Guest Post – Lucy Hounsom, Starborn, and reinventing epic fantasy

I’m reviewing Starborn, first volume of The Worldmaker Trilogy, for my next Albedo One column, and with the final book out in December, this seems an ideal time for a guest post from Lucy.

Upon discovering Tolkien at 14 years old, I knew I would lose my heart to fantasy. Some months and several authors later, I realised I wanted to write for a living. I’d been at drama school for six years, but decided to drop it all in favour of locking myself away with a notebook, computer and a handful of ideas, which I hoped to fashion into a story. The authors I read as a teen are considered giants of the genre: Brooks, Goodkind, Pratchett, Jordan, Eddings, Garner – to name just a few. They were also overwhelmingly male. I didn’t know it then, but this fact and the implications it carried, would have a profound effect on my own writing.

Constructing an epic fantasy can seem a herculean task. The temptation when starting out is to create a ‘world bible’ – an encyclopaedia of a world’s society, religion, customs and culture. While this works for some authors, I’ve taken a more organic approach, letting the characters discover the world as they go. It means I’m not tempted to cram in a lot of omniscient information my characters couldn’t possibly know and it prevents the worldbuilding getting in the way of the story. I also like to consider each chapter a mini story in itself, which I can then link together once I have the whole thing down. Otherwise the sheer number of words left to write feels insurmountable.

I suppose some might call The Worldmaker Trilogy heroic rather than epic; at 130,000 words a book, it’s hardly the largest fantasy ever written. But it owes a debt to one of the most famous epics, The Wheel of Time, which I discovered at the impressionable age of 17. I loved the sweeping sense of history in Jordan’s series, the personal stories played out against a backdrop of turmoil. It’s this fight against unknowable hostile forces – a reflection of our own grappling with the things beyond our control – that I found so compelling. It’s what fantasy does best.

However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the predominantly male-authored epics I so enjoyed as a teenager are problematic. As a genre built on archetypes, fantasy is particularly vulnerable to becoming stuck in a loop of restrictive thinking. Archetypes aren’t negative in and of themselves – they’re universal patterns of behaviour. But they do provide a framework on which to hang stereotypes, and it’s stereotypes that have the potential to damage. Fantasy is inherently nostalgic, often bent on recreating a lost world somehow better than the one we have now. This can lead to a sort of homogenised pseudo-past, in which we romanticise aspects of society that a. weren’t great and b. weren’t true. The European Medievalist world popularised by Tolkien is especially guilty of this and is so over-used that it now comes with its own predetermined settings, the most worrying of which are racial stereotypes, a lack of female agency and misrepresentation of the LGBTQ communities.

Growing up under the auspices of traditional western fantasy, it took me a full draft to realise I’d inherited some of these problematic stereotypes and copied others, notably the heroic male’s journey. The genre is saturated with the whole boy becomes a man narrative, which relegates women to the side-lines. I had made a subconscious decision to follow suit and the first incarnation of Starborn featured a male protagonist. Realising I could write an epic fantasy with a woman at its heart was part revelation, part no brainer. I’ve spoken a little about the process of switching Kyndra’s gender here.

Although it’s a decision I’m glad I made, that doesn’t mean to say I threw out every trope. After all, my trilogy is in large part an ode to old favourites like Dragonlance and The Belgariad. But they and their contemporaries are very much products of their time, a time we no longer live in. Speculative fiction should be a progressive genre and even backward-looking fantasy must adapt and change to survive. So I’ve kept recognisable tropes, choosing to reinvent instead of abandon. My chosen one is no shining knight, or noble-hearted farm boy, but a flawed young woman who steers her own destiny, sometimes poorly. The autocratic empire brings technological benefits at the price of cultural oppression. One man’s heroism is another man’s tyranny. Overall, I’m trying to show that there are two sides to every story and that evil lies in actions, not ideology.

Dyed-in-the-wool tropes also extend to gender. I’ve kept the love triangle, but reversed the usual roles, putting a man between two women. An older man manipulates a younger man instead of the traditional younger woman. Because my world is not patriarchal, women aren’t excluded from male-associated professions like smithing, engineering, the military and the merchant elite. There is so much more to explore when it comes to gender, sexual identity and societal roles; I’ve barely scratched the surface, acknowledging my own biases and inherited opinion in the process. Now, more so than ever before, we need to be aware of these concerns, to equip ourselves to better address them in our writing, so that they may be discussed openly without fear of censure or harassment.

I’ve grown up on a diet of blokes-in-cloaks fantasy – a feature publishing defends with remarkable tenacity given how much of it is out there and how tiring it is to pick up yet another testosterone-fuelled epic. But fantasy is still growing in popularity and the grimdark arena of Game of Thrones is no longer its sole setting. From scarred dystopian landscapes to the intrigues of faerie courts, young adult fantasy can offer a pacier, character-driven alternative. However, the twin rise of grimdark and YA has left an odd and unexpected gap in the market, making it tricky to find adult fantasy of the kind that helped birth the genre, fantasy in the vein of Le Guin, of Canavan, of McKillip and Hobb: fantasy that serves as a graduation of sorts from YA into adult, where the camera zooms out and world events play a more central role. ‘New adult’ is a term that never really took off, but I see it as an essential bridge between these two extremes. Focusing on character and storytelling, but without the brutal nihilism that distinguishes grimdark, this is where I’d like to think my trilogy sits.

lucyhounsom.co.uk
Twitter: @silvanhistorian
Facebook: lucyhounsom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *