Author Interview: Deck Matthews

Deck Matthews, author of The Riven Realm and Varkas Tales

Hi Deck, first off thanks so much for doing the interview! How are you? How have you been spending your time during the craziness of 2020?

My pleasure! I’m doing okay, just dealing with the general craziness of the current state of the world. I’m fortunate enough to have a day job that allows me to work remotely, so we’ve been spending a lot of time at home. I’ve been spending time with my family, reading, writing and working on spreading the word about my work. It’s a difficult load to balance sometimes, but I’m trying to get better at it.

Could you maybe tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up and how you got started in writing fantasy?

I was born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, and am currently living in Ottawa. I’ve always been an avid reader and enjoyed making up stories. As a younger kid, I read a lot more mystery books like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew adventures. After eighth grade, my teacher was punching some books from her classroom. She gave me a set of David Eddings’ Belgariad series. I devoured them over the summer and was absolutely hooked. I started playing around with writing my first novel shortly after that. It wasn’t good, but it was a start!

So I’ve just finished reading The First of Shadows and enjoyed it a lot! Tell us about The Riven Realm series and what inspired you to write it?

I’m so glad you enjoyed the story! The Riven Realm is the culmination of years and years of writing. After that first novel, I tried to write as a youth, I’ve had several other false starts. For the most part, I think I just hadn’t developed the mental discipline to commit to finishing something. But some of those failed stories had some intriguing ideas and characters. This series brings much of it together. Many aspects of Varkas are new (such as the magic systems), but I’ve managed to incorporate several names and concepts from previous works.

One prime example is the character of Shevik Den, the eccentric sky pirate that we meet early on in The First of Shadows. He made his original appearance in one of my early novels, fulfilling a similar role. His ship was even called Zephyr’s Song. In another story, I had these people called the Saltmen, who spent all their lives on the seas. When I started working on the early drafts of The First of Shadows, I came up with this idea of wind riders. A few different pieces clicked, and I realized that I had the perfect opportunity to reintroduce a character I’d always been fascinated with.

I repurposed Shevik Den as one of the Jushyn, but instead of having him captain a sea-faring ship, I gave him his own wind rider and some distinct mannerisms. The result was perhaps one of the most colourful characters in the novella. 

What struck me most about The First of Shadows was the absolutely relentless breakneck pace. Every single line hurries the plot along, expands our knowledge of the world or builds character, but never wears the reader out. Do you consciously set out to write like that or is it just how the story flows out of you?

I’m very conscious of it. I think it’s a big deal that anyone would choose to spend some of their precious time reading my stories, and I want to be cognizant of that time. Every scene needs to move the story forward somehow, though that doesn’t always mean another fight sequence or action scene. Sometimes its a meaningful conversation or a poignant moment that gives the reader a greater insight into the nature of a particular character. As a rule, I try to avoid the superfluous scenes that can sometimes result from too many subplots.

The Riven Realm books are also very short by fantasy standards, almost (but maybe not quite?) novellas. What was the thought process behind writing shorter books in a genre so dominated by The Tome?

I definitely call them novellas. Technically, I think they’re in the range of very brief novels, but this is fantasy, right? When so many of the books in this genre are pushing to 700 or 800 pages, I feel justified in calling a mere 160 pages a novella.

In terms of the thought process, The Riven Realm series was a concept I played with in my head for several years before really getting to work on it. The idea was to write in a more episodic format, where each book would function like an episode of a TV show, rather than like a big, epic movie. Moreover, I aimed to craft a narrative inspired by LOST, where a given episode pushes the overall story forward without necessarily providing a resolution on its own.

That being said, I’m definitely writing toward what I hope will be a more satisfying resolution than the final episode of LOST!

You write some fantastic characters, some of whom must have posed interesting challenges to write. I’m thinking particularly of Tiberius, a blind character from First of Shadows. Given that so much writing defaults to describing things by sight, what was the experience of writing Tiberius like and what did you learn from it?

Thank you! Tiberius’ character first came to me in an exercise I attempted while taking a short story writing class during university. I wanted to try writing from a non-visual perspective, trying to imagine character experience through other senses. When I started writing the first drafts of what would become The First of Shadows, I decided to resurrect the character and make him one of the main protagonists.

At first, writing him wasn’t all that easy, but I think I’ve hit my stride with him. When I’m writing scenes from Tiberius’ perspective, I try to keep a few things in mind. First, it’s important to present him in a way that his blindness doesn’t define him. It’s a reality and a limitation for him, but I’m aiming to craft a shrewd and intelligent character who acts with agency and directly impacts the events of the story.

Second, I rely heavily on other senses to convey the experience. Hearing plays an important role, and Tiberius spends a lot of time listening to the world around him. Smell is another important sense. I’ve found that I can convey a lot of information simply be describing odours and aromas.

Lastly, I made a decision early on that Tiberius would remain blind. The same is true of Caleb and his injured foot. In fantasy, I think it can be tempting to “heal” characters like these, but I want to avoid that. I want to help them find the strength to become heroes within the context of who they are.

I picked up First of Shadows after reading a glowing review from a blogger friend whose opinion I value. How important do you think word of mouth is for selling books, especially as a self-published author without a big marketing team?

It’s absolutely critical. I don’t think many readers truly understand how vital word of mouth is for self-published authors, especially those of us who are just getting started. Ten tweets from me probably has only a fraction of the influence someone else recommending my work—especially if that person is someone that other readers trust.

My recommendation is always this: if you find a book or series you love (especially an indie book), share that love. Tell your friends and family. Write a review. Maybe even share it as a gift. It really can make a difference.

