Fantasy author J.T. Hartke’s book, A Balance Broken, is the first of five in his Dragonsoul Saga. By the end of his first chapter Hartke had me hooked with a clever plot device and from there I met character after character in his shifting POV narrative. Hartke’s greatest strength as a writer is his descriptive ability. Little things like the name “Sourbay” or his descriptions of meals bring the reader into his world of Tarmor. While there are some moments of high tension that had me breathlessly turning pages, such as the dragon attack on a Dwarven city, A Balance Broken is fairly light on unpredictable conflict until its climax, which should leave most readers teetering on their seats. So instead of reading to see what would become of a particular character, I was more intrigued by his descriptions of life in his setting and hoping to find out some of the deeper plot behind the unfolding story. As his first publication though, A Balance Broken is a good indication of great things to come from Hartke and I look forward to reading the rest of his saga.
CG: I know that you got into D&D fairly late, as an adult. Had you grown up reading fantasy and science fiction though?
JTH: I first read The Chronicles of Narnia when I was in fourth grade. I picked up Tolkien in sixth. I then proceeded to consume everything I could get my hands on in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy realm. Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Isaac Asimov, David Eddings, Stephen King, Robert Jordan, and most recently, George R.R. Martin. While I did not play D&D on paper, mostly because I grew up in a very small, rural town, I played it on PC, along with Quest for Glory, Space Quest, Elder Scrolls, etc. Lately I’ve been playing the original Dragon Age and Skyrim.
CG: Who are your favorite fantasy and sci-fi authors?
JTH: Currently George R. R. Martin is the best in the biz. I also really enjoyed King’s Dark Tower series. Tolkien is, of course, the foundation of most modern fantasy. Right now, I am waiting for Brandon Sanderson to finish Wheel of Time. I stopped when Robert Jordan passed, and I have yet to pick up Sanderson’s additions.
CG: How did you get into D&D and have you played any other RPGs since then?
JTH: Having grown up in a small, rural town, there was no one else interested in it, so I was starved of friends to play. And we all know good friends are the key to good D&D quests. So, as I said, I played it and similar games on PC for many years.
In college, I picked up Magic the Gathering, and played it in a good circle of Wizards. After about a dozen years, we finally got the right group, and a good DM, and began to play 3.5e AD&D. Of course I was a paladin, and I got up to over level 25 before our DM moved away. Now, writing and marketing The Dragonsoul Saga takes up so much of my time that I barely have time for Skyrim.
The Dragonsoul Saga: A Balance Broken
CG: In A Balance Broken, you have a flight of dragons attacking a Dwarven city. Did the various dragons have any backstories themselves and in your setting, Tarmor, do their colors have any significance?
JTH: The size of a dragon in Tarmor is related to how closely descended they are from the Ancient Ones, the first dragons. Color is usually inherited from the mother, while some variation or trim is inherited from the father. Every dragon has a story, but not all will be covered in the five novels of the Dragonsoul Saga. But who knows about the many companion short stories we will be putting out every year?
CG: In your world, wizards manipulate the four elements to create sorcerous effects, mixing water and fire together to create lightning for example. How much have you developed this magic system?
JTH: I have developed this system extensively in my own mind and rules. Every volume of the Dragonsoul Saga will show this further. The relationship between the four elemental Aspects, and the fifth, more elusive Aspect of Psoul will also become more developed as the story progresses.
CG: Do you think your world would make a good RPG setting? While there are orcs and dragons over the Dragonscale Mountains in the north, most of the danger so far seems to be some courtly intrigue.
JTH: I think my world would make a great RPG. Not only does my map lend itself towards visions of grand adventure, but there are a great number of highly developed nations, as well as extensive wilderness areas. All of these contribute to great gaming.
Plus, I think great games, especially in the PC and Console world, but also on paper and dice, come from great story. Hack and slash is fun, but you don’t become emotionally and personally involved in the experience unless there is great story.
