The Leopard and The Lady: What has shaped Marakand’s epic fantasy? by KV. Johansen
The Book Plank asked me to write about epic fantasy influences and why I used them the way I did in my story. I don’t really think about ‘whys’ much when I’m working. I write, first of all, for myself, and when I write fantasy I write what I like best to read. I like protagonists who are on the edges of humanity, one way or another: Ahjvar, cursed with immortality, possessed by a savage and soul-hungry ghost; Ghu, a deep well of calm who is a mystery even to Ahjvar; Moth, the devil forced to serve her enemies the Old Great Gods; the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan, who was possessed by a goddess’s guardian dog-spirit but became something else along the way and now finds himself again caught up in a war not his own; Mikki, the half-demon who is bear by day and man by night and has become the partner and the stability of the villain of his childhood stories . . . . I like worlds that are vast and deep in both geography and history, even if a particular story is showing the reader only a tiny glimpse of that. In the world of The Leopard and The Lady, current events are shaped by the past. The landscape, alive with the local gods of the high places and goddesses of the waters, plays an essential role in shaping the story. I want my characters, trapped though they may be in desperate circumstances, to have some hope within themselves of finding a way through. That hope may be denied, or self-delusion, in some cases -- I have no objection to tragedy -- but it has to be there. You can’t have real tragedy unless there is some possibility of the alternative; in a hopeless world, there is no tragedy or disappointment, only a choice of futilities. A friend, a place, a home behind or ahead or someday to be created -- characters have to have something to keep them struggling on. Even Ahjvar, who would end his own existence without hesitation if only he could, has Ghu. These things all combine to make a story I want to explore, a world and people I need to know more about, and that’s what keeps me writing it.
The reality of the book doesn’t spring fully-formed from the imagination, though, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Everything one reads, good and bad, becomes part of the sea in which one’s creative mind is swimming, but I don’t find that my writing is very heavily influenced by contemporary trends within the genre. It’s mostly things outside contemporary fantasy that influence me and that can and should influence epic fantasy as a whole -- a genre feeding on itself becomes very sterile. That’s what happened to fantasy a couple of decades back when naive-teen-boy-destiny quests formed the standard pattern of secondary world fantasy, and a reader could certainly be forgiven for getting the feeling that some of those were written by people who had never read anything but other naive-teen-boy-destiny quests. Some who had never bothered to read Tolkien (or who gave up because they couldn’t cope with semi-colons) were condemning him as shallow and composed of stock parts, like the worst of his imitators; fantasy as a whole was dismissed by those same critics as empty, shallow, and derivative of itself. And some of it had become so. However, those decrying that fact seemed to extend their dismissal to anything bearing the genre label (and they’re still out there, and they still do). It’s possible to see how that could happen again, developing another self-devouring loop in which writers try to replicate the impact of something that already exists by repeating it, reducing it in doing so to a caricature of itself. Make the hero even more destined! Or these days, even more brutally “gritty and realistic”. (As if only pain, misery, and futility were realistic, a fallacy to which Lit adheres as much as sf.) When that happens, the genre runs the risk of once again becoming sterile and self-derivative. This is not to say that we don’t all read things sometimes and say, “Wow, I want to do that!”, “How does she do that? I need to figure that out,” or, “I’m really bothered by this approach to such-and-such,” and we react by trying to do it, or doing something that by its existence stands against it, in our own work. The poetic prose of McKillip, Bujold’s way with psychology of character, Diana Wynne Jones’s plot-unfolding, and Cherryh’s rigour in sticking to a limited narrative perspective amid complex politics all impress me, for instance, and give me heights to aspire to, while if I want hopeless and bloody futility I can have recourse to the news, and lately find myself paying a more conscious attention to the standards of honour and ethics my characters hold themselves to. Or their lack thereof -- but I think about it more. On the whole, though, it’s not so much what I read and enjoy within current fantasy that pushes and prods and haunts my writing, shaping the way my own story is growing. It’s things outside the genre -- history, scenery, current affairs, archaeology, anime, real world fears and wishes -- that drive the development of the world and situation I’m writing.
