We all get used to the idea of little white lies; of resorting to minor dishonesty to smooth over social difficulties. Saying ‘I’m so sorry we can’t come to the party, I’m coming down with some sort of cold and I wouldn’t want to spread it around’. When actually, it’s just been an exhausting week at work and we’d much rather spend Saturday night on our own sofa with a movie on Netflix. Okay, it’s fudging the truth but surely that’s better than causing needless offence?
But where do we draw the line? How far will we go, insisting that the ends will justify the means? I first recall this debate during the ‘Operation Countryman’ investigations into the UK’s Metropolitan Police in the late 1970s. Among the allegations made was the police fabricating evidence, justifying this on the grounds that the crook in question might not be guilty of this particular charge but he had got away with so many other crimes that fitting him up for this one was serving justice regardless. Or that these people were so obviously guilty, even if no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, that the police just gave the prosecution a helping hand by burying something that undermined their case. Wrongdoing for the greater good is excusable, surely? It’s even got a special name now; ‘noble cause corruption’. Just try that phrase on for size a few times. Noble cause corruption. Isn’t it seductive? We all want to think we’re doing something noble. Except, as so many cases have shown, the consequences can be appalling miscarriages of justice. Who’s left feeling so noble once those truths come out?
What has this got to do with storytelling? Well, as the writing cliché goes, conflict is the essence of drama. Writing epic fantasy across four series of novels, I’ve set up my heroes and heroines with all manner of conflicts; murderous sneak-thieves, brutal invaders, arrogant nobles waging war to serve selfish ambitions, and renegade wizards threatening everyone’s peace. In all these stories, a broad array of characters are all serving the greater good with courage, guile and their quick wits. Granted, there’s deception and misdirection involved but that’s understandable and excusable. Noble, even.
But what if we take this one step further? What if the truth about something is so dangerous, if the consequences of it being revealed are so horribly dangerous, that bare-faced lies must be told to conceal it? Where’s the heroism in deliberately upholding something you know to be calculatedly false? What if those who discover this truth must be silenced by whatever means prove necessary? Where’s the heroism in using violence and threats to coerce innocent bystanders who’ve accidentally stumbled onto a secret? How does someone convince themselves that this sort of behaviour is in any sense noble? If they can’t, but they still have no choice but to act this way, what will that crisis of conscience mean for them? How corrosive will those lies be for their soul? This is the tension that underpins the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom.
Not that I consciously realised this, when I started writing these stories back in 2008. But that’s the thing about fantasy fiction. It has an uncanny knack of reflecting the world we live in right back at us.
We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where the celebrity-obsessed rolling-news media are so seduced by ideas of ‘narrative’ that they persist in fitting ‘breaking news’ events into a pre-existing framework before even half the facts are known. When inconvenient facts emerge later, proving something significantly different happened, the truth will struggle to catch the lies which have already gone round the world.
We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where ‘reality’ TV no longer means documentaries bringing harsh truths into the light but ‘scripted’ and ‘constructed’ entertainments masquerading as real life. Somehow all this has become normalised, even acceptable, even as it colours attitudes and reinforces dangerous prejudices about religion, unemployment, poverty and black and minority ethnic issues.
We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where massively significant political victories are currently being won by people who tell deliberate and calculated lies. People who just shrug and carry on lying when the truth is waved in their face. Why are they doing this? Because those liars are getting their reward when those desperate and disadvantaged people who desperately want to believe those lies are voting for the lies not the truth. Because, to take just one example currently applicable to the UK and US, the lie of ‘vote for me/my plan and I’ll bring those old jobs back’ is quicker to tell and easier to swallow than a detailed explanation of decades of economic and industrial change which means those jobs are gone beyond recall and creating alternatives requires focused investment, hard work and new thinking.
What’s our excuse for letting such lies go unchallenged? We’re not trying to keep out the monsters from a shadow realm. In our world, allowing these lies to take over means the monsters get a hold over us all.
Is this all part of some cunning writerly plan, eight years in the making? That story was first published in the British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009 after all. Sorry, no. ‘Patience’ is simply another short story where I was exploring elements that I first started putting together in the new collection’s first two stories, ‘Walking Shadows’ and ‘Noble Deceit’. The Sun Goddess and the Moon God both feature, along with the religious orders that honour them, as well as noble barons owing fealty to a king.
