Kate Heartfield: Five Things I Learned Writing Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy

The war between Assassins and Templars wreaks havoc in the Victorian era, in this breakneck thriller which opens up a whole new chapter of the Assassin’s Creed universe.

London, 1851 – When Pierrette, a daring acrobat performing at the Great Exhibition, rescues the mathematician Ada Lovelace from a gang of thugs, she becomes immersed in an ancient feud between Assassins and Templars. But Lovelace is gravely ill, and shares her secrets with Pierrette, sending the acrobat in search of a terrible weapon which she’d been developing for a shadowy figure known as “the Magus”. Pierrette’s only ally is Simeon Price, Lovelace’s childhood friend, who belongs to a Brotherhood devoted to free will. With Simeon’s aid, they uncover a startling web of political assassinations destabilizing Europe. As they race to foil the Templars’ deadly plot, murders and bombs are everywhere they look, but hope is nowhere in sight.

Nothing Is True; Everything Is Permitted

Players of the Assassin’s Creed videogames will recognize this as the maxim that guides the game’s ancient brotherhood. The basic idea is that rules are made up, and what is true in one place or time may not be in another, and what should guide an individual’s behavior is consideration of the consequences. This is also pretty good writing advice, as it happens! There are no rules, there’s only what works to achieve your goals and what doesn’t. I knew that already, but I need a reminder from time to time.

When I realized that this book would work much better if I moved one of the chapters earlier and slightly out of timeline, and the best way to flag that for the reader would be to call it a prologue, I hesitated, for a couple of reasons.

The first was that prologues have their haters. A lot of people have translated “sometimes prologues are unnecessary padding” to “prologues are always unnecessary and annoying.” So that made me pause to consider whether I was ready to risk the consequence of some readers skipping what is, in fact, a integral part of the book that’s just told out of sequence for several reasons.

But ultimately, the only consequence that matters is: “is the book as good as it can be?” I knew the story would unfold better in the order I wanted to tell it. I can’t control the way readers will interact with a book, but I can control my decisions as a writer.

The second reason I hesitated was that my original plan for the book didn’t have that chapter appear in the beginning as a prologue. But an outline isn’t sacred. (Although with tie-in writing such as books based on videogames and movies, changes may need to be approved.)  An outline is only “true” as far and as long as it serves you.

We Work in the Dark to Serve the Light

“Everything is permitted” is all fine and good when it comes to whether or not to write in second person or write your novel in verse – fill your boots – but it’s a little more complicated when we’re talking about the actual Assassin’s Creed, because what’s permitted in that case is, well, killing people. The creed is full of paradoxes. Assassins push back against dogma, but they act on faith themselves, and have a set of rules to obey. They don’t kill innocents or harm their brotherhood; but who decides who is innocent, and what constitutes harm?

Yes, awareness of consequences can guide to morality – but every individual comes to the world with their own knowledge and character. We can see this all around us in how people respond to the pandemic and weigh the consequences of something like not wearing a mask in a crowd. Societies have rules for a reason. But then, of course, someone has to set and protect those rules, and those people are also fallible…

In the Assassin’s Creed universe, these questions are frequently debated by the characters themselves – and the only thing that’s certain is that nothing is. Both the main characters in The Magus Conspiracy are internally divided, pulled in multiple directions at once, forced to make moral decisions that sometimes turn out to be mistakes. I wanted my characters to have plenty of chances to explore the philosophical underpinnings of the games (sorry, characters).  

Games and stories about larger-than-life, morally grey characters and situation are entertaining. But more than that, writing characters who have extreme choices to make (like whether or not to stab someone) can help illuminate the less dramatic moral choices we all make every day.

Hide in Plain Sight

I wanted the reader to be involved and engaged in those choices too. Reading a book isn’t a passive activity, and reading a videogame book really shouldn’t be.

