Not content with two careers as a research scientist and an educator, Marian L Thorpe decided to go back to what she’d always wanted to do and be a writer. Author of the alternative world medieval trilogy Empire’s Legacy, Marian also has published short stories and poetry. Her life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history informs her novels, while her avocations of landscape archaeology and birding provide background to her settings. As well as writing and editing professionally, Marian oversees Arboretum Press, a small publishing imprint run as a collective. Marian is currently writing Empire's Reprise, the trilogy following Empire's Legacy.
The Moon Hunters is an atypical post-apocalyptic story; instead of a devastated, destroyed world, much of the narrative occurs on a lush tropical island. Members of a group led by a charismatic man escape an early 21st century pandemic by travelling to a remote, privately owned island. Out of touch with the rest of the world, sub-societies within the group evolve in several different directions. But one man’s belief in his own divine enlightenment – and his power over others – challenges the lives of everyone, but most of all the protagonist Leilani.
The reaction of individuals or small groups to years of isolation is not an uncommon theme in books: Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies – but the evolution of a isolated society is usually the realm of science fiction stories based on lost colony ships. That The Moon Hunters is set on our world was a refreshing change.
What does a group withdrawing from the 21st century world take with them? The eclectic choice (Leilani is a librarian/scribe, and so has access to the books and written documents brought) is, I think, key to Pavelle’s world-building. The society has developed cultural traditions that appear drawn from a wide range of cultures, as it would be if their libraries – and members of the group – reflected a varied cultural heritage. Add to that the materials and foods available on a island in the tropics, and the rituals and hierarchies that have emerged in one of the towns on the island are reasonable developments.
World-building is The Moon Hunters greatest strength: detailed, precise description of the environment, of clothes and buildings, of the sounds and sights of the island – and of the off-island settings. Immersive and imaginative, the reader is subsumed into the world. But for all the lushness and beauty of the physical world, the political one – in Leilani’s village, at least – is harsh and unforgiving. How she navigates and eventually breaks free of its restrictions and expectations is a large part – but not all – of the story – and there is a romance, too.
Recommended for readers looking for a post-apocalyptic story less dark and disturbing than many.
I haven’t been blogging much recently, and I’m not apologetic. It’s October, my favourite month. So instead of sitting at my desk, or even going out for an hour on my bike, I’ve been hiking – and hiking takes longer. Sometimes half a day, sometimes more, depending on how far I drive to get there.
I often don’t drive far. My city is blessed with good hiking trails, both in it and close by. We’re a ground-water-dependent community, and the aquifers in the limestone bedrock are protected. So lots of naturalized parkland, and lots of trails. Two days ago I hiked for nearly three hours, through old cedar forest, regrowth deciduous, and open, regenerating pasture – and I didn’t leave the city.
Some days, I don’t drive at all. I just walk 10 minutes to the university arboretum across the road, and from its own loops of trails I can connect onto the river trails, and go either west or east. One way takes me into the city (and the BEST ice cream shop); the other takes me away from houses and roads and alongside limestone cliffs. It depends on my mood (and my craving for ice cream.)
Other days I have a wish for less familiar trails, and I drive to somewhere new, or less visited. My hiking boots and pole live in the car now.
I love this season. The colours are beautiful, there are no mosquitoes or deerfly, and the air is cool. Winter will be here far too soon. I’ll blog more then. In fact, I’m only writing this post because it’s raining!
This isn’t exactly a guest post, but Bjørn Larssen’s newest post on his blog is the best (and funniest) description of how it feels to have a new book published and out in the world to be read (or not read) and reviewed I’ve ever seen. So follow this link! You won’t be disappointed.
Is this a story about gods and their damaged children alone, or is it allegory?
Children, by Bjørn Larssen, may be unlike any book you’ve ever read. In this first book of the Ten Worlds series, Larssen rips the layers of civilizing transformation off the Norse gods. Forget Marvel’s Thor. Forget the Christian and Hellenic influences on Baldr – in fact, forget Baldr altogether. His gods are self-centred and thoughtless and cruel, and their children pay the price. But is this a story about gods and their damaged children alone, or is it allegory?
