Taking on the fervent and psychically gifted, though, comes with a cost, and soon holy fire rains down. In the aftermath, it’s daughter Sybilla who is Skalen. Readers might expect that her efforts to avenge her family and end the rule of the Intercessors will drive the book, but Balstrup’s interest isn’t the usual heroic violence of epic fantasy—instead, it’s in rich questions of power and belief, the weight of leadership, and what comes after a hard-won victory that tears a civilization apart. The narrative vaults ahead in time as Sybilla faces hard choices, rebellion, and a faith that will not die.
The seriousness with which Balstrup presents that faith sets this singular series-starter apart just as surely as its polished prose, mature themes, and unconventional structure. Balstrup has conjured up gorgeous, creepy holy texts, chants, rituals, and prayers, the depiction attentive to how faiths adapt over time, how they draw from and distort older belief systems, and—crucially—what they mean in the lives of adherents. The Way of Unity boasts weird magic, original creatures, flights of horror and beauty, and a thirty-year sweep that builds to an enticing promise of more. The book’s long and sometimes demanding, but readers who favor fantasy of literary ambition with fully imagined lives and beliefs will find this a feast.
Takeaway: This standout dark fantasy debut takes on rich questions of faith, fire, rebellion, and power.
Great for fans of: Tamsyn Muir, Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
The Way of Unity is a dark fantasy of religion, belief and loss. An almost meditative examination on the importance of individualism and what happens when your core beliefs are stripped away. And what one will do to get it back.
Following three main POV’s, with the odd chapter from a side character, we see all the sides of this religious conflict, from the ruler who abolishes the religion, to the rebels fighting to reclaim their right to their beliefs.
The religion and magic are mostly tethered together and are based on psychic connection, like an empath, and a connection to the earth. To block these “powers”, people are forced to wear what is called a meridian, a sort headband with a magic stone. Once the religion is abolished, everyone is required to wear one at all times, cutting themselves off from every one around them. The consequences, both good and bad, I’ll leave for you to discover for yourself.
The main POV is Sybilla, who at first feels like a hero as you read her chapters in the first quarter or so. What Sarah K. Balstrup does so well is that once we switch to the POVs of Zohar and Ambrose, brother and sister with secret ties to the rebellion, you see a whole other side to this struggle that puts Sybilla in a more villainous light. But then you’ll go back to Sybilla and change your mind again. What I’m trying to say is there is no clear cut hero or villain and that is half the fun of this story.
As you can probably tell, this novel is very character driven. There is not a whole lot of action, but when it shows up, it makes an impact. The world-building is given in bite sized pieces and is never info-dumpy. You’ll see some names of things and words you don’t understand at first and then context will make it clear as you move through the story. To some, it may be frustrating, but for me it was just the hook to keep me coming back for more. Balstrup has earned my trust to know everything will make sense when it needs to.
The Way of Unity is a unique dark fantasy full of emotion and fully realized characters. If you like your heroes and villains ambiguous and deep, Sarah K. Balstrup has got you covered. Asking deep questions without an agenda, this novel poses many questions with no clear answers. Beautiful prose, deep characters, a splash of romance and political scheming, what more could you want?
Great debut fantasy novel with terrific world-building. The religion created for the story and the way belief and power are fleshed out is very clever. It gave me that wonderful confusion for the first few pages where you're dropped into a setting with very different rules, but you get at least a working grip on things relatively quickly (although I did go back and re-read the first part when I finished and understood a lot more).The way it ends could stand as either a one-off or establish the foundation of a series, and I'm keen to know if there will be any more!I received a review copy and as a former bookseller I've read a few proofs in my time. I was both consistently surprised by how unbelievable tight both the writing and editing were.
Immersive dark fantasy with mellifluous prose and rich worldbuilding. This world with its religion, traditions, history and magic feels like one the characters don’t just exist in, but sprang from and couldn’t exist without (Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast springs to mind). I loved getting to follow the determined Sybilla’s journey from childhood.
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I really enjoyed this book! I liked its world building and felt that it defied expectations of the fantasy genre. The characters were rich and complex, especially the female protagonist. Balstrup’s exploration of the religious rituals of the Intercessors was particularly strong and fascinating to read, as was its exploration of the implications of rebuilding a society after removing its existing religious foundations. I highly recommend it.
The Way of Unity is a dark and engaging fantasy with beautiful, lyrical prose. From the first page, I was immersed in the lives of the characters and the fantastic world building. Sybilla is a tortured woman and perfect anti-hero dealing with the complexities of her world and the once all-encompassing religion that has shaped her continent. The plot, while spanning over a dozen years, is tight and compelling, making for a read that was hard to put down.
The Way of Unity is perfect for fans of morally grey heroines. If you enjoyed The Jasmine Throne or Daughters of the Storm you will love this book!
I can't wait to see what Balstrup delivers next!
