Written by Brian Staveley
I can never quite decide if chocolatiers are visionaries or pranksters. A glance over some of the new flavors—hand-wrapped in birch bark, one bar roughly the same price as a thoroughbred horse—makes the mind spin: Hemlock and Blood, Tears and Wisteria, Lemongrass and Cod. I used to think this was all an elaborate hoax, that a cabal of malevolent chocolatiers was hidden away somewhere, cackling over the limitlessness of human folly.
Then I tried the blue cheese and dark chocolate confection from our local crafters of artisanal chocolate. Here’s the thing: I don’t even like blue cheese. Adding blue cheese to perfectly delicious dark chocolate struck me as heresy. Extremely delicious heresy, as it turns out. The unfortunate upshot is that I now spend my royalty checks on obscure flavors of chocolate instead of things like gas, or clothes for my son. The happier result is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the beauty of improbable mash-ups.
Musicians have been hip to this for ages, of course. Witness such unlikely couplings as Nelly and The BeeGees, The Eurythmics and the White Stripes, or one my personal favorites, Taylor Swift with Nine Inch Nails. My wife thinks mash-ups like these were devised in hell, but I could listen to them all day long. In fact, my writing of this piece was badly delayed by a careful review of a few dozen of my favorite mash-ups.
When I sat down to dream up my latest book, Skullsworn, I was torn between a few different ideas. I wanted to write a political thriller about an occupied city on the verge of revolution. But I also wanted to try my hand at romance, preferably romantic comedy. And then, I was quite keen to tell a story about some mysterious killers hiding in the wilds, slaughtering all who dared intrude on their domain. They seemed like three different books, but then I thought of the blue cheese and dark chocolate, I thought of Taylor Swift and Trent Reznor, and I thought, “The hell with it.”
So I wrote a novel that’s one part Predator, one part When Harry Met Sally, and one part Michael Collins. Also, I wanted a lot of music. Did I mention the main character is an assassin?
I had some apprehensions about this at first. I worried that the jokes would play poorly against the serious political backdrop, that all the knives and buckets of blood might dampen the romance. As Pyrre, the protagonist, observes at one point, “Artistic depictions of love tend to focus on softer subjects: lush lips, rumpled beds, the curve of a naked hip. Fewer crocodiles, certainly. Far less screaming.”
A funny thing happened, however, as I started writing. When juxtaposed, the various elements became more interesting to me, more complex. Love is always complicated, but it’s even more complicated when there’s a war brewing; the sex scenes aren’t just sex scenes, and every physical act is also a statement of religious conscience or political principle. Jokes take on a new significance when everyone joking is about to die. And monsters (human or otherwise) start to look different in the presence of so much joy and delight.
It’s not for me to judge whether it all works or not, but I loved writing this book. And now, at the very least, I hope the chocolatiers might now let me in to some of their secret meetings.
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