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Supernatural forces collide in Wilkes alum’s dark debut novel

Sharon J. Naples

Sharon J. Naples

The brainchild of 2005 Wilkes University graduate Sabrina Benulis, the book "Archon" is a dark, epic fantasy-thriller inspired by Christian Mythology.

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment editor

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Talking to Sabrina Benulis, you’d never know this was a woman with an apocalypse inside her, just roaring to get out.

Friendly, outgoing and seemingly without pretension, Benulis has a charm that is disarming and a laugh that is infectious. But swirling inside her mind is a portal to another dimension.

It’s a raging universe teetering on the edge of cataclysm, a battleground where angels and demons battle for dominion and, at the heart of it all, a damaged young girl with red hair struggles with issues of identity and fate.

This is the world of “Archon,” the first installment in Benulis’ “Books of Raziel” trilogy. The book was released internationally this winter by publishing powerhouse HarperCollins, through its fantasy-themed Voyager imprint.

Before becoming an architect of Armageddon, Benulis juggled majors at Wilkes University, graduating in 2005 with degrees in both English and psychology.

The 28-year-old author, who lives in Drums, recently took the time to share with The Beacon the inspirations that motivated the evolution of “Archon.”

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Tell me about the story of “Archon.”

 I could say Archon takes place in the future, but I’d rather say it’s more like an alternate reality on Earth about a hundred years from our timeline. In this world, there is a prophecy of a “dark messiah,” called the Archon, that will appear on Earth, and according to this prophecy that person will have red hair.

In this world, people with red hair are known, derogatorily, as “blood heads.” Angela Mathers is one of them, and they’re all gathered at a special school situated on an island city owned by the Vatican. Angela suspects it’s the Vatican’s way of weeding out who this possible dark messiah might be. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s suspected to be a candidate.

Anyway, she gets involved in a rivalry with this other girl who is the head of what seems to be a witches’ coven, and who seriously wants to be the Archon, the dark messiah.

The Archon is a focal point for angels and demons and other creatures, because she is supposed to be the reincarnation of an angel who wrote “The Book of Raziel,” which contains a power that can tip the balance of the universe.

That’s it, in a nutshell. I know that’s a lot. (laughs)

 Where did the inspiration for “Archon” come from?

My inspirations are everywhere. Since I was little I loved reading about mythology and world religions. I grew up Catholic, so I would say it’s that and then popular culture like movies.

I’m also big fan of anime and manga, which was a strong influence on the visuals in the novel. I think maybe subconsciously I took all those things and combined into something that was my own world, my own story.

Do you feel like you relate to any of your main characters in a particularly strong way?

It’s funny. My characters are very realistic in the sense that they have a lot of flaws, a lot of good qualities but also a lot of bad qualities. Angela is the main character and I would say she has a sense of vulnerability and she can be very loyal and determined. Everyone would like to see that in themselves, but on the other hand she’s a very troubled individual. I don’t have any experiences in life like she’s had.

I think, maybe, I just from other books I’ve read that influenced and, even going back farther and saying I’m a psych major, I just kind of took that stuff and decided to make a very different heroine from what you usually see in these kinds of books.

How did your experiences as a Wilkes student influence your writing career?

At first I was a psychology major, and I enjoyed it, but, when I really looked at the careers in that field, I thought, “This isn’t for me.” So then I had enough room for another major, so I decided to go into English. I always loved to write, but it was mostly just for myself, just for fun.

I took a creative writing course taught by Bernie Kovacs, and I wrote a short story for one of the assignments. When I got it back there was a note on it that said he wanted to see me after class, but the way it was worded I thought there was something wrong. (laughs)

I was kind of preparing myself for problems. But he just said to me “This is really, really good. Have you ever thought of doing this professionally?” That’s what got me thinking about what I could do. The idea for this novel had been simmering somewhere in the back of my mind, and that was when I decided to seriously give it a shot.

The more I started doing it, the more I loved it. When you find what you love to do you don’t really want to do anything else. (laughs)

Do you feel like growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania has any impact on your approach to writing?

That’s a tough one. No one’s actually ever asked me that one before. (laughs)

I think, yeah, setting can have a lot to do with it. Your environment can have a big influence on your work. It didn’t have any influence on the setting of the novel. The setting of the novel is very alien, because it is a fantasy world. But I am a very descriptive writer. That’s one of the things people usually point out about the book. And Pennsylvania is a beautiful state, so I can appreciate detail. So living in a state where there’s all these beautiful woods filled will all sorts of things, yeah, that could’ve influenced me a bit.

How have reader reactions been to “Archon” since its release?

It’s been very interesting. It’s turned out to be a very polarizing novel. I knew it was different, and I wanted it to be different, but I never expected it to get the strong reactions that it is. It seems to be a book that people either love or hate. There are very few people in-between, and the ones who are seem to be waiting to see what the next books have in store for them before they make a solid judgment.

I guess that’s fair anyway, because it is an epic story. The first story is really just an introduction to the characters and the conflicts going on in their world. In the genre the story is in, which is young-adult fantasy, you don’t really see any epic stories anymore. I think what it is that you have some younger readers who don’t know how to approach it.

