When it comes to alien invasion stories, the technologically-superior aliens are usually beaten back by the humans through sheer willpower and determination (and occasionally assisted by our impressive immune systems). But what about the times when being brave and scrappy isn’t enough?
In acclaimed author Sharon Shinn’s brilliant foray into the graphic medium, she explores what that outcome might look like.
A story about love and hope and loss, Shattered Warrior begins eight years after the invasion and subjugation of Colleen’s homeworld by a race known as Derichets. After losing her family and everyone she’s ever loved, Colleen has learned to keep to herself. But even though life is unpredictable and dangerous, Colleen realizes that she can’t let fear stop her from living and connecting with the people in her life who are important. She learns to be brave in the face of adversity and relentless in her pursuit of what’s right.
Working alongside artist Molly Knox Ostertag, Sharon creates an incredibly nuanced world, full of difficult choices and fear, but also possibility and hope. Sharon has always garnered much attention for her detailed world building in her novels, particularly her Elemental Blessings series, but Shattered Warrior takes it to a new level.
I got the chance to ask Sharon some questions about the story and her experience working on this graphic novel.
Erin Keepers: What were your driving influences while writing this story? How did you know what kind of story you wanted to tell?
Sharon Shinn: I often say that this is my “Casablanca” story because it’s about love in the midst of war. So I wanted to create a backdrop of violence and loss and pain, and then bring in hope and love and community. I also wanted to show the reader what Colleen had lost—not just the elegant mansion and beautiful clothes that come with wealth and privilege, but the extended close-knit family. This is someone who had everything, and then lost everything. She doesn’t ever want to care about anything again, because she can’t bear the idea of more loss. So what person or circumstances could possibly make her be willing to risk her heart again? That’s what I was trying to explore.
At one point, Colleen is told the tale of the Shattered Warrior, a constellation that can only be seen for one month out of the year. The rest of the time, the stars appear scattered but always manage to find their way back together.
This is a powerful theme of reunification. Does it have a deeper meaning in the book or for you personally?
I think it’s really the theme of the whole book—things can fall apart, but then they can mend. Things seem hopeless, but then the world spins, and you get another chance. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there are two times within the book that Colleen thinks someone is dead and later finds out that person is alive. The first time is when she is reunited with her niece Lucy. And the second time drives the last third of the story. For Colleen, who had essentially given up on any kind of meaningful life, the Shattered Warrior constellation represents the idea that she can be made whole again.
What did you find are the unique challenges and/or benefits of making a graphic novel as opposed to a traditional novel?
It’s such a different process! First, while a novel does have length constraints (my average book is around 500 manuscript pages), a graphic novel is so much shorter. The script for Shattered Warrior was just over 100 pages. So I had to tell the story as concisely and efficiently as I could. That meant, among other things, paring the dialogue down to the crispest exchanges possible instead of having characters deliver long flowery speeches (which happens a lot in my other fiction!) It also meant trying to figure out what could be represented by the artwork on the page, rather than by having the characters discuss it. That was a whole different way of thinking for me.
In addition, the graphic novel was much more of a group project. When I write a novel, I am entirely in control of the story and the character development. I do have beta readers who offer me suggestions, and I do revise according to an editor’s input, but basically, the story is mine from start to finish.
A graphic novel is much more of a collaboration. Molly took my script and turned it into panels, which often meant deleting scenes or combining scenes or suggesting a different way to present information. A lot of times I could instantly see that her way was better—but sometimes I wanted to keep the script closer to my original version. So then we had to figure out how to make my version work in a graphic format. For me, it was a huge learning curve, but a fascinating one from start to finish.
What was it like collaborating with Molly Knox Ostertag? Were you already familiar with her work before you started working together?
I wasn’t familiar with her work at all! I didn’t know much about current graphic novels until my editor sent me a stack of First Second books. He’s the one who suggested Molly and showed me some samples of her work. Then I spent time on her website, looking at Strong Female Protagonist and other artwork she’d done. I really liked her style and the depth and nuance she brought to characters.
The collaboration process involved a lot of emails as she asked questions about how characters and places should look, and I gave feedback on her preliminary sketches. Sometimes she got a character right on the first try—sometimes there was a lot of back-and-forth—and sometimes she had a completely different take on someone that never would have occurred to me, but that I loved. So it really did end up being a mix of our two styles.
Do you have any plans to continue working in the graphic medium? Possibly a sequel or something unrelated but set in the universe of Shattered Warrior?
No immediate plans to write a sequel to the book or another graphic novel! I’d definitely do it again if the opportunity arose, though. I think I learned a lot about how the process works and how the images can be used to complement the words. But I think, for me, novel writing will always be the most natural and comfortable way to tell a story.
As a writer, how do you think Young Adult fiction/fantasy has changed since you first became interested in the genre?
I think it’s become much more intense—more action, more sex, higher stakes, more sprawling stories. Of course, YA always dealt with deep issues, from abuse to tragedy, all playing out against the backdrop of teenagers learning to be adults. I remember listening to a panel of YA writers discussing what books they were reading when they were 13, and for every panelist, the range was sort of astonishing. Something like “Trixie Belden and Mein Kampf.” So I think YA fiction can simultaneously cover flirting with your first boyfriend and trying to save the world, and both of those concerns would feel relevant to the readers. I think today’s YA fiction brings in a bit of both, just on a grander scale than it might have in the past.
Shattered Warrior is published by First Second Books, a Macmillan imprint. Find this book and other great graphic novels on their website, and find more about Sharon, her upcoming projects, and her other published works at hers.