The legend of Juniper

In my last post, I talked about Aligare dogs and how they fit into a non-human society. Dogs are useful to aemets — for many of the same reasons early humans found dogs worthwhile to have around. And dogs have been present in Aligare long enough to be talked about in legends.

Aligare legends are a teaching tool as well as a form of entertainment. Since there’s no written language, people tell each other the information and moral values that need to be passed on. Some legends morph into multiple forms, adapted to different storytellers’ tastes. Other legends are so well-loved, they endure with very little change. There are factual legends about how dogs descended from wolves — but the story of Juniper is more popular. It tells of the dog’s enduring loyalty, the gift these creatures give to peoplekind.

Here is an except from the upcoming book, Render:

“I’m doing Juniper’s work, in a way,” came the [dog] breeder’s voice from across the stone hearth. Steam rose from his hands: he had finally gotten his cup of tea. “I’m sure she’d have wanted everyone to have a loyal beast the same way she did. You know the tale of Juniper and her dog, don’t you, sprout?”
A pause. Rue sensed a child’s small head moving, his antennae cutting air while he shook his head.
“You haven’t heard it? Goodness! You need to know about Juniper if your neighbours are going to have dogs.”
Anticipation thickened in the air, the combined attention of people ready to hear old truths. On a deep breath, the breeder began:
“Long ago, there was an aemet woman named Juniper. She liked the feel of earth under her feet and she drew strength from it, just as a plant draws from deep roots. Juniper walked the land and saw its sights, too detemined for any howling wind to stop her, and too brave for any portent air to unsettle her. She even walked through a hard-wind rainstorm for an entire day, not daunted in the least. Juniper’s dog followed her everywhere she went, raising his hackles at any unfitting motion in the land. That creature didn’t leave her side for a heartbeat.”
Rue’s hand fell to Feor — who lay so quietly in front of her that she had nearly forgot him. Dog fur passed smooth under her fingers. She got another flick of slimy tongue over her skin.
“They grew old together, walking and seeing each corner of the land. They knew every breath of air and every pebble resting on soil. Juniper was brown with age and the dog had a limp in his hind leg, but Juniper didn’t feel that they were finished. She wanted one more new sight, she told her dog while she stroked his ears. One more place they could see together.
The dog jumped to his feet and trotted away from Juniper, barking for her to follow. She called for him to slow down but the dog had a force in his heart. He kept trotting even as his limp grew worse and Juniper wished for a rest. They reached a place of blowing sand and smooth rock, and plants as tough as rope. It was a desert at the edge of the land, where the two of them had never been. Juniper and her dog looked at the desert stones and the wind-warped trees, and the shine of endless sand. Juniper sensed winds with a thousand years’ wisdom and not one mote of water. It was new, indeed. Thank you, Juniper told the dog. He licked her hand. And then he laid down and breathed no more.”
The breeder paused. Rue thought she sensed a twitch in his air-filled throat, a swallowed lump of emotion.
“The dog returned to the earth to nourish the soil. Juniper stayed there, kneeling over his resting place, and she cried. Cried until she had no more moisture to cry with, and soon she died herself. In that dry land, their remains gave life to a new plant sprout — one called a juniper bush. It had scaly leaves and tough wood, so it feared no drought. Even now, a juniper will still grow wherever sand gathers — as long as there’s a friend there to look upon that sand.”

To Rue’s knowledge, that was a legend many hundreds of years old. Folk said that the desert was long gone. Passed over by the shifting Great Barrier, swallowed by the outside wastelands full of terrible Cold. Rue knew that from stories told in the broodery — just one of the passed-down stories she still remembered the cadence of. Even without its desert home, the juniper plant must have lived on, protected and nurtured by its aemet sisters; juniper wood had to come from somewhere, after all. Looking at the guard ring on her wrist, Rue could imagine the hours of work that went into wood cultivation even before dyes and metal findings became involved. She wondered what sort of soil a juniper plant preferred. Something inhospitable to other plants, surely. Acidic. Soil that would starve the roots of anything less hardy. Rue ran fingertips over her guard ring, which was polished too smooth to feel like wood at all.
“I don’t think we’ll need to go to any deserts.” she told Feor, “Just this mountain.”
Feor opened his mouth like a smile.

This legend speaks of the bonds of love and trust that can cross species barriers, in the Aligare world or any other. Despite her moments of cynicism, Rue can appreciate that, and it’s one of the many themes at Render‘s core.


