TOWCB Interview with AC: The Golden City Author Jaleigh Johnson
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Back in January I was provided an early access review copy for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed book The Golden City by author Jaleigh Johnson and publisher Aconyte Books. It was a unique story that tells a tale about a young Assassin Apprentice Hytham and his mentor Basim Ibn Ishaq on a mission in Constantinople to protect the young Prince Leo VI from his paranoid father Basil I. The review is available here, but a light spoiler warning is listed with the article.
I reached out to author Jaleigh Johnson via her personal website for an interview and thanks to assistance from Aconyte Books I was able to have the following questions communicated to Jaleigh and with approval from Ubisoft, answered for this written interview. The contents of this interview have not been edited in any form to keep accuracy and transparency.
Which game was your introduction into Assassin’s Creed? Was there a particular scene or character that grabbed your interest the most?
I actually had this conversation with my husband while I was writing the book, because I remember my introduction to the game was watching him play it, and we were both trying to remember which game it was. I believe it was the very first game, and I remember asking him all kinds of questions about what he was doing. Why are you assassinating all these people? Why are you spending so much time climbing that building? Why did you then just jump off the building and land in a pile of straw? And my husband’s response was always something along the lines of, “You just have to watch or play it yourself.” But I remember the moment when the game switched to the present day and introduced the concept of the animus. That was the moment I really got intrigued with the game and the story, and I knew I had to try it myself. That was the beginning of the path that led to this point.
Having worked with Aconyte before on Marvel’s Xavier Institute series, how are you enjoying writing for these large franchises? Are there challenges writing historical fiction compared to superhero driven stories?
The large franchises are a huge amount of fun to write and special because I get to leave my own mark on something that’s been important to me, but there’s also this massive sense of responsibility and the desire to do justice to the stories and the characters and contribute something that builds on everything that’s come before. The challenge with writing historical fiction for AC in particular is to craft a story that fits with history but also melds seamlessly with the game lore and the characters you’re writing about, so in that way it takes much more time to write than the superhero driven stories because of the amount of research. But with the superhero stories, you also have this rich and deep history of the comics, so there’s always going to be a lot of time and work involved. Fortunately, I love to do research, so that’s been a fun part of the process as well.
Your new book, The Golden City follows Hytham and Basim from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in an earlier timeline than the game’s main story. What kind of process do you go through to do a “prequel” of sorts for a character’s personal history?
In the beginning, it was reacquainting myself with everything that was known about Hytham and Basim from the events of Valhalla – re-watching all the cutscenes in the game that involve them, things like that – to get a sense of who they are at that point in their lives and asking myself how they might have gotten to that point and how their relationship might have evolved. Later, I was also given information about Basim’s journey in Assassin’s Creed Mirage, and it then became a matter of bridging the gap for him between Mirage and Valhalla. A prequel and sequel of sorts, for Basim, which sounds particularly confusing since Mirage hasn’t been released yet. It was definitely an interesting challenge!
On a similar note to the setting of Constantinople, what kind of research did you do to prepare for this new story? Being a fan of historical books, were there any titles in particular that you read about the period of Basil I and Leo VI?
Researching for this project was wild because one day, I’d be reading books like Herrin’s Byzantium or Bury’s History of the Eastern Roman Empire, among others, and then the next I’d be digging into AC lore or cutscenes that reference Constantinople to get a sense of the city as it’s presented in the game. They were both fascinating perspectives, and I admit, I loved getting to play video games and have it count as actual research, heh.
Your story, for me personally, speaks to a sense of fatherhood in a character that cannot have a family, something that hasn’t been discussed much by the Assassins Brotherhood in the past. What was your drive to explore this concept?
You know, one of the first things I thought about Hytham in Valhalla was that he was someone who should have a family, somehow who would make a good father. And then I remembered, that’s not the path of these characters, and it made me wonder how Hytham felt about that. Did he dwell on it at all? Was it something he mourned? Or was it a relief? Over the last several years, I’ve also watched a lot of my friends become fathers, and I’ve seen the way it changes them, but I’ve also witnessed how their personalities have shaped the type of father they are. I look at them and think, yes, you’ve got this, this is what you’re meant to do. I liked the idea of exposing Hytham to that role and seeing how he would handle it, this glimpse into a world that was not his path. How would his strengths and weaknesses show in this role? I loved exploring the answers to all those questions.
Additionally, the relationship between Hytham and Basim is explored more in your book than what we saw in AC Valhalla. Were there any ideas that you had from the Valhalla story that you wanted to expand on in your book?
I always wanted to know how the relationship between Hytham and Basim became what it is. In Valhalla, I got the sense that Hytham had a great deal of respect for Basim and loyalty to him, even when he doesn’t agree with Basim or his methods. I wondered how that bond developed between the two men, especially when you consider Basim’s secretive nature and his skill at manipulation. How does a man like that earn the loyalty of someone like Hytham, who is a much more open character? That was the place I started from in developing their story.
I myself enjoyed the stand-alone nature of the book on a character, Hytham, that is becoming an anchor for the AC Valhalla storyline. Would you like to write about him again in the future, if so what kind of story would you like to tell about his life?
I love Hytham, and I think he’s a fascinating character, so I’d always welcome the opportunity to return to his story. I think if I did, I would love to explore his early life and his recruitment by the Hidden Ones. I’d love to see the forces that shaped who he is and made him the man you see in Valhalla.
There is definitely a passion that is growing with the works of the various authors that Aconyte and Ubisoft have chosen for the Assassin’s Creed series of late. It is nice to learn how authors like Jaleigh process concepts and research for such a project. With additional titles being announced with growing frequency, I am looking forward to seeing more content in the transmedia line and having a chance like this to interact with the scribes of these fantastic stories.
Assassin’s Creed: The Golden City will be available on digital platforms globally and in paperback format in the US on May 2, 2023, followed by a physical release in the UK on June 22, 2023.
About the Author
Mike Smith is a collector of all things Assassin's Creed and a major supporter for the transmedia platform for the series. With nearly a full library of Assassin's Creed media, he is exploring the universe in order of Genetic Memory and waiting eagerly for the next story to be released.