This isn’t a review, because I was involved, a little bit, in this book’s development. I read an early version, and the almost-last version. I made comments and suggestions, and I wrote a blurb for it, which I think is on the back cover of the print versions. So it would be unethical for me to review it. But I can comment.
Children brought tears to my eyes more than once, both for the characters and the reflection of our own society. Bjørn himself has written about the influences in this book, and I won’t repeat them here, except to say that some are political, and some are personal. The use of allegory to hold a mirror to the politics and ethics of a time is an established literary form: Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Orwell’s Animal Farm. In Children, I see Larssen continuing this tradition.
If you choose to read Children, you’ll need time: time to absorb the story; time to walk away from it (at least I did); time to appreciate Larssen’s spare prose. It’s not a Sunday-afternoon-by-the-fire read. But watching – from a distance and in a small way – this book come into being, and the author wrestling with how to write with clarity and precision what needed to be said, to express the horrors the gods’ children experience – and yet still, in places, be extremely funny, as life is – all I can say is that I was honoured to witness this book’s gestation and birth. Thank you, Bjørn.
You can find all the purchase links – ebook, paperback, or hardcover – here, along with a description of the worlds and characters, written by Loki, and an excerpt.
Legends describe the Maer as savage man-beasts haunting the mountains, their bodies and faces covered with hair. Creatures of unimaginable strength, cunning, and cruelty. Bedtime stories to keep children indoors at night. Soldiers’ tales to frighten new recruits.
It is said the Maer once ruled the Silver Hills, but they have long since passed into oblivion.
This is the story of their return.
Carl, Sinnie and Finn, three companions since childhood, are tasked with bringing a friend’s body home for burial. Along the way, they find there is more to the stories than they ever imagined, and the mountains hold threats even darker than the Maer. What they discover on their journey will change the way they see the world forever.
Travel down Hollow Road to find out which legends are true, and which have been twisted.
Three friends on a journey together: what a classic start to a fantasy story! Two men: an apprentice mage and a soldier; one woman, a skilled archer. They’ve been hired (and well paid) to take the dead body of a friend back home for burial. Too well paid, in truth. Why?
Danger lies on the road home; danger that comes from legend and story: the Maer, a humanoid people reputed to be cruel, fierce fighters. But as Finn, Sinnie and Carl discover, the perceived danger from the Maer is mostly that: a perception, the result of fear and lack of communication. The Maer are as human as they are, although their appearance is different, and their culture perhaps more advanced than the three companions’ own.
Hollow Road is the first book of a trilogy. It serves as a wonderful introduction to Fitzgerald’s world, introducing the societies, the conflicts, and the main characters deftly. The three main characters are distinct personalities: conflicted Carl, who’d wanted to be a mage but had no skill; Sinnie, a woman who knows she can’t settle to the village life of her mother; Finn, the young adept who quickly will outstrip his mentors. Each has a role to play in the tentative alliance with the Maer, and each have things to learn from them.
The scale of Hollow Road appealed to me. The world is small (so far); the action takes place in a limited geography, devoid of huge armies, fortresses to storm, or vast distances to travel. Sufficient small details build the world without weighing down the story, building a believable iron-age society with some magic, but not so much that it dominates. Finn’s body magic assists the trio in their goals, but only in a way equivalent to Carl’s prowess with a sword and Sinnie’s skilled archery.
I had two small niggles with the story, neither major. One is the pacing of fighting scenes, where I felt tension could have been increased by a change in the rhythm of the narrative; the other is in some of the language in dialogue. Fitzgerald’s characters speak naturally, often using modern words in an iron-age setting, and while for the most part I didn’t find this jarring, one or two words did jump out at me as inappropriate.
As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society; about how we judge and fear people by their outward appearance. His characters – and readers – see that once true dialogue begins, commonalities outweigh differences. But while individuals learn this, and accept the Maer as human, will the Realm, the larger government which is only hinted at in this first book? Hollow Road ends with questions that should make the reader impatient for the next book in the trilogy, The Archive, due out December 4th. It certainly made me frustrated that I couldn’t keep reading the story immediately! Strongly recommended for readers who like character-based fantasy with a solid plot.
Win a signed paperback copy (US only) of Hollow Road!
September 13, 2020 at 12:00am EDT to September 20, 2020 at 11:59pm EDT
Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music.
