The Wolves of Elantra: A Guest Post by Michelle Sagara

Michelle Sagara lives in Toronto with her long-suffering husband and her two children, and to her regret has no dogs. Reading is one of her life-long passions, and she is sometimes paid for her opinions about what she’s read by the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. No matter how many bookshelves she buys, there is Never Enough Shelf space. Ever.

By Michella Sagara: I’d like to talk a little bit about an aspect of The Emperor’s Wolves.

So, as is often the case, I’ll start with what might appear to be a digression. When writing a fantasy novel—or an SF novel that is not set in the near present—the question of worldbuilding always arises. Reading—for me—requires a willing suspension of disbelief. The world that is built to support the story has to feel real enough that the suspension of disbelief is not taxed to the breaking point. This doesn’t mean that the world will necessarily stand greater scrutiny and infinite nit-picking; it doesn’t mean that the writer has to be able to answer every single question that a reader might think to ask.

Every writer works differently; everyone processes information and assigns importance to it in their own way. There is overlap, but sometimes it’s the outer edges that define the approach. And I’m going to talk a bit about mine.

When I wrote Hunter’s Oath, the worldbuilding was detail oriented, in that it revolved and evolved around the hunters. But in the creation of the society, one of my driving forces was: I want to have a nobility that is actually respected; I want people to view them in a specific way. What would that require? How would such respect remain constant? The Sacred Hunt came out of that desire.

When I moved to the Empire, in the same world, what I wanted was a more modern sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Since the fantasy world has Kings, how can the rulership be constant? Power centralized in the hands of a very few is too easy to abuse, and a good king can give rise almost immediately to a bad one. People’s character is heavily rooted in their sense cultural sense of ‘normal’. How do I create a society in which a modern sense of right and wrong – and when I say modern I mean almost twenty-five years ago – is the norm in a totally different world?

When I approached the Cast series, it was less heavily world-built. What I wanted was a narrower focus that would be more accessible—something I was not perhaps great at when I first started writing. I wanted to focus on the viewpoint of a single character, who is over-focused on her job and not terribly aware of the struts of the politics that underlay it. Kaylin is therefore the equivalent of a police officer.

The glimpses of the intelligence behind the laws that govern the Empire is definitely not hers. But it definitely does exist.

In The Emperor’s Wolves, the main character is not Kaylin Neya. It’s Severn Handred. He, too, started his working life in the Halls of Law. He didn’t start it in the same department that Kaylin did.

In the Halls of Law, it’s the Wolves that most directly obey the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor, a Dragon, is therefore more involved with the Wolves than with any other branch of the Halls of Law.

Although the Hawks, Swords and Wolves occupy the same Halls of Law, much less is known about the Wolves. Sometimes called the Emperor’s assassins, their orders are handed down from the Emperor. But the man who has been, since their inception, in charge of recruiting and training doesn’t understand either the need for their existence or their purpose. He’s Barrani, and just as immortal as the Emperor—but not as powerful.

The Barrani understand power and its exercise; assassination is almost a game in the long, slow attempt to gain that power. Power is the only safety. Without it, you are forever at the mercy of others who are more powerful. This is the way the world works; it’s the way the world has always worked.

It is not the way the Emperor wants the world to work.

The thought exercise for the background of these novels is this: you have several different races, some of whom are immortal, most of whom are not. They are densest in the capital city, Elantra, because much of the power has been concentrated in the geographical area in which the greatest threat lies: the heart of the city is also a wilderness of wild, ancient, magic, and the city itself a method of containing that magic so that it can’t destroy the rest of the world.

You want to rule this Empire. You want to do so without turning the various people who will become your citizens into piles of blended ash. You want to create a country that’s a container for citizens who would otherwise be that ash, possibly worse. You know that none of them pose an immediate threat, and while life is unpredictable, you are fairly confident that that won’t change any time in the foreseeable future. You know very, very few of these citizens in person; mortals age and die so quickly.

It is your Empire. It is the most important thing in your life. It is the cause to which you have devoted your eternity. You aren’t foolish enough to believe that you will never die—but you wish what remains of the Empire to continue in some fashion long after you have.

How do you build toward that future? What laws beyond Do Not Piss Off the Emperor should exist? What laws will allow the citizens of your Empire to mostly live in peace? Those laws are of little consequence to you personally. How can you enforce those laws across tens of thousands of people you will never meet or personally interact with?

What steps can you take to inhibit the enforcers of the law from becoming a law and a power unto themselves? Accepting that human nature—or any other nature—is what it is, how do you prevent the darker elements of that nature from becoming the only elements that count?

Elantra, imperfect, is the Emperor’s answer.


Multiple races carefully navigate the City of Elantra under the Dragon Emperor’s wing. His Imperial Wolves are executioners, the smallest group to serve in the Halls of Law. The populace calls them assassins.

Every wolf candidate must consent to a full examination by the Tha’alani, one of the most feared and distrusted races in Elantra for their ability to read minds. Most candidates don’t finish their job interviews.

Severn Handred, the newest potential recruit, is determined to face and pass this final test—even if by doing so he’s exposing secrets he has never shared.

When an interrogation uncovers the connections to a two-decade-old series of murders of the Tha’alani, the Wolves are commanded to hunt. Severn’s first job will be joining the chase. From the High Halls to the Tha’alani quarter, from the Oracles to the Emperor, secrets are uncovered, tensions are raised and justice just might be done…if Severn can survive.


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