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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.

Quick words with Ken Liu

As my review would tell you, I was bowled over by Ken Liu’s debut novel, ‘The Grace of Kings’. After tying up Book 2 (which, he assures me, is full of ‘cool stuff’), Ken was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing, what he thinks of diversity in SFF and fantasy in general.

1) A clichéd question first! How did you fall in love with fantasy?

Ha, my answer might be a little different from many other American readers and writers.

I first fell in love with the wuxia fantasies of Jin Yong. I love the way he reworks history and adds what we think of as “modern” elements (intricate technology, interest-group politics, patriotism) into historical settings. As well, he uses fantastic touches like impossible superpowers, legendary creatures, and arcane knowledge to literalize what otherwise might only be metaphors.

The influence of Jin Yong can be felt and seen in The Grace of Kings as well as many other fantasy stories I’ve written.

2) Was the diversity of Dara (which I celebrated in the review) a conscious decision, or was it just something that came about naturally?

Both. I love celebrating the fact that we live in a diverse world. I think it’s natural to write fiction that makes everyone feel included.

At the same time, since one of the goals of The Grace of Kings was to change the way Western readers view “Chinese-ness” in fantasy, it was important to me to make the cast diverse to prevent the reader from falling into the trap of thinking “Oh, these are all Chinese people.”

3) I’ve often assumed that my favourite characters from fantasy books, when not described otherwise, looked like me, ie, non-Western and dark-skinned, and been surprised and a little disconcerted when fan art depictions turned out to be overwhelmingly white. Has this ‘whitewashing’ of fantasy ever bothered you?

One of the ways in which a visual medium like film differs from a written medium like fiction is how constrained the audience is in terms of imagining the characters. Because a work of fiction can’t slam you in the face with the physical features of the character on every page, fan art can be very revelatory of the larger cultural patterns we inhabit. If a character is known for being beautiful or handsome, how are they portrayed in fan art? If a character is known for being brutal or ugly, how are they portrayed in fan art?

I ask myself these questions often and try to catch myself from falling into the traps of the Western gaze.

4) As a Hugo award winner yourself, what’s your take on the controversy that raged this year?

I don’t have a single take. The controversy involves many conversations between many people, and not all of them agree on the premises upon which they argue, the interpretations of events, or even the meanings of words. Indeed, there may not be a single controversy, but many overlapping controversies with very different issues at stake that need to be parsed separately.

As a writer, my interest is primarily in writing works I like and connecting with readers who enjoy my work; as a reader, my interest is primarily in discovering works that delight and astound me. In neither role are the awards terribly important, though they are a great honor, of course.

5) In your bio, you’ve noted that you and your wife came up with the universe of ‘A Grace of Kings’ together. How much of her is in the final product?

Lisa suggested the idea of re-imagining the Chu-Han Contention as an epic fantasy to me,
grace of kingsand we worked together in coming up with some of the background for Dara. She’s a busy artist with her own career, however, and we decided early on that the book would basically be my project.

6) Did you have any favourite characters in your own book?

I like Luan Zya, the scholar-engineer, the most. The ideal of retiring at the height of your success is important to Chinese culture, and I’ve always aspired to that.

7) Given the increased calls for diversity in SFF, have you ever seen yourself as consciously representing a minority in the fantasy canon? Has such identification—by yourself or others—troubled you?

I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a “minority” in my work. I’m interested in telling stories that are meaningful to me and in challenging narratives that I dislike, but I don’t write with the idea that I’m there to “represent” anyone.

It’s possible—no, probable—that such identification has been imposed on me by others. I don’t have much control over that.

8) How does your day-job as a programmer influence your writing?

I work as a litigation consultant, so my day job involves a combination of law and software programming. I don’t know if writing for machines has particularly influenced my fiction much other than the fact that I enjoy writing about technology and tech culture. I suppose if one were to squint a bit, it’s possible to also say that programmers learn a love of elegance which can be very helpful in fiction writing.

