Joel Shepherd is one of the most interesting authors it’s ever been my privilege to publish at Pyr. His Cassandra Kresnov trilogy of Crossover, Breakaway, and Killswitch blew my socks off when I first read it in the way he was able to portray a fully-wired world, everyone chipped and running multiple levels of conversation and information-swapping constantly, that I’d only ever seen done before in works like Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. But on top of creating a brilliantly-realized, believable world, Joel also excelled in peopling that world with believable characters, most of them strong, confident women, and telling their tales in a politically-nuanced way that made a lot of his contemporaries efforts seem naive by comparison. Now, it’s my privilege to be bringing his fantasy quartet, A Trial of Blood & Steel, to US readers, beginning with the first book, Sasha (and continuing in book two, Petrodor, out in March 2010). So, as is my wont, I decided to interview Joel about his new series here.
Lou: When I’m pitching your work to readers or bookstore buyers, the first thing that always springs to my mind is “strong female protagonist,” and I hear frequent feedback from female readers expressing admiration for your ability to write same. Can you talk about why you favor female leads and how, as a guy, you seem to have no trouble writing about the opposite gender?
Joel: I suppose what I’m always looking for in a lead character is someone who creates a lot of interesting dynamics and tensions. Given that male leadership is the norm in most societies even today, putting a woman in the role of primary protagonist automatically creates a series of tensions that I don’t get with a male character.
In a medieval-level society even more so. A character like that fits no preconceived role in society, which can be simultaneously frustrating and restricting for her, yet in many cases, also quite liberating. And liberating for me as a writer too, because I can have her do things that are not bound by convention—either the literary conventions of gender that writers too often fall into, or the social conventions that exist in the world that I’m writing about. And of course, the best way to illustrate social conventions in a world you’ve created is to write about them from the perspective of a character who breaks most of them.
An action-oriented character like Sasha is also free to express emotion in a way that male characters are not. A male character in her position (a Lenay warrior) would be expected to repress any troublesome emotions. Being female she has more leeway, which means that as a writer, I get far more dramatic substance out of her.
Lou: So, tell us a little bit about Sasha, and how you came up with her.
Joel: Again, I like characters who break convention, and Sasha breaks a whole bunch. Firstly, she’s a fantasy character who reverses that old cliche of the common peasant who discovers they’re heir to royalty, or some other great destiny. Sasha was already royalty, but rejected it.
Secondly, she was born a princess but absolutely HATED everything that little girls are supposed to love about being a princess, and through a series of events becomes a warrior for a strange group called the Nasi-Keth. Not that she can ever stop entirely being a princess, and she still has relations with her family, but she’s certainly out of the power loop, to put it mildly. With too many little girls today still taught to love all princessly things, I found the idea of a princess who as a little girl would much rather play in the mud, ride horses (way too fast) and beat her siblings with a stick in pretend swordfights, just too irresistible. (I like to imagine Sasha sitting today’s little girls down and explaining that the fate of a princess in most realities is to a) marry someone old and ugly, b) spend all your life being told what to do by men of your family, your in-laws’ family (frequently including the mother-in-law from hell) and of course the priests of whatever dominant religion who will expect you to adhere to all their stupid, woman-hating beliefs, and c) to never ever have any fun at all).
And thirdly, I decided quite quickly that in order to become what she is in this patriarchal society, Sasha would have to be incredibly headstrong. That would make her a handful, to say the least, and some might say a nightmare, especially when she was younger. We see the personality type all the time today in top athletes— self-obsessed, almost pathologically competitive, and in Sasha’s case, prone to wild over-exuberance or temper. She can be a pain in the ass, but she has to be, because that’s the personality it takes to be what she is in this world. And I do think she manages to be lovable at the same time, because her heart’s always in the right place, and she’s absolutely selfless in her loyalty to friends and her belief in helping those who deserve it.