I remember when I read “The Lord of The Rings”, and you just don’t see stories like that anymore. So this is getting into the hands of people who maybe expect something like “Twilight,” but this is something completely different. They don’t quite know how to handle it.

How far along are you with the writing of the next two parts of the trilogy?

At the end of November, I finished the first draft of the second book. My editor was backlogged with other manuscripts she had to read though, so right now I’m waiting for her editorial notes. Once I get those it’ll start to go in the revision process. And you’ll go through that however long you need, usually about two times. Then it will finally go into proofreading and copy editing. Then once that’s all done the cycle begins again with the third book.

What can readers expect from the trilogy in the future?

Well, I should say “expect the unexpected.” (laughs)

I can’t say I wrote a plot that hasn’t been done before, because everything’s been done before.  But it maybe does things that people haven’t seen before. This is definitely a book series that takes chances, it takes chances with the characters, it takes chances with the plot.

I’ve had a lot of people have interesting reactions to the fact that it deals with angels and demons. Because of that, I’ve had people try to figure out – I don’t want to say the religious aspects of the book because it’s not Christian fiction or a religious book – but I think that they’ll be surprised with the mythology that they know.

Also, it’s unusual in that this first book is very dark. Usually books start light and progress towards a dark point. I took the opposite approach, kind of a “going towards the light” effect.

All I can say is you could expect some pretty interesting things. I’m really excited about the second book. Its tone and atmosphere are complementary to the first book, but, at the same time, they’re different.

Whereas the first book you could say had a sort of Halloween feel, the second book has a sort of Christmas feel. When it begins, there’s snow and candlelight and that quiet atmosphere, and it progresses from there.

You still live in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and you’ve done several book signings in the area, including the downtown Barnes & Noble on Main St. in Wilkes-Barre. What has it been like for you, getting this book published, holding it in your hands and signing autographs for people who live maybe just a few minutes away from you?

It’s a surreal feeling. Even though I’m holding the book and signing it, it still doesn’t feel like it’s (me). There’s a shock factor to it.

Someone asked me something similar recently, and I told them it’s like having baby and holding it in your arms for the first time. It’s real, but you can’t really digest it yet.

It’s an amazing feeling, though, to sign books for people. For them to talk to you and show how enthusiastic they are about what you write and tell you how much they loved, it’s a great feeling.

Horror and fantasy have always been popular with readers, especially recently. Why do you think that is? On a related note, why do you think that the genres have often gotten short shrift from literary critics?

As for the first part of your question, I think fantasy is becoming more popular now because our culture is so technological and scientific that people have this need for something fantastical, whether it’s fairies or ghosts or angels, something otherworldly. Fantasy is the youngest of the genres. It’s still being formed. There’s still fiction coming out that defining it as a genre.

As for why it gets short shrift sometimes, I think that’s because people associate it with fairy tales. They think it’s something that’s mostly for children. Back when “The Lord of the Rings” was written, that started to change it a little. It showed that this could stand out as a literary work and be taken seriously. It’s interesting that there’s fantasy, and then there’s the literary version, where it’s called “magic realism.” (laughs)

In a sense, sometimes there’s a fine line between the two. I don’t see why there’s any reason that angels and fairies and vampires can’t be literary. I think it has a lot to do with how well the book was written, how different it is, the message it’s sending. It will be interesting to see what happens as times goes on and the genre furthers defines itself.

Is there anything that you like people who have yet to read your books to know about what they might be getting themselves into?

I would say that if people are curious whether my book’s for them or not, “Archon” and its sequels are for people who like something different, especially in fantasy or even young-adult fantasy. There’s a lot of things out there that are the same.

“Twilight” is good in that it’s helped the genre become more popular, but at the same time the market is now saturated with books that are just like it. Even me, I just wanted to read something different. That’s why I wrote this.

It’s also for people who like action. It’s written as a paranormal thriller. (It offers) mystery, suspense with a more dark, gothic story.

You mention “Twilight.” How do you feel” Twilight” has affected the current market for horror and fantasy?

It’s an enormous market. It’s interesting that my book is not a supernatural romance, yet, in the beginning, (HarperCollins) tried to market it as that in order to tap into that fan base. And I understand why, because that makes a lot of money. But I told them “I don’t know. That’s not really what my book is.” I think they’re starting to learn that now.

The sad thing is, I don’t want to say it doesn’t leave much room for imagination, but a lot of the books are just the same. Which some people like! (laughs)

What’s really interesting is that it seems to be a problem that is particular to the Western reading world. I read an article recently about Japan and they were talking about how, over there, tons of books of all different varieties are published every year by an enormous amount of new authors. And they said that, comparatively, in the United States and the West in general, there’s just a trickle of new authors and 80 percent of them write the same thing.

That’s why I said anime is such a big influence on my work. That’s partly why I love it so much. I mean, there’s some really bad anime out there. But the really good stuff that I like, everything about it thinks outside of the box. It’s so full of imagination, and I guess subconsciously I may have wanted to emulate that a little bit, just to do something really different.

The thought of me writing a story that someone could say “I read this a million times before,” that would hurt me a lot more than someone saying “I just didn’t like this book. It wasn’t for me.” To me, the thought of being unoriginal is the worst thing.

***

For more information, visit sabrinabenulis.com.

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Supernatural forces collide in Wilkes alum’s dark debut novel