Taking place in the aftermath of The Creature Beneath The Veil, D.C. McNeill's second novel, Maynard Trigg and the City of Whispers, is a page turning mystery that you won't be able to put down.
We met David McNeill on a crisp evening in a whisky bar - a colonial bank-teller they coverted a decade ago, he explains, and points to the original bat-wing doors that now decorate the wall. McNeill is nursing a tumbler of something dark, hunched over a laptop and notepad as we arrive. He's characterisically clad in a black suit, perfectly at home against the old wood panelling and marble.
It's been a few months since Maynard Trigg and the City of Whispers released, but with lockdowns and schedules, McNeill has been hard to get a hold of. He clarifies this is no small part because he's been busy working on book three and an upcoming commitment for a side-novella.
Q: The sequel is out. A lot's happened since we last spoke. Where's your head at?
Grateful. Exhausted. Excited?
It's been a long few months in general, but I think when it comes to City of Whispers in the end that was the hardest I've ever worked to finish a novel. Not the writing itself - first drafts are relatively easy - but in shaping it up... I feel like I aged a few hundred years.
The editing process was far less intensive than the first but it took far, far longer. There was a lot more to consider.
Q: I can imagine. Last time we discussed what surprised you about writing the sequel, and I have to say, there were so many twists. I'd love to start by exploring what your thinking was behind the story. The City of Whispers is so different but somehow exactly the kind of sequel I'd have expected...
That's such a loaded question. Where to even start. The first book [The Creature Beneath The Veil] ends with Maynard and his allies on a brand new skyport. I always knew the story would end there. It felt final, but provided the perfect framing to explore what came next if I was lucky to have that opportunity.
As to why so different? I always wanted to write a book set in a school but not have it be a story about school, if that makes sense?
Q: Sure, I mean the story has this twisted Harry Potter energy.
Those ideas influenced the setting a lot, but so too some of Patrick Rothfuss' work in his Kingkiller Chronicles. The main concern for me in approaching the sequel was finding an angle that didn't feel like a rehash or only a sequel. Even though it's the second book, it's a standalone part of Maynard's narrative. Sure, like book one there's a handful of loose threads, but it's one tale: Maynard going to ground in The Crucible and learning the secrets behind the powers there.
It was especially fun putting Maynard back into a school setting after his journey on The Harmony and seeing how he's changed and matured.
Q: And he does seem visibly matured.
And we all would be if we'd experienced that kind of 'out of the frying pan into the fire' trauma.
Q: On that note, how has writing him changed? Is it challenging to evolve his voice or does that come quite naturally?
You know it's funny, I hadn't thought about that before. Maynard has such a strong voice that he really does a lot of the heavy lifting for me. I think the most challenging part is keeping his voice aligned with the internal voice of the prose.
The story is close third-person from Maynard's perspective, so sometimes what I want to tell the reader and what Maynard would actually observe or describe diverge dramatically. There's a scene early on where Maynard and Abbey are walking through Lutton, a refugee town. So much of the description there is critical for the reader's understanding of what's happened since we left the story, and important set up for what's about to occur. I agonised over that sequence for so long to find the exact sort of words Maynard would use to describe the place. He's a rich politicians son, right? But he's been through this trauma and dug in the dirt with thieves.
His diction ends up being eloquent at times, but mixed with this kind of judgemental directness that's exciting to bring to life.
Q: It's tonally different, too. Ever so slightly, leaning more into the dark fantasy elements where The Creature Beneath The Veil felt a little more steampunk, for want of a better word.
It [The City of Whispers] really is a detective story at its core. Book one has light elements of that, and certainly gets there by the end, but this one is end to end about Detectors, cold-reading and solving mysteries.
It's certainly darker and more thrilling, you never quite know what's going to happen on the next page.
Q: Which brings us to the new characters and setting. Talk to me about Master Uskore. He's such a brilliant, gigantic presence on the page. How did he come together?
Uskore is a joy to write. I think the idea came a little off the heels of Lady Sterling. She's this saccarin, two-faced politician who kind of pretends to know things and uses this to distort your perception of her.
Uskore is almost the opposite. He's this force of nature who seems to know everything somehow. You can't hide anything from him, and he has all these bizarre rules and rituals that have no underlying logic.
Unlike Lady Sterling, he's not a villain, so adding this kind of dangerous individual to the board ended up being tons of fun.
All of the characters in the Maynard series are colourful and engaging, but Master Uskore is so visually striking, it became a big focus for the description of him. In no small part because he's always picking apart other's appearence in a Sherlock-esque cold-reading thing, so it felt natural for Maynard's description to dwell on the physical.
