20 years ago, I began writing what would become my first finished novel. It began life as a story for my younger sister and was about a girl finding her destiny. Weaver of Dreams inverted a classic trope fantasy trope yet still relied upon the familiar, quasi-medieval setting, sprinkled with tropes drawn from Celtic mythology.
I started writing the story not long after I graduated uni with an honours degree in archaeology and history, finishing about two years and 145 thousand words later. Like all first books, it’s deeply flawed, and while I should have abandoned it and moved on, I couldn’t. I revised the text several years later, hoping to transform it from a young adult book into something darker. But I could never get it right — even after writing and publishing two prequel novellas that captured the grimdark tone I was trying to set.
Medieval scholarship was my bread and butter, and so I crafted a pseudo-medieval world complete with a monotheistic religion set against a backdrop of a crusading, expansionist and deeply patriarchal kingdom modelled on the Angevin Empire. The writer in me thought that a girl overcoming such an inherently sexist and unequal world would make for a good story — and maybe it does. Then again, that would be skating to where the puck was three decades ago. My slavish adherence to historical accuracy shot me in the foot in two major ways, and I now realise why.
Firstly, I write fantasy — not historical fiction. As such, I am under no compulsion to make the cultures I create a feminist anathema. Even the historian in me knows that every single post-hunter/gatherer human society was and is characterised by profound inequality not only of gender but also class, race, wealth etc.
Secondly, 2022 is a very different year from 2002 — diversity matters, equality matters, and writers are counselled to hire sensitivity readers in case our prose triggers a reader inadvertently. Established fantasy franchises like The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time have got a modern makeover. Moreover, traditional fantasy and its traditional tropes — make what you will of their origins — is a dead horse well-flogged.
In short, a setting I created in the 1990s for a book I started writing in 2002 now seems out of touch and just not as interesting to me as it once was. No one wants hard-nosed reality in fantasy, even though I still believe verisimilitude is important in this genre and look for it when I read.
Yet, based on (my) belief, creating a utopia isn’t an option either. Story is conflict at its most fundamental level. But how do you balance those constraints — conflict, verisimilitude, sensitivity — in a pleasing narrative? I still haven’t worked that out, but I suspect I’m not going to by building the foundations on something that’s no longer relevant.
It’s perhaps telling that my other fantasy setting, Alashiya, is quite different and far less serious. Although inspired by the Ancient Aegean, I decided not to shackle myself to historical accuracy. So while Alashiyan society is hardly a utopia — slavery is common, after all — I’ve made it much more cosmopolitan, less intrinsically sexist, and generally more diverse. Its people’s attitudes to sex and sexuality are liberal, and religious faith and adherence are cynically lacking.
I didn’t do this because I’m overtly woke, but rather because I’m an irreverent bastard, and I wanted to have fun, messing with tropes and expectations instead of following them blindly. I also live in a diverse, multicultural, liberal country with a Mediterranean climate where people use profanity like punctuation, so Alashiya isn’t that far removed from what I see and hear around me (well, minus the possums and gum trees, and with a dash of sword and sorcery).
And here’s the rub — yes, I know I’ve led you on a self-indulgent ramble to get this far... If I follow my line of thinking to its logical conclusion, I'm about to turn my creative life on its head.
I’ve taken next week off from work to revise the first full-length instalment of the Weaver Cycle. But in preparing my manuscript this weekend, I felt that everything was too medieval, too passé, and not fun anymore. Maybe it’s finally time to call it curtains. I don’t need to write or publish for a living, and have no illusions writing fiction will ever net me the living I earn as a software developer and technical writer. I write purely for enjoyment, and I’m happiest when what I write is fun.
So, maybe this week, I will return to Polosis instead and find out what Erastes is up to – and turn my attention to all the other stories I want to tell in Alashiya.