I'm an infrequent visitor to the dark fantasy genre, which doesn't mean I don't enjoy it - I just don't go there often. When I do, I want something to immerse myself in, a world that's both vivid and believable in its creation. With her debut novel, Sarah Balstrup has achieved just that.
Set in the fictional lands of Velspar, The Way of Unity has the hallmarks of a fantasy novel, with a detailed world of ritual and tradition, magic, grandeur and heroes, heroines and villains. The scope of imagination blows my mind; just how you create all aspects of a world and keep them coherent throughout a story is a staggering accomplishment. The Way of Unity flows like the rivers of Velspar, with the chapters brief and focusing on different characters that you know will interweave but don't quite know how. There is depth to the characters and they are given time to grow, to display different sides, flaws and assets all on show.
Impressive though this is, the highlight for me is the quality of the writing. There are beautiful descriptions throughout this novel, from evocative scents, tastes and sights to tender moments of realisation. These help imbue the characters and their world with something we can recognise and bond with. The story has impetus and never gets bogged down. I recommend The Way of Unity to anyone keen to lose themself in a book for a while.
The Way of Unity is the debut novel from Sarah K. Balstrup. It is a really unique book, which I would say by setting it should be classified as fantasy, but that could also be considered as a literary study of what happens when a population is alienated from their own beliefs, when a sudden change is forced to happen. It's quite a mix between what is storytelling, and what becomes an investigative job, an effort to discern what's true and what's just a made-up.
We find ourselves in the land of Velspar, which is ruled by an elite called the Skalens. A religious cult, the Intercessors, is gaining power and threatening the authority of these called Skalens. Around a central event called the Fire, the narrative unfolds, showing us how Sybilla's family gets murdered in a house fire by the Intercessors. Sybilla escapes her family's fate, becoming Skalen, starting a path of revenge, trying to destroy the cult, and almost reaching her objective.
However, some Intercessors are able to escape, starting a plot to return to power, and becoming a small group of rebels, who see Sybilla as a heretic. Balstrup wovens a really complex world, which we get to experiment through the eyes of several characters, over multiple years. Sybilla's character by itself is probably one of the most interesting, as we get to observe her own crusade against the beliefs of the population, almost wiping them thanks to the power Skalens keeps; while at the same time, even in her power position, Sybilla is just a prisoner of her own prejudices, the one that appeared after the tragic death of her family.
We also get to observe how the group of rebels, these people who tried to keep their faith in the Intercessors and their religion behaves, plotting behind the scenes, seeking to restore the old beliefs. Doubts appear among them, especially as this implies a rebellion against what has become the established power.
Probably the highlight of this book is the writing style chosen by Balstrup. The prose has a great quality, transmitting the importance of what's narrated, giving great weight to the mystical experiences that the characters get to see. As said before, there are a great amount of work developing characters, so we can bond with them, even if their intentions sometimes don't feel clear.
From the start to the very end, this book manages to transmit the importance that religion has in the life of these characters, and how losing it impacted them. There aren't many elements to classify this book as fantasy outside of the world and certain creatures, as it feels more like a character study in a traumatic situation and the consequences of their actions. Still, the story is hooking from the start to the end, keeping some surprises to the very last arc of the narration.
The Way of Unity is a really strong debut. I think it will be a divisive book, as the narration style can alienate some readers, but at the same time, other readers will absolutely love how the weight of words can be felt; the quality of the craft is there. Personally, I enjoyed how the different plots get intertwined to give us a really satisfying end, one that makes you think about what you've seen in the rest of the book; and how sometimes what you got shown, might just be what one side wanted to show you. In definitive, a great novel that will be loved by those who want complex narrations, and books that make you think even after closing them.
The Way of Unity offers something pretty unique to lovers of fantasy, because it isn't really about the fantasy at all. At heart, it's an exploration of what happens when an entire population is suddenly alienated from its own beliefs, history and culture. It reads a little like a comment on organised religion vs. individual connection to it, although Balstrup does a great job dancing across that line. The religion-snuffing Skalen, Sybilla, starts with purity of purpose before following something of a villain arc, and you'll spend much of this story unsure of who exactly to root for - the righteous but draconian Skalen of Velspar, or the rebels who cling stoically to their spirituality despite the punishments inflicted for doing so.
Although there is a fair bit of character hopping, Sybilla keeps her hands on the narrative reigns and without spoiling anything, her character arc is both satisfying and thought-provoking. The rest of the narrative cast sort of work together to offer different viewpoints on the state of affairs in the story, and this is one of the books real strengths - you can never say definitively who is right and who is wrong.
Balstrup has a meditative, almost ceremonial style that works well for both fantasy in general as well as the context of this specific story, and while it won't cut you to the bone like more intimate narrative styles, it's nonetheless colourful and effective in painting the world of Velspar. The worldbuilding is likewise very strong.