Why fantasy?

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The other day, I got chatting with a random guy in a restaurant. He overheard the waitress asking what I was working on, and me talking a bit about my work-in-progress fantasy novel. Once the waitress left, Random Guy closed his political nonfiction book and he asked me, “Why fantasy?” I asked what he meant, and he just repeated, “Why fantasy?”, squinting thoughtfully at me.

For someone who grew up on video games, it’s like being asked why people eat food, or why I’m wearing clothes right now. Why ever not fantasy? But hey, I approve of questioning seemingly basic things, so I’m not one to judge. And Random Guy seemed as genuinely curious as the waitress had. Do tell, Heidi. Why fantasy?

So I told him this facet of the many-sided truth: fantasy is a way of examining the real world. Criticize our society too directly and people often don’t want to hear it; the criticism hits too close to home. It’s hard to, say, think objectively about economic responsibility if you’re worrying about your own student loans. But if you use fantasy to pose the same question, just with some psychological distance, people are often more willing to think and open their minds. If we’re discussing a far-away land where a king is trying to bring his impoverished realm back to wealth and health, well, that’s a much safer subject for us 21st century Earth folk to talk about. We can draw conclusions at our leisure.

That’s a part of my motivation to write Stories of Aligare. I figure that my cooperative world and its positive values can raise some helpful questions about our own lives. We might look at the day-to-day efforts of aemets, korvi and ferrin and think, “Huh. Humans don’t live like that. Could we live like that?” It might be a meaningful revelation for some people. Or, y’know, maybe they’ll find some other revelation I hadn’t planned on. But that’s not the reason I began making a writer of myself. I wasn’t trying to pass along some grandiose moral through the concepts of dragons and magic. Then why fantasy, Heidi?

Since that evening in the restaurant, I’ve been thinking about what makes fantasy such a deeply rooted part of my thoughts. And the only conclusions I can draw is that, well, we all live in varying degrees of fantasy. Everyone perceives the world in their own way. We imagine what tomorrow’s haircut will look like, or how our lives would change if we win the lottery. We look at other human beings and form mental caricatures of them — sometimes accurate, sometimes pure fiction. People believe in various combinations of gods, ghosts, reincarnation, lake monsters and astral phenomena. There might be other planes of existence out there, other timelines full of any possibility we can imagine. So when we talk about elves or magic spells and call that “fantasy”, it’s a pretty arbitrary line we’re drawing. Fantasy has as much presence and meaning as we choose to see.

Fantasy can still be cool battles, fireball spells and dramatic chases on dragonback. I mean, just because the genre can support deep thought doesn’t mean it should be deadly serious all the time. But I wouldn’t be putting so much of myself into fantasy books if there wasn’t a lot to genuinely wonder about. And that potential allowed me to have a nice, intelligent conversation with that random guy in the restaurant. I’m glad he thought to ask me why.

(Edit: Almost forgot to credit my image sources! The nighttime landscape picture came from here and the dragon clipart came from here. Composition was done by yours truly.)


Torturing a favourite character

In writing, they say to kill your darlings. That doesn’t typically mean that all characters should die, but, y’know, it’s an option.

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It’s a strange balance, reading about a fictional character. If we like the character, we naturally want them to overcome their strife, defeat the villain(s) and find happiness. But if the character is always being conveniently saved from bad situations (e.g. by passing out, then being told later how they were rescued), that’s generally considered a weak story. Deus ex machina endings aren’t well-regarded nowadays. That’s because such convenience is an outside event being enacted on the character. If Hero McAwesomepants is rescued by someone else, or if the danger turns out to be nothing, that means McAwesomepants isn’t actually doing anything. We don’t buy books or go to movie theatres for the privilege of seeing nothing happen.

No, we want to see McAwesomepants fight until their body can fight no more, or grieve for lost allies, or grapple with inner demons. Maybe all three at once! We want to experience pain and victory and redemption from a safe passenger seat. So when we like a character, that often means that horrible things keep happening to them. That character is somehow satisfying to empathise with, even when they’re suffering. Especially when they’re suffering. That pain means they’re going through something important (usually).

