Monday, April 15, 2024

Abigail Kelly Dives Deep into the NPU and What’s Next

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Since May of 2022, I have been working my way through thousands of results on Amazon, trying to find the best PNR and living my best chaos search life. I came across Abigail Kelly‘s New Protectorate Universe (NPU) after a different author had her in a recommendation list, and I fell hard and quickly for this incredibly fascinating and diverse universe!

Set in the future in a world that mirrors our own, the NPU features all your favorite supernatural beings, including witches, elves, dragons, orcs, shifters, and of course humans are part of the fun too. What we expect of PNR is played with and explored in really interesting ways. For example, elves are the ones that people are afraid of and orcs are the ones known for being incredibly gorgeous instead of hulking ugly beasts like so much of PNR/fantasy.

One of the biggest tropes in PNR is of course the mating bond. Whether it’s from magic, instinct, a boon from in-universe gods or powers, or an unexplained feature of that paranormal world, mating bonds are (within the stories), one of the most important parts of a paranormal being’s life. There’s plenty to say about choice in these relationships (or the lack thereof in universes where not completing a mating bond can lead to one’s death) but that’s an essay for a different day.

Kelly however takes this trope (and all the other beloved PNR tropes) and follows them to their natural consequences, investigating what dying if you don’t find your mate actually means. And what if you do? What if they’re not the person you thought you’d ever mate with? Or what if you gave up your mate years ago but now they’re going to marry someone else because what else can they do? These are just two examples of what happen in Consort’s Glory and Courtship’s Conquest respectively.

At the moment the series is made up of five books. Fragile Beings is a collection of three novella length stories set before the events of Consort’s Glory that introduces readers to the NPU and the Elvish Protectorate. Novella Empire came next with Courtship’s Conquest, which was released last March. Novella Strike releases May 30th! For those who have read Fragile Beings, you’ll recognize Vael the dragon and Hele the elemental he caught in Astray.

a collage of book covers
Reading order for what’s out (including Strike next week!)

After reading everything that was out in a two days, I knew I wanted to interview Kelly about her approach to writing the universe and what we might see next. Read on for a comprehensive look into the NPU and what else Kelly has planned, plus a spoilery question for the end of Consort’s Glory.


FM: Consort’s Glory went through several edits, and you even rewrote the entire thing after your first round of rejections. Once the version that we know was set up, did the next novels and novellas in the series flow from there or did you have to tinker with characters and situations set up in the very first version?

AK: Believe it or not, Consort’s Glory was actually rewritten in its entirety a total of seven times over roughly seven years! In total, I got something around 100 rejections from literary agents for the dang thing. The only rejection that really stuck with me was from the single full manuscript request I got in the winter of 2019: “Loved the characters, but the worldbuilding felt shallow.” Ouch, but she was right! I had been trying to fit the characters into our world, instead of making a world that fit them. Once I realized that, the story opened up in ways I couldn’t have predicted at the start of the journey.

Unfortunately, the result of that story bulldozing was that I had to scrap everything I’d meticulously built over six-ish years. The only scraps that hung on were Margot and Teddy, the Solbournes, and that it was set in San Francisco. Camille and Viktor, the leads of book two, had a very brief appearance in the early drafts, but were barely fleshed out enough to be called true characters. I even had to throw out an entire, fully polished sequel.

That means that almost everyone and everything you know in the NPU is brand spankin’ new. I had no ideas for what would become the novellas — I didn’t even know I would ever write novellas! — let alone that it would be a series of standalones, until roughly 2021.

A blue elf and a human redheaded witch in a car in Abigail Kelly's signature art style, part of the NPU
Teddy and Margot, the leads of Consort’s Glory.

FM: You have a consistent set up for how you write your novels and novellas one after another. Do you ever find yourself drawn to a different couple when you’re trying to write the “current” pair?

AK: The short answer is no, because I’m always obsessed with the folks I happen to be writing at the time. Every single book I go through the same “goodness, I can’t believe how much I love them!” bit, like it’s a surprise.

However, I do stare longingly into the distance on my way to work, dreaming about other couples and their stories even as I savor the book I’m writing. To me, it feels a bit like I constantly have five or six movies going in my head. I like to flip back and forth between them, saying to myself, “Oh, I can’t wait until I can settle down and really watch that one!”

