Here it is! The spoiler-filled review of Grace & Witherbloom Book 5: The Obsidian Emperor!
Then let’s go, because this (and the next book) are quite possibly my favorites of the bunch. Maybe. Actually, as a unit I was very happy with the final three books. Which is good because I suppose you don’t want the story to go all boring and wibbly at the end, do you? And, in essence, though each book is pretty much a standalone story (more on that in a bit) it really is one bigger story, too. Part of the reason I liked writing the book as a series of stories was really so that I’d ensure there was no flagging middle. There are lots of starts, middles and ends. But running through them are all the threads that come to a head before resolving themselves in the final book.
But, onto the book itself. The weird thing about this book was that, unlike the first few books, I really had no idea where to take the story as I was writing Book 4. Usually my mind was working forward a couple books at least while I was writing the current book. But not this time. I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head, of course, but most of those were either used in the first four books or were rejected for any number of reasons.
I knew I wanted two more stories before the final story, which had started to take shape in my mind pretty clearly after the first seeds of it started sprouting in my mind while writing the first book, The Girl Who Died Backwards. I suppose I could have gone right into the final book, but the overall story would have felt too short. I feel like we needed more time with Josiah and Helen and Wilhelmina. I wanted them to “simmer,” I suppose, and originally I wanted some space between Josiah and Helen’s “origin” stories. As I believe I mentioned last time, “Josiah’s Story” (which became The Light On The Moor) was going to be a short story attached to this book, and “Helen’s Story” would have been attached to the next book.
Around the time I was writing The Light On The Moor, I visited a museum with my partner. I love museums. This one wasn’t huge, but it had some interesting pieces. And that got my mind going about setting an adventure in a museum. Oh, it’s been done before, let’s not pretend it hasn’t. And I wanted one of the displays to come to life and start killing people. Which has also been done before. But I just loved the creepiness of that. It felt very much like a classic scary movie in that way, and seemed to fit Grace & Witherbloom as a series. But it needed a twist. It couldn’t be a boring old mummy. It needed something to move it beyond what could be a boring retread of scary museum stories.
The title “The Obsidian Emperor” just sort of came to me, as well as the title villain. Which is probably the most boring thing to say because it doesn’t give you any insight into how it happened, but there it is. I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese jade sculptures since I was young, and when I was a kid I had a hunk of “obsidian” that I used to look at constantly. I used to hold it up to the light and run my hands over it. It was such an intriguing hunk of glass. I’m not entirely sure if it was real obsidian or not, but it certainly looked like it. I’d purchased it from a garage sale somewhere along the way. The wonderful thing about obsidian is that it’s much more “evil” looking than jade. It can also be very sharp. So a visual flashed in my head of a very scary and very dangerous villain for the story. Which was a nice change of pace because there are actually very few straight-up villains in the books. It was a refreshing change to have a direct nemesis for Helen and Josiah to play off of.
I really liked the idea of two related exhibits coming together as well, and the gate and the alternate universe from which the Emperor originated again came from a visual that flashed in my head. I thought of huge, floating pagoda cities. I just loved that visual, a merging of a classic architectural style and the very futuristic. That they hovered over a bombed-out wasteland only added to their appeal. From there, everything just sort of snowballed. It was one of those story’s whose various story threads came together very naturally.
I knew I wanted to give Wilhelmina a bit of a spotlight, heading off on her own to get herself into (and out of) some trouble without Josiah and Helen around. This was important because Wilhelmina couldn’t stay as inexperienced as she started out for too long. I didn’t want her to become a jaded adventurer right away, but she was in danger of getting annoying if she couldn’t keep up with Helen and Josiah a little bit. This was also a good set-up for the next book.
Speaking of set-ups, yes… this ends on a little big of a cliffhanger. I still feel as though the two books are really fairly distinct stories. It’s more that The Other Key is a sequel to this story than it is the second part of the same story. But this is the one instance where you really get maximum satisfaction and resolution by reading two stories and not just the one.
Removing Helen came fairly late in the game, actually. Originally, the story was going to end the way that The Other Key does. But I wanted to see more of the world of the flying pagodas. And I realized that I had a perfect opportunity to develop all three of the main characters in a very substantial way. Breaking up Grace & Witherbloom was the best way to do it.
But I didn’t want it to feel like a cheat. I didn’t want people to think “Oh, Helen’s going to get out of this in two seconds where we pick up.” I think, as sophisticated readers, we know that most of the time cliffhangers are resolved fairly quickly in the next story. So I added the coda with Josiah and Wilhelmina to drive the point home. Helen is gone. Over a year has passed. Life has moved on. The Emperor’s actions had a real, profound effect on everyone’s lives and that wouldn’t be undone at the start of the next book.