Apart from a few fantastical creatures that act as manifestations of some of the populace's beliefs, as well as the psychic connection shared between characters, there's actually very little in the way of fantasy here. There are no wizards, no dragons, no spell casting - it reminds me a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Buried Giant' in that it uses the fantasy genre to explore a topic, rather than tell a story that's about the fantasy itself. I rarely read in this genre, and I found myself really engaged by what Balstrup has put together.
The meta rules as well as the in-book religion itself is all very consistent and has a lot of depth, helped by the number of characters who offer their own thoughts and personal beliefs. The overall effect is a world that feels very lived in and well thought out. Not every character is as memorable as the rest - the questions raised by the book will stay with you longer than those who raise them - but I think that's sometimes the nature of sprawling 3rd person stories.
Polished and written with clarity of voice and purpose, The Way of Unity is easily a four-star read. I've given it the extra star just for being something unique - a fantasy with literary depth that makes a real comment on an increasingly polarising aspect of the real world.
Thoroughly enjoyed this story from start to finish! The book tells a very thought-provoking tale, subtly exploring the bones of connection, religion and society, through the eyes of a number of complex and evolving characters. It was also a good solid book to read!
I really enjoyed reading this, it was what I was hoping for in a fantasy novel. The characters were well done and did everything I was hoping for. I was invested in the plot and what was happening. I enjoyed the way Sarah K. Balstrup wrote this and look forward to more.
I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.
This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read so far this year. Balstrup wrote descriptions that created the most vivid pictures in my head as I read. I marveled at the beauty at even some of the more graphic and intense scenes! I took my time reading this one because I would often reread a scene, oftentimes these were memories of different characters, or even just paragraphs here and there because I enjoyed the writing style so much.
Besides the writing style, I really enjoyed the struggle of religious beliefs - how they differed and were interpreted - as well as when the rose-colored glasses were fogged up due to revenge and ambition. The entire book I was trying to decide who I sided with: those who believed in the old gods as put forth by the Intercessors or those who thought the Intercessors were evil. It was a battle I fought with myself up until the last chapter. You just can never tell what a person will do, especially when it comes to religious beliefs and I am simply fascinated by it.
Intercessors were priests and priestesses who upheld the purification of the spirit, using psychic powers. Their methods were very questionable, but they seemed to help people. Well, the ones they didn’t execute for their “red thoughts” or “red deeds”. Velspar and its Seven Lands are ruled by the Skalen families. One family, the Ladains, believed the Intercessors were overreaching and began forming an alliance among the others to put an end to the so-called Holy Ones.
What comes next is the brutality of what happens when a religion is yanked up and burned to its very roots. The instability of what happens in the wake of that annihilation - rebellions form, some worship the old gods in secret and revenge is continuously sought after.
The world building was just plain amazing. Again, the descriptions by the author were largely responsible for my enjoyment here - Balstrup constructed this world chapter by chapter in my mind’s eye. I never got tired of trying to figure out who I thought was in the right. I loved any opportunity to learn more about the Intercessors and this world where everyone could connect telepathically, provided they removed their Meridian (headpiece with three stones used to shield your mind from psychic intrusion).
I loved the way it was narrated, told in three parts and told between the POV of Sybilla, Zohar and Ambrose. You could almost call this a coming-of-age story for all three of these characters as they are very young when we meet them and we follow them over the course of fifteen years as they grow up and learn to feel what the burden of being a Skalen is and deciding as individuals what they believed in.
I can’t say enough about this book - even with everything I’ve mentioned, there is still so much more that I haven’t touched on yet! Hopefully I was able to give you enough for you to know if this is one that you should be picking up to read for yourself!
The Way of Unity was a dark historical fantasy, rich in religious thematics which really made the reader think.
The Priesthood of the Intercessors has ruled for too long. Their message of purification has gone too far and various players across the land of Velspar are ready to rise against them.
Whispers of the first heresy spread throughout the ruling Skalens, who wish to end the blood rites, the burning of spirits and the mind games of the religious elite. But before they are able to start the rebellion, a fire takes everything from Sybilla Ladain. Her family and future, gone in an instant. Sybilla was only a child the first time heresy was mentioned, but under the rage of grief, she seeks to bring Intercession to its brutal, and bloody end.
Orchestrating a holy rebellion, was just the beginning.
There is so much to unpack in The Way of Unity. I will start off by saying, if you do not like or appreciate the deep exploration of the darker side of religion and faith, this will not be the book for you. Personally, it is one of my favourite themes explored in any fiction (and I find the nonfiction surrounding the topic utterly fascinating). Throughout this book the ideas of religion and the politics tied to faith dance around each other in an exploration of power.
Whilst there are a number of things I enjoyed throughout the story I will largely stick to the theme of religion and the discussions that The Way of Unity brings to the forefront. As the reader, we learn about the Intercessors who worship the Gods Siatka and Kahidol. These Gods demand sacrifices of their subject, in the name of the blood rites on the day of their birth. This poses the question, how much does one have to give of themselves to be considered faithful? When is enough, enough? Our characters go through this process, with some believing this is the way things are and there is no point changing course for the safety of themselves and their family. Others want the sacrifice to end, thinking it a barbaric way to experience love of a deity.
