A Midwinter Night’s Dream

I first met Matthew Sturges in 2001 at the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, the same weekend that I sold my first professional anthology, Live without a Net, to Jennifer Heddle, then at Roc. I invited Matt to submit a story, and a few months later he sent me “The Memory Palace.” A steampunk tale in which a technology that allows for sculpting of the aether substitutes for a virtual reality holodeck, it was so good that I found myself using it as the example when talking up the book.  It was also Matt’s first professional sale. Since then and now he’s gone on to make quite a name for himself in a sister industry. These days, Matthew Sturges is known as the Eisner-nominated author of such comic book titles as House of Mystery, Shadowpact, Salvation Run, Countdown to Mystery, Blue Beetle, Jack of Fables (co-written with Bill Willingham), and the forthcoming Final Crisis Aftermath: RUN!

After all this time and water under the bridge, it is my privilege to work with him again, as we’ve just published his fantasy debut at Pyr. Midwinter is a swords and sorcery style epic which, I’m very pleased to say, is making quite a splash. Matt was proclaimed “a strong, new voice in fantasy” in a starred review in the Library Journal, and a starred review in Publishers Weekly praised his “superb character development, solid action sequences and engaging heroes and villains.” Perhaps most gratifying has been the frequent comparisons to our hit fantasy author Joe Abercrombie, as well as the websites proclaiming Midwinter such things as the “best pure genre debut of 09 so far” and “now in the running for one of my top reads of the year.” But rather than sing praises any longer, I thought I’d interview Matt here.

Anders: One of the things that I love about Midwinter is the way it subverts expectation. We describe it as “The Dirty Dozen in Faerie,” but that’s really just where it starts. It soon jumps this simple premise when the characters becomes entangled in a much bigger plot. In the same way, the world itself defies expectations. The Realm of Faerie starts out with horses, castles, swords and magic, but along the way, we learn that they are contemporaneous to a more modern earth. This revelation surprised me when I first encountered it. Can we talk about the way you set up, then subvert, our fantasy expectations?

Sturges: I didn’t intend it to be an especially subversive narrative; I really just set out to write a story, with nothing more than the basic plot scribbled on a legal pad. It was my first book, so I had no deadline and could take as long as I wanted to fiddling around and taking wrong turns. It wasn’t until after I finished the first draft that I started to notice that the story had a tendency to play against standard fantasy tropes, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. The meta-critique of talking trees is obviously very intentional, but all of the business with the things of our world impinging into the narrative was originally just plot. Once I saw that tendency, I went back and purposefully played it up more.

I have a tendency to pick at the seams and poke around the unused closets of established story structures or genre patterns and see what kinds of stories are laying around in there. I always find myself asking questions like “Who is Superman’s lawyer, and what is his job like?” or “What did they do with all the dead orc corpses after the battle of Helm’s Deep?” In the case of Midwinter, the beginning of the story was, “What is prison like in Faery?”

Once you find something interesting in there, you can use it as a lever to twist the whole world around: “What if, instead of being THIS way, it was THAT way instead? THEN what?” You take as a given that every basic storytelling premise—the hero’s quest, in the case of Midwinter—has already been written; your job is to flip it over and around until you see it in a new way. Douglas Hofstadter, in one of his books, referred to it as “twiddling knobs.” You find the basic workings of the concept and then you start twiddling knobs and flipping switches and watch to see what happens.

The screenwriter Todd Alcott talks about this. He throw out this hypothetical pitch for a story: a murderous villain is on the loose, killing people and terrorizing the town, and so the town sheriff puts together a posse to go hunt him down and kill him. That could be just about any western, right? Nothing interesting or original there. But then you twiddle one knob—instead of a villain you substitute a shark—and then you’ve got Jaws.

Anders: It seems to me that one of the knobs you twiddled was the very big switch to focus on non-human characters. Instead of focusing on the humans, we focus on the fae, with a single human along for the ride—and not necessarily (at least initially/apparently)—even an essential part of the team. Brian Satterly, the human scientist, is fairly marginalized for most of the book. What’s it like to write for non-humans, and how do you make them sympathetic without losing sight of the fact that they are the “other”?

Sturges: Well, elves are a very specific type of “other.” To me elves have always embodied a kind of distinctly feminine mystery. In Lord of the Rings, it’s Galadriel who really seems to be pulling the strings in Middle Earth, and the rulers of Faerie in Western European folklore are typically women: Titania or Mab, depending on whom you ask. When Titania/Mab is married in Midsummer Night’s Dream, she’s married to an ineffectual, blustering king.

In my mind, the appeal of elves is all wrapped up in their quiet allure, their circumspect nature, they coyness. All that secrecy mirrors the anima of the romantic relationship—the part that the lover projects on his beloved in the absence of evidence. That giddiness you feel about the mystery of a person with whom you’re infatuated. That, to me, is the appeal of the things. So what I tried to do in Midwinter was present that image and then constantly play against it. The first character in the book is described as “huge and crazy” and he threatens our heroine with “ugly teeth.” The character of Gray Mave is described as “barrel-chested.” The idea is to create kind of a dual image in the reader’s mind. One that’s essentially human, and one that, when you pull back and squint, is strange and jarring. Part of the reason that the human character Satterly is in the book is to act as the reader’s surrogate during the jarring moments and ask the questions that hopefully are in the reader’s minds.

That double-image is something that I’m playing with a lot in the sequel, Office of Shadow. It’s an espionage story on the surface, so there are ongoing notions of double identities, betrayal, people who seem to be one thing and suddenly reveal themselves to be something else.

