"Game of Thrones" Meets the Ancient Middle East: An Interview with Daniel Arenson, Author of "Kings of Ruin"

Dynastic politics, magic, and violence—Daniel Arenson’s new epic fantasy series, beginning with Kings of Ruin, has them all. Set in an alternate version of ancient Rome and Judea, the series recalls Game of Thrones with its political and sexual intrigues, brutality, and vivid characters. Arenson’s world is deeply imagined and inspired by historical events, even as it is infused with magic.

I caught up with Daniel to talk about his inspirations for the Kingdoms of Sand series, the magic of his world, and more.

This seems like a unique setting for epic fantasy. Roman-occupied Judea is rare territory for this genre. Can you talk about what attracted you to the setting and conflict?

A few years ago, I visited Caesarea, an ancient Roman city on the coast of Israel. Caesarea has seen quite a lot of history. King Herod built its port. Pontius Pilate lived there. The Romans even staged gladiator fights in Caesarea's amphitheater. I explored the ruins during the day--I visited the amphitheater, walked along the city walls and aqueducts, and saw the remains of the temples. But the real inspiration came at night.

After the sun had set, I stood by fallen Roman columns on the beach, and I gazed out at the dark waves under the stars. Each wave told a story. Those columns, those stones, those waves--they had been here two thousand years earlier, had witnessed this history. I could almost hear the waves whispering those old tales.

I decided then that I wanted to write about this place, this history. About the Romans conquering Judea, building cities along its coast, and about the doomed Jewish rebellion. The entire story came to life in my mind.

But I'm a fantasy writer, not a history writer. So I knew I would write this as a fantasy series. I created a fantasy world reminiscent of the Roman province of Judea, a sort of alternate reality, if you will. And I infused it with hints of magic.

Once I got home to Canada, I began to write. Two years later, I had a six-book series titled Kingdoms of Sand. It all started there along that beach.

This book definitely has a Game of Thrones vibe! From the beginning we feel as if we know the characters. Are you going to take inspiration from George R. R. Martin and have them go in unexpected directions?

Much of what my characters do surprises me. When I began to write, I had a general idea of where the story would go. To a large degree, it's a retelling of Judea's rebellion against Rome. But I only knew the overall concept, not what would happen to each character. Every day when I sat down to write, I let the characters roam free. I let them guide me rather than me guiding them.

Many of the characters took unexpected turns. The story twists came to me on the fly. This sort of artistic freedom is, I think, important for a large story like this. It let me explore the world slowly, discovering new paths and tones as I went along. I think that made Kingdoms of Sand feel more rich and organic.

Can you talk about what inspired the magic system in this world?

There is a real mental phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome. It occasionally affects visitors to Jerusalem. There are several cases ever year. Perfectly normal, sane people visit Jerusalem and suddenly undergo a profound spiritual transformation. Some experience delusions or psychosis. There have even been cases of sufferers wearing bedsheets as robes, wandering the city, and delivering sermons!

When I visited Jerusalem, I wasn't struck with the infamous Jerusalem Syndrome. But I did feel a deep, almost mystical power to the place. The alleyways of the Old City are redolent with history. The energy is palpable.

This feeling inspired Luminosity, the magic system in Kingdoms of Sand. In the series, there is an ancient city analogous to Jerusalem, a source of mystical energy. The city flows with history and holiness. Not everyone can detect this mysterious energy. But the few who can, people called lumers, are able to tap into its powers. They can use Luminosity--the holy light of the city--to gaze through space and time, heal wounds and diseases, and even speak prophecy.

What did you want to bring to the epic fantasy genre, with this series, that is unique to you?

Most epic fantasy novels are set in worlds similar to medieval Europe. And that's fine. I've written many such novels myself. With Kingdoms of Sand, I wanted to choose a unique setting. Biblical Israel has such a rich mythology and history. It provided fertile ground for fantasy storytelling.

Also, unlike most fantasy novels, Kingdoms of Sand is grounded in reality. The story is about humans. There are no dragons, elves, or hobbits. There is a little magic, but not much. There is nothing wrong with fantasy novels that include many mythical creatures and magic; I've written those novels myself. But here I wanted to write a series that felt like the Middle East in the first century. I think fantasy fans will enjoy Kingdoms of Sand, but it can also appeal to history buffs.

What are some of your favorite fantasy novels?

The first fantasy novels I picked up, all the way back when I was eleven years old, were the Dragonlance novels. I still consider them among my favorites. They kick-started my obsession with--err, I mean, love of--fantasy.

The Chronicles of Amber is another favorite series. I've read and reread the Amber books several times.

I began to read A Song of Ice and Fire all the way back in the 90s, and I've been a fan of that series since.

Robin Hobb is another terrific author of fantasy. Her Liveship Traders series is probably my favorite of hers, but you really can't go wrong with a Hobb book.

Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Tigana is another favorite. No fantasy shelf is complete without some Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson too.

And of course--The Lord of the Rings. It's the granddaddy of fantasy literature and still one of the best.

What’s the plan for this series?

Kingdoms of Sand will be six novels long. The final novel in the series, Echoes of Light, will be released in November. You can see all the novels on my website: DanielArenson.com/KingdomsOfSand

Daniel Arenson is a USA Today bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction. He's written over forty novels, most of them in four series: Earthrise, Requiem, Moth, and Alien Hunters.

Fifteen of Daniel's books have hit Amazon's overall Top 100 bestsellers list; two have hit the Top 20. Over a million copies of his books have been bought, downloaded, or listened to. Raised on Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and scratchy Star Wars VHS tapes, Daniel still consumes--and tries to contribute to--geek culture.

You can download three of Daniel's books for free at his website: DanielArenson.com

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Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and other places. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor/Macmillan in 2015 under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. The sequel, Fire Dance, is forthcoming in 2018.

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