FM: Do you have a favorite character or pair?/Is there a character you never thought would get a book who is now clamoring for one?

AK: My favorite couple is whoever I’m writing at the time, without exception. However, I think Margot will always be the character I have the most fondness for. She’s been with me the longest, after all, and in a lot of the ways the NPU was crafted specifically so she could exist.

When I first started doodling her in my sketchbook way back in 2014, she was very much an imaginary heroine who was all the things I wished I could be. Great in school, magic hands, rock solid sense of who she wanted to be, fantastic hair? The stuff of dreams!

It took her a while to feel independent from me — a character, not just my art school stress-induced fantasy — but when she did become her own person, I still felt very close to her, silly as that sounds. She’s my girl and I’m immensely proud of her.

FM: If you had to take the NPU and throw it into a different genre of romance, which one would you pick? Do you think about AUs of your own work?

AK: I think the only genre that would be snazzier than paranormal would be a full blown, razzle-dazzle, glitter in the engines space opera. It would be pretty easy to sell the elves as aliens, and all love scenes can be improved by the addition of zero gravity. (This opinion may or may not be heavily influenced by my art school obsession with the film Jupiter Ascending and all things Star Trek.)

Personally, I don’t foresee myself doing an AUs of my own work. This is mostly because I am having so much fun writing new stuff! However, I found my feet as a writer and reader with fanfiction, so who knows? Someday I might dash off an AU oneshot where Margot, a lady from a noble family, falls for Theodore, a roguish king of a pirate fleet. Or something.

FM: How did your podcast Kingdom of Thirst come to be? Do you have any favorite episodes?

AK: Oh boy. Well, honestly, it mostly came out of annoyance. Not mine, but my poor friends’. Like a lot of people, at the start of the pandemic I was furloughed. I suddenly found myself with a much smaller pool of folks to talk books with, since I could no longer talk to bookshop customers five days a week. This coincided with also having more time to read than I’d ever had in my life. At a certain point I was reading three books a day. I absolutely needed to discuss the plot of these books and try to sell them to someone, but my poor friends could only take so much.

Eventually, a couple of them got so fed up that they said, “Abigail, you need to channel this intensity and mad desire to sell books. Please just start a podcast or something.” They probably hoped this would save them from having to listen to me, but I shuddered at the idea of monologuing for an hour, so they ended up as guests on the pod and having to listen to me anyway. Now they just have to laugh at my jokes, which is an improvement, I think.

I’ve gotten to do so many wonderful interviews with incredible, interesting authors, but I’ve also experimented with audio essays. The pod has come a very, very long way since its start when I had no idea what I was doing or what folks might like to listen to, so I always suggest skipping the first, eh, ten or so episodes. Better yet, start with the most recent. When the audio/storytelling gets dodgy, turn back the way you came.

My personal favorites are the Gilgamesh audio essay series (episodes 110-114) as well as Episode 82: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Episode 101: The State of Romance with Sarah Wendell. I love the ones where I get to be unhinged with my friends as much as the ones where I get to put on my Serious Interviewer Hat!

FM: If you were a character in your own universe, who would you be and what would you be up to?

AK: This one always stumps me. Not because I can’t choose between all the glittery options, but because I think I would be pretty much exactly as I am now. If I had to put myself in the NPU, I’d be a low-to-mid level witch who spends too much time on her computer, works in a bookshop, and lives in San Francisco with her dog, Babs.

I like my life a lot — hello, I get to write about hot elves and dragons all day! I work in an amazing indie bookshop! I can eat sushi in bed and wonder at how my redneck ancestors from ye olden days would process that! — so I really wouldn’t change much. I would, however, very much appreciate UBI, clean streets, and reliable public transit.

See also: hot elves and dragons.

a drawing of a red dragon baby self soothing with her wings like being swaddled
Kelly shares sketches like this one explaining more of her worldbuilding on social media and more on Patreon!

FM: The NPU has a fascinating magical system including something called m-events. (For new readers, these are when a whole lot of magic comes together and out pops an elemental. You’ll meet two in Fragile Beings with Hele getting her own book out at the end of May!)

How do you tackle worldbuilding and adding new details that add depth to the NPU?

