Tag Archives: Epic fantasy

Crafting a World: Interview with Anthony Ryan

I’ve raved about it often enough that readers would know how much I enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s ‘Raven’s Shadow’ series. The trilogy is focused on the fate of the Unified Realm, a land where the ‘Faith’, a religious order, works in close tandem with the ruling family to maintain order and unity in the kingdom. When the lead character, Vaelin, finds out that the Faith may not be all that he’s been taught it was, things go spectacularly awry.

It’s a wonderful series, and brilliantly written, and a must read for fantasy fans everywhere. I was thrilled when Ryan agreed to answer some of my more technical questions, and give readers a peek into what went into the crafting of his very detailed, absorbing world.

1)A fairly traditional question first! Who were your biggest fantasy mentors, growing up?
eddingsFantasy really began for me with The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. In time I graduated to Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson and David Eddings. Later in life I discovered Robin Hobb, George RR Martin and David Gemmell, all of whom have been a big influence on my work.

2) How did the idea of the Raven’s Shadow series come about?

I don’t recall a single point of origin for the story, but I do remember it coming together in a nascent form sometime in the early 2000s. I’d conceived an early version of Vaelin as a character and had a vague idea about the course of his life and the world he lived in, but it didn’t start to gel until I realized he was part of a militant religious order. The 9/11 attacks were a recent memory and notions of religious conflict were also at the forefront of my mind, which probably had an influence on shaping the story. However, the biggest influence came from my reading of history.

3) You moved from self publishing to the more traditional route—how was the change for you?

It was a big decision to make. Blood Song was selling very well as a self-published book at the time and there was no guarantee that it would see the same level of success if I took a traditional deal. However, after weighing up the pros and cons I decided the series would only reach the widest possible audience if it had a major publisher behind it. Luckily, the series as a whole has gone on to sell over 300,000 copies in the US and UK, so I’ve yet to have any regrets.

4) The action of your series takes place in a well connected yet incredibly diverse world. Some of the empires you described—the Far West, for example, or the Unified Realm—seem to have echoes of our ‘real world’. Was it a conscious decision to model them thus?

The great thing about fantasy is that you can borrow from the real world and you don’t have to be completely accurate in how you depict it. I’m quite happy to mix and match as the story requires. The Unified Realm shares many similarities with late-medieval / early
16_Great_Wall_China_153096805-1680x1050Renaissance Europe, but neither is it a carbon copy. Ancient China is an obvious inspiration for the Far West and pre-imperial Rome provided a lot of material for the Volarian Empire, but then so did Nazi Germany.

5) The Faith, and faith in general, is very important to the series. It is a much more recognizable pillar of your world than it is in fantasy series, like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, though they too deal with the questions raised by belief in a higher power. Would you like to comment on this?

Religion, or some form of ritual observance, has always been part of human culture and a huge influence on the course of history. I took the view that, if this world was populated by humans, then religion would be a big deal there too. Dealing with notions of Faith, which is something everybody experiences differently, also provides great scope for drama and plot development. I wanted to explore Vaelin’s changing attitude to his faith as his tower lord
preconceptions are continually challenged by contradictory experience. However, I was keen to avoid any lazy allegories about faith versus secularism. I think to think such things are presented as being just as messy and unresolvable in my pretend world as they are in the real one.

6) Did you have a favourite character while writing the books?

It has to be Vaelin, he’s my first born after all and I’ve been with him the longest. I did develop a great fondness for the other principal characters as well, though.

7) Was there any one particular storyline that you found difficult to write, for whatever reason?

Lyrna’s journey was pretty difficult to get right, especially in the third book. She’s probably the least sympathetic of the main POV characters, but then she also has the toughest job and I put her through some terrible experiences. The biggest challenge came in capturing her vulnerability whilst also doing justice to what a formidable human being she can be.

8) You take some bold decisions in your books, and choose, often, not to follow certain conventions or pander to expectations. Was this also a conscious decision, at any level?

I just don’t want to be boring. If I’ve seen it before I try to avoid writing it and there’s a certain joy in confounding expectations. Formula is often comforting and, when done well, can be rewarding, but I’m always looking for the next surprise.

