Grace A. Johnson
Name of the Week: Shadow Road (Reviews, Interviews, and More)
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Wait! What? Shadow Road? But that's not a name, is it?
Of course it isn't! Because today, I'm dispensing of all "name origins" and "character this" and bringing to you a book review and a interview with writer A. E. Pennymaker--the author of Shadow Road.
Before we dive into all of the treats that I have for y'all, let's take a peek at this wonderful indie fantasy and its equally wonderful author, Anna.
Brenorra Warring's father is going crazy. That's the only conclusion Bren can make when a fire destroys everything they own, and his only answer is to take a job in the uncivilized Coalition Colonial Region on the other side of the ocean.
Then disaster strikes again. Her father is lost at sea, and Bren is left with nothing but the clothes on her back, the things in her father's satchel, and the discovery that he has been lying about his reasons for leaving. When more of her father's secrets are revealed, it becomes clear that someone powerful is killing innocent people to keep those secrets hidden - and they are hunting for Bren.
As the only person alive who can figure out what her father knew, Bren winds up forming an alliance with two very different men. The first has been tasked with keeping her safe, and will do anything it takes to bring down the organization stalking her, no matter the cost. The other is a brilliant but icy Naval hero who has been branded a wanted man by the enemy.
With time running out and danger rising on every side, Bren must solve the trail of coded messages her father left for her and find the last piece of the puzzle before it falls into the wrong hands. The only rule of this game: do not get caught.
#1--Doesn't that sound SO intriguing? #2--Isn't that such a cool cover? #3--Doesn't that sound nothing like the sort of book that I, Little Miss Historical Romance For Life, would read?
Yes, yes, and yes.
But needless to say, I LOVED Shadow Road. Sure, it's not a definable anything--fantasy, but neither high nor dark, and somewhere in the middle of all those "punks." And, yes, it's also indie, which is generally avoided by readers simply because traditionally published books are (1) easier to find and (2) better in quality.
Not so for Shadow Road. This book was deposited right into my lap around the end of August, so I took the chance, bought it, and read it over last month. And, boy, am I glad I did! Usually, I'll share my review in my blog post with y'all, but since it's so long and since we've got a lot more to dive into, I'll redirect you to my review on Goodreads.
Now, let's dive in!
I was extremely blessed this weekend to get a chance to interview the lovely Mrs. Pennymaker (please note: that's not really her name, but if it were, it's on Mr. Pennymaker, so...) and I'd like to share with y'all her writing journey, sage advice, and a little bit about her debut novel, Shadow Road.
GJ: What inspired you to write? I understand that you're an English major and have been writing for quite some time--how did all that begin?
AP: Ooo… That’s hard to narrow down. I don’t actually remember ever NOT wanting to tell stories. When I was really little, I had a host of imaginary friends that I went on adventures with all over the house. I don’t remember if my family thought it was weird or not, but I don’t remember ever being told to stop. As I got older and started reading bigger books, that… whatever it is… obsession? Compulsion? Sort of morphed into writing my own material when I ran out of stuff from the library. I have very fond memories of spending hours and hours and hours with my little sister, coming up with worlds and characters and backstories. I would draw scenes for it, it was a whole Louisa May Alcott thing. That love of writing and reading came at the expense of my math skills, though, so English Major was just sort of a natural niche to wind up in at college. Anna can write, but don’t ask her to add. What should she do for a living? Teach English!
GJ: *laughs offscreen at the last few sentences, thankful that she's not alone in the world of nonmathematical people* What a fantastic way to become a writer, if I do say so myself! What are some of the driving forces behind you and your writing now?
AP: The ah… compulsion… hasn’t gone away. I just hide my imaginary friends in my computer, now. *eyes keyboard*
Seriously, though, as I’ve gotten older and life has run over me a few times, I’ve started to see writing not just as a way to keep myself entertained or pass the time, but as a way to deal with hard things. Shadow Road isn’t an exact copy of anything in my personal life (how could it be?) but the pain of losing a parent is snarled up in there.
Also, to be honest I just felt like writing something I wanted to read. Not to sound like a prude, but I balk at being told women have to be tougher than men in order to be strong. Strength looks like lots of things, and it’s not always visible. I haven’t seen a female fantasy character that wasn’t physically dominant in a long time, so I decided to write a girl who had to rely on her brains more than her ability to kill things. *crosses fingers*
GJ: I totally agree with you about the overrated physical strength (but, then, I'm very old school...and I just realized that all this is coming from the girl whose heroines are all killers/pirates...ha, ha). I could definitely see that distinction in Brenorra, and it was one of my favorite parts about her and the story. It is great to see an author who wants to break out of that mold!
I could also see the level of emotion that you put into the grief aspect of Bren's life. The way you described certain feelings can only be done by someone who has experienced it themselves. (I'm sure I can't do it justice, though Lord knows I've tried.)
Can you name any authors who have inspired your voice in different ways? How can you see their influence in your writing?
AP: I wrote that answer and hit send and then thought of Rina *coughs up foot* You could add to that answer that I am all in favor of a girl learning to defend herself, and being physically strong is not a bad thing at all. I just know from experience (as a 5’10” strong woman) that being strong physically is good for your health and helpful, but there are some things that you really need moral and mental strength to get through.
Ok. *removes soap box*
Chinua Achebe is one of my favorite authors. I fell in love with his way of showing, rather than telling. He doesn’t spend all day describing what a thing does, he just has his characters use it, which makes that thing feel real and normal. Also, the attention to detail in his writing is incredible. I can’t say I write exactly like him, but he’s there in the back of my mind. As is Shakespeare, ironically enough, and Jane Austen. Samuel Clemmens is in there too. There’s a whole host of other writers I’ve enjoyed over the years, a lot of them classical, which might be why my writing style is more literary. I can’t say I’ve ever deliberately sat down and tried to write like a particular author, but it’s probably there anyway.
GJ: Although you might not, I could definitely see the classic/literary slant in your writing, and I think it was probably what sucked me into Shadow Road the most. Your mature voice distinguished it from other books in the fantasy genre and in turn kept your heroine from sounding like a whiny teenage girl. I especially loved the way you describe the tea...(and I'm a tea-lover, so...)
GJ (continued): I mean, that is just beautiful. Taking the time to dwell upon something so simple as a cup of tea truly shows that Brenorra is a more thoughtful, observant, and intelligent young woman.
What are some of your most favorite books/genres—to read and to write?
AP: I read a LOT of fantasy and speculative fiction. I also like historical fiction and regency romance, and good Christian fiction (as in Francine Rivers). I’ll actually read just about anything if it’s well written. (See: English Major.) To write, though, I tend to be more fantasy/fiction oriented. Historical fiction is on my to-do list, as is humor. I wanted to take a stab at mystery/suspense, so I tried weaving it into Shadow Road. I could see myself writing dark fantasy or dystopian, too, and I’m a total sucker for punk genre writing. I’ve got a novella planned that’s set in the same world as SR that’s much more science fiction than action/adventure/mystery, and I’ve written a novella for the Open Novella Contest on Wattpad that’s technically gothpunk. So. Not sticking myself in any one box, I guess. The only constant is worldbuilding.
GJ: I could also see the mystery/suspense in Shadow Road, and I think your writing techniques would make a great dark fantasy. (And I would certainly love to see you try your hand at historical! )
And, wait! What's this? There is more planned in the future? You have a novella? The world of your Shadows Rising trilogy will continue? Success! Victory! Huzzah!
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
AP: My husband is standing behind me reading this, so… housework? (Now he’s laughing.) I chase my kids around, take my Dad to appointments, cook food, go shopping… live life. And usually think about the chapter I’m writing.
GJ: Shadow Road is a different sort of fantasy—could you tell me how you came up with the idea for this story, your world, and your wonderful heroine, Brenorra?
AP: It started with Bren, really. Most of my stories start out as a character sketch, actually, which is maybe a little weird because then the story often winds up being plot-driven. I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, and I really needed a distraction. I had my iPad. I think the first sentence that came out of my fingers was “All is lost,” and then I had to decide what was lost and who had lost it, and presto. Bren popped up to say hello. So then I had to figure out the rest of it, the nitty gritty worldbuilding stuff, so she would have somewhere to live.
And along the way, I had to figure out who she really was, too, which was a lot of fun. I gave her a few character traits that I wanted her to have – being smart, for instance, and well-educated and able to think on her feet, for another – and she sorta just took over from there.
As for where the world came from, I actually don’t really know. I love the punk feel, though, and I really didn’t want to base this in real history because then I couldn’t mess with societal stuff and have fun with inventions.
GJ: What was your writing process for Shadow Road? Did you pants it? plot it? How long did it take you to write it?
