Sul – From Gold to Iron and Rust by Jacqui Davis and Katy Grierson

I’m joined this time by Jacqui Davis, artist extraordinaire well known for board game illustration. Jacqui has been hard at work on a new project – Sul – From Gold to Iron & Rust. This is an illustrated fantasy novel and we are going to get the details straight from Jacqui herself. I hope you enjoy this interview.

Tom: Hi Jacqui. Remind everyone of who you are.

Hi Tom, I’m Jacqui, an illustrator who usually works in board games. Recently I’ve worked on Paint the Roses, Red Rising and the Paleo poster for BGG. 

Tom: The story I’ve read is incredibly rich with history and lore. How did all of this happen? Where did Sul come from?

Sul started as a text-based role-play between Katy Grierson and I back in 2007. I started with a character (not appearing in this book), Laphael, and Katy had her demon, (who everyone will get to meet), Aysel. We would take turns posting and telling each other a story. 

Our world building happened as a bi-product of this. We’d add new characters, or want to do something different, and have to have discussions about why this or that would go on. Most of those chats are lost now to Sykpe’s logs, but a lot of the answers to those questions ended up in the RP. 

The book is a portion of that much longer story re-jigged to make sense for a reader, but built on that foundation, now over a decade old. 

Tom: Friends and I did a text-based, email thread story for a year or so a LONG time ago. (I need to locate that.) It was a lot of fun. It’s cool that you both are able to morph that into something that others can enjoy. From what I’ve seen so far, Sul, as a world, is super well realized. The ecology, the terrain, the environs are amazing. The history of the world intrigues me. Tell us about the world of Sul.

I’ll tell you what the Sulaai know. 

They know they’ve come from across the barrier sea from a place they call Tito. They spent  centuries, (chronicles disagree on the exact number), island hopping before the map-maker Anwo found the bay by following the sun, which they call Sul, and the stars. It was he and his heirs that founded the place on Torro-Anwo and Sulaai in general. Elmes is from the Anwaai house.

For thousands of years the Sulaai have made the bay and the desert north of it their home, but they are explorers at heart and they are always looking to follow Sul to new places. Now, a map-maker named Icnoyo has done just that and found a land to the north of their desert and it is here that our story opens. 

Tom: I think that is so cool. The history is so deep. But let’s focus a bit. What is the basic story of the book?

We like to describe it as a spoiled king having a bad time in snow with demons and priests. But, I suppose, we should expand 😉 

From Gold to Iron and Rust, is about Elmes, our main protagonist, growing up and coming into his own. He starts the story very sheltered, but when he begins making decisions that lead him and his people to war he finds that choices have consequences, and not all of them are good. 

Tom: “a spoiled king having a bad time in snow with demons and priests” That is a great elevator pitch. Introduce us to this king and the rest of the main characters.

I’m happy to! 

First, we have Elmes; the young Sulaai king. When the book starts he has been king in name for years, but the country has effectively been ruled by his uncle, Lorro. It’s a situation Elmes has been happy to let continue, since it leaves more time to lounge about and do nothing. Then, the route north is opened up and Elmes finds he has to actually do some kinging. 

Next is Cydric. He’s a northern priest to a god called Father. Unlike Elmes, he isn’t one for delegating when he can do something himself. At the start of the story he has found himself setting up home in the Dead City, an ancient civilisation that has long since collapsed. 

Then, we have Aysel. She’s a demon, literally. They are creatures of chaos and destruction, and normally live very short lives. Aysel bucks that trend, she’s old and has managed to move past her baser instincts – but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still going to make trouble where she can. 

And finally, there’s Margo. She’s a Sulaai noble girl from a lesser house. Her family are at the bottom of the courtly pack thanks to the fact that their estate, Torro-Iago, is located at the far, far north of the country and is so far away from everyone and everything else. Then, the seaway north is opened up and with it her family’s prospects. 

Tom: I really like this different take on a king. It reminds me of Moorcock’s Elric. Atypical monarchs. That makes things interesting. How did you settle on this as his personality / central core.

Elmes has evolved a fair bit since his first incarnation. Originally, he was your basic good king in the RP, then in our first draft he became a rather unpleasant guy that we didn’t even enjoy writing. (We were leaning far too far into grimdark there, I think) On the re-write he got a fairer shake. 

That being said, he is just a little insufferable at the start. There are a couple of books I thoroughly enjoyed with protagonists I find so annoying; Alfred Duggan’s Conscience of the King, and River God by Wilbur Smith. Cerdic and Taita are definitely characters I love to hate, but that makes them fun. We tried to put a bit of that into Elmes. 