Find out more about Dan and his books at www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.
I miss, sometimes horribly, the ability to write outside my home.
the action or process of adapting or being adapted.
a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about adaptation recently, from three viewpoints: that of one of my characters; that of our lives under COVID, and that of the lives of all living beings on this planet in the face of ecological change. (The latter came about from my last birding column – I write one monthly for a small community publication- where I looked at the spread of turkey vultures into Canada in the last 50 years, and the reasons for it.)
My character, who is physically disabled as a result of war wounds, is also aging. His eyesight is beginning to fail, and he’s a teacher, a reader and a writer. As my books are set in early medieval times, there are a limited number of solutions. A long follower of Stoic philosophy, he’ll approach this with the same calm exterior as he has his physical limitations, although interior frustrations exist.
Write what you know. I’ve experienced a period in my life where medical treatments made a few things in my life physically impossible or limited my ability to be active. I’m pulling on how that felt; I’m also conscious of my own poorer eyesight, and the limits it’s already forcing. I use an big external screen, and my magnification in Word is set at 140%. But right now, what I use the most in thinking about his frustrations are my frustrations at the changes COVID has imposed on my writing life.
Full disclosure : what I’m whining about here is incredibly minor. It’s ridiculous to even complain. But we feel what we feel, sometimes, regardless of what Stoic philosophy or any other belief system tells us. I miss, sometimes horribly, the ability to write outside my home. I used to write, for part of my day, in coffee shops and the university library. Coffee shops when I needed the buzz of conversation, the supply of good coffee, and the occasional cookie – and almost always a writing friend to chat to about our respective work for a few minutes. The university library when I needed silence and access to books for research. (There was also our Monday morning writing group, three hours of coffee-and-tea fueled silent writing in a bar space above our town’s indie bookstore, followed by a two-hour writing-and-book-discussion lunch at the adjoining café.)
Plus I’d bike or walk downtown, and back, unless the weather was really horrible. So my days had their exercise built in. There’s a big hill between me and downtown, so walking was only an 8 km round trip, but biking needed an extended trip that gave me about 15 km of riding. I’m 62: I have arthritis in both my upper and lower spine; I have Dupuytren’s contracture in both hands, which makes my fingers ache after a while (thanks, Viking ancestor.) Posterior vitreous detachment has left me with more floaters than clarity in my left eye, and the right one’s not great either. All these aggravations of aging mean that taking lots of breaks, and changing my writing position during the day, are beneficial. Writing downtown meant that happened more or less naturally.
But this is all at a standstill. Now I write for two hours at my desk (and get up frequently to make coffee, eat breakfast, feed the cat, during that time) and then I go biking or walking for 90 minutes, come home, shower, and it’s just about time for lunch. That’s the morning taken care of. Afternoons – when I’m still on the computer, but doing other tasks – editing, beta reading, writing articles or blog posts, marketing – are not so well disciplined. I miss my in-the-flesh writing friends, but I’ve made several good virtual friends via Twitter, and we spend time chatting back and forth. A much needed and appreciated interaction, but I’m still at the computer. My phone timer goes off every 45 minutes, reminding me to get up. I clean the house 15 minutes at a time, to make myself move. I do floor exercises. I do laundry. I water our pots of tomatoes and peppers. I walk to the mailbox. I’m adapting my behaviour, because changes in our ecology – the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – has forced me to.
I consider myself lucky that I have somewhere to channel these feelings, into the frustrations felt by my characters as their own lives are constrained by circumstance. Not just the one character’s physical limitations, but others, too: my characters all regret, for various reasons, their distance from family; the inability to hug or kiss many of those they love; the constraints on travel. They too are privileged, within their society; they too have adapted. But I’m guessing the book I’m writing, and the books still to be written, will be subtly different than they would have been if COVID hadn’t come. Adapted, you might say.
Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time or another country.
The Cooper’s hawks have fledged two young: I see them every few walks, never (yet) very far from their nest, and always together. There’s a noticeable size difference between them, but as they are still in juvenile plumage, I can’t tell if that’s a gender difference–females being noticeably larger than males–or if it’s just hatching order. By now, they should be hunting independently; the rich bird life of summer likely providing sufficient prey. If they survive through to the winter, they may well become one of the birds that swoops around the corner of our house to take a bird from a feeder. That between-houses and around-corners dash is characteristic of the Cooper’s Hawk (and its smaller, almost identical cousin the Sharp-shinned Hawk): Cooper’s Hawks were once called ‘chicken hawks’ because they used the same techniques in farmyards, using buildings as cover to grab a foraging chicken.