One of the ways a novel can heighten that sense of participation in the reader is to include a mystery or a twist to figure out. There’s a mystery at the heart of The Magus Conspiracy. But writing twists always makes me a bit nervous, because I’m one of those people who tends to spot them early (or at least I think I do!). When the twist is all there is, it can feel anticlimactic to just have it confirmed that yep, it’s what you thought it was on page 3, or in the first five minutes. Alternatively, sometimes giving a reader red herrings can create a different kind of disappointment. I’ve sometimes reached the end of a book or movie and learned that the writer went with a solution that wasn’t as cool or satisfying as the thing I thought it would be.

So as I wrote The Magus Conspiracy, I asked myself all the way along how I could make sure to satisfy a reader who figured things out faster than my characters do – or who was quietly rooting for a different twist. I laid my trail of breadcrumbs for the reader, but I also assumed for the sake of argument a hypothetical reader who guessed the destination of that trail right away, whether the guess turned out to be the same as the ultimate revelation or not. What sort of tension, what further layers of mystery, could I include? How could I make the “why” or the “how” or the “oh no” into a ball of yarn just as fun to play with as the mystery itself?

We Must Be the Shepherds of Our Own Civilization

The character Ezio Auditore says this in one of the Assassin’s Creed games, and it kept coming back to me as I was writing The Magus Conspiracy.

One of the key thematic questions of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is the role of order and authority, represented in the games by the Templar Order. The Assassins believe they are fighting for peace by pushing back against the Templar conception of authority. So exploring those questions in a novel set in early 1850s Europe seemed a natural fit.

The middle of the 19th century has a lot of parallels to our own time. The one that really grabbed me, as I was researching and writing this book, was the collapse of authority. There was widespread hunger in Europe in the 1840s; we mainly refer to this today as the Irish Potato Famine, where the consequences were extreme and were exacerbated by the British government, but there were shortages and rising prices throughout Europe. There was also a tech bubble – railroad speculation – that collapsed, leading to a financial crisis and, in the UK, a run on the banks. Like today, monetary policy was a hot topic – never a sign that things are going well.

In 2022, authority continues to not make a very good case for itself, in everything from public health to policing to the climate crisis to the economy. I have no idea which way things will go, but I found it very instructive researching the Hungry Forties and the years that followed. In 1848, Europe rose up in a series of revolutions that failed in most of their immediate aims, but changed the world significantly. The lesson of the 1840s is that order is not peace.

If You’re Going to Take a Leap of Faith, It Helps to Be Facing the Right Direction

One of the things I learned in my research for this book is that Ada Lovelace was even more of a badass than I knew.

She’s best known for her annotations of Charles Babbage’s design of a proposed Analytical Engine that would be programmable in the much the same way a computer is. Her notes explained the significance of the concepts underlying the design, and even included a detailed example that is widely considered the first computer program.

What made her a great figure in the history of science was not expertise in mathematics or in any particular area, but her capacity for imagination, which she described as “the discovering faculty.” She thought of science as being an unseen world all around us. Once she had applied her imagination, making new connections between apparently unrelated things, she could “see” things no one else could. She talked about a “new language” and the “science of operations” as distinct from mathematics, in an age in which computers didn’t yet exist.

What I hadn’t realized was that her work with Babbage was only one of her many interests, and not even her biggest one. She corresponded with several scientists in various fields, and kept all sorts of notes about her plans and ideas – some of which were, frankly, a bit weird. She was interested in the science of music and talked about tantalizing, universal ideas just out of her reach. If she hadn’t been ill most of her life, if she hadn’t been plagued by creditors and bad guesses at the racetrack, if she hadn’t died of cancer at the age of 36, who knows what else she would have written and perceived?

But then again, maybe all those other avenues of inquiry into the various faddish sciences of the 19th century wouldn’t have led to other moments of equal greatness. Maybe the main thing is that she had an imagination that was ready to leap, and she happened to leap toward something sublime.


Kate Heartfield’s novel Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy is published by Aconyte Books. Her novel The Embroidered Book, published earlier this year, a Sunday Times bestselling historical fantasy about Marie Antoinette and her sister, Maria Carolina. Kate’s novels, novellas, short stories and games have won or been shortlisted for several major awards, including three Nebula nominations in the novella and game writing categories. Her debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, won Canada’s Aurora Award. She is a former journalist who lives near Ottawa, Canada.

Kate Heartfield: Website | Twitter

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