9) How did you go about building your amazingly detailed world?

I did some pre-writing before beginning Blood Song, but not a great deal. Because I’d been thinking about it for a long time, large parts of the world were already in my head waiting to come out. But I’d guess about two-thirds of the history and geography was invented during the course of writing.

10) And finally, what excites you about working in fantasy today?

I guess what excites me most in the fact that I get to make a living writing in a genre I love. I often wonder about writing a novel set in the real world and worry I’d find it too constraining. Fantasy offers complete freedom bound only by the author’s imagination. I’m also fortunate to be writing at a time when the genre is really taking off, thanks in no small part to the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series.

Four Awesome Ideas for an Indian Fantasy Novel

I admit it. I caved. I want clicks more than I want appreciation of my long-winded, well-crafted, writing. I need traffic so that Google Ads will pay me (apparently they will. They’re not saying no anyway). I nurse ambitions of going viral. I want people to think I’m smart and share my thoughts with the world so I can make my own path to world domination smoother.

Just kidding. I hope it’ll be a while before I write a listicle that is not Tom Hiddleston-inspired.

Aw.
Aw.

I think there are a couple of reasons why I find writing fantasy, as a ‘coloured’, female, non-‘Western’ writer, so hard. I think a couple of those reasons could also be traced to the fact that I am, for all intents and purposes, a Hindu. It’s the one genre that I really, really love and that I can spend hours and weeks and days reading and discussing (as you all know too well), and I really want to write it, but there are a couple of things that trip me up and that, being a good millenial, I blame on my upbringing, parents, and socioeconomic background.

lotr‘Fantasy’, or ‘epic fantasy’ as we know it today has a distinctly Tolkienien feel. Whether it’s the medieval European setting, the formal register of the language, or the prevalence of Elves and uncrowned kings, Tolkien’s left us a legacy we can’t entirely ignore, or escape. I spoke about this in an earlier post (No, It’s not Okay), but left out one important thing:

Tolkien supposedly wrote his epics as a way to build a mythological past for England. He wanted to give to his country what Greece and Italy already had in the form of the Iliad and the Aeneid. He took elements of local folk tales and sweeping Pan-European legends (and Arthurian chronicles) and put together a world where the little Englishman in his pastoral home ventured forth and saved the world (or as much of it as mattered anyway, which was Western and Southern Europe).

Just your average jolly old Englishman!
Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Building this sort of mythologized past requires one thing: a distance from it. By and large, most of the Western world, the kind that writes mainstream, Tolkien-derived fantasy now, does not believe that Elves, Dwarves and other fantastic creatures are real. More importantly, the stories that they use and fall back on, including both Greek/Roman myth and denizens of other pantheons, do not influence modern life to the extent that mythology in India tends to do.

Let me elaborate on this. When you write a story that follows, vaguely, the trajectory of Arthurian tales (uncrowned king, bearded mentor, staunch companions in arms, ‘black’ foe), you are using something that has already been sanctified as distant, part of the past, something that is up for interpretation without running the risk of really offending anyone. This distance is what allows Rick Riordan to write the Percy Jackson chronicles, where a goddess like Athena can be accused of having had a child. Imagine if someone were to write a story where Durga has a one night stand with a man and produces a girl child who displays amazing martial skills—do you see people putting up with:

a) The idea that Durga would have a one night stand.

b) The idea that that baby was not worthy of being worshipped herself and could possibly grow up in a state of complete normalcy and not have some grand, wisdomous words to impart to her fellows.

Awesome Idea 1—A daughter of Durga grows up in Calcutta and discovers she has godly abilities. She then rains hellfire upon the mutinous hordes. 

But see, here’s problem #2: how do you distinguish between mythological and fantasy fiction in a country like ours? It depends really on the audience you’re writing it for. For instance, last night I watched a dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai. She performed a piece on Karthikeya, Shiva’s second son. While she danced and described him, I realised hey, Karthikeya is an amazing fantasy hero. He is young, he is martially inclined (being the god of war and beauty), he has a romantic and rather crazy love life, he broke conventions to get his second wife and he puts brawn over brain and gets upstaged by his own brother. Plus, he rides a peacock and was created simply to kill off a demon—the latter being a trait common to most epic fantasy heroes.