AK: I always feel a bit like a fraud when I answer this question with, “I make a simple rule and stick to it like a shoe on an arcade floor.” Alas, it’s the truth.

I give myself really basic but immutable building blocks with which to work and then scale up from there. For the NPU, that all started with the creation myth, where all the gods got together to have a competition to make the most perfect beings. This set the tone and the limits for the entire world. Everything is a competition and everyone thinks they’re the best — except for humans, of course, since they were made last.

So when it came time to start actually building the world you know, it was easy to work up from there. I always ask myself, “What feels natural?” and then pluck stuff from history and science that makes my brain go ding!

What helps everything make sense is that I always try to have a scientific (or at least logical) reason for everything in the world. The science goes hand in hand with the mythological. Finding natural phenomena to back up why, say, a dragon might change color at night is my bread and butter.

Looking for answers like that often has a cascade effect. For instance, I wanted San Francisco’s fog to be sentient. Okay, I thought, how can I make that make sense?

So I looked at what I had, which was that magic exists in the atmosphere at all times and has to be channeled to be used. It’s modeled on electricity, which does a bunch of weird stuff in our own world!

I thought, Right, you have magic in the atmosphere that can do weird things. Can it make a person? What kind of person would it be? How would a being like that be received by the world? What would their births be like?

Now fast forward. That simple building block of “magic in air” led to Paloma, the heroine of Astray and a scientist who studies this natural phenomena, Cal, the hero of Weathering, and Hele, the heroine of Strike, as well as a key plot point of Burden’s Bonds, whose heroine has a PhD in electromagnetic m-theory.

In short, I start simple, stick to the rules, and find ways to satisfy my dark hunger for self-indulgent nonsense. Everything else unspools from there.

a white haired pale man in shades of blue, cal from fragile beings
Cal from Fragile Beings, a fog elemental!

FM: Similarly, a lot of the common understanding in PNR about certain beings like orcs and elves is completely flipped in the NPU. (Elves are the violent ones. Orcs are not ugly!) How do you decide to change things up?

AK: Okay, so I know I just said that a lot of what I do is to justify a self-indulgent whim, but I really mean it when I say that sometimes I do things simply because they tickle me. Example: “orcs are the most attractive beings” came from a joke.

I was writing the opening chapters of Consort’s Glory, when we meet Theodore and his brother Kaz, and I thought it would be really funny to have a line about how “everyone finds orcs attractive”. This comes from the fact that I have been in the romance space a while and… well, folks who like orcs, really like orcs.

So it started as a little wink to my orc-loving pals, but it pretty much immediately led to me asking, “Hey, what if that’s not just a dig at Teddy? What if folks really do think orcs are the popular girls? They would have better press than elves, since they’re more sociable and…” Again, like with the fog, it is an example of me working backwards to suit my whims!

This applies to most everything in the NPU, which I consider Abigail’s Fun Zone. The minute I decided I wasn’t going to try and sell it to a publisher, I made a promise to myself that I would chuck out anything I didn’t find interesting or worthwhile — expectations be damned. After all, I’d already gone and rewritten the entirety of human history. There was no reason I couldn’t honor the beings we all love without also getting a little weird with it. Also, stuffy ol’ Papa Tolkien would almost certainly be disgusted with everyone thirsting after orcs, so that was a good motivator. I wanted to have fun with it, so I did.

For the most part, I’ve tried to keep that up because I think it’s what draws many folks to the books. I do feel like I need to be conscious of not alienating people from what they know, though.

For instance, I don’t think I could have gotten away with getting rid of pointy ears and still calling them elves, and I wasn’t going to needlessly rename beings you could clock from a mile away. That sort of thing can get clumsy, cumbersome, and comes off as awfully arrogant. I don’t want to pretend like I’m the most original, creative writer, or that readers won’t notice when I dress an orc up in a party suit and call him something different. I am not that by any stretch of the imagination and readers don’t like being treated like they’re silly little babies, because they’re not.

I am working with the same clay as everyone else — and there are many, many folks who do it better than me. I just like to have fun, hyperfixate on things like the San Francisco corpse removal era, throw color where I can, and hope that folks want to join me for the ride.