Finally, what have you been reading lately? Do you have any recommendations for our already-groaning TBR piles?

2020 has been the year of big books for me. I’ve been working through The Wheel of Time and The Stormlight Archive, which means a lot of pages. Recently, I also found hardcover editions of books 2-4 of the Codex Alera at a thrift store. I’d been looking for those for the better part of the last decade, so I was thrilled with that and am currently re-reading them now. That’s one series that I feel doesn’t get enough attention. It’s one of my all-time favourites.

The Riven Realm series, by Deck Matthews (image links to Goodreads).

You can follow Deck Matthews on Twitter at @varkaschronicle and also get more info on the books and upcoming releases on his website If you enjoyed this post why not follow the blog for more interviews, reviews and bookish chat?

Review: THE FIRST OF SHADOWS (The Riven Realm #1) by Deck Matthews

Book Reviews

I’ve got to say, this is the first time I’ve encountered an epic fantasy novella. And when this book opened with a tense and thrilling fight scene I could tell I was in for a wild ride. THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is only 143 pages long, but within that small wordcount Deck Matthews delivers a fast-paced story with lively, solid world building and a wonderful cast of characters that has the vibe of a classic fantasy while still feeling very fresh.

We’re thrown right into the thick of things here, no messing about. Thrust into the perspective of an unnamed drifter carrying an item of great power, a mysterious man tracked and hunted along the Blasted Coast by a malevolent creature intent on his demise. This is the only opportunity we get to see the world from the drifter’s perspective and this opening chapter works as a kind of mini prologue, introducing us to the world of Relen-Kar and setting the tone and pace for the rest of the book. It works very well, because the pace of this book never lets up.

In a whirlwind of plot development and character arcs we’re introduced to Caleb, a rigger on a docked sky ship on the Blasted Coast; Avendor Tarcoth, a senior military officer stationed in the capital city of Taralius; and Tiberius Alaran, a sage and scholar who also lives in the capital. Caleb’s story centres on his choice to help the drifter (who we do learn more about but I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers) in his flight from the creature which is hunting him and refuses to die. Along the way we learn more about the drifter’s identity, the magic he wields and how Caleb chooses to respond when he’s swiftly sucked up in this maelstrom of chaos. There’s very much the classic fantasy farm boy vibe to Caleb and I get the sense that he’s gonna end up doing some wild, crazy and powerful things later in the series and his arc in this first book felt a lot like his origin story. It was kind of cool actually, cos at this point in the series he really isn’t a major player; in fact, everyone around him, from ‘The Drifter’, to Palawen Ty and Tanner, they’re the powerful seasoned mages, warriors and veteran adventurers, while Caleb is doing what he can with very little experience and power beyond his own resilience and bravery. Just shows how powerful that combination can be.

Avendor Tarcoth’s storyline was my fave to follow along with though (probably because I love a good mystery) and we’ve got a doozy of a murder mystery on our hands here. Thrust right into the thick of things again (I did say this book’s pace is relentless) our first scene with Avendor drops us into his gruesome discovery of the corpse of a murdered apothecary and a strange mound of something resembling human flesh. Matthews’ writing in this scene is superb, delivering up the sights and smells and atmosphere of the investigation in full technicolour detail and dropping lovely tidbits of worldbuilding throughout, all while succinctly introducing us to Avendor and the cast of characters surrounding him. The cast of side characters is surprisingly extensive for a novella and for the most part are very well done. Shevik Den, a sky pirate and Caleb’s associate being one of the most notable. Some are a bit tropey and slight caricatures, such as Kharl, Caleb’s bully and tormentor, but that didn’t take enough away from the book to make it any less enjoyable.

I’ve gotta say though, I think Matthews truly excels in his writing of Tiberius. Tiberius is a blind sage whose scenes are written without reference to visual stimuli. Smells, sounds and other sensory perception are used to great effect and actually visibly improves the writing of the book even in scenes where Tiberius isn’t present. When it comes to a satisfying reading experience a lot of it comes undeniably from being able to visualise the scenes in my head, but for a world to feel truly fully-realised, three dimensional and real, I think it’s necessary to get a sense of what it would feel like to stand in its buildings and streets, and that demands a more rounded, multi-sensory approach. What are the scents, aromas and odours you’d smell when walking through the streets of Taralius? What would it sound like to stand in the wake of a skyship taking off into the night sky of Stormholt? I really got a great sense of this and I think it’s the mark of a great fantasy book that, despite its fantastical and wholly fictional settings, can make you feel grounded and present in its world.

There’s a ton of worldbuilding crammed into the small word count of this novella too and I definitely feel I got a crash course in the history and magic of The Realm of Relen-Kar without ever feeling like it was forced down my throat. I am writing this review a few weeks after finishing the book though, and one thing I will say is I don’t really remember many of the historical figures, city names and magical vocabulary. Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast when writing epic fantasy novellas. It definitely worked in the moment, is very enjoyable and it is written into the story incredibly well, I just find that there’s so much thrown at the reader in such a short word count I’d definitely need a refresher before I start the next book.

All told THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is such a refreshing take on the epic fantasy genre and shows how innovative self-published books can be; I can’t imagine a traditional publisher would be willing to take the risk on short, episodic epic fantasy novellas in a genre so dominated by the doorstopper tomes of Sanderson et al. Great characters, rip-roaringly fast paced, interesting magic system and still so much more potential to be unleashed in future instalments. This is a great book and I’m looking forward to delving further into The Riven Realm.

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