The public disappointment with the final installment of Mass Effect lends to this argument. One of the greatest story driven RPGs in history was ruined in the last few minutes by terrible plot devices (the Star Child) and a twist that was not alluded to in any way before — just to create a surprise. Plus, I play games to save the planet and sail off into the sunset on my ship with the girl. Life itself is often a Kobayoshi Maru — I don’t want one in my gaming world.
CG: You have multiple perspective shifts, following at least five or six characters, but Tallen Westar is your inexperienced anchor character. Is he the central figure of the Dragonsoul Saga? Who else do you find yourself enjoying writing?
JTH: Tallen and Maddi are my central figures. Too often women are forgotten in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, or used simply as props or love interests. I want to make it clear that these two drive each others growth as characters, just as relationships in real life do. Maddi is just as much a lead character to me as Tallen. However, I do love writing as Dorias, the Dreamer wizard. I enjoy his interactions with his pet raven Merl. I also like Jaerd, Tallen’s older brother. My favorite, however, is Slar. His character’s growth and change is the most important to me in the entire series. I want people to totally understand and empathize with the orc Warchief with a war forced upon him.
CG: Where are you at in terms of writing the second book of your saga, A Darkness Unleashed? When can we expect that?
JTH: I am well over 25% finished with book two. I have it’s story completely plotted out. However, it is that very marketing and promotion that keep my behind on my progress. Between conventions, school visits, book signings, and just general media contacts, much of my time is monopolized. When I can find a few hours to just sit and write, I am very thankful for them. But I do love visiting with people and new/potential fans. Signing your own book to someone who genuinely loved it is one of the greatest experiences one can have.
J.T. Hartke the Author
CG: As you go about promoting your first published book, do you have any observations about self-promotion and conventions?
JTH: Self-promotion is far more difficult than the writing for me, especially being with a smaller house. However, conventions are by far the most enjoyable and the most intense things on my schedule. They are they best for meeting a great number of people who are interested in my specific genre. I also do better at gaming stores than at comic shops or antiquarian book stores. The hardest part of it all is finding the time in between to keep writing the series.
CG: What did you think of Gen Con and Comic-Con?
JTH: Comic-Con was a whirlwind of people and excitement. I met so many cool folks, and saw so many neat things, it would take pages to describe them. And that was mostly from behind the safety of my booth. Every time I would walk around the hall and see the awesome displays there, I really wanted nothing more than to be back at my booth, selling my book and meeting new fans. That was the greatest thing there.
And to be honest, Gen Con is even better. Gaming fans are a lot less serious than comic fans. They seem to let loose even more, especially with costumes and just general fun. Comic-Con is awesome, but it has a lot of “industry” stuff going on. Gen Con gamers are just there to have a blast.
CG: How did you make that leap into deciding to write A Balance Broken, much less a fantasy saga?
JTH: The leap from reading to writing was not that hard for me, once I learned a few key ideas about using Point of View, using stronger verbs and fewer adverbs, and, most importantly, how to Show a Story, Not Tell It. Once you learn those things, you get on the road to good writing. It’s a long one, and I’ve just begun it myself, but its one anyone can learn to tread.
CG: How does your writing day go?
JTH: I try to get 1000-2000 words per day when I am in actual writing mode, ie. writing into a blank page. When editing, I can often get several chapters done per day. I far prefer editing. Also, I usually take a lot of breaks to work in the garden, do some laundry, make lunch, maybe slay a dragon in Skyrim or a few Darkspawn in Dragon Age. Sometimes its just about resting one part of the brain while distracting another. However, when it gets down to deadline time, I sometimes can push the 5000 words per day mark. I’ll be doing that soon to get A Darkness Unleashed out for everyone next summer. I respect my fans so much, and they have been calling for book two so loudly, there is no way I’ll miss that. In the meantime, however, another companion short story will soon be available, so people waiting for Book 2 should check out “A Thief’s Discovery” in November.