The thistles have gone to seed, and there seems, some mornings, to be a goldfinch feeding on almost every thistle head. They are nesting now, timed to coincide with the thistle and milkweed seed crops. They are by far the most common bird I see–and hear–on any walk. Right now, I’m seeing far more of the bright males than the olive-drab females, who are likely sitting on nests. As goldenrod comes into flower, I find it just a bit harder to find the males in the fields: not everything bright yellow is a goldfinch now!
In among the chipping sparrows this week was a cowbird chick, twice the size of its unknowing foster parents, actively going into begging mode – beak open, tail and wings quivering – each time its parents approached. Mostly, they ignored it: it could fly, and it was time for it to learn to feed itself. The chipping sparrows that nested in the forsythia hedge at our house raised a cowbird this year too: at first, of course, they fed it constantly, and then less often, and then not at all. For a day it sat on our deck railing or on top of a garden ornament, looking disconsolate, occasionally flying up to the feeder but not feeding, and then it vanished. But if it lives to adulthood, and it was a female, it will choose chipping sparrow nests to lay its eggs in too, because it was raised by them.
Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time, or even another country. Juvenile American robins are everywhere: I must have counted over two dozen in one six kilometre walk the other day. But for some reason, every time I raised my binoculars to look at one, my brain said “Fieldfare”. Fieldfares are a European thrush, fairly closely related to American robins, and not dissimilar in appearance to their juveniles. But I’ve been looking at juvenile robins (consciously) for about fifty-five years. I’ve only been looking at fieldfares for about twenty-five, so I’m still trying to work out why I was so convinced I was not in North America: the day was classic Ontario high summer, and everything should have said ‘home’ to me.
My first fieldfares were in an old orchard at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, on Christmas Eve of 1991. We were driving to Scotland to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s cousins; Leighton Moss is in Lancashire, more or less on the way. I remember the day as changeable, cloud giving way to brilliant low sunshine, the light winking in and out. We were walking from the visitor’s centre along the lane that borders the reserve, making our way to the footpath that runs out into the reedbeds. A rush of wings, and thrushes exploded into the old orchard: fieldfare, and their cousins the redwings. Both were new to us, and in the winter light and bare trees they were a delight of sound and colour. I’ve seen both species many times since then, but I remember them best from that first sighting. Emily Dickinson wrote ‘hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…’ but for me, ‘the thing with feathers’ is a time machine, one that, in the time it takes to raise my binoculars, can take me from an August morning in Ontario in 2020 to a mid-winter afternoon in northern England in 1991.
Cooper’s Hawk: Pauk, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 2.0;
Fieldfare: Teresa Reynolds, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 3.0
Featured Image: Goldfinches on Milkweed (C) Marian L Thorpe 1994
The most effective hero’s journey stories use landscape as an important part of the journey
“Ritual landscape” is a term coined by archaeologists originally to refer to the concentration of ceremonial sites of Neolithic and Bronze Age people in one geographic area. Stonehenge, with expansive earthworks extending out from the central henge for at least 6 km, is probably the best known English example. In recent years the term has been extended to refer to later periods, and I have argued in papers for landscape archaeology courses that it can be used as a basis to examine how even the landscape of a stately home can be structured to create a sense of awe and ceremony, with the house taking the place of the central temple. But here, I’d like to think about the purposes of a ritual landscape, and how they might align with the concept of the hero’s journey in fiction.
I sometimes wonder whether ritual landscapes are indeed just a prehistoric phenomenon. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the need to travel, discover and re-imagine is part of the human condition. In the Middle Ages people from all walks of life regularly went on pilgrimages and of course they were familiar with what the various places they were travelling through signified. Pilgrimages, just like their pre-Roman antecedents, were never about exploration, de novo. Instead the exploration was personal and introspective.