We also have the battle of the Intercessors and the Skalens themselves. Both parties desiring power, both parties throughout the book using fear, stripping subjects of power and taking away freedom of choice as means of control. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the meridian, and the magic of the world that takes place through these headdresses. These bands were worn on the forehead, 3 blinding stones placed evenly across the head which invoked a kind of numbness, a softening of extreme emotion in which some came to rely upon. Particularly those wanting power for themselves as a tool of mediation. All of these elements opened up conversations surrounding the concept of religious ideation and who is in the right of two seemingly extremist ideals. It was utterly fascinating and I can’t wait to read this again to see what more I can get out of it.
I also quite enjoyed the flow and pace of the story itself. We follow Sybilla who grows with the story. The short chapters timed before and after the main event which will determine her life path, helps the reader make sense of her decisions. As the years progress, so to do the players in this political game underlining the story. We see characters as they start to question the why of the way things are, to start seeking knowledge from before they were born to make their own decisions and alliances in a way that felt natural to the world. By doing this we also get to see how people age and harden or soften to the past, to use the knowledge found along the way for the greater good or as a weapon. Not only were we experiencing some bigger themes and questions, but they were also timed well within the story in my opinion.
This was a no brainer 5 star read for me, but as I said it will not be for everyone. The Way of Unity had me putting the book down every 3-5 chapters to sit with the themes, and explore in my own head what I thought about them. I cannot wait to see how this story continues to unfold.
In The Way of Unity, we find ourselves in a land called Velspar, ruled by an elite class called the Skalens. In this land, a religious sect called the Intercessors, fond of purifying sinners through fire, are gaining in power and threatening the authority of the Skalens. The narrative unfolds over many years, and is constructed around a central event called "the fire" which is when Sybilla's family is murdered in a house fire by the Intercessors. After that fateful event, Sybilla becomes Skalen and seeks revenge by eliminating the Intercessors and destroying their sacred animals, the Siatka and the Kshidol. However, in the following years all is not well and surviving Intercessors, who see Sybilla as a heretic, are plotting their return to power.
The world-building is fantastic. Through strange rituals and customs, we can almost smell and taste the fabric of that world. We are shown the characters' visions as well as their hopes and their fears.
The poetic prose is beautiful and it was a pleasure to read.
Balstrup’s moody fantasy novel explores religion and power.
Skalen Sybilla Ladain of Vaelnyr lives in an area of Velspar. The Seven Lands of Velspar place a lot of power in the hands of individuals known as Intercessors. These Intercessors make up a priest class that isn’t to be trifled with. For the average person, thinking “red thoughts,” which seem to be akin to “sinful” or violent thoughts, can result in execution. Sybilla hails from a ruling family, but when her father speaks against the Intercessors, retribution is swift. She wakes one day to find the family home aflame and says, “Because he had the courage to resist their advances, they silenced him with fire” (chapters are pegged to the incident; e.g., “Fifteen Years After the Fire”). The aggrieved daughter sets about her revenge in a merciless way, and she plans not only to kill the Intercessors, but to undo their past actions. Some wind up calling her the Red Skalen, and merely speaking her name causes one character to experience “an icy sensation.” But what does the future hold? Are the old ways of the Intercessors truly dead and gone? As the story progresses, it grows increasingly complex. There is much afoot in the lands of Velspar. Balstrup’s creatures are intriguingly unnerving; one looks like “a cloaked spirit falling from the sky” and another, a “mess of blood.” Not all surprises are physical either. One character manages to slip into a “gust of memory that was not her own.” Dialogue is often wooden, however (“You must be hungry after your journey, please sit and we can enjoy this meal while we talk”). Still, the murky atmosphere and the characters within it are full of surprises.
An enveloping epic in a strikingly harsh world.
This was a really engaging, dark fantasy, a brilliant debut novel from Sarah. I have come to favour the fantasy genre in my books, and this definitely hit the mark!
I was engaged from the very start, and Sarah’s world building was brilliant. I loved following Sybilla through the years, and everything she endures. The character development throughout was wonderful.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this complex, brilliant novel, and hope to read more from the author in the future!
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Gorgeous, vivid, enchanting; and dark.
