G.T. Almasi is the author of Blades of Winter, A fast-paced cyberthriller set in the shadow of a Cold War that never ended:
Nineteen-year-old Alix Nico, a self-described “million-dollar murder machine,” is a rising star in ExOps, a covert-action agency that aggressively shields the United States from its three great enemies: the Soviet Union, Greater Germany, and the Nationalist Republic of China. Rather than risk another all-out war, the four superpowers have poured their resources into creating superspies known as Levels.
Alix is one of the hottest young American Levels. That’s no surprise: Her dad was America’s top Level before he was captured and killed eight years ago. But when an impulsive decision explodes—literally—in her face, Alix uncovers a conspiracy that pushes her to her limits and could upset the global balance of power forever.
In this interview, Almasi discusses his favorite books and movies, and fictional characters who inspired Alix Nico.
You’ve got a wild mix of flavors here: spy adventure, superheroes, technothriller. What inspired this and how hard was it to weave it all together?
In part the mix of flavors was inspired by William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which for all of its science fiction really struck me as an espionage thriller, and Blade Runner, which treats the sci-fi as an incidental backdrop and focuses on the very human fears of the characters in what is otherwise a straight-up noir detective story.
But the biggest inspiration to combine these flavors were the DJ mash-ups I like listening to. The way these DJs combined bits and pieces of mostly-existing recordings to generate fresh material blew me away, especially since they had no rules about which genres they raided from. An early mash-up was the Run-DMC/Aerosmith version of “Walk This Way” which mixed new rap vocals with the original rock tracks. I think one of the first “original” mash-ups to get airplay was “The Rockafeller Skank” by Fatboy Slim.
Another place I’ve seen genres converging is in the video games I play. Many aspects of role-playing games have worked their way into shooters, and vice-versa. A couple of games that are primarily puzzle games have managed to incorporate the tension of an adventure game. Some racing games have been set in a wide-open world where you can run races or just drive around like a maniac.
Weaving all these flavors together was a blast, since I love them all so much. The tricky part was knowing when to stop.
Who are some of your influences? Books? Movies?
The two books that got me seriously thinking about writing were Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson because they’re both loose, wild, and nobody else could have written them, which really appealed to the fine arts part of me.
Other significant influences include Luc Besson’s movies La Femme Nikita, and The Professional, as well as John Woo’s Hard Boiled and The Killer. Some of my sense of pacing comes from playing video games like Doom and Halo, and the book’s leveled character classes are strongly influenced by the Elder Scrolls games from Bethesda.
What exactly is a Level? Who gets to be one? What does ExOps do, and why is it called that?
A Level is a government field agent who has acquired super-human capabilities from biologically-implanted Mods and Enhances, including strengthened joints, armored skeletons, and an array of in-body communication equipment. Levels cost a fortune, but they’re the fastest, toughest, most dangerous asset in any country’s arsenal. The name comes from the extra level of performance these people can achieve, and the fact that their current rank is referred to as Level 1, Level 2, etc.
Each agent is assigned a specialty that plays into their strengths. These specialties include: Protector, Interceptor, Vindicator, Infiltrator, Malefactor, and Liberator. At the outset of Blades of Winter, Scarlet is a Level 4 Interceptor. But not just anyone gets to be a Level. I detail all this in the book, but in brief the candidate needs to display the right profile to handle the incredible physical and psychological stresses they’ll encounter on their missions.
For example, my main character Scarlet was recruited in great part because of her prowess as a world-class gymnast. In fact, she was on track to go to the Olympics when she joined ExOps instead.
ExOps, short for Extreme Operations Division, is a non-public-facing covert-action agency that operates under the direction of CIA and the White House. It has three departments; Administration, Information, and Operations. The Operations Department is subdivided into regional Sections; German, Russian, Domestic, Chinese, and South American. Scarlet works in the German Section.
Did you have any models in mind when you created Scarlet? Did the character change in any unexpected ways through the book?
A great deal of Scarlet came to me from watching Olympic gymnasts, skiers, and figure skaters. Those kids are amazing! And not just because of the physical things they can do, but also the intense pressures they can handle. These athletes provided my artistic justification for having such young people working as Levels.
Scarlet’s borderline sociopathy is inspired by the title character from La Femme Nikita, and her gung-ho attitude is my reaction to Jason Bourne’s ambivalence about being a superman, which always annoyed me, (even though I love the books).
Much of the rest of her — it turns out — is basically me, or at least who I wish I could be. Big surprise, right?
An unexpected character development was how close Scarlet became with her mother. I hadn’t really planned that. Scarlet is a teen-ager, and she and her mom are still in that difficult place many mothers and their teen-age daughters pass through. At a critical point in the story it was clear that the two women were either going to split apart or make a mutual peace. For a lot of reasons I felt that they’d make that second choice, which dramatically improves their home life.
There are four major international players in the setting: the USA, the Soviet Union, the Nationalist Republic of China, and Greater Germany. Sounds pretty Cold War! Why did you go in that direction?
I needed to justify Levels. The Cold War we lived through didn’t have them, so that wouldn’t do. I needed a Super Cold War, where the combatants would go to even more incredible lengths than the lengths they go to now to force their agendas upon one another.
This is why I wrote the alternate history, so I could set the story in a 20th century with a lot more tension than the 20th century we actually lived through. This also opened up a lot of interesting story-telling opportunities since certain significant people have different fates in my alt-history than they did in real life.
Complete this sentence: “If you like_____________, then you’ll love Blades of Winter.”
“Really fast-paced fun.”