Though it’s interesting to look at this tale alongside the other Shadow Histories stories. It’s now apparent, with the benefit of hindsight, that this is a tale from the days of long ago, before the River Kingdom was established. It’s a story of a fragile and disputed royal succession, and of the merciless lengths some people will go to, in order to secure their own power. As well as the enduring power of enmity and the way such hatreds take on a life of their own.
Where did the idea of the Icicle Witch come from? I’m honestly not sure, other than recalling my thoughts turning to cold and ice, when I was looking for a concept of malice to set against the twin and cooperative, complementary deities embodied in the Sun and the Moon. I’d say it’s fairly obvious my subconscious went riffling through memories from my childhood reading, to draw on Narnia’s White Witch and Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, among other precursors.
I decided not to include this story in the new collection. For one thing, it’s been free to read here for a good while now. More than that, all the other stories take place in the same general time frame, generations later, when the River Kingdom is secure and prosperous. The collection’s tales also all have a magical element that’s notably absent here.
But still… if the myth of the Icicle Witch was already becoming common currency in rumour so many years before, how would such folklore become manifest in the era of the Shadow Histories? As soon as I wondered that, I realised I had the basis for a new and original story. That was something I wanted to write for this book, so that even my keenest readers will find something they’ve never seen before.
As for the sequence of events between the days of Valdese wreaking her patient vengeance, and the unquestioned rule of the Paramount King? That remains to be seen… and perhaps, written…
You should also be able to order the paperback through your local bookshop in the UK and in the US – it’s listed in their wholesale catalogues.
I’ll update with more links as the vagaries of availability smooth themselves out!
And could I ask, if you’ve read and enjoyed the book, could you please consider leaving a few words of review with your online retailer of choice? With a project like this, those reviews really do make a big difference…
For this new project, I took heed of the key lesson about maps which I learned when writing The Tales of Einarinn. Back then, I had a map quite literally scribbled on the back of an envelope as I wrote The Thief’s Gamble. Oh, I took considerable care calculating distances and travel times and all the variables that might affect such things. That sketch map was soon covered in notes and arrows and other hieroglyphs.
And then… my editor wanted a map to go in the actual book… Fortunately my husband trained as a design draughtsman and was able to reverse engineer a map from the final text. He then went away and drew a master map on actual draughting film as well as creating a digital version. Thereafter I could work from and update those.
This time round, I drew a far more careful map in the first place, as I developed the River Kingdom concept. Once we started planning the Shadow Histories collection, and being very well aware of my own artistic shortcomings, sought out a trained illustrator who could translate my efforts into something worth having.
Enter Sophie E. Tallis whose professional qualifications and experience are matched by her focus on getting a project exactly right. I thought I’d sent a comprehensive brief until she started asking questions! How high are the peaks in the hill country exactly? Which towns have ferries for crossing the river? Where exactly do those various roads go, because if there’s a road, there must be a destination. No one establishes a trade route unless they know there’s something worth having at the other end. And now, let’s talk colour samples and fonts and any number of other things that would never occur to me since I lack that sort of visual imagination. It really has been a fascinating process, and Sophie’s been a pleasure to work with. Also very patient whenever I’ve had to start an email with ‘ah, did I forget to mention such-and-such? It rather looks as though I did…’
The end result is this fabulous map. And there are a good few potential beginnings here as well. Sophie’s added in some lovely details here and there which are just crying out to have a story written around them… Well, that’s fun for another day. For now, enjoy this map, and you may also be interested in further details about the River Kingdom to be found here. Meantime I’m thinking about the best way to make an embroidery of that wonderful compass rose. Crewel work or cross-stitch? Hmmm…
Click on this map to go through to the larger version where you can zoom in for still more detail.
You’ll notice the watermark there to protect Sophie’s copyright. In due course we’ll have details of how to get prints etc.
Bristolcon is a splendid one-day, regional SF&F convention in, unsuprisingly, Bristol. This year it’s on Saturday October 29th, at the Doubletree Hotel, which is convenient for travel by car or by train – within easy walking distance of Bristol Temple Meads station. Membership is £25 in advance or £30 on the door.
This year’s Guests of Honour are the artist Fangorn, and authors Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.