But it gives her this wonderful character arc over the course of a series of novels, because for her, this is very much about growing up, and learning to be less wild and more sensible, and arrange her priorities accordingly. Many fantasy novels have coming-of-age character arcs, but many of those are about someone powerless coming to power. Sasha already has power, by virtue of her skills, personality and circumstance—her coming of age is about learning to use it wisely.
Lou: I want to add, that one of the things I like about Sasha, as opposed to so many of the female protagonists on the bookshelves (and television channels) today, is that she isn’t superhuman. She is one of the best swordsmen of her world, but its because she’s mastered a more sophisticated marital art than the hack and thrust broadsword techniques of her peers. She can beat just about anybody with a blade, but she’s not supernaturally empowered. I imagine she would run in the opposite direction if caught out bare handed by a three hundred pound opponent, right?
Joel: She should run away, because sure, if she stands and fights she’ll lose. But Sasha being Sasha, she might just stand and fight anyway, because her pride won’t stand for running away. She gets around this problem by always being armed, so she’ll never be in that situation. This is someone who despises feeling helpless, and is well aware that being female in a male world, her sword is her power.
Her fighting style is called the svaalverd, which was inspired in my mind by the Wing Chun style of kung fu. I’ve no idea if it’s actually possible with a sword, but it might be. The story behind Wing Chun is that it was created a long time ago by a woman named Yim Wing Chun, who created it specifically to defeat a male warlord. Wing Chun works on the principle that form and technique are true power, and uses the mechanics of momentum, balance and angles to overwhelm the inferior power of size and muscle (anyone interested can check it out on Youtube). Now obviously using a sword is very different to fighting unarmed, but I thought it was such an interesting notion to have someone apply these principles to sword fighting that I had to play around with it. But even in swordfighting there are a lot of things Sasha won’t try—she’s only good where she has room to move and swing and use her agility, she’s not much use in a shield line or in the kinds of heavily armored mass combat that we think of in medieval times. But her homeland of Lenayin doesn’t fight like that often, because the terrain is so rugged, any army moving in heavy Armour would be slow, inagile, and pretty soon defeated.
Lou: The world that Sasha inhabits is somewhat more complicated than your average fantasy kingdom, and it inhabits a much larger world that we begin to explore in later books. Can you talk a little about Lenayin and its surrounds?
Joel: Lenayin’s a wild place inhabited by fairly wild people. A lot of lands in fantasy novels take their leaders for granted, but Lenayin’s a place that’s very hard to govern. It’s people are very diverse because of the rugged terrain, meaning they’ve been separated into groups over the centuries that have distinct identities. The idea of a single king who rules everyone is very new, they’ve only had it for a century or so, and his powers are very limited.
This is because Lenays are all warriors and individualists. They don’t bow easily to anyone, and have a personal honor code that can get you killed real fast if you piss them off. Their flaws are obvious—they fight too much—but their strengths are obvious too, in that they won’t accept tyranny in any form, and believe that any rank, status or privilege must be earned with hard work, not accidents of birth. I think they’re a people who should appeal to many Americans—they’re rowdy, funny, tough, hard working, not easily impressed, and deadly to anyone who tries to shove them around. They’re aware that they often make bad choices with their liberty, but they don’t care, because it’s their’s to misuse as they please. And if you don’t like it, you better be armed.
Lou: You’ve made a choice to avoid magic in the books. Why?
Joel: Magic interferes with “cause and effect” in a way that for these books, I wasn’t comfortable with. I like the kind of drama where choices and actions have consequences. I get the feeling in fantasy novels where there is a lot of magic, consequences are not final, because magic can act as a safety net, rescuing characters from their own choices. There’s also a sense that events in the world are driven by magic, or prophecy, and that nothing anyone does really matters very much, because ultimately magic will determine everyone’s fate.
I like the kind of fantasy novel where heroes are heroes because they achieve great things themselves, not because some magical prophecy endows it upon them, or because some magical sword turns a silly farmboy into a great warrior overnight. In my world, achieving anything worthwhile requires blood sweat and tears, not potions. Because to me, that’s at the heart of drama—what characters manage to achieve, and what it costs them to achieve it. Magic does not always trivialize that achievement, but it can.