AP: I’m a pants-plot-pantser. I can’t write a story unless I’m invested in the characters in it, so that’s where I’ve always started. I pants a character. But then I’ve also learned (through experience *sigh*) that I can’t finish anything unless I know where my ending is and where I’ve got to go to get there, so I now pants a few scenes or character interactions to get started, and then sit down and spend a few days hashing out a plot that I like. Then I hash out individual scenes, adding more as I get into it. And then I pants the individual scenes because characters are organic beings by nature. And then I might hash out some more plot, or flesh out something with a character, and go back to pantsing scenes again. In the case of Shadow Road, there are elements in it that grew as I went. Bren’s ability with languages was one of those things. So was one of the themes I wanted to work in there: that love seldom hits like a lightning bolt. Sometimes it grows in the most unlikely places. There are a few other ‘points’ I tried to sneak in about humanity and relationships, but that might wind up as a spoiler so I’ll stop there.
GJ: I completely understand the plotting/pantsing thing. (You could probably tell in Held Captive that pretty much every single thing was pantsed. I'm getting better with my outlines.)
What made you choose self-publishing for SR?
AP: I queried a few agents last year. Suffice to say, they’re not really looking for a story that doesn’t fit in any particular box. Or at least they weren’t. Also, having an agent doesn’t guarantee a story will get a publisher. A friend of mine had an agent for years but didn’t wind up with anything to show for it. Indie publishing takes a lot of work and self-promotion, which I hate, but I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck, trying to make SR into something they think will interest readers based on market projections and current trends. XD I have this puffed up idea that maybe I’ll start my own trend. Take that, publishing world.
GJ: I definitely see you as a trendsetter! Self- and independent-publishing can open a lot more doors, I think, and it's great to see that you've entered into one of them! (Also, I totally agree with you about the breathing down your neck part--it may be more difficult to do it all on your own, but it's freeing at the same time.)
What is your advice for aspiring authors on writing and publishing?
AP: I guess that depends on what point they’re at. If they’ve only just started writing, and are still figuring things out, I’d say: learn to use English (or your own native language) really well. Learn the grammar, learn the rules, learn how to express yourself clearly and concisely. That takes a huge step out of editing your work later. Also, try lots of different things. Read lots of different things. Find a voice you’re comfortable in that is YOURS and not a copy of someone else’s. Don’t be afraid to be original, to think outside the box.
Also, learn how to finish a project. If you’re going to write as something other than a fun hobby, you have to be able to keep at it for years. So if that means you write short stories or novellas, then start there. The key is to get all the way to the end, and then edit it, and produce a finished copy.
If the aspiring writer has already gotten somewhere, and had a bit of practice with characters and worlds and plots, I’d say find a good beta reader or book exchange group of people you trust to give you honest feedback. And develop a thick skin. You will need it. I got mine from college professors who tore apart my stuff and made me put it back together, like doctors re-breaking badly healed limbs. You will learn from it even if it hurts. That, and you’ll learn where to start standing up for yourself. If several readers are saying the same thing about your story, you might actually have a problem, but if it’s just one cranky guy who doesn’t really like your genre, look for any truth in what they’re saying but take it with a grain of salt. I guess that just boils down to, “Be objective about your writing. It’s not a baby. If you want to be serious about your craft, you have to take it seriously yourself, and then let it go out into the world without apron strings attached.”
Publishing would be the last step in all of this. For that I say, “Dig in, dig deep, lock your jaw, and hang on, because you have to be doggedly persistent.” Whichever route you choose, Indie or Traditional, you’re going to have to put yourself out there to get noticed. Note: Keep your day job. Don’t quit to ‘focus on your writing.’ You will starve before you make any money, at first, and it puts a huge strain on you to churn out something before it’s really finished. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Also, it might take work, but don’t give up. You’ve finished editing? Then start somewhere. Take the leap and submit it to agents, or do some research into Indie publishing and start marketing.
GJ: Ah, I love reading your answers to these questions! You have a lot of great advice, and I really wish that, when I was starting out (or even now), I had someone to say these things to me.
Which part of SR was the easiest to write, and what was the hardest? Where did you stumble and second-guess yourself in the writing of this novel? (I mean, it happens.)
AP: Easiest – the confrontations between Bren and Arramy were easy. The big action scenes were harder. The scenes that are more emotive were the hardest. Knowing where the line is between just enough emotion and too much or not enough is hard to see, sometimes. I stumbled most often when it came to the underlying mystery, mostly because I’ve never written a mystery before. Was it too obvious? Was it too vague? Too predictable? How much and when do you reveal or omit to keep the reader guessing – but also keep them from losing track of what’s going on?
I’ve second-guessed everything, really. But then I realized this is not America’s Next Great Novel, by any means. Hopefully it will resonate or make a reader think about things a little, but in reality it is only a bit of escapism, a little slice of vacation in an armchair. Once I figured that out, it got a little easier to stop worrying over how much of a social point I’m proving with it, or what the takeaway message is, or if everyone loves it or hates it. I can just weave the story, and be content that I did it as well as I could.