FM: You live in San Francisco and a lot of the NPU is set there (and the US). How did you decide where the different beings would be placed around what we understand as the United Territories map?

AK: Oh, this is a fun one! I’m a big ol’ history nerd and used a lot of what I know to create a sort of parallel history of the world. Give me an interesting fact and I’ll find some way to slot it into the NPU. Nothing delights me quite so much as history. I still have my textbooks from my honors classes, because I’m That Person. I even considered becoming a historian, only to realize I’d fold like wet tissue paper the moment someone critiqued my academic work.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but I had a blast coming up with all sorts of historical/economic/political reasons for the way the different territories became what they are. I tried to look into what every group would value most, as well as where their strengths would lie to determine where they’d land. For instance, I knew that orcs were extremely community and land focused. It made sense to me that they would live in an area where they could have a lot of legroom — they tend to be semi-nomadic — as well as copious rich farmland. So to the midwest they went!

map of the UTA in the NPU
I love the way this maps onto what we know of the US and am excited to see what is happening in NPU Alaska. Hawai’i never got colonized. Hell yah.

The shifters got the wildest terrain, like much of the south and the deserts, because they have packs suited to those places and they aren’t as concerned with creating a wide, interconnected community. The dragons cornered the Great Lakes, as well as most of the north east. Why? Because they were focused on trade. They locked down the harbors, as well as what would become the greatest hubs for the intercontinental railroad. The witches got a tiny slice of the Pacific northwest because it was where most of them fled during… well, you get it.

Of course, I also have to keep in mind that the map changes and has changed many times, due to war, migration, and other internal/external pressures. The legacy of inter-territory conflict is something I am very conscious of in the books.

I could go on and on, but that’s the gist of it!

FM: What can readers look forward to in future books? Burden’s Bonds is set three years into the future, but will we be getting more time jumps (if you are willing to share)? Are there any beings that you’re particularly excited to introduce to us?

AK: Boy howdy, do we have some stuff to look forward to! I like to imagine that Consort’s Glory was the marble that set off the Rube Goldberg machine that is the New Protectorate Universe. Things are going to get wilder and weirder as paths intersect and actions create much wider consequences than you might immediately suspect. Burden’s Bonds is a hoot and a half for that very reason. We really start to see how things have begun to escalate — and the danger that brings.

It also throws us outside the Elvish Protectorate, which means we get to meet a whole heap of new and interesting characters. Many of them are of the unscrupulous variety, which I enjoy immensely.

As for the more immediate future, I can say that we will get more time skips, just not necessarily in the direction you assume…

Also, there will be merfolk and gargoyles. So there’s that.

FM: So we’re going back in time, huh? Can’t wait to see that! Finally, before our one spoilery question, is there anything else that you’d like to share?

AK: Well, there’s an awful lot I’d like to share, but very little I can. I get DMs and whatnot asking if so and so or this kind of being will be featured in the series in the future. Broadly speaking, the answer is yes. If they’re named, described, and don’t canonically have a significant other(s), then it’s a safe bet I have their story at least half cooked. I can’t promise I’ll get to it immediately, but I will eventually!

If you really want to drive yourself closer to the yawning abyss of madness, I usually put in what I feel are very obvious clues about those future stories in the text. So if you have a favorite character you’re gunning for, their passages might be worth a second or third look.

(Disclaimer: I have heard that my clues are not, in fact, obvious.)

FM: Following up on that, you do have a book planned about ghosts! Can you tell us a bit more about that?

AK: Those who’ve followed me for a while will probably remember what I’ve been calling The Ghost Books and wondering what the heck is going on there! It’s a long story, but way back in 2020, after I shelved Consort’s Glory for what I thought would be the last time, I threw myself into writing an entirely new universe.

Around that time I got really into studying the century of Spiritualism, which we all hear a little bit about in school, I suppose. Most of us have this image of Spiritualism being confined to Victorian seance parlors, which isn’t true at all. There was a whole century where people went absolutely bonkers for ghosts!

The more I dug in, the more I wondered what the world would be like today if that wholehearted enthusiasm for the paranormal hadn’t withered. So The Ghost Books are set in the modern day timeline where everyone knows ghosts exist, mediums are a regulated resource (and have a union!), and the veil between worlds is basically thinly sliced Swiss cheese. It’s a smidge darker than the NPU, but still has all those good, good HEA’s. They are best described as Pushing Daisies meets Immortals After Dark. Even death has to sparkle a little.

ghost man embracing a woman
Virgil Ainsblade and a mysterious love interest.