Some stories stay as far away from convenience as possible: they have suffering and conflict loaded into every scene. Some argue that this is realistic. Real life doesn’t have a cosmic author wincing at our predicament and writing a nice, easy solution. Real life doesn’t have limits. But does this make for an enjoyable story? Is schadenfreude — the enjoyment of someone else’s suffering — really just a simple formula for a good story? This is a matter of personal taste, really. I’ve given up on critically acclaimed books because they just seemed to pile misery on top of misery, with no reward in sight. Whereas some folks like having their heart broken and their favourites killed off. Maybe character torture is a seasoning and some folks just prefer salt pickles so intense they make your jaw hurt.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading the teaser blurb for the next Temeraire book. In the ongoing struggles of Captain Laurence and his dragon partner Temeraire, I think there’s a good balance of hope and suffering. They live as military pawns in the Napoleonic era, which means few material comforts and many battles — but much potential to change the future. They are imposed upon by governmental bodies that are difficult to reason with, and they’re trying to reason with whole societies. But into the 6th book (the farthest I’m caught up), Laurence is showing more and more psychological effects of his struggles. As a character, he seems tired from all that he’s been through, and he’s less inclined to stand up for his dignity or his personal desires. It’s a realistic way to react to long years of war and injustice — but as a reader, is that what I want? I’m not sure. I want the characters to be happy, but not easily so. I want Laurence and Temeraire to achieve their goals, without bleeding so much that the whole story is stained red.

I can only decide that this is what good fiction does. It makes you think about conflict and characters until you’re confused and your heart hurts. That’s not as simple as killing off a few darlings. Balance is the key.


Writing gods I don’t believe in: how atheism gets along with fantasy

Fantasy stories love using powerful beings — gods, deities, or any other name they might go by. All-powerful beings can be a tool for shaping the story. The god(s) might serve a worldbuilding purpose, highlighting the characters’ beliefs and morals. Or the declaration of, “By Gelfingledor’s blessings!” could just be a road sign warning that there’s fantasy content ahead.

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Do these gods ever align with the author’s personal values? Sometimes. One of the more well-known examples is C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia; the lion Aslan is strongly similar to Jesus Christ, and Lewis confirmed that thought. J.R.R. Tolkien was also Christian, but he chose not to overtly mention the faith in Lord of the Rings. It’s there in more subtle ways like the way his Middle Earth characters describe evil. And I’m sure there are some authors who just straight-up have their fantasy folk believe in the Christian God. Fiction doesn’t perfectly represent its author’s views, opinions or background, but it’s hard for a big issue like religion to not make it in there.

Personally, I’m an atheist. I grew up in a vaguely-predominantly-Christian environment, and my agnostic parents pretty much declined to comment except to tell me not to say things like, “oh my God”. But even as a child, commanded to say the Lord’s Prayer each morning in first grade, I recall feeling sceptical at the idea of almighty God being constantly present for no particular reason. It didn’t seem comforting to me, just weird and unsettling. Why was this guy watching me and why did he care if I recited some poem thing? (I didn’t trust the idea of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny, either. Thought it seemed fishy that my parents would blithely allow magic people to break into our house.)

 

Logic, science and happenstance have always been my preferred approaches to explaining this world of ours. I particularly like the way science is humble enough to admit that it’s wrong sometimes. Things we accept as fact — like gravity, and the relativity of energy and matter — are still called “theories” because our human awareness is flawed and we might not have all the details 100% accurate. Not yet, anyway.

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To err is human, to check one’s work is a more conscientious version of human, I guess.

So it seems weird sometimes that I’ve made this Aligare world with gods in it, and characters mentioning their race’s patron god. Who am I to write about these things? I don’t get what it’s like to honour a god with all my heart. I mean, I can logically suppose why a person would find religion comforting and fulfilling, but it’s not something I feel myself. At times, it feels a little like I’m being profane. Not the posting-cantankerous-swear-words-on-Twitter kind of profane, or even the using-phrases-like-“oh my god”-as-figures-of-speech kind of profane. I mean really insulting something that other people do. Especially toward polytheistic religions I haven’t had a lot of exposure to.

I tried to make this world’s faith seem believable. But  I didn’t entirely notice how I had handled the religion issue until a Remedy reader pointed it out: the Aligare characters tend to believe strongly in their gods, and they tell detailed stories of how things work, but the reader is still free to interpret the world in their own way. Take this passage, for example:

The legend Rose told was the story of the High Gods’ great feud, a thousand lifetimes before they agreed to share the Great Gem. That was what the legend sounded like to Tillian, anypace, from the few phrases she listened to; she didn’t know any other legends that mentioned a banished god trapped in electricstone, deep in the earth. Great Dark spent a forever down there, alone as Bright intended. Both of them stewed and resented. Dark broke free and they lashed out at each other until they were tired enough to regret, and regretful enough to forgive.

