Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pendragon's Heir, The Prince of Fishes, and Genre

I had an epiphany just before Christmas, and Elisabeth Grace Foley was responsible.

Elisabeth was kind enough to beta-read Pendragon's Heir in October. In December, she included it on her Top Ten Books of 2014 list, which considering that she read 90 books last year and had a slightly unpolished version of Pendragon's Heir, was rather kind of her. In describing the novel, she called it a "historical fantasy", which was not a genre I had actually heard of before, but when I read it something went click in my brain.

You see, I have been writing just the one book for the last five years. For the five years preceding that, I occasionally wrote other things, but none of them took me away from Pendragon's Heir for long. A decade is a long time when it stretches from one's teens to one's twenties. Before Pendragon's Heir, I had dabbled in all sorts of genres: secondary-world fantasy, historical fiction, action thriller, science fiction. The fact that Pendragon's Heir was an Arthurian, and thus a vaguely, anachronistically historically-based, fantasy, always seemed more an unmeditated lurch than a real career choice. As recently as the last six months, I had no idea what I would do when Pendragon's Heir was finished. I knew I wanted to keep writing; I had no idea what.

As I loosened my focus on Pendragon's Heir in preparation to sending it out into the big scary world, more story ideas slowly began to occur to me, and ideas which had been vague before gained shape and weight. I wrote The Rakshasa's Bride and immediately got an idea for another fairy-tale retelling. Meanwhile, I mentally committed to the idea of a gigantic, sprawling novel which I still rather optimistically hope to knock out sometime in the second half of this year (don't laugh). Still, it wasn't until Elisabeth Grace Foley mentioned the genre of historical fantasy that it occurred to me that all these stories and projected stories have one thing in common.

All of them are fantasies. And all of them are deeply rooted in a specific time and a specific place.

Pendragon's Heir is Arthurian legend, with all the anachronistic idealised medievalism that entails. The Rakshasa's Bride is a mix of Bollywood and fairy tale. Both of my ongoing story ideas--The Giant Tome and the Upcoming Fairy-Tale Retelling--are so deeply rooted in history that I actually partly wrote the Upcoming Fairy-Tale Retelling (more on that in a moment) to help with research for the Giant Tome.

"Oh," I thought. "Historical fantasy. So that's what I write."

And the more I thought about it, the more I became excited about the possibilities in this genre.

While The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book, and the Narnia series is another favourite, I've never been able to whip up a great deal of enthusiasm for secondary-world fantasies. Having thought it over, I think it's because what attracts me to fantasy is its capacity for allegory and mythopoeia--metaphorical meaning with real-world application--not its worldbuilding aspect, the simple exercise of constructing a secondary world with believable economics, biology, and geopolitical structure. I'm not good at making up new languages or societies, and I feel I would only look as ridiculous as all Tolkien's imitators if I tried.

If I build on history, however, I can do all sorts of things. I can apply my love for that discipline, and try to share what makes a particular time period and culture so wonderfully appealing. I can use real language, culture, economics, and societies to inspire my work. I can practice being as unoriginal as I know how.

So why not write straight historical fiction? I came pretty close to it with the Giant Tome. In the end, I couldn't help adding a few fantastical tweaks. The bottom line is that a small dose of fantasy allows me to explore certain aspects of the time period that might otherwise not make such a big impression on readers. The fantasy elements in Pendragon's Heir, among other things, allowed me to cast the story as a conflict between modernism and medievalism on a scale that a less fantastical tale would never have allowed. The fantasy elements in The Rakshasa's Bride enabled me to cast the story as an allegory of salvation (though in such an unobtrusive manner that at least one of my friends never picked it up. Oops?).

Besides, realistic historical fiction is pretty much a newcomer on the world's stage anyway. Before the 1700s and the rise of the novel, everybody who was anybody wrote epic poems, usually in the...historical fantasy genre.

Will I be sticking to historical fantasy for the future? Well, all the ideas I've got at the moment--and given that one of them is a Giant Tome, I'm trying not to have too many--involve historical fantasy to some extent. I wouldn't rule out trying something else in the future. But I think this is what excites me most.

I said I'd tell you a bit more about my Upcoming Fairy Tale Retelling. I just finished a rough first draft of this novella this evening. Given some of my recent reading, it shouldn't surprise too many of you to know that this one is set in the Byzantine Empire. The working title is The Prince of Fishes, and it is pretty epic.


Joy said...

This post gets me pretty excited, Suzannah!

I am rather unfamiliar with the historical fantasy genre myself, but I like the sound of it, as it combines my two favourite genres, honestly. I also inwardly get skittish whenever I think of writing a fantasy, merely for the sake of having to build languages/cultures, etc that would look like I was just imitating Tolkien and Lewis.

Historical fiction allows us to be truly as unoriginal as we can be indeed! I love writing historical fiction. But you're right there - I love the fantasy element because it allows for parallels, allegories and images which sometimes mere simple history-tales confine too much.

I am glad you found your writing genre niche, at least for now. That is always a wonderful revelation! Looking forward to reading "Pendragon's Heir" :)

Kate said...

I'm surprised that one of your friends didn't catch the salvation allegory in The Rakshasa's Bride. I thought it was Very Obvious (a bit too obvious for my taste, actually). I thought it was also strongly Calvinist.

Kate (aka bonny_kathryn)

Suzannah said...

