Gender, Disability, and Prophecy: Jacqueline Carey on Writing Standalone Epic Fantasy Starless

When I asked Jacqueline Carey if a particular aspect of her new fantasy novel Starless had required extensive research, she laughed and pointed out that this was her eighteenth novel—which is to say, she has amassed a lot of background research over the years. The standalone epic, about a fierce warrior destined to guard a courageous princess even if it means going to the ends of the earth to return the stars to the sky, hinges on a Scattered Prophecy: each character possesses a piece of it, and can only solve it by bringing the different parts together.

Talking to Carey, author of the Kushiel’s Legacy books and other series, about the influences behind Starless is like piecing together the Scattered Prophecy: there’s the practice of bacha posh, octopus gods dreamed up at parties, YouTube videos on proper bola throwing, a dash of Lovecraft, and a spin on Le Guin. And just like Starless’ prophecy, each piece is vital.

Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him. In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity… but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction. If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

This interview includes mild spoilers.

 

Natalie Zutter: What initially sparked the idea for Starless?

Jacqueline Carey: It was an article, initially, by a journalist who was researching this tradition that turns out to be surprisingly widespread: She was writing specifically about Afghanistan, I believe, when a family does not have a son, they may designate one of their girl children to be an honorary boy. Bacha posh is the Persian term. And once she started looking into it, people were like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got a cousin…” It creates this somewhat artificially-induced gender dysphoria, and that was one of the first kernels of an idea for the character [of Khai]. And then, I don’t know, I just was thinking [about] authors like China Miéville, the whole New Weird tradition, and [thought] “I want to create some really funky gods.”

Zutter: What about New Weird especially inspired you? Was there a certain homage you were trying to pay, or something for yourself you wanted to explore in this subgenre?

Carey: Nothing specific. I’m trying to think—I remember being at a party, when I was still kinda hashing this out, and having had a couple of drinks and talking to a friend’s son who was like, “where do your ideas come from?”, which is a question writers hate so very much, and then like, “I don’t know dude, octopus god!”—and that ended up being the Oracle of the Nexus. Obviously in the whole Papa-ka-hondras/Shambloth the Inchoate Terror, there’s a little Lovecraftian action there without any of the—hopefully—misogyny and racism.

Zutter: While the gods in the Kushiel series definitely meddle in the affairs of mortals, they do so in more subtle ways, or on a one-on-one basis with their scions; but in Starless, the gods walk among the mortals. What made you want to explore that?

Carey: It was a very different approach. The animating idea behind the pantheon of the Kushiel-verse is “What if love were a divine force actually capable of having agency in the world?”, but all the deities themselves are pretty much at a remove. They’re in the Terre-d’Ange-that-lies-beyond. Whereas here, I’m like, “Well, yeah, what if a god was a 90-foot tall sandstorm? What would that be like? What would that feel like?”

Zutter: Khai and Phèdre are both characterized by extremes—her with the masochism, while he’s described as bloodthirsty and violent. Is it an intentional choice to write characters who exist in these extremes?

Carey: Characters for me are always one of those “mystery with a capital M” elements of writing, so I didn’t really set out thinking, “Here is this character I’m going to create, and here are his defining characteristics.” He kind of emerged and was a little murder-y, and I was like, “OK then, let’s go with that.”

Zutter: Did you have to do a lot of research into brotherhoods or organizations from which to draw the specifics of his training?

Carey: Nope, that was all pretty much made up. This is my eighteenth novel; I’ve got a lot of background research into various martial arts. I did spend a lot of time thinking about “OK, well, let’s develop some unique weaponry just so fight scenes can have a different dynamic, something that doesn’t feel like ‘Oh, I’ve seen this a thousand times before.’” [Khai’s] heshkrat is basically a bola. So, research sometimes is sitting watching an hour’s worth of YouTube videos on “how do you actually throw one of those?”

Zutter: In terms of writing Zariya’s disability, was there a particular aspect or point you wanted to communicate?

Carey: You know the author Nicola Griffith? She has a particularly debilitating form of multiple sclerosis. I don’t actually know her personally; we know each other professionally. She’s had some really candid discussions that she’s hosted on Twitter and other fora about what she’s dubbed “criplit,” and how many offensive tropes there are, one of which is a character with a physical disability or whatever disability being magically healed. I tell you, if I had not been following those, I might have fallen prey to that. Just out of ignorance and “oh, wouldn’t it be great if da-da-da-da happened, and yay.” So, following these discussions, I was like, “Oh, I so must not do that.” It then created some sort of interesting strictures. I was writing this before; I know that George Martin has obviously done some of this with the character of Bran in Game of Thrones, but that wasn’t on my radar when I was first writing this. You know, you’ve got epic stuff happening, you have to move at speed over complicated terrain—how do you navigate that? How do you navigate the lack of a chamber pot on a weird ship? I think posing all those questions came up with more interesting answers, and a far more interesting character and book.

Zutter: Starless hinges on a world-changing prophecy. What was it about a big, “the fate of the world depends on this” prophecy that intrigued you?

Carey: One of the things I like the most about it is I call it the Scattered Prophecy—this idea, Vironesh says, [that] “Everybody’s got a prophecy. Everybody’s got some part of it.” […] Assembling the traditional disparate band of heroes—

Zutter: Giving them all the pieces of the puzzle.

Carey: Yeah, there’s a bunch of different pieces, and we gotta try to put it together.

Zutter: What was your experience writing a standalone fantasy as opposed to an epic series?

Carey: It’s satisfying in probably a similar way it is to read a standalone, because it’s this one big chunk, this one delicious meal that you get to serve up or devour. It can be accomplished in one year rather than over the course of many. [laughs]

Zutter: Do you think you would do it again?

Carey: I’m certainly open to the idea of doing it again. In a sense, I would say this is actually my second, because the Sundering duology [Banewreaker and Godslayer] was meant to be one volume; it just got really long, and Tor divided it into two. That is probably by far and away my most underrated work; it’s Tolkienesque epic fantasy rewritten as epic tragedy. It does feature a prophecy, and an unlikely band of heroes, but it’s all written from a point of view sympathetic to the losing side.

Zutter: Was there any aspect of Starless that you wanted to talk about that you haven’t been asked about yet?

Carey: I think it’s a really fun adventure. You know, you look at your own literary DNA—probably the idea of doing something set in a vast archipelago goes back to Ursula K. Le Guin and A Wizard of Earthsea. She was such a phenomenal figure in the field, and a recent loss. It’s funny, I’ve been writing long enough that now I will see my literary DNA pop up in other people’s books. I know if I just see the word “archipelago,” I’m like, “Yep, Earthsea.” So, it was fun to put a spin on that.

 

Starless is available now from Tor Books. Read an excerpt!

Natalie Zutter is excited Starless is out so she’ll have more people to talk to about it. Chat epic fantasy, standalone and otherwise, with her on Twitter!

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