In general, I think that tension between the familiar and the Other is something we experience on a smaller scale all the time—that moment when you realize that someone you’ve been working with for years happens to be an Olympic-level fencer, or that the person you’ve been sitting next to on the bus is delusional and paranoid, or that the person you’re infatuated with turns out to be the lunatic your friends have been telling you she is.

Isn’t that one of the great uses of fantasy—taking metaphoric ideas and making them literal? I think magic fulfills its proper function in fiction when it’s a metaphor for something. The Force in Star Wars, for instance, is a literal enactment of numinous Eastern notions of the interconnectedness of things. To be a Jedi Master is to be a Buddha.

Anders: As is to be a Vulcan, at least an original series one. “Vulcan meditation is a private thing, not to be discussed…” So let’s talk about how you use magic in the book. The main characters don’t make very much use of it, and the magic of the villains, at least when it intersects with the heroes’ quest, seems almost like a kind of science—or borrowed from science—doesn’t it?

Sturges: In the world of Midwinter magic is science. The magical essence, re, can be viewed as if it were merely a physical force. In fact, the Fae would make no distinction between physical forces and magical forces; lightning from someone’s hands and lightning from the sky are considered precisely the same phenomenon. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that—the concept of re has emotional and spiritual overtones that, say, magnetism doesn’t possess. The nature and application of magical essence are viewed by some as strictly religious matters, though the thaumatics professors at the more liberal Universities would probably roll their eyes at the idea.

Someone in a review described Midwinter as “science fantasy.” I think that’s an apt statement. I don’t like hinky, make-it-up-as-you-go magic. The fundamentals of how magic works in this world are explored more deeply in The Office of Shadow, and we even begin to see how new advances in critical thinking are beginning to call in question the traditional ways in which magic is understood. There’s a historical figure named Alpaurle, who’s more or less the Aristotle of the Fae, and whose teachings have been slavishly followed for centuries. But just because he’s a classic doesn’t mean he’s right about everything. As the world grows I’m getting more and more interested in how magic evolves in a fantasy world, how old assumptions are questioned and paradigms challenged and changed. I think there’s a lot of great fodder for storytelling there.

Anders: Speaking of storytelling in general, you’ve been away getting rather famous in another industry. Now that you have returned to print without pictures, how does writing for prose novels differ from writing for comic books?

Sturges: The main difference, and the one that bites me in the ass most frequently, is the difference in pacing between the two. In prose, you have a lot more room to pace the flow of story. You’re permitted/required to do things that would be anathema in a comic: spending pages and pages with nothing going on except for people sitting in a room talking. Long paragraphs consisting of nothing but the line of a character’s thoughts are emotions. Something that tripped me up that I never really considered is that in comics your narrative prowess tends to atrophy because the descriptions you write are more like cake recipes: you write panel descriptions in very stripped-down, casual prose that often reads more like a laundry-list of necessary visuals, and tends not to involve metaphor or stylistic turns. It’s the artist’s job to render to poetry of the milieu—your job is to write a plot and dialog. So coming back to prose, my first complaint was, “Aw, man, I actually have to DESCRIBE STUFF again?”

Anders: Tell us a little bit more about The Office of Shadow.

Sturges: The Office of Shadow is a different species of animal that Midwinter, though they’re definitely in the same genus, if I can extend the taxonomic analogy. The world is the world of Midwinter, and the story begins directly after that novel ends. In the wake of the events at the climax of Midwinter, the Seelie government has revived a dormant program of espionage that hasn’t been in service since the Unseelie War of a thousand years past. Lord Silverdun, who functioned as Mauritane’s sidekick in Midwinter, takes on the mantle of protagonist here—he’s become utterly jaded and directionless, and is desperate now to find something that will give his life meaning. He’s recruited into the revived Office of Shadow, an intelligence-gathering and covert operations group who receive special dispensation and certain magical knowledge and freedom from their Queen in order to carry out effective espionage in the cold-war style detante that’s emerged between the Seelie Kingdom of Titantia and the Unseele Empire of Mab.

I’ve long been a fan of realistic spy stories: the Sandbaggers, John le Carre, that sort of thing; as well as the more James Bond types. I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to tell a realistic story about espionage in a fantasy world. And because it is a fantasy world, the “magic” technology that your average James Bond or Jason Bourne possesses is within reason here.

But because it also functions as a sequel to Midwinter, it contains a lot of the same themes—trust vs. loyalty, loyalty vs. faith, the limit of the necessary evil, the bleeding edge of morality. There’s a much larger story here about the evolution of society at large, and we’ll see that the traditional medieval setting of the epic fantasy is about to experience a major political and social upheaval. Essentially, Faerie has reached the 16th century, and all the long-held principles of science, philosophy, religion and social order are being called into question; and our heroes find themselves caught in the middle of it.

Mauritane, the hero of Midwinter, isn’t a primary character in this book. For various reasons he’s been relegated to a role that’s crucial but only indirectly so. He’ll return in full force in the next book, assuming we make it that far!

I don’t envision this series as a trilogy, by the way, but rather an ongoing series that tells the story of a civilization through the eyes of those who experience its most formative moments most directly. I have big plans for this world.

Those wanting a taste of Midwinter can read the first three chapters here, and you can visit Matthew Sturges’ blog here. And it would be remiss not to point out that the eye-catching cover art for Midwinter was done by the magnificent Chris McGrath.


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