Joy, I know... If I tried secondary-world fantasy I would probably produce something pretty derivative. Historical fantasy allows me to derive from history, which is Allowed. ;)

Kate! Ooh, thank you for your feedback. A number of my friends have told me that I write too subtlely and I was definitely beginning to wonder if they were right. It's hard to strike the right balance when you're the one writing the thing. :)

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Happy to be of assistance. :)

Interesting thoughts here! I hadn't given the specifics of the genre a lot of thought, since I'm no fantasy expert—I'd started keeping an eye on the ways of booksellers and genres when I got into publishing, and became aware that there was a subgenre of fantasies set in specific real-life periods. I've even dabbled in it a tiny bit myself—I've got a half-finished children's story set in the Edwardian era, the only thing I've ever written with a touch of fantasy to it. From the way you talk about your stories, it sounds like you gravitate to historical fantasy the way I do to historical fiction (any small attempt I've made at writing contemporary has promptly flopped; I'm just not cut out for it).

Anonymous said...

Pendragon's Heir sounds like an amazing book. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and fantasy is quickly becoming another favorite, especially when allegories come through it. I would really like to write a historical someday, and my next WIP is a fantasy, so maybe someday I'll combine the two genres.

Christina Baehr said...

Wonderful! As a reader, I look forward to great things coming from this. Can I put in an order for time-traveling puritans?

Lady Bibliophile said...

I love how much scope for imagination there is in historical fiction--so many little details to bring alive through living, breathing characters. And while I haven't read a lot of historical fantasy, I like a tastefully done novel in that style as well.

Your Byzantine epics sound fantastic, especially as that culture is something almost unknown to me! I'm looking forward to learning a lot of new things.

Suzannah said...

Elisabeth! Your little offhand comment was a real lightbulb moment for me--thanks! Your Edwardian story sounds like lots of fun. I hope we see it someday :)

Ana, my leaning towards historical fantasy has come about because all the fantasy stories I want to tell seem to fit best into a historical setting, and all the historical stories I want to tell seem to be best improved by a few fantastical elements. I would be inclined to advise you to think about your plot first, and then decide how that story and those characters might best be served--whether in a historical, a fantasy, or a historical fantasy setting. :) But if you've a love for both historical and for fantasy, you'll probably end up combining the two someday, yeah!

Christina, I have no current plans for time-travelling Puritans but we will see where my discursive imagination leads me next :D.

Schuyler, it's interesting, I've found that I'm actually quite strongly drawn towards historical fantasy as a reader as well. Books usually need a good reason to catch my attention, and often that reason comes from the possibility of learning something about a time period I'm interested in. For example, the last two Tim Powers books I read (warning--you would NOT appreciate them) were because I wanted to learn something about the Romantic poets and the Rossettis. JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL would also not have been anywhere near as interesting to me without its strongly historical setting in an alternate Regency England. While I do continue to read secondary-world fantasy, it's usually because I've had it strongly recommended to me by people I trust, while I'm more likely to try historical fantasy simply on the basis of an interesting premise.

:D I still have a lot of work to do on THE PRINCE OF FISHES. Looking forward to sharing it with you all when it's done, though!

Unknown said...

Secondary world fantasy takes a lot of time and a lot of work ... and I honestly think that as an author, you can kind of only do the genre once. I have yet to see otherwise (I'd love to be proven wrong). But once you've done all the work of building another world, and its rules, its cultures, and its languages, it's very hard to create another world and see it in a completely different way. C S Lewis got closest when he did his sci-fi trilogy, but even that's not quite the same thing. Historical fantasy is growing in popularity at the moment, I think, and Amazon has loads of room for time travel books or time warp phenomena. I'm not enough of a history buff to try it, lol.

Suzannah said...

Oh, that's an interesting thought, Yvette. You're right, people who write secondary - world fantasy do seem to write series, all set in the same world. In some ways that's a good thing, since it allows readers to explore the world properly and get to know and like it. That's what is troublesome to me about most secondary worlds... I just have trouble caring. History makes me care instantly. I'm really glad to hear there's a lot of it around these days :D.

Unknown said...

The character development and story lines for second-world fantasy must be exemplary to make readers care - or else the book is merely clever boredom. I'm still not sure how successful I've been with mine, lol. I'll look out for your book.

Kate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate said...

I think some authors prefer to work within one secondary world system (ie Tolkien, who worked mostly within the world of LOTR, with a few exceptions such as Roverandom), but I think there are many other authors who create multiple secondary worlds and novels set in them. For instance, Garth Nix wrote both the Abhorsen series (a favorite) and the Keys to the Kingdom, which are very different worlds. Additional authors I can think of off the top of my head include Robin McKinley, Patricia Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, and Patricia McKillip.

Kate (bonny_kathryn)

Suzannah said...

Kate--that's right, I was trying to remember whether Patricia McKillip wrote books in the same or different worlds. But I haven't read much secondary-world fantasy, so maybe I shouldn't say too much about it :). You remind me, though, that I still have a couple of Patricia McKillip books on my shelf that I haven't read yet, as well as Nix's SABRIEL. I still mean to read them eventually!

Kate said...

Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy is probably the best modern ficiton (and by "modern" I mean anything after the Inklings) that I've read. Do give it a try (I have a hard time explaining why it's so awesome, so I shall have to resort to flailing about and saying 'read it as soon as you can').



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