went about making my own. A slew of other ‘monster-raising’ anime came out around the same time, including Digimon and Monster Rancher. The monsters in those two are more like ‘citizens’ in their own society/world, rather than pets. I liked the idea of a world where the people are a variety of monster species, so I decided to make my own. The first stories I wrote about the Pentagonal Dominion were isekai/portal fantasy about humans coming to the PD. They were shameless rip-offs of Digimon and Monster Rancher, honestly, including one iteration where each human had an Aloutian “partner.” Oh, that’s another thing. Originally, I used the term “Aloutian” to refer to the nonhumans. Only gradually did Aloutia go from being the entire world to just one of the planes, and with those changes, the Aloutians went from being all nonhumans to being just the citizens of one country.
As for writing nonhuman characters? It’s great fun! But you have to keep their biology in mind when you write. Often when I write, the scene will initially be a skeleton—just the bare bones. Sometimes it’s nothing but dialogue and simple actions. Later, when I edit the meat onto the skeleton, I add references to their nonhuman anatomy either in how the characters gesture, or in describing furniture, or to aid them in whatever they’re doing. While I wouldn’t say I forgot Calinthe had wings, I occasionally went several chapters without referencing them. When I went back to revise those chapters, I included more mentions of them.
In the book I’m currently writing, Merchants of Light and Bone, the main character has a ball of lightning on the end of his tail which can serve as a light source. I have occasionally had him stumbling in the dark, only for me to realize a chapter later—duh! He can just use his tail as a flashlight!
Me: I mean, I was already invested in checking out the next Merchants book, but a character with a flashlight-tail??? That delights me!
There are so many different species in your book that figuring out everyone’s biology can’t have happened overnight! How long have you had some iteration of the Pentagonal Dominion taking up space in your brain?
McCorkle: The initial spark of the Pentagonal Dominion came to me on August 20th, 1999. I started drawing my own original Pokemon that day. I called them Aloutians, though, and then gave them their own world.
Me: The idea of merchants of knowledge a) is amazing and b) reminds me a very little of the Steerswomen in the Rosemary Kirstein series – although they sound pretty different. But it makes me wonder, what books or authors would you consider influences on your work?
McCorkle: I didn’t read much when I was younger. I was (and still am) a very visual person, so I preferred my stories to have something I could see besides the words. I played a lot of video games and watched anime to get my fix for fantasy stories. Pokemon was the first and probably the biggest overall influence, but I was also inspired by other anime that were airing on American TV at the time. That includes Digimon, Monster Rancher, Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon, and Dragonball Z. Video games that influenced my works include many RPG series, notably Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Zelda, Elder Scrolls, Grandia, Lunar, Breath of Fire, Suikoden, Disgaea, and Skies of Arcadia.
As for books? The only books I recall reading when I was younger and enjoying were the Wheel of Time series (which I’m currently rereading!) I’m not sure how influential it was on me, though. Other than the fact that both my series and that one have a lot of deep worldbuilding, there aren’t many similarities.
In a different way, one author who influenced my writing was the Japanese visual novel author who goes by the pen name Ryukishi07. He wrote Higurashi and Umineko no Naku Koro ni, the former being my favorite anime, and the latter being my favorite work of fiction. While his writing isn’t the best overall (I’ve only read translations, but I hear the original Japanese isn’t spectacular, either), the emotion and sense of fear/urgency/panic his characters experience inspired me to write intense 1st-person narratives where we are inside a character’s mind as they go through horrendous torture.
Me: I didn’t play video games or watch much anime as a kid, despite spending part of my childhood in Japan, so it amuses me how many of my favourite authors have been so influenced by both! I shall ponder that later.
But are there any books you’d recommend for people who love Merchants of Knowledge and Magic, and want to read more like it? Beyond the other forthcoming books in the Pentagonal Dominion, of course.
McCorkle: Honestly? Video games and anime, or indie books where the inspiration is video games and/or anime. You won’t find the kind of stuff I’m writing in traditional published books. They’re playing it safe. They want short books for maximum profits (meaning you won’t get the detail of worldbuilding I have to offer). They also don’t want books that push boundaries or offend conservatives, so you aren’t going to see much queer or diverse content. For that, you have to look into indie and self-published books. For box with similar vibes as mine, I would recommend The 13th Zodiac by L. Krauch, The Keeper’s Codex by A.D. Wills, and The Alvertaen Axiom by Jessica Moon and Mandy Russell.
Me: *scribbles notes* Uh huh, uh huh. Adding them all to my tbr!
But okay, serious question time. Merchants of Knowledge and Magic stands apart as pretty unique, both in terms of worldbuilding and queer rep. As a queer worldbuilding-addict, those are two of my favourite things! But why so far outside the usual box? How did you end up so far outside the box?
McCorkle: It was a gradual process over two the course of two decades. It also helps that the ‘box’ I started in wasn’t full of the same ol’ Western (‘West’ as in America, Europe, etc. not as in cowboys) fantasy worldbuilding tropes many other authors start in. My box was full of Japanese anime/video game tropes and I slowly stepped out of the box by adding in aspects of my own experiences. I took inspiration from everything, from studying biology to being asked weird hypothetical questions. An example of the latter, the idea for the Gods’ Blessing system first came about when someone on the internet asked the age old question ‘An apartment is on fire and you can save only one: a stranger’s baby or your own dog. Which do you save?’ It made me question the very nature of my world. I wondered ‘why would the Fire God even allow a baby or dog to burn to death?’ So I explored the possibility of Gods who grant protections to people right away, and why they might want to take those protections away later.
So ‘how’ I got so far out of the box was largely due to time, critical thinking, philosophy, and inspiration from sources most Western authors scoff at.
Me: now for the most important question of all: if someone offered you a portal leading into the world of the Pentagonal Dominion…would you step through?
McCorkle: I wouldn’t even wait to say goodbye to people on Earth.
Me: I can’t think of a better endorsement for a book than that! Thank you so much for your time, and for the wonderful book!Merchants of Knowledge and Magic (The Pentagonal Dominion #1) by Erika McCorkle
Published on: 8th April 2022
On one of the many planes of the Pentagonal Dominion, priestess Calinthe trades in information, collecting valuable secrets for her demonic employer. Calinthe has a secret of her own: she’s intersex, making her a target for the matriarchal slavers of the Ophidian Plane whose territory she must cross in her search for hidden knowledge. But thanks to her friend Zakuro’s illusions, Calinthe presents as a woman- a comfortable, if furtive, existence in a world determined to bring her to heel.
But when, instead of a mere secret, the priestess uncovers an incalculably powerful artifact, Calinthe finds herself in a high-stakes negotiation with the same matriarchs who sought to enslave her. On the table: Calinthe’s discovery, a charm powerful enough to transform a mortal into a god… against a secret so deadly it could quell all life on every plane of the dominion. If Calinthe plays her cards perfectly, she and Zakuro could escape Ophidia wealthier than either of them ever dreamed possible.
But if she plays them wrong…
…she’ll learn slavery in her pursuers’ hands is a fate far worse than death.