A troubled woman rises to power to avenge her family in this impressive fantasy by Balstrup. The Seven Lands of Velspar, ruled by an elite class called the Skalens, have always put their faith in the Intercessors, the mystics of the highest order responsible for purification of the spirit. But with the Intercessors gradually gaining in power, the Skalens begin to feel threatened. When an unsettling event initiated by the Intercessors brings a great tragedy in the fierce Sybilla Ladain’s life, she knows she must gather her strength and fight the priesthood. This absorbing fantasy builds tension and suspense by alternating among the perspectives of several characters, with Sybilla at the center. Told in present tense with the hypnotic cadence of fairy tales, the carefully impersonal third-person narrative in alternating voices keeps readers invested. Establishing from the beginning that something tragic happened in Sybilla’s life elevates the overarching plot from a straightforward revenge tale into a complex intrigue about motivation and belief. Balstrup treats Sybilla’s troubled journey sincerely and sensitively. Though the fantastical elements remain vague, Balstrup ably conjures a magical world of rituals and traditions immersed in magic and her characters, among them the righteous but draconian Skalens, the ruler class, and the psychic priesthood, are skillfully sketched. There are many conflicts that shape the story but the most significant one is religion, with the relentless power game between the Skalens and the rebels at play. Foreshadowing sets up the heart-wrenching episodes later in the narrative along with the satisfying ending. Heartbreaking and yet heartening, this is a lush fantasy rooted in personal belief versus religion.
SKALEN SYBILLA LADAIN OF VAELNYR
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Everyone I love is dead, and now I must go by the name they have given me. I am the Skalen of Vaelnyr.
What music do you listen to?
I hear only the sound of fire and Siatka’s scales whispering along the Temple walls.
What are 3 items you can’t live without?
There is one item alone. My Meridian, with its three discs of blinding stone, to keep my thoughts hidden from the Intercessors.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
The Guard doing what they will and treating me as a figurehead.
What do you do in your free time?
Try to hold myself together when all around me is crumbling.
What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?
Sometimes, nothing at all. But lately, there is Gavril.
What do you carry in your bag?
The Skalens’ Star that once hung around my neck, for I am travelling in disguise.
What’s your favorite animal?
I love horses.
If you could go anywhere in Velspar, where would you go and why?
To Thrale Forest, where the Guard won’t follow me.
What’s your biggest fear?
That the Intercessors will do to me what they did to my father. That Siatka will draw my spirit from my body, and I will be dissolved in the Great Stream.
INTERCESSOR WALDEMAR RASMUS OF BRIVIA
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I am Intercessor Waldemar Rasmus of Brivia, trusted advisor to the Skalens’ Karasek. The Karaseks seek to learn the secrets of Intercession and to commune directly with Velspar. They long to wade in the Great Stream and master its flows of life and death.
It is true that they are descendants of the Great Diviner, but they possess no gift of their own. They look to me as their teacher and I help them, knowing the futility of our efforts.
What are 3 items you can’t live without?
My ceremonial dagger, a pouch of Alma leaves, and a quill to record what has been done.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what is one thing you’d like to have with you?
The voices of my brethren, raised in song.
What’s your favorite animal?
To call them animals is heresy. Mother Siatka, serpent of sea, and vast-winged Father Kshidol. I prepare for them offerings of meat-paste and Alma. I slice my palm and add three drops of blood. Will they hear my Call?
What’s your biggest secret?
The stains of ash upon my hands.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I am Zohar Elshender, pleased to make your acquaintance.
What do you do in your free time?
Confined to the Skalens’ House, how am I to make friends of my own? The townsfolk stand clear of me, knowing that one day I will be their Skalen, and yet my parents will not teach me the things that I must learn.
My Attendant is sweet to me, though. Elspeth and I go down to the library searching for pictures of the mainland fashions. She is good at stitching and has made me the finest replicas – trailing gowns with puffed sleeves and glass-bead embroidery. She braids my hair, and we admire her handiwork in the mirror. If only I had somewhere to go.
What is your favorite holiday?
I would do anything to travel the mainland, to explore the forests of Brivia and the Maglorean waterfront where it is said that the women dance until dawn. Even the austere gardens of Nothelm; I have heard that they are beautiful. I want to see it all.
What’s your biggest secret?
That by night my mind is consumed with thoughts of a certain visitor who once came to our halls. I wonder if he thinks of me too.
What’s your biggest fear?
I fear that one day my brother Ambrose will leave me behind.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Ambrose, son of the Skalens’ Elshender, heir to nothing.
What are 3 items you can’t live without?
My pickaxe, a good supply of Alma, and a charm my sister hid in the hollow of a tree.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what is one thing you’d like to have with you?
The universe in the palm of my hand.
What’s your favorite animal?
Siatka whispers to me beneath the waves. I don’t know what she is – animal or deity.
What do you do to relax?
Zohar and I used to smoke Alma in the sea caves, but since I took up sea-mining with the Sherburn brothers, I like to be with them, where we can go without our Meridians and speak our minds.
If you could change one thing about Velspar, what would it be?
I would change the year of my birth and walk among the first Intercessors.
How would you describe the world you live in?
Skalen Sybilla Ladain destroyed it all.
Extract featured on Beneath A Thousand Skies Book Blog
The Way of Unity was selected as a Killer Nashville Claymore Finalist for Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy.
