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Pulling Back on the Magic

By Dawn Ius

There’s always a bit of magic at play when two genre superstars come together. But in the case of international bestselling authors Steve Berry and M. J. Rose, the magic comes not always as a storytelling tool, but in the collaboration itself.

Berry and Rose are set to release THE LAKE OF LEARNING, the second novella in a series featuring Cassiopeia Vitt, the love interest of Berry’s popular series character, Cotton Malone. She’s also tough, intelligent, and always up for a new adventure.

The first Cassiopeia Vitt novella—The Museum of Mysteries—took readers on a journey back and forth through time, using the magical elements for which Rose’s stories are revered. But in this second installment, the authors say they pulled back on the magic—and the time travel—to better align the series with Berry’s books.

“We went a little far with Museum of Mysteries,” says Rose, who adds that even her forthcoming standalone novel will have less “magic” in it.

What fans—both those of the Cotton Malone books, and the new readers earned from last year’s Museum of Mysteries—will recognize is Berry’s tight, well-paced style that dives right into the adventure from the first page. In this case, the archeological discovery of an ancient illuminated manuscript—a Book of Hours—found at the site where Cassiopeia is building an authentic French castle using materials and techniques from the 13th century. Berry says it’s based on an actual project located near Treigny, France.

M. J. Rose

Much like how The Museum of Mysteries was inspired by a trip to the small French village of Eze, Berry says this book was “inspired by our love of the area.” Rose spends about a month there every year, and Berry and his wife, Elizabeth, have made the journey several times. As well, both authors have set novels in the Languedoc region of southern France in the past—The Templar Legacy in 2006 for Berry, and Rose’s 2017 release, The Library of Light and Shadows.

In France, the writing pair have found the perfect backdrop for the adventure and mystery in THE LAKE OF LEARNING, and the ability to flesh out a story that encompasses the rich beauty of the landscape—one of Rose’s many stamps on the work—with the breathtaking historical details inherent in all of Berry’s novels. The Book of Hours—a medieval devotional text that outlines hourly prayers—and the novella’s nod to Catharism are also based in fact, much of which both Rose and Berry knew about. But more research was required to make the history come to life.

Berry was surprised to learn about “the Cathar rituals and the purpose behind them. They have some very unique ceremonies.” Including, he adds, a ritual walk up Montségur, a “steep and arduous climb along a narrow trail.” It’s about an hour up at a snail’s pace, and then another hour down—Berry would know, since he and his wife have walked it.

Steve Berry
Photo credit: Rana Faure

Certainly the physical and geographical elements of France, along with the historical details just ripe for the picking, help propel the mystery forward. But the novella’s starting point— the title itself—came not from France, but rather, Ireland where Berry and his wife stumbled on an actual “lake of learning.”

“It surrounds the ruins of an old abbey,” he says. “We hired a small boat to check it out, and realized it would make a cool title.”

Rose agreed, and the two set out to draft an outline, a process similar to that in the case of The Museum of Mysteries. Together, they map out the story, marking out the key points and clues, and then Rose writes a first draft. Berry revises and polishes.

It’s a system that works.

“I’m good at redrafting,” Berry says, noting that he’s a bit picky on some things—as characteristic fans of his Cotton Malone books understand all too well.

At present, the two are at the drafting stage of the third novella in the series—tentatively titled The House of Long Ago—in which readers will be further immersed in Cassiopeia’s world. Fans won’t see an appearance of Cotton, though. “We want to keep him out of these books,” Berry says. But the authors will delve more into Cassiopeia’s past, bringing her even more into the spotlight.

Does that mean a full-length Cassiopeia novel is in the plans?

Not quite, Berry says, though it’s something he’d love to explore in the future.

“We talked about doing a prequel,” he says. “A book that looks at Cassiopeia’s life before she met Cotton. But I’m not sure how my readers would like it. Thriller readers want the same, but different with every book.  Not different different or same same.  It’s a fine line. We have to be cautious about that.”

For now, though, fans of both authors get the benefit of an extra story from the two—a feat each admits would be impossible without collaboration—along with their forthcoming individual projects. Rose’s novel Cartier’s Hope is set for release January 2020, and Berry’s 15th Cotton Malone book, The Warsaw Protocol, launches this February.


Dawn Ius
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