With that, the time of hostility was over. The High Gods talked away their troubles and worked together, and that was how it still was to this day. Everyone knew that legend by the time they could walk, aemet and korvi and ferrin alike. It was a pleasant story to listen to, a blanket spun from familiar yarn. Even if it sent a pang through Tillian’s heart every time, thinking of great Dark’s time in a cage.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 11

That feud between Bright and Dark might have been an actual event. Or maybe the “gods” and their feud was a misunderstanding, like how humans mistook manatees for fantastic mermaids. Or the gods might be just fictional characters in fables — a morality lesson and nothing more. All of those interpretations work, and all of them would fit the blind spots Rose and Tillian have from growing up in exclusively Aligare culture. Just because the characters have magic powers doesn’t mean that everything they say is literally true. The reader can perceive Aligare books in any way that makes sense to them, whether that reader is atheist, agnostic or a devout believer of something.

On this blog, I state plenty of facts and lore about the Aligare world. But ultimately, writing is communication, and communication is a two-way street. I suggest that the gripthia sickness could be a bacterial infection, while Rose Tellig believes it’s a monstrous, invisible demon: the reader decides what to make of that contradiction. I’m not here to shove a message down anyone’s throat. (Don’t even get me started on English courses that order you to interpret a book a certain way. The main character’s blue shirt is a metaphor for sadness and if you don’t see it that way, you’re wrong! Ugh.)

So like everything else in the Aligare world, gods and faith are meant to be food for thought. Not food of any particularly religious flavour. Unless you want it to be.


Conflict in reality and fiction: Must we fight?

Conflict is a part of life. Everyone knows that. People fight and attack each other all the time, all over the world. It’s why humans have so much war in our history, and why so many inventions came about while trying to beat each other (literally or figuratively).

But hey, conflict isn’t just physical aggression. It doesn’t even need to involve anger or harsh words. Conflict is any incompatibility of interests. Trying to get ten people to agree on pizza toppings is a form of conflict. Anytime a bunch of free-willed people encounter each other, there will be mismatches and misunderstandings because no two people’s heads will contain all of the same ideas.

How weird is that? One word — “conflict” — can mean murdering each other with tanks, or just disagreeing on what colour to paint the living room. But when we bring up the idea of conflict, we usually mean the more dramatic types of battles and arguments. It’s easy to forget that quieter conflict is still indeed a conflict. And quieter conflictions don’t necessarily have to escalate — but for humans, they often have and they often do.

So when we write fantasy stories and invent cultures, fighting is a common theme. Wars against dark lords! Wars against regular lords! Battles for survival and supremacy and saving the whole freakin’ world! And sure, a fight scene can be a great dramatic tool, or just fun to watch. But is it the inescapable conclusion? I’ve met people who say fantasy peoples must — must — fight each other to be believable characters. Aggressive conflict has become as important to the fantasy genre as the real world — maybe even moreso.

This is an idea I find important enough to base my writing on. Is violent, mean-spirited conflict really inevitable? Will intelligent beings always attack each other sooner or later? If so, then why?

I immediately think of the fact that our Earth is dominated by human civilization, meaning that all the people we’ve ever known are humans. And we humans come from a long line of aggressive great apes. Chimpanzees are intelligent creatures that rely on social groups, and yet they go out and murder other chimps for prime land. Some Homo erectus fossils show injuries from clubs and stone tools. Maybe this sort of behaviour is bred into us. Maybe pacifists are just rare flukes.

If that’s true, then a human transplanted into a magical world would still tend toward brutish behaviour and disagreements, regardless of the wonders and bounty around them. But it’s hard to say what the basic human nature is like — because, again, we come from a long line of aggressive great apes and we only have ourselves to chat with. We might turn out differently in a place where we can leave our fellow humans and go commune with, say, unicorns.

That’s food for thought all by itself. Is human conflict a product of human nature, human culture, or some combination of the two?

When there’s so much potential to explore the concept, I say we shouldn’t take the easy route. Why wallow in the awful things humans have done to each other for ages? Why act like violence and hate are foregone conclusion? We have so much potential to try other paths.