The hero’s journey is also about pilgrimage:
the common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
And at this point, you may well be thinking, OK, but how does this all fit into a blog about tools for writers? Bear with me. Because my point is this: the most effective hero’s journey books, whether they are high fantasy or not, use landscape as an important part of the journey. The ritual landscape becomes infused and integrated into the journey, the pilgrimage, and in is part what helps to transform the ‘hero’. It’s a force in the story, not just a background to the adventure.
The first example that came to mind when as I contemplated this idea is from The Lord of the Rings, as the fellowship travel down the Anduin and pass through the Pillars of the Kings. It is a dangerous place, guarded by the two ancient carved likenesses of two kings:
Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down….even Boromir bowed his head as the boats whirled by, under the enduring shadow of the guardians of Númenor…. “Fear not!” said a strange voice behind him. Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a King returning from exile to his own land.
This is a striking and almost obvious example of the power of landscape, but the concept can also be used more subtly (there are many examples in LOTR: Tolkien understood the power of landscape long before the term ‘ritual landscape’ became an archaeological term – nor was he the first.)
In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, in the last volume, Silver on the Tree, she uses ritual landscape as a turning point in the story:
Jane said … “What an enormous lot of flat land there is on the other side of the river. Miles of it, miles and miles, before the mountains start again.” … Will stood up and came quietly forward to stand beside [Bran], looking down at the estuary. He tried to keep the excitement from his voice. “Drowned,” he said. “Lost.” The mountain was very quiet. The skylark had finished its song. Very far away once more they heard gulls faintly crying, out over the sea. Bran stood very still, without turning. “Dear God,” he said. The others scrambled to their feet. Simon said, “The Lost Land?”
These are only two many many examples. I use the concept in my own books, both consciously and unconsciously. If you are writing a ‘hero’s journey’ structure, I’d encourage you to seriously consider the idea of how landscape can inform the travel and transformation of your characters. It adds another dimension to the story, one that embeds it further into its time and place, strengthening the connection to your world – whether it is real or imagined – and creating a setting that will resonate in the minds of your readers.
Featured image: Sí an Bhrú (Newgrange), Ireland. Tjp Finn, CC 4.0 license.
Write what you know, right? Then why do I write about music?
Why is music so important in my books? I’m not a musician; I can’t play an instrument, carry a tune, or even keep time. Write what you know, right? You wouldn’t think I’d write about music.
But one of the themes of my books is language, and what it can and can’t do: in my protagonist Lena’s words, they are in part
about language, and meaning, and if all concepts were universal, and could be translated. About the gap between intent and comprehension, between what was meant and what was understood, and the assumptions and shared experience encompassed—or not—in any exchange.
Music, in my books, is another form of language, a way to communicate that goes beyond words to invoke memory and emotion. I introduce this in the very first book, Empire’s Daughter, when the character Tice teaches Lena a song about exile and lost love (introducing another major theme of the series). In book 2, Empire’s Hostage, Lena learns that in Linrathe, the country north of the Wall, song is used to teach history – and more than history, in truth – a sense of national identity.
Song weaves its way through the next book, Empire’s Exile, too: its role in entertainment, in ritual, in status among a group of warriors. It communicates regret, love, loss – and is a vehicle to bring two people together.
But it’s in the two books that the musician Sorley narrates: Oraiáphon and Empire’s Reckoning, that music takes centre stage. Its role in Oraiáphon is pivotal to the story – without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that Oraiáphon is my world’s equivalent of classical mythology’s Orpheus.
Music is central to Sorley’s identity, and as the author I take advantage of that. Music highlights the differences between him and the two men in his life: with pragmatic Druisius, the instruments they play are similar, but the tunings are different, and to Druisius, all Sorley’s songs are sad. With Cillian, whose use of language is precise and subtle, honed by his years as a diplomat, Sorley’s contrasting use of song to influence through emotion reflects their characters:
“Stories told by you, with all your scáeli’s skills?” Cillian asked. “A tale spun to coerce and convince, my lord Sorley?”
Of all the books in the series, Empire’s Reckoning focuses most on the influence and limitations of language: of oaths made and broken, of the power of words spoken and unspoken – and the role of music in conveying what words cannot. That’s why I, a weaver of words, write about music.
You can hear Sorley sing his beautiful Paths Untroddenhere.