Coming Home Again: Returning to a Series When You’re Not Who You Were

by Gail Z. Martin

The Shadowed Path is the first book-length return to my world of The Summoner, in my Chronicles of the Necromancer series, in five years.  That makes it a homecoming of sorts, and coming home after a journey is both comforting and a time for a little introspection. Because while home is familiar, neither you nor home ever stay the same.

My new book, The Shadowed Path, is a collection of eleven Jonmarc Vahanian Adventure short stories, ten that have been previously released and an exclusive eleventh story only in this volume.  They are the first third of Jonmarc’s backstory, sequential stories that were written as a serialized novel, and something of a prequel to The Summoner.

I started bringing out Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures short stories a few years ago, wanting to share the story behind the character who is a favorite of many readers. We get glimpses of Jonmarc’s past in the Chronicles and Fallen Kings books, but not the full tale, and I figured it was time to fix that. After I’d written quite a few of the stories, Solaris asked to do a collection of the first ten plus an exclusive extra story, and of course, I said yet.

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Actually, you can, but don’t expect it to be the same. Both you and the people back home have changed, so home will not be the same place you left. Technically, even if you stayed, change would have still continued, but you would have been part of that change, instead of coming back and trying to merge with a stream that has moved on in its own way, even as you changed too.

We all experience this situation when we decide to re-read a book that spoke to us when we read it at a certain age, only to find that it reveals layers of new meanings and nuance to us at a difference point in our lives. Or we discover that a beloved or familiar song or a movie had a deeper, different theme than we realized because we didn’t have the life experience or cultural reference points to understand.

I wrote the first draft of what eventually became The Summoner when I was in college. I was 19, the same age as my main character, Tris Drayke. I worked on the book through many, many revisions, and both Tris and the plot changed dramatically. I finished college, went to grad school, got a job, got married, had kids, moved, changed jobs, and continued to work on the book when life permitted. In 2007, when I was 45, the book became an overnight success. Go figure.

Over the years that it took to bring The Summoner to life, the character and plot certainly changed and evolved, but there’s still an aspect of innocence to Tris in those first books that remains from who I was when I first wrote the story that I think would be harder for me to recapture it now. I’ve gone from being the same age as my protagonist to having kids the age of my heroes, which is one hell of a perspective shift.

I’m still writing about characters who are at an age when all the heroic action comes naturally (and the damage heals faster) and who have the invincibility and energy of people in their twenties and early thirties. But over the years, those characters have grown more world weary and knowing. By The Dread, Tris has shouldered the weight of the world with the burdens of kingship, and while Jonmarc achieves a redemptive arc, Tris heads toward a future where dark omens still loom. Blaine McFadden’s series, the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, is much darker and grittier, post-apocalyptic medieval, with characters who have already survived both family trauma and hellish conditions. In Iron and Blood, several key characters are military veterans who saw action during the Rancher Wars, and others are reeling from personal loss. And in Deadly Curiosities, Cassidy’s innocence is an early casualty as she learns the secrets behind the family business she has inherited and its real role in eliminating supernatural threats and saving the world.

Since I’m not 19 or 23 or 25 anymore, I can view those characters not only through the lens of my own remembered self, but also now by watching my kids and their friends and significant others, asking myself how they would handle a situation, what choices and alternatives might occur to them given their perspective and life experience. And in subtle ways, that changes how I understand the characters, how the characters make decisions, and how they process the repercussions. I know more about choice and ramifications than I did when I was younger, about good intentions and the road to perdition and unintended consequences, about preparation and sheer damn luck–good and bad. And I grasp now in a way I couldn’t back then, bone deep, that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and sometimes grace smiles on the unworthy and valiant, and that the greatest heroism lies in surviving.

The world has changed as well. I started the book that became The Summoner in the last years of the Cold War, before the Wall fell. Wars between kingdoms felt familiar, because war between superpowers was always looming in the background. Then 9/11 happened, and the American mind finally grasped what the rest of the world had lived with for a long time, the idea of free-floating, constant insecurity and vulnerability, the fear of a stateless enemy, the existence of amorphous evil with a human face.

I see those changes in my writing, from the conflicts in the first four Chronicles books to the non-aligned threat of The Dread, to the warlords and nomadic raiders of the Blaine McFadden books, to the supernatural terrors of Deadly Curiosities and Iron & Blood that hinge on obsession and vengeance. I guess I’ve been trying on variations of the apocalypse to check the fit.

As Indiana Jones said, “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.”

My personal world changed too, and that played out through the books. My relationship with my father was painful and complicated. I did not realize until much later that in four series, my main characters’ fathers die tragically. Writing that into the books wasn’t conscious or intentional, but it still managed to surface. I was writing Deadly Curiosities when my father passed away and we cleaned out his house and handled his affairs. Many of the objects from his collection and the storage facility I spent that summer in cataloging and appraising odd collectibles found their way into the books with a few dark twists.

Moving forward, I imagine those changing viewpoints will continue to affect my writing, since we have tie-in short stories and novellas that extend all the series as extra ‘episodes’. For me, it’s a natural progression since the characters themselves need to evolve and change as they experience wins and losses and grow into new phases in their lives. I can already see where those factors affect the new epic fantasy series I’m writing for Solaris, and the characters that are developing there.  I’m very intrigued by the possibility of having characters, old and new, approach their challenges with evolving perspective, even as my readers change through their own life stages and as I experience the shifting perspectives that come with time, constantly changing, but still finding our way home to the things we love.

After everything, we do eventually attempt to go home once more, prodigals all of us. Because as Robert Frost once wrote, “Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

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