Thank you so much for joining us for this Q&A! We’ll start off with one of our standard podcast opening questions–tell us something great that’s happened recently.
Seeing The Way of Unity in bookstores has been a dream come true. I didn’t know what to expect approaching booksellers, but so far, they have been wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic. Self-publishing is challenging because you have to build these connections one at a time.
What are you currently reading or what’s up next on your TBR? What made you pick up this book?
Last year I started Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and I am up to the final book in that series, The Other Wind. I love the way Le Guin incorporates religious concepts into her work and the unique worlds she creates. After The Other Wind I plan to read The Left Hand of Darkness. Beyond that, I have a few on my list that I know little about but that look interesting - John Langan’s The Fisherman, Gene Wolf’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always kept a journal, where I could organise my thoughts and get to the bottom of things. In high school, when I suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (for four torturous years) my journal became a lifeline. Among its pages were ideas that seeded short stories, poetry and artwork, but I never attempted a long-form story.
Decades later, after completing a Religious Studies PhD and publishing my first academic book on mystical experience and film, I found myself in a bit of a dead-end. Housebound by lockdown and with two young children at my heels, I knew that I would go mad unless I found a new and all-consuming project. Taking inspiration from my old journals (and the weird dreams recorded there) I signed up for a novel writing course through Retreat West in the UK. Going from academic writing to fiction might seem like a significant shift, but I soon realised that in both forms I experience a sense of exploration and discovery that ends, if not in an answer, then in a feeling of resolution. That is why I write.
Who are your favorite current writers and who are your greatest influences?
I love storytelling musicians like Nick Cave and Tom Waits and writers like Virginia Woolf who are not afraid to get experimental. Present-day writers I admire include Kazuo Ishiguro, Susanna Clarke, Jen Williams, Joe Abercrombie, Seth Dickinson and Christopher Buehlman. I also get a lot of inspiration from television series where a lot of brilliant writers are working these days e.g. Midnight Mass, Raised by Wolves and Severance.
How much do you plan when you write? What’s your writing process like?
Because I have young kids, I have to be efficient with my writing time. In Scrivener, I have everything plotted and planned, but when I feel I have lost touch with the imaginative spark, I shift gears. I use tarot cards and other divination methods to help me think about character and plot in an abstract, symbolic way. I draw things out on paper, turn them into shapes, into numbers. I look for correspondences that will reveal the story to me. I often write to a particular playlist so that the music sinks into my subconscious, helping to shape the mood of the story.
They say to never judge a book by its cover, but a cover is still a marketing tool that helps sell books. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of your book?
In writing The Way of Unity I created a rough map of Velspar, an emblem to represent the Seven Lands and their respective clans (The Skalens’ Star) and a religious symbol, The Eye of Velspar, which distills the concept of twin deities protecting the source of consciousness. UK illustrator Andy Paciorek did an amazing job adapting these sketches and imbuing them with his own style. His maps are truly unique, and I was so impressed by his ability to capture Sybilla’s character in the front cover illustration. Once he had created her portrait, we played around with the colour and design elements a fair bit, finally settling on a gold and maroon colour scheme.
I also got Andy to design the logo for Burning Mirror, my publishing imprint. I like to think of inspiration as coming from outside us but being shaped and distilled into a concentrated form. This idea reminded me of the way glass concentrates the sun’s rays, and of ancient burning mirrors – objects used to harness the power of the sun. I sketched the image and Andy rendered it with his signature bold lines. I love how it turned out.
Can you give us an elevator pitch for your book?
Driven by spiritual grief, a band of rebels pursue the woman responsible for the slaughter of the faithful, but she is not the only one who will have to face the darkness within.
In your opinion, what kind of reader would like this book?
People who enjoy lyrical prose, layered symbolism and philosophical ideas. As a piece of epic fantasy, I think fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree or Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne will enjoy The Way of Unity. The religious horror element, and related moral themes will appeal to fans of Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires or Kerstin Hall’s Star Eater.
How different is the final version of this book from the first draft?
Quite different. I wrote the first 20,000 words from the POV of a young girl called Bridie, discovering the dark secrets of the Elshender clan, rulers of the island of Avishae. As I went deeper into that secret past, I created a villain who lived on the mainland. A distant figure whose story ended up subsuming all others, changing the timeline, and kicking Bridie out of the story altogether. The only remnant of that original character is Bridie’s father, Patrick Milwain, who makes a cameo in the final version.
Can you tell us a little bit about your characters? What are your favorite kinds of characters to write?
I like to write characters that challenge me. I combine attributes that appeal and repel me so there is no easy way to categorise them. The four POV characters in The Way of Unity all have their flaws. Sybilla’s fear causes irreparable harm, yet some of her suffering is relatable. Waldemar’s grief at the world he has lost is genuine, but he is also arrogant and blind to his own failures. Ambrose wants what he cannot have but does not have the wisdom to bear it. Zohar is sometimes frivolous but has an untapped capacity for compassion. Of these characters, I think Sybilla is the most difficult – I pushed her a little further along the grey scale.
