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.