Lou: In fact, the only thing making this book fantasy is that it is indeed a secondary world, and that’s a world with two dominant species. Tell us about the Serrin.
Joel: The serrin are a race as close as a people can get to utopia. They are my conception of how people would have to be if they were going to achieve some kind of idealized world where there were no wars, no murders, and everyone was caring and enlightened. They’re not perfect, but they’re close, and have an emotional or spiritual force called the vel’ennar, which binds them all together, and makes it impossible for them to hate each other.
Unfortunately for them, serrin have to share this world with humans, who are much further from perfection than they are. I was wondering what human beings would do with an enlightened race that was not naturally violent, that practiced philosophy and had advanced medicines and pre-technology science. And I concluded quickly that humans would try and wipe them out, because serrin threaten all kinds of basic understandings that human civilizations of that kind rely upon.
So the serrin have had to learn to fight (or re-learn it, as they once did behave as humans do, a long time ago) and to engage more aggressively in human affairs, but they’re still not good at it, and are at real risk of being exterminated for good. But they have human allies, like Sasha and Kessligh of the Nasi-Keth (a group of humans who believe serrin ways could save humanity from itself) and many others who believe the same. The entire series is really about whether or not humans are capable of accepting a good thing when they see it, even if that good thing challenges many things that are foundational to the human view of the universe.
Lou: Whenever I describe your work to an audience, I explain that you excel at politics, whether it is the politics of planets and nations, the interdepartmental politics of bureaucracy, or the subtleties of negotiating the clashing personalities amidst a small group of people. You know that even in the simplest transactions, a captain giving an order to a soldier, these two individuals have a history that color what is said, what is heard, and how the order is carried out. Whenever I come up out of one of your novels, everything else in fiction feels naive and trite by comparison, there’s a brutal honesty to “how people actually are” in your work - whether we’re in the far future of the Cassandra Kresnov novels, or the secondary fantasy world that Sasha inhabits. Can you talk about the politics of fiction?
Joel: Well it’s interesting, because I’ve often felt there is a bias against politics in both SF and fantasy. A lot of people hear “politics,” and they think of boring men in suits arguing over procedure in a stuffy room, and sure, that would be boring.
But what politics means in reality is “what people think,” people being the “polity” in politics. And what people think and believe is the driving force of most of human history. So if you’re not writing about politics in some sense, you’re not writing about anything. Even a literary novel about the author’s family is political, because families have politics, between parents and children, between siblings, between in-laws. Individuals have politics, whether they consider themselves “political” or not. Any belief is political, however innocuous, because it expresses a preference. Take all those collective preferences, and express them across an entire civilization, and you can have political trends. Mess with those political trends, and you can have severe consequences.
And yet I’ve found a lot of SF and fantasy writers in Australia I’ve met say that they’re not interested in politics. Oddly enough, most of them will then tell you they’re politically left-wing and dislike conservatives. I’ve never understood that, it’s like saying you’re not interested in football but you really hope this one team loses because you hate them. Why, if you’re not interested? Surely anyone not interested in politics wouldn’t give a damn who wins the election?
Because of course they are interested in politics, they just don’t enjoy talking about it. They believe what they believe, and beyond that point, to use that terrible word so often used against George W Bush, are “incurious.”
And I think it shows, in a lot of writing, when the writer is incurious about politics, because what it means is they’re not interested in considering all the different ways that people might perceive a situation. And that’s when conflicts in a book begin to seem far fetched, or simplistic, or cliched, because one side’s motivations don’t add up, and this other person’s belief system doesn’t make sense, etc. Politics is really about psychology, which is the structure of thinking itself. If that doesn’t matter to the writer, the characters will suffer, as will every dramatic situation they find themselves in.