17.00 – Running the World / Cleaning the Toilets – One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. How can we build believable and effective governments in SF&F, and how can we prevent our utopias becoming dystopias (and should we try)? And while we’re focussed on the action at the top, who’s cleaning the toilets?
Ken MacLeod (M), John Baverstock, Ian Millsted, Juliet E McKenna, Jaine Fenn
18.00 – After the Heroes Have Gone – We all enjoy a big battle, especially on the big screen, but what happens afterwards? Who’s picking up the pieces of New York after the Avengers have smashed it up, who’s living in the wreckage of a Godzilla-stomped Tokyo and what are the Alderaanians who were off planet at the time supposed to do next? Wars have knock-on effects that aren’t always explored – we ask our panel to think about the fate of the ordinary folk, after the heroes have gone.:
Danie Ware (M), Joel Cornah, Juliet E McKenna, Chris Baker, R B Watkinson
And most exciting of all,and with thanks as ever to the wonderful Wizard’s Tower Press, we’ll be launching Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom that weekend! since this will be both an ebook and a print-on-demand publication, there’ll be copies on sale which I’ll naturally be happy to sign 🙂
It really is a fascinating process for me as someone who’s always been very focused on words; handing over my writing to someone whose imagination and skills work in a completely different creative area. Trying to explain the sort of thing that I’m after, when I cannot actually visualise it myself, answering an artist’s questions as best I can – without being distracted by wanting to ask ‘Why choose that particular episode or character to illustrate?’.
Then there’s seeing the draft sketches and having discussions about detail, which invariably sees me hunting for the photos and other visual references I’ve used in the writing. Finally there’s the thrill of getting something that’s both utterly surprising that also makes me nod and think, ‘yes, that’s it.’
Not that that’s the end of the process. Ben’s done all the cover layout and other design work here. And that’s not the end of it either. You remember I said I use visual references as I write? Pictures so often stir my imagination. I’m already seeing prompts for new stories in this one…
So here it is for you to admire. You’ll get your chance to read all these stories and to discover exactly what inspired Ben soon!
Writing an extended sequence of novels like the Tales of Einarinn and my subsequent series set in that world doesn’t stop a writer like me from having other ideas. In many cases, that idea will be a one-shot wonder just right for a short story. Sometimes though, that short story turns out to be the first step on a longer journey.
Back in 2008 I was invited to contribute to an anthology entitled ‘Imaginary Friends’. I began thinking about the ways in which such a friend could be both real and imaginary – to one person at least. If everyone knew what was happening, there wouldn’t be much of a story. But if only one person could see this mysterious friend, what then? Comedy? We’ve all seen that episode in every telly SF/fantasy series and in films from ‘Harvey’ onwards. What if this is something darker and more mysterious? Monsters from the Id? That’s one classic Science Fiction answer – but what if there are no such easy explanations?
What if there’s uncanny magic at work, something imperfectly understood? Because magic doesn’t always have to be codified and organised by learned, collegiate wizards like those in Hadrumal. What if such magical creatures come from a parallel realm of superstition and myth? Let’s imagine a world with different layers of existence like those glimpsed in a picture that’s been hanging on my wall ever since my sister gave the family our pick of the pieces she did for her Art A Level?
But no matter how dangerous it might be, some people will always make use of magic, or at least, they will make the attempt. Meantime, surely some of those with such perilous power will feel a responsibility to protect those who remain unawares? Who will watch over the vulnerable? Who will watch the watchmen? What could I do with such universal SF and fantasy questions in this particular setting?
I’ve been exploring these and other ideas in various stories and one novella set within the River Kingdom ever since. The more I’ve written about it, the underlying concept and this new fantasy realm without the fixed and comforting borders of coasts and seas has steadily expanded. Now I’m seeing possibilities for further and longer stories set in this world, exploring the relationships and conflicts between its tangible and intangible aspects. So the time is right to offer this collection – with the addition of one entirely new story. Those who’ve come across one or two of these tales thus far can now enjoy them all. Those who’ve only read my Einarinn books can enter a whole new fantasy world.
As always, I am indebted to the talented people I’m working with, providing key skills that I lack. Ben Baldwin, who you’ll recall did the fabulous Aldabreshin Compass artwork you can admire to the left of this post, has produced another stunning cover. Sophie E Tallis is working on a truly awesome map. Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press has been getting to grips with all the intricacies of making the book available in paperback as well as electronic formats.