This is part of my motivation for the world of Aligare. In my fantasy world, dragons and weasels and insectoids have seen each other as friends for untold generations. They have conflicts of interest and misunderstandings, sure — but no immediate notions of fear or hate or avarice when they look at another intelligent being. And they tell stories of that one terrifying, awful time their gods resorted to fighting. I hope this makes readers question the world humans have built. Can the peoples of Earth achieve this kind of peace? Why or why not?

Even if we can’t avoid squabbles — heck, even if we enjoy a snarky argument once in a while — I think it’s worth thinking about.


Peregrine’s deafness: how it came to be a fantasy novel

In 2005-ish, I began writing the novel draft that would become Remedy. Since this was my second book, I wanted to do something more distinctive than the quest-for-magical-objects plot of my scrapped first novel.

Shortly before I started writing Remedy, I read Limyaael’s rant about disabled fantasy characters. What really caught my attention was this point:

I hate to death those fantasies where the hero loses a hand, and about a chapter later, he has a magical special silver one that’s stronger than any ordinary human hand and can grip a sword better and gives him the ability to shoot lightning bolts. It starts looking as though the author took away his hand only to provide a little shallow angst- maybe not even that- and then an excuse to give him something better.

It’s true — sci-fi and fantasy stories tend to trivialize disabilities. When every character can have awesome magic/tech, it seems like a natural choice to give the most overpowered magic/tech to a less abled person. I immediately think of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: TNG, who can rig his visor to see just about any energy signature the plot needs him to see. This kind of thing provides tools for the plot, but it can make the character seem lame. Having a flashy, powerful gift makes it hard to take the character seriously when they’re unhappy about their original disability.

How does this relate to my peaceful world of non-humans? Well, I already had a vague idea that my ferrin race would make great personal assistants. They’re small enough to sit on a korvi’s shoulder or be easily carried, which could come in handy if the korvi needs to transport their little friend somewhere. Ferrin also have excellent hearing and strong awareness of body language. So I started developing a pair of characters who lived life through each other. One was Peregrine of Ruelle, a korvi who had damaged his hearing with hammer-and-chisel mining; the other one was Tillian Sri, call her Tillian, a ferrin taught how to relay the world to her friend. Her chirpy voice is one of few high-pitched sounds that Peregrine can stil hear.

This works for the Aligare world and its symbiotic society. The three peoplekinds already rely on each other’s skills to get through life, in good times and bad. So when someone has a disability that makes it hard for him to perform ordinary tasks (like verbal conversations), the ideal solution is thought to be teamwork. Tillian finds her work fulfilling, but the Remedy story begins as Peregrine develops feelings of guilt. He chose to take up mining — and therefore chose to deafen himself — so he feels like he’s burdened Tillian. He resolves to change his career and learn to live on his own skills, which would free Tillian to be something other than a deaf man’s companion.

Peregrine’s hearing loss affects how he reacts to the world. He’s slow to initiate conversation, because he thinks casual chatter isn’t worth his effort. I made sure to include conversations where Peregrine could struggle through on his own, but it’s much easier to let Tillian feed him information. After all, we all fall victim to convenience sometimes. Soon, Peregrine comes to realize that his greatest obstacle is his own attitude. He’s spent eighty years in a rut, thinking of himself as unable to hear, and he hasn’t properly appreciated what he can do.

All of this forms the main emotional storyline of Remedy. The plague epidemic just kicks Peregrine in the butt and forces him to join the relief efforts — because critically ill people can’t wait for him to brood over his disability. The story development seemed like a natural progression for me, the author. I made the characters, who then grew a story around themselves. And just to make sure there aren’t any quick fixes, Aligare magic is directly proportional to a person’s physical strength. They can’t use a godly amount of magic any more than they can lift a mountain, or donate ten times their weight in blood. Peregrine eventually agrees to use healing magic on his ears, but that’s one small part of his road to recovery.

When a disability is treated like the complex thing it is, it can merit a lot of exploration. But I can see why a writer might not want that one characterization aspect to take over a story, or why they might be intimidated to tackle the subject. Heck, sometimes a writer just wants a quick excuse to add magic or devices, or imply that the character participated in cool battles. Me, I want to explore things I haven’t seen very often in magical fantasy. Peregrine and Tillian’s story might be unusual for its genre, but I’m glad it came out the way it did.