Another inspiration was real-life history. 

One of my favorite non-fiction books is the Plantagenets by Dan Jones; what struck me was that these kings were just people with foibles who happened to be born into this really overbearing role. Some handled it better than others, some were good, some were terrible, others just ok. Elmes was allowed to be his own person, not a ‘good’ king, or an ‘evil’ one. There is one historical monarch that has inspired his final incarnation the most and that is Akhenaten, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh. The first monotheist who built a sun cult that revolved all around him and his wife, that is just too interesting. 

Tom: The art is fantastic. I mentioned the map. I’m a mapper and I love this map. How long did it take you to create? 

Well, two answers. Our idea of the world map has been in flux for years. Like most things we only nailed it down when we needed it for story reasons. For example, we know there is another continent across the sea – Tito – but we’ve only just started exploring it in-game. The unknown is partly what makes it fun! 

The particular map used in the book is an amalgamation of several I’ve made before to keep a track of things while we play. That took about 10 hours or so of faffing about. In the end I decided to go with a more stylised version to call to a map mentioned in Chapter 1, rather than accurate cartography. 

Tom: You are known for your interesting character designs. And of course, the characters look awesome and very interesting. How do you go about designing a character? Where do you start? 

I tend to cast actors as characters in my head, sometimes for their voice, or their manor, or looks. Often I mush several together. So, when it comes to painting  a character I look for references that capture the feeling I have in my imagination and sketch something from them. I then play and change things until I see the mental image I have of the character looking back at me. 

In terms of costumes, for the book I wanted to invoke an ancient greek/mesopatamian look for the Sulaai, and a neolithic/copper age appearance for the northerners. This again, I used a reference for. (I’m a bit of a ref hoarder.) 

Tom: The Greek / Mesopotamia look really works. I’m fascinated at how well you fleshed out the people and religions of Sul. Talk a bit about that process.

A lot of how we built things like religions and cultures was asking each other why they would do this, or how can we make this happen, and went from there. And then, just like real history, stories that came before affected the ones that came after, so the depth has happened almost by accident just because we’ve been going so long. 

Writing the book was a bit like how I think historical fiction must work, we couldn’t deviate too far from what we’ve established in lore without entirely unraveling the threads. The plan for this and future stories is to tell the history as we’ve established it, just tidying up a bit for an audience. 

Saying all this though, I do love a good history audiobook, podcast or documentary while I work, and I tend to hoard that information too. So, if something is particularly interesting and applicable to the RP crops up I will try to fit it in.

Tom: I love history too. A couple of podcasts that I enjoy are Hardcore History and What You Missed In History Class. You should check them out. Did you go so far as to create languages for Sul ala Tolkien?

I will do! If you haven’t, you should try the Fall of Civilisations Podcast and Pre-History – the Archeology of the Ancient Near East. 

We haven’t gone all Tolkien on the languages, no. I do find the history of language interesting, but I’m not smart enough to invent one 😉 

What did happen was that the Sulaai have evolved their own cadence when talking, and that we’ve kept in and developed. It started by replacing the word ‘not’ with ‘never’, and the idea that they don’t have a word for please; they just make a request and expect a yes or no answer. Once you start typing like a Sulaai it can be hard to stop.

Tom: I love their ‘grammar’. It really adds flavor to the story and makes the characters more real and the world more solid.  I know Katy from her board game art. How did you two create Sul? I know Katy is also an artist. Did she contribute art to the book or was she just involved in the story?

Yup! Katry contributed 3 stunning illustrations to the book, and has done concept art for the landscapes in the past. I love her environments, particularly her forests – and luckily we have one giant one for her to paint- , so it’s great to see when she comes out with something new. 

She was also involved in writing the first draft of the story (back when it was 3 times as long!) And, of course, all the RP stuff it was based on. She has also been there to make sure Aysel stays in character and to answer any lore questions I’ve forgotten. 

Tom: Thank you so much for your time, Jacqui. Sul looks amazing and I can’t wait to read about Elmes and the land of Sulaai and Medaai.

Kickstarter goes live on November first 😉 The pre-launch page is here; https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/logicfairy/sul-from-gold-to-iron-and-rust-an-illustrated-fantasy-novel

If people would like to read more on the chartered, lore and Chapter 1 they can visit the website here: https://www.sulbook.com/

You can contact Katy at kovah.co.uk

You can contact Jacqui at jacquidavis.com.

Thanks for joining me and please give the Sul KS a look. It looks like a really cool book.

Until next time, go forth and game.

Up next on Go Forth And Game Podcast – animator Keith Carter talks about cartoons, God, and monsters.

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