Lou: Lenayin is highlands country. In book two, we travel to the city of Petrodor in Torovan, which has an Italian vibe and a bit of a Greek port feel to it. In book three, Tracato, we are in the Serrin-held Bacosh. I love that your fantasy world is a world, and not a monoculture. Comment?
Joel: I’ve never seen a human civilization that is a monoculture. Even the most intensely conformist culture on Earth, which is probably Japan, has large regional differences.
My world is complex and varied because all human civilization is. And for all that, my world is still not as complex as most places in the real world are, once you get to know them. Things were even more complex in pre-technological times, because information technology has homogenized our cultures enormously today. But go back just a hundred years in France, for example, and very few people spoke French—they spoke one of their 24 regional tongues instead. Places like India or Indonesia are still fantastically complex with languages, ethnicity and religion, and probably always will be.
I think people in comparatively homogenous cultures like America or Australia tend to forget that multi-lingualism was far more prevalent in the past than it is now. In Britain in the past, depending on what era you were living in, even commonfolk might have spoken at least two languages, possibly more (you could choose from old English (which also varied enormously region by region), Norman (French), various Nordic tongues, and of course Welsh or Scots-Gaelic... and if you were educated, Latin as well). Go to India today, and it’s not uncommon to find ordinary working class people who speak three or more tongues.
I put complexity into my novels because it’s what all human places were actually like in pre-technological times, and because those differences drive a lot of drama and motivation in my plots, and because I love it. Variety is one of humanity’s wonders, and writers should write about what fascinates them.
Lou: A few years back M John Harrison caused a stir when he wrote, “...worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism.” As one of the more detailed world-builders in the Pyr staple, how would you respond?
Joel: It depends what that worldbuilding is for. If it’s just to make a pretty map (which does happen), then I’d agree with him. But if the complexity in that worldbuilding is essential to the plot, then it’s a silly comment. To make that a blanket assertion is ridiculous. If World War Two had not actually happened, and were in fact an invention created by an author in order to make a place where a series of novels could occur, presumably M John Harrison would look at a map of planet Earth and declare that the author only went to all that trouble because he was a nerd, and that the war’s complexity should have been dramatically reduced for the sake of the story.
Lou: Sasha was originally published by Hachette Livre in Australia, a new publisher for you. What’s the story behind that?
Joel: Well I was looking for a new Australian publisher, and wondering where to start, when my mother, who had the manuscript, gave it to her good friend Lian Hearn (to use her pen name), the author of the ‘Tales of the Otori’ series. And Lian was one day chatting to her editor from Hachette, who asked her if she’d read anything good lately, and Lian innocently mentioned this wonderful manuscript she’d been reading... and her editor suggested she might quite like to read that herself. So I have her to thank for it ending up at Hachette.
Lou: The initial reviews over here for Sasha are pretty much universally comparing you (favorably!) to George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. As the book’s editor, I couldn’t ask for better reviews, but how do you feel about the comparison?
Joel: I love that series, and am greatly looking forward to the HBO version. I think we have our similarities in that neither of us is very romantic about the way that those old feudal societies work, and we both love characters who fly in the face of convention. He’s a little more brutal in what he does to his characters, however...
Lou: Given this is Cthulhu month at Tor.com, I’ll ask an obligatory question about your opinion about Lovecraft, his influence, and whether he has influenced you at all.
Joel: Well of course he influences everyone indirectly without us being aware of it, because he created so much of that subconscious mythology that informs every writer in any loosely related genre. But horror and “weird” is not really what I’m about, though I have no objection to it. Weird implies an inability to comprehend the universe. I’m about making at least a futile and hopeless attempt to try.
Lou Anders is the three-time Hugo-nominated editor of Pyr books, as well as the editor of seven critically-acclaimed anthologies, the latest being Fast Forward 2 and Sideways in Crime. He recently won a Chesley Award for Best Art Director, and is pretty chuffed about that too. Visit him online at his blog, Bowing to the Future.