Is there anything you can tell us about any current projects you’re working on?
I am currently working on the sequel to The Way of Unity, titled A Trail of Stars. At this stage I can reveal that the main POV characters will be Kalet Askier, Voirrey Braedal and Edric, Head Guard of Nothelm. We will be moving beyond the shores of Velspar into unchartered territory.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us! Do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to leave for our readers?
I just want to say thank you for having me! This book is very close to my heart, and I hope readers enjoy it.
And finally, where can you be found on the internet if our readers want to hear more from you?
I’m active on Twitter and Goodreads and have just started a quarterly newsletter. I’ve also included the merch link for The Way of Unity where you can pick up awesome t-shirts, mugs and scarves featuring artwork from the book.
The Way of Unity Merch: https://www.redbubble.com/people/SarahKBalstrup/shop
Sarah K. Balstrup is an Australian author of dark fantasy and former Religious Studies academic. Her work gravitates toward the liminal and surreal, exploring religious themes with an air of dark romanticism.
Her other passions include Nick Cave and her morning coffee.
Sarah lives in Canberra with her record-collecting husband and two children.
Welcome to my favourite section of the website, talking with the authors. Today we are accompanied by Sarah K. Balstrup, whose debut, The Way of Unity, will be published in February 2023.
Let's dive in!
1.- What inspired you to write The Way of Unity?
I started writing The Way of Unity in 2020, drawing on some old notes from my journal. Originally the entire story was set in Avishae and was told through the eyes of a young girl discovering the hidden power of the Elshenders (Zohar, Ambrose, Rebekah, and Bethany). Waldemar was part of the story too, as Ambrose’s mentor.
These old drafts did not possess a clear theme, but the isolation of lockdown, the death of a friend, and unanswered questions lingering from my Religious Studies research left me thinking about the importance of connection – in both its ordinary and extreme forms (e.g. intimate friendship, romantic union, the maternal bond, our relationship with ancestors and the dead, and the spiritual desire for oneness with the divine).
I wanted the society of the novel to experience a fundamental change, from psychic closeness to alienation. You could say this was inspired by the lockdowns but it was also influenced by the concept of the ‘Death of God’ and the idea that before secularisation, society was united by faith. To bring about this change, I needed a villain. Someone who could ‘kill God’, essentially. But as Sybilla’s character developed, she ended up taking over the entire story, and the more I thought about her, the more sympathetic my portrayal became.
Now that things have settled down a bit with the pandemic, I can see that I was definitely channeling feelings of grief associated with the world that we had lost. I felt so sad at the time for my newborn son who I feared would never know what it was like to be a part of a community. Thankfully, things are not so dire now.
2.- Why did you decide to write dark fantasy?
I didn't make a conscious decision to write in a particular genre and had to figure out what to call it once I had finished. Occasionally I describe The Way of Unity as 'dark literary fantasy' to account for the lyrical style and religious/philosophical themes, but really, this book does not fit neatly in the fantasy genre. It has epic fantasy elements, and a tone of dark romanticism, but is also influenced by literary fiction, poetry, religious writings, and music.
3.- What would you say inspired you into creating the religion of The Way of Unity?
I was thinking about entropy and the death of the Sun. Imagining everything that is concentrated here on Earth just evaporating into nothingness, moving ever outward. Then, I began to imagine a religion that protects, surrounds, concentrates, and distills, that exists to counter the inexorable movement outward. Many ancient religions revere a divine mother and divine father. I thought about other dualistic conceptions of the world, particularly the dual spheres of sky and sea (above/below). Who would inhabit the sky and sea? This is how I created Kshidol, the carrion bird, and Siatka, the water serpent, Velspar's holiest beings. Drawing images of them with the planet in between, I ended up with the image of The Eye of Velspar which is also featured in the Skalens' Star. Siatka and Kshidol distill consciousness in a physical place (Velspar), and the planet is conceived as an eye because consciousness resides there, awake and alive, in the spirits of the faithful.
4.- How would you say being an expert in Religious Studies has influenced the craft of this novel?
I did not do any specific research for this novel but it is fair to say that the book’s symbolism, religion, and world-building grew from ideas that accrued in my mind during my years of Religious Studies research (on 1960s counterculture, Western Esotericism, and mystical traditions).
The religion of Velspar is not supposed to represent a particular faith but draws from Tibetan Buddhism (sky burial, reincarnation), shamanistic and psychedelic ritual (meditative visionary states achieved by smoking the Alma), Gnosticism (strong spirit/matter dualism) and the Protestant critique of religious intermediaries that fuelled the individualistic religious practices of the New Age.
The chants, hymns, and animal deities (Siatka and Kshidol) were inspired by Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (religious poetry and songs from around the world).