I do find is that the epic fantasy I’m writing now is quite different from that which I was writing back before my children’s books began being published. However, that’s more a result of the continuous evolution of skills and interests natural to every writer (unless they are among those one-person novel factories who take up too many yards of library shelving), than of a conscious decision to be influenced by contemporary genre developments. My epic fantasy is still shaped more by what shaped my ideas of good storytelling and good fantasy when I was young. So what did I take from those influences?
My first real apprenticeship in using language was from reading and rereading Tolkien as a child. Other writers -- Sutcliff, Donald Jack, Cherryh, and yes, Milne -- were also early and formative influences on how I learnt to write, but Tolkien struck the deepest. Also, I took from him, not consciously at that point but deep in the marrow, the understanding that a world must be real if the story is to be real -- what he called literary belief, in which what Lewis called “realism of presentation” plays an important part. Reading Tolkien before I ever discovered The Famous Five also, I think, set my imagination in the patterns of polyphonic interlace. That was simply how a good, big story went. Even when I’ve tried a first-person narrative, I’ve ended up cheating. Torrie tells you other people’s parts of the adventure in most of the Torrie books. For the middle two books of The Warlocks series, Korby, Annot, and Eleanor write their own accounts to interweave with Maurey’s, in the mode of The Moonstone. First person works fine for a Buchan adventure (though even Buchan has to resort to cheating in Mr Standfast for a bit, and in The Three Hostages too, when Hannay really needs to tell what Mary was doing) but once the story ceases to be one person’s adventure and expands to politics, to the manoeuvrings of kingdoms, you either have to have long bits where someone says, “I later found out that X”, an omniscient narrator saying, “Little did Maurey know, but in fact...”, or you need eyes on the ground, as it were: more point of view characters, scattered over the geographical range of the story. And there we are, back to polyphonic interlaced narrative. You can have a cycle in the medieval sense, such as The Matter of Britain, in which “all these stories are going on at the same time but right now I am telling you this one,” but if you weave all those separate stories of separate adventures in one history together, you have what we now call an epic fantasy. That, I most definitely absorbed from Tolkien.
From historical fiction -- from Rosemary Sutcliff and Kipling’s Puck -- I took in the certain knowledge that the present is built on many layers of the past, and will in turn become one of those layers itself, Putting that together with Tolkien, I learnt that a fictional world needs this too, if it is to have a convincing reality.
From history, from big, deep, mid-century histories written by men and women who were scholars of broad as well as deep learning and assumed you could read footnotes in Latin and Greek, I learned more of what I had started to understand from Sutcliff, plus, of course, much about political, legal, constitutional, military, religious, technological, and agricultural history . . . . I also gained much, much matter for the compost of the imagination, to which I continue to add and which continues to shape where I want my epic fantasy to go.
Glen Cook’s influence was lasting, too -- the struggles of a bunch of people in the middle of a big mess they didn’t cause, can’t figure out, and which they may or may not survive -- who, some of them, retain their humanity and refuse to surrender hope for themselves and fellow-feeling for others on whichever side.
And from Robin McKinley, in my early teens, there came a small and simple question with the impact of a road-to-Damascus moment: Why shouldn’t the girl get to kill the dragon?
So these are the foundations of my epic fantasy. What has influenced the development of The Leopard and The Lady in particular? The landscape of central Asia and the book and documentary Realms of the Russian Bear brought the Blackdog world to life and made it Silk Road fantasy, though I’m not sure if anyone had used the term yet back when I was writing the first half of Blackdog circa 2003. Consideration of the impact of unremitting fear and horror and guilt on the psyche began in The Leopard and The Lady to shape Ahjvar, the assassin possessed by a murderous ghost, and led to my getting quite interested in exploring a protagonist who isn’t shaking off the legacy of what he’s lived, what he’s done, and what’s been done to him, but who is falling apart under it. As for contemporary influence -- reading Rothfuss now is not changing how I write, but he is giving me hope that there is still an appetite among readers for a book that takes the time to slow down, let words linger on the tongue and the ear of the mind, revel in the good moments as well as the bad, and reflect.