I blazed through writing the first two books in 2020 and 2021, sent out a heap of queries to agents, and… well, Covid. The response I got was overwhelmingly positive, but due to the pandemic and the state of publishing at the time, I received a lot of “don’t change anything, this is perfect, but sorry, I don’t know how to sell this right now”.

You might understand better now why I went rooting back through my metaphorical dust bin, pulled out Consort’s Glory, and said, “Eh, screw it.” I needed to do something after that entire demoralizing year. I spiraled. I had spent six years writing a book no one wanted, and then when I did write a book everyone thought was good, I still couldn’t sell it. (Cue writer’s identity crisis music.)

Looking back, I don’t regret how it turned out. Writing The Ghost Books taught me so much about worldbuilding. Those lessons made the NPU what you know today!

Alas, the books are in limbo. I had a surprise request late last year, so I’m not sure what will happen there. My best guess is I will be self-publishing them in the future, but I have no estimate of when that will be right now. However, I’ll keep everyone posted as soon as I figure the dang thing out!

FM: The question that I, many of my friends, and others in your Patreon Discord have is will the Goodes ever face ramifications for their atrocious treatment of Margot in Consort’s Glory? While her family was working on limited information, their actions were awful, and I personally want to see some explicit discussion of the aftermath because the epilogue almost made me cry!

AK: The fact that folks care enough about Margot’s story to feel righteous outrage on her behalf is… really something special for me. Truly.

That being said, I know I made a lot of y’all angry, so hear me out! I knew that ending the story there would be a risk. I needed it to be satisfying, for you the reader to feel like the HEA was there, but I also knew that any quick wrap up of Margot’s relationship with her family would feel paper-thin. Now, I could have added another 10,000 words to the dang thing, but no one in their right mind would have picked up the book, so sacrifices had to be made.

What I was trying to do was twofold: stay true to Margot’s character and convey to you that the story has truly just begun.

The entirety of Consort’s Glory takes place over about a week. One week. In that week, Margot is not only bombed, but she’s whisked away by what amounts to a king, she is absolutely certain she is on the brink of death, and then on top of it all, she suddenly has to reckon with the fact that she has been unknowingly, unintentionally, hideously mistreated by her family.

There is a small time skip between the last chapter and the two epilogues. A handful of months pass, in which Margot is just beginning to be comfortable with who she is, as well as understand the full scope of her trauma. Theodore, who has the advantage of both perspective as well as a (relatively) healthy family life, is patiently waiting for the wall she has erected around those feelings to crumble. That is where the story ends.

Newspaper clipping talking about the events of Consort's Glory, book one in the NPU
Newspaper clipping after the events of Consort’s Glory.

I think it would have felt quite sudden and out of character for Margot to learn the truth and then shun the enormous family who had been her entire world for 25 years. It would have felt even stranger for her to find a way to punish them outright, though I understand that from a reader’s perspective it might have at least felt satisfying.

The complicated fact is that, despite everything, she loves them. She knows that they love her. She also knows that they’ve wronged her, but processing trauma after a lifetime of dysfunction does not happen overnight. It often moves like the earth around a fault line: in tiny increments, building pressure, only to release unexpectedly and with immense force. When the tension finally breaks, mountains are made.

So yes, we will see the Goodes, particularly Sophie, be forced to reckon with this, as well as the du Soleils. It is not just Margot who has to come to grips with it, after all, since bad things don’t just happen to you. They also happen to everyone who loves you: the Goodes who didn’t know what was happening, or those who disagreed but were silenced, Theodore, Olivier, and Margot’s mother.

Suffice it to say, it was not a story that could be wrapped up in an epilogue or two.

FM: That’s true and now I can’t wait to see more of the Goodes! Thank you so much for your time!


You can keep up with the Abigail Kelly and NPU on Twitter, Instagram, and of course sign up for Kelly’s Patreon. Plus stickers, pins, and other goodies at her Etsy!

Images courtesy of Abigail Kelly
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