If I were to write a book detailing his exploits, I could probably sell it to a non-Indian audience as ‘fantasy’. But here, someone or the other would see through my pretence and call me out on my shit. This is not fantasy, they would say. this is the retelling of a myth, and it’s great because we don’t have anything on this particular god, but could you possibly write Kunti’s version of the Mahabharata next? Personally, I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it: to me, it would be mostly like transcribing the stories I’ve heard from my grandmothers or my dance teacher, and not something I myself have ‘created’.

Awesome idea 2: Write a series of ‘fantasy’ novels on Murugan, and have him be an angsty, tortured hero who’s always wondering if his parents love him as much as they love his brother, Ganesha.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t done this already.

Now this is a problem.
Now this is a problem.

The third problem, again tied to the second is this: how do I make a fantasy novel set in India different from others without resorting to exoticising everything? In other words, how do I please both the big name publishers in New York as well as my poco-pomo-postfem colleagues here in India?

(For those of you not familiar with my casual academese, poco pomo postfem refers to postcolonial, postmodern, post feminist writers and thinkers. No, I don’t know what that really means either.)

I just read this long, insightful piece on the problem with South Asian literature by Jabeen Akhtar, where she speaks about the Western need to see this region in a particular light, as a world of ‘mangoes, spices and monsoons…saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and oppression with Western culture.’ Epic fantasy relies to a great extent on regional stereotypes: Tolkien’s ‘English’ hobbits are bookish, stodgy and love their afternoon tea; Martin’s northmen are hardy men of few words who speak (in the HBO series) in vaguely Scots accents; even Rothfuss’s Adem seem vaguely Japanese (or at least subscribe to ‘Western’ notions of Japanese behaviour espoused in martial arts movies). It’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticising this culture, because people (read: the Western canon) has been doing it for years and we know it works to pull in the publishing bigwigs sitting in their corner offices on 6th Avenue.

So how do I do it? How do I write an epic fantasy that doesn’t rely on ‘Oriental’ stereotypes that might offend the poco-watchers but also stands out as ‘Indian’ or exotic enough to interest the agents in HarperCollins NY? I think Samit Basu managed this with the Gameworld Trilogy , where he actually turned cultural and literary stereotypes of flying carpets and exotic Indian princesses back on the reader, as well as used those tropes to further the story—but even he was relegated to having an elephant headed Ganesha on simoqinthe cover of the German edition of The Simoqin Prophecies. Please note that this is in a book which has no elephants, let alone elephant headed gods, on-screen.

It’s a curse: write what you, as an English-educated, city-bred millennial know and the West won’t take you seriously; write what you’re ‘supposed’ to and don’t get taken seriously by your fellow Indians, who will dismiss it as pandering, and perhaps, rightly so. Who do you please?

And don’t tell me writers write for themselves and no one else because that is just not true in an age where everyone is living on the Imax screen of social media.

Awesome idea 3: Write a fantasy novel where the hero is must save the world, but has to choose which of two worlds to save. Choosing one ensures the complete destruction of the other. Chances are, if he is a real hero, he will choose neither and end up destroying himself so that everyone else can just deal with their own shit.

rivendell

And finally, perhaps the biggest problem facing an Indian fantasy writer: who is going to make the movie version of it? I know it’s really superficial, but hey, all of us want to see our books/stories get the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings treatment. We want big budget Hollywood studios to take an interest and WETA to spend months building props and sets. But since none of my main characters are white, chances of them spending millions of dollars on bringing the book to life are pretty minimal.

Sad, but true.

Awesome idea 4: Write a fantasy novel set in an India-like space where all the main characters are white thanks to some genetic accident. These white characters are the ones who will end up saving the world because that’s just how things play out in Hollywood.

Okay, enough complaining. I shall get cracking on writing one if not all of these proposed fantasy novels.