9) In ‘Paper Menagerie’, the short story (which can be read here) you explore the theme of straddling two worlds, and how adherence to one often leads to the obliteration of the other. Does fantasy, in some ways, allow for an escape or a renegotiation of this seemingly impassable divide?

“The Paper Menagerie” can be read as an argument that the notion of “choosing” one world to the exclusion of others is destructive. Straddling multiple worlds and multiple identity categories is the default for most of the world’s population, and we need not escape to fantasy to embrace the fact that an individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity.

10) Finally, what’s next for Ken Liu the author? 

My first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is coming from Saga Press on November 30, 2015. I’m currently working on the sequel to The Grace of Kings, and I’m having a ton of fun with it. There are a couple more short fiction projects and translation projects that I’m excited about, and you can keep up with what’s happening with me on my web site (http://kenliu.name) and with my mailing list (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/).

Thank you so much for having me, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

Queen of Fire


QUEEN-OF-FIRE-HI-RES-4There’s a lot of fantasy fiction out there. And a lot of it is good. But the more I’ve read of it, the harder it seems to find something genuinely original, where talent just leaps off the page and ensnares a reader, convincing him/her that this world that they’ve been granted a peek into is real, inhabited by men and women just like those we encounter every day. Anthony Ryan’s ‘Raven’s Shadow’ trilogy falls into that rare category, of fantasy books where I’ve genuinely been thrilled to turn every page, yet dreaded the end because it brought with it one sad realisation: my visit to this world and its crazy denizens has come to an end.

I reviewed books 1 and 2 of this series earlier here, and talked about how it was a breath of fresh air. Ryan’s final novel in the trilogy, Queen of Fire, builds on the promise of the first two, delivering a richly realised world filled with wonderfully constructed characters, and taking us to parts of it that we have never seen before.

The invading Volarians have been turned back from the Unified Realm, but not before they have inflicted vast amounts of damage and taken scores of citizens as slaves. Queen Lyrna is determined to rescue those of her subjects who still languish in chains, and destroy the Volarians once and for all. To this end, she crosses the seas with her refurbished Army, seeking to end the reign of the murderess-empress known only to her subjects as ‘Elverah’, the Queen of Fire.

Meanwhile, Vaelin heads to the northern reaches, attempting to cross the frozen wastes and head into the Volarian Empire from there. Enroute, he picks up some unlikely alliesbloodsong map
and learns more about the dark force (hey, it’s a fantasy novel, of course there’s a dark force!) they are fighting.

My old favourite, Reva, shows up again of course, and is a powerful POV character as ever. She’s part of Lyrna’s Army, but due to an Empress-brewed storm, ends up separated from her loyal Cumbraelin guard and cast into the fighting pits of Volar. Reva’s main struggle in this book is coming to terms with the ‘lie’ she has told her followers, of positioning herself as a prophet figure and then leading them, unintentionally of course, to their deaths. Reva has long been painted as an unwilling leader, one who has gained her position through the most unlikely route, and Ryan takes care to add nuances to her personal struggle in this book as well.

The fourth main ‘POV’ character, Frentis, by far had the most gripping narrative. Frentis’s struggle, from slave to leader of a slave rebellion, is given overtones of pathos and romance due to his love-hate relationship with the Empress herself, his onetime mistress and lover. It is her connection with Frentis, twisted and filled with anger though it is, that humanizes this villainess, and makes her a figure more akin to Robert Jordan’s Lanfear—deluded and power hungry but driven, ultimately, by the same emotions that drive her enemies—and less of a cardboard cutout than many fantasy villains tend to be. Frentis, and his unwilling insights into her, his ability to see past her madness and violence, makes this possible.

What I can finally say about Ryan is, he knows how to write a damn good fantasy series. He has war, he has religion, he has myth and the rise and fall of empires, a sense of history—all the things that go into the grand epic narrative. But best of all, he has compelling characters, and from the darkest villain to the most martial, stereotypical fantasy ‘hero’, they all shine. I loved the Raven’s Shadow trilogy, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.