GJ: What is your most favorite character in Shadow Road, and what endears them to you? (I just like asking authors this.)
AP: Oooh… I don’t know who my favorite character really is. I do like Bren a lot, personally. She’s a fun ‘headspace’ to be in, and she has a really weird imagination that pops up when I least expect it. She’s feisty, too. There is a surprising amount of spine beneath all her manners – one of her best strengths, actually. She’s easy to underestimate, which makes her surprisingly dangerous.
I also like NaVarre. He’s fun to write. Witty, sharp, charismatic. He’s wily, too, a bit of a trickster/master manipulator. There are wheels and cogs constantly clicking away in his brain.
Arramy, though, is one of the deepest, most challenging male characters I’ve ever had the guts to write. He might seem like this big, gruff, grumpy, rough man on the surface, and he actually is a lot of those things, (which is admittedly a bit cliché), but there is a TON going on behind the scenes with him, and keeping that in balance with what he lets Bren see has been a highwire walk. But I’ll stop with that.
So I guess I like my three leading characters, which is sorta a must. I also like Bren’s father and Raggan, and there are a few characters coming up in Shadow Dance that have been fun to write. Hope that answers your question XD
GJ: I have to admit, Arramy is one of my favorite characters too! (I love those big, gruff old guys--old to me, seeing as how he's grey-haired and I'm a teen --with deep, hidden emotions on the inside.) I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that he gets an even bigger part in the next two books.
Which leads me to the question: How is work coming along on the last two books in the series?
AP: I’m currently putting Shadow Dance through a final polishing edit and formatting it for Amazon and Smashwords. I should be done by the end of October, hopefully, so I’m hoping to do a pre-order of it at the end of November (black Friday or Cyber Monday, I’m not sure which), with a release date of December 18. Shadow War is outlined and in the middle of drafting. I’m not taking as long in the development stage with that one, since I’m comfortable with the characters and the plot line, but I’m planning on getting it wrapped up by next June. *crosses fingers*
GJ:Wow! I can't wait for them to release!! (I'm seriously on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what happens next. I hate cliffhangers!)
And, lastly, if you could rewrite Shadow Road right now, what's the first and most important thing that you would change? What's the one big element that you would keep exactly the same?
AP: If I could rewrite Shadow Road right now… I’m not sure what I would change. It’s been on Wattpad for three years, and it’s been through several major edits, including a split and some added content, as well as a ‘defluffification’ process in which I had to tear out a bunch of passive voice and overdone visceral reactions. I’ve already changed a lot of the stuff I think needed to be changed, like why she winds up on the Island and what happens there, and I’m fairly happy with it. Eventually a person has to stop messing around with a thing and just let it be done. I might tweak the leadup to the dance scene at the end of the book, make it less of a frilly moment, or maybe tuck a little more backstory in here and there like someone suggested … or try to figure out a way to give Bren a little more agency in some things… but I’m content to leave it for now.
The one big element that I would keep exactly the same? The underlying plot. It took a lot of work to get it ironed out, and I’m pretty happy with where it’s going to take readers. Bren, Arramy and NaVarre are also pretty much the way I want them, too.
Now, I know it's Monday and I know y'all were probably looking forward to a name this week, so I asked Anna how she came up with the name for her heroine, Brenorra. Here's what she said:
"Part of loving to mess with stuff (i.e. worldbuilding) is also loving to come up with fun character names, at least for me. I love the sound of the name Bryony… Didn’t want to actually use Bryony… So just messed around with sounds till I got Brenorra, and it just sorta ‘clicked.’ Like, quite literally, something went, “Yes. That’s her name. She is Brenorra.” A LOT of things about Shadow Road are like that, springing up like they were there the whole time and I’m just wandering through the story turning on the lights."
I know this is a long post, so I'm thankful that you made it this far, and I do sincerely hope that y'all will check out Shadow Road. You can purchase here on Amazon as both an eBook and a paperback. (And, yes, I made the quote graphic myself. I'm becoming quite tech-savvy. Yeah...not!)
Something else y'all can check out this week is my new short story, available as an eBook on Amazon. It was just something I cooked up for fun and I wanted to share! (Don't know why the cover won't pull up on the Amazon page...not my fault.)
Thanks again for joining Anna and me as we chatted about her debut novel, Shadow Road. Don't forget to check out her website and stalk her--er, follow her on Facebook and Instagram!