In a more abstract sense, The Way of Unity is connected with my research on romantic love and religious experience as this work is also concerned with the connection between the individual and the ineffable.
If people are interested in my academic writing, links can be found on my website: www.sarahkbalstrup.com
5.- How would you say it is different to write fiction to non-fiction?
They are not as different as you’d think. For me, academic writing has always felt creative, it is just creativity set within specific limits. Because academic writing must refer to evidence and existing research, putting an argument together is a little like the art of collage – combining existing elements in illuminating ways. Writing a novel is more like painting. You might paint in a style that recalls other artists, but no matter what, you must make every brushstroke with your own hand.
6.- Which aspects of the writing craft would you say are the most difficult for you?
Dialogue is always the most difficult to get right. When I was younger, I painted a self-portrait that took an entire year to complete. The position of the face remained in more or less the same position, but the essence of the portrait did not become clear for a long time. I tend to write in the same way. I put down a layer of writing, step back, look at the structure, ask questions, reformulate my ideas, add another layer, etc. I have to have everything in place, working harmoniously, before the dialogue begins to sound authentic.
7.- If I'm not wrong, you were working this NaNoWriMo in a new novel, what could you tell us about it?
I have two projects on the boil at the moment. The first one is the sequel to The Way of Unity, covering the time that elapses between the last two chapters. I have always considered The Way of Unity to be complete on its own, so A Trail of Stars will focus on different themes, but it does take place in the same world. I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series and I like the way she connects her stories without making them too reliant on one another. Where The Way of Unity was inward looking, A Trail of Stars moves beyond the lands of Velspar into unchartered territory.
My second project is quite different (the one that I started during NaNoWriMo2022). Set in pre-pandemic Canberra, Australia, Sunshine tells the story of Dawn, a struggling single mother who becomes obsessed with the Griffin’s original town plan for Canberra, perceiving certain places as cursed because they do not adhere to the Griffins’ cosmic vision (Canberra’s designers were influenced by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy etc.). Following a neighbourhood tragedy, Dawn’s cleansing rituals attract a following and soon she becomes a kind of ‘cult leader’ helping a group of bereft mothers overcomes their grief, even as her own life falls apart.
8.- What can we expect from Sarah K. Balstrup in the future?
I am not the fastest writer on earth, but I am always working on something. Expect weirdness, religious themes, altered states of consciousness, and characters with psychological depth.
Today on our blog we have a Q & A with writer Sarah K. Balstrup, who was a participant on our Novel Creator Course.
- Can you tell us a bit about your novel?
The Way of Unity is a dark fantasy novel about a society bound by psychic intimacy that is torn apart by a religious schism. It is epic in scope but focuses on inner emotional experience more than your average fantasy. In the novel, Sybilla Ladain seeks to destroy the religious order who murdered her family. Yet she does so out of fear and her revolution signifies the closing of her heart and the prevention of social and spiritual communion among her people. Lost souls gather against her, angered by what they have lost, knowing life will never return to the way it was before.
- How did your Religious Studies background influence this story?
I signed up for the RW Novel Creator Course during lockdown after moving to a new city and that kind of set the mood, crystalising the theme of unity vs. alienation. As a Religious Studies academic who had always been interested in the shift from collective to subjective religious practices (in Romanticism and especially in a post-1960s context), The Way of Unity picked up on many of the ideas that I had been exploring in my previous book Spiritual Sensations (Bloomsbury: 2020). Sybilla seeks to destroy The Intercessors because she mistrusts religious intermediaries but the generation who grow up in a ‘priestless’ world resent her because the chain has been broken and there is no one left to pass on the wisdom of the past.
- What authors inspire you?
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has long been my favourite fantasy novel, and that probably tells you all you need to know about where my work sits in the genre (that is, it doesn’t fit very well at all!).
One writer I discovered while trying to come up with comparative titles for this book is a horror author who dabbles in fantasy: Christopher Buehlman. I absolutely loved Between Two Fires, a surreal vision of plague-ridden France, conceived as the eruption of Hell into the earthly plane, and the parable-like quest of a disgraced knight to wrest his soul from the spreading corruption.
Overall, I am drawn to unusual examples of genre fiction, and unfailingly to stories with underlying religious themes e.g., Ursula K. Le Guin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alex Pheby, Lauren Groff and Susanna Clarke.
- What are you working on now?
I have paused work on the sequel to The Way of Unity to focus on a contemporary novel about a struggling Canberra mum who inadvertently starts a cult following a neighbourhood tragedy.
Sarah K. Balstrup is an Australian writer and former Religious Studies academic. Sarah’s debut novel The Way of Unity comes out 6 February 2023.
THE WAY OF UNITY:
Goodreads Reviews: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/62986432-the-way-of-unity
Purchase here or, better yet, order through your local indie bookstore: https://tinyurl.com/evnxuawm