Plus I love the idea of this mysterious, impossibly knowledgeable professor drinking what seems like one thousand proof liquor and smoking cigarillos. Gives him a real Books of Magic vibe which heavily inspired the novel.
Q: Without spoiling too much, we also get our first proper city in this book, as the title would suggest. The world really pulls back here and we see a lot more of what's going on. Reading through reviews and feedback on the first book, I noted people commenting that they've love to see more of the world. How do you balance that urge to show lots without giving away too much?
I have a sort of rule about this kind of thing. Details about the world come in three flavours usually: they're about a character's life, about the plot or world colour. If you have too much or too little of one type things can get wonky. I always think back to BBC's Sherlock and how absolutely everything ends up being about the mind-battle between Sherlock and Moriarty and it just feels... off.
Focus and essentialism is all well and good (and I do that a lot too) but it really was about breathing life into the city in a way that didn't feel convinient.
Q: And what about the characters? We learn a heck of a lot about Abbey and her life but she somehow still feels like an engima.
Abbey is the ultimate pandora's box of a human. She's done so many shady things that she never talks about, it's always a joy to reveal the pieces of her backstory.
I won't say what here, but in particular there's someone we meet from her past that reveals this whole new side of her.
Q: I know exactly who you mean - well there's actually a lot of characters from her past in Haven.
Absolutely. I once went on this trip to the home town of a girl I was seeing at the time, and every third person knew her and had some backstory or history with her. In retrospect it betrays a tendancy for meddling and selfishness, and felt so natural for Abbey to have a whole city full of dirty secrets she'd rather keep hidden.
Q: That does seem to be a theme of the series: that people are rarely honest.
I would add that perhaps adults are not to be trusted is more accurate. There are some haunting, exciting reveals in this book about Maynard's family and the Seeker and the conspiracy, but they're all devestating. Every piece of knowledge comes with another blow to Maynard's idea of the people around him.
Q: Except for Erika. She's a new character in this story, a quick, sharp tongued young chemist who seems to be Abbey's previous mentee. She has this whole story of her own happening that happens to overlap with Maynard's until she gets properly sucked in. Is it nerve-wracking introducing a character like that, especially with all the moving parts in the story already?
Completely terrifying but vital.
The story is full of people constantly betraying or tricking each other. Well, all the Maynard series are really. Erika isn't completely honest, sure, but she's direct with Maynard. They bond over their shared respect for Abbey. The balancing act there was important.
Like you said, Erika has her own life and motivation. She doesn't bump into Maynard, suddenly want to help, right? A bit like Spiggot and The Hand, she's got her own agenda, right? What's different about Erika is she really does want to help. She's one of the first people Maynard's met who actually likes him and isn't trying to extract some information or secret.
She doesn't initially care about his investigation or quest. Instead, she begins to care for him and as a result invests in the conspiracy and plot and whatnot.
Q: Shifting gears a little, let's talk bad guys. Or, the antagonists, I always feel its hard to put the baddies in Maynard into that definitive bucket.
Yeah they all sort of end up being a little more complicated.
Q: The white law have a firmer presence here in Langstaff, a decorated Officer who is on the trail of Maynard. We've also got Soot, a petty, bitter rich-kid who delights in picking on Maynard. Who was more enjoyable to write?
Another doozy. Let me think.
Well, Langstaff's arc is a treat. Without giving too much away, he starts adamant in following the rules and the white law's dictum, but as he grows more frustrated and antagonised by The Crucible, he lets his emotions dictate his behaviour. He starts to make some really questionable chocies. I loved exploring the way that corruption kind of seeps in. I don't think anyone starts out trying to be a bad guy, so growing him into a good guy making bad choice after bad choice was really rewarding.
But it's Soot. Soot's ridiculous powdered suits and high collars and hair is so much fun. There's a particular line that I remember writing with a grin on my face.
Maynard and Erika are doing something-a-rather with one of the professors, and Soot is there too. Soot is trying to act like he's ignoring them, and he's picking imagingary dirt from his fingernails, as if this rich lordling would ever get his hands dirty in the first place. Makes me smile every time.
Q: We've covered a lot of ground today, but there's one area we haven't touched on, which is the sky pirates. They're back in a kind of indirect way here, we will see more of them in the future?
I shouldn't say... I feel like saying either way might give away how this book [City of Whispers] plays out or might give away some stuff about book three for those who have finished this one.
Q: In that case, what can you tell us about book three?
If book two is about Maynard taking all the lessons from the ferry and exploring them in the new world, book three is his decisions coming to a head. It's a lot more of a horror I'd say, and darker than the other two but still fun and action-packed.