Illustration: Will Staehle (Serial Box)

For centuries, seven countries in the sky have solved their political disputes with duels between blade-magicians called Warders... but not for much longer. The Mertikan Empire has dreams of conquest, yet the other kingdoms won’t surrender their freedom—they’re all filled with people with their own schemes, desires, and struggles for power... for you to listen to.

This is Born to the Blade, a new fantasy series coming to Serial Box, makes of fine (and often nerdy) serialized fiction audiodramas. We’ve talked about them before on io9, but BttB is something new for the publisher. It was fantasy and superhero writer Michael R. Underwood who came to Serial Box with the idea, who quickly came on board. Writing a book and writing an audioscript are two very different things, but Underwood had an advantage in that “Description doesn’t really come naturally to me as a writer. I don’t tend toward lush, detailed setting-oriented descriptions in my writing—I’m naturally focused on action and dialogue.”

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But Born to the Blade has a bigger advantage, in that its episodes are being written by a TV-style writer’s room consisting of Marie Brennan, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw. “[The team] each brought their own experience and perspective and interests, including a lot of experience traveling the world and in studying a range of history and cultures,” said Underwood. “We spent a lot of time on our team Slack brainstorming details about the world, from political structures to social mores, clothing, hairstyles, and so on. …so that we could convey the texture of the world throughout without needing long digressions.”

Essentially, they’re making sure their world-building isn’t any less complete or complex, regardless of the medium. In case it seems intimidating to jump in, we asked Underwood to explain more about the serial’s three main characters and the storylines it will follow:

The main players of Born to the Blade are all involved with the Warder’s Circle, an organization in the neutral city of Twaa-Fei that facilitates diplomacy between the major nations of the sky. Each nation is represented by duelist-diplomats called Warders. When Warders cannot resolve a conflict with diplomacy, they turn to ritual duels of blade and craft to settle the issue.

Oda no Michiko is an insightful and loyal daughter of the nation of Kakute, recently colonized by the Mertikan Empire. Michiko grew up under Mertikan law and believes hard in the Empire’s version of meritocracy, where anyone can become anything if they work hard enough and prove themselves. Michiko embraces this opportunity for her to prove herself and her people as being every bit as worthy as those born into the main island of the empire. But as Michiko discovers a secret about her people’s history, she faces a crisis of identity that she’ll have to navigate, especially as her power and influence grows as the newest warder of Kakute.

Kris Denn is a hotshot young bladecrafter from Rumika, a previously isolated nation that is now stepping into the world. Kris travels to the neutral city of Twaa-Fei to challenge for a seat on the Warder’s Circle. Kris is constantly trying to learn about the world, but not all welcome Kris or other Rumikans. Each nation in the sky grants a birthright, and the Rumikan birthright is the ability to change their physical forms between male-coded and female-coded. Some Rumikans use this ability to express their fluid relationship to gender, many people in other nations are suspicious of Rumikans because of this ability, and so part of Kris’ desire to enter the world stage is to combat these biases and earn greater acceptance a-sky for their people.

Ojo Kante is the senior warder of Quloo, a mighty merchant nation at a moment of crisis. Ojo is a veteran Warder who knows protocol like the back of his hand, with alliances and rivalries that date back for more than a decade. He’ll need every trick and every favor to save his people, because Quloo is sinking. Once the foremost nation of the sky thanks to their rich veins of aerstone, the material that allows ships to fly, Quloo has overmined its natural resource and is slowly drifting toward the mists (a layer of clouds miles below the islands and home to fearsome monsters). Ojo is eager to make alliances and secure new lines of aerstone to save Quloo without leaving the country vulnerable to the Mertikan Empire, the newly ascendant power to their north.

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In you’re curious as to what the final result sounds like, io9 is happy to present an exclusive audio excerpt from Born to the Blade. Here’s a portion of Chapter Six (narrated by Xe Sands), in which “Ojo hastily makes plans to try to keep a potential political ally safe before going to a meeting. His rival Lavinia, the senior warder of the empire of Mertika, calls the Warder’s Circle into session to demand the other warders’ assistance in recapturing the Golden Lord of Kakute, the deposed ruler of a Mertikan colony.”

The 11-episode Born to the Blade begins on Wednesday, April 18—tomorrow—and the entire first episode will be available for free on the Serial Box site or its app, if you want to hear more—or read more, since it’ll also be available in text format, too.

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