Betsy Dornbusch: The New Relevance Of The Fantasy Novel
These are weird days for the country — hell, the world — and I think as writers it behooves us to look at our place and what our work means or can mean in the context of this changing landscape. Betsy had some thoughts in that direction, so here she is to talk about it:
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A few years ago I wrote a book called The Silver Scar. I’ve been joking since it sold if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named got elected, at least Alt-America would be awesome publicity for my future thriller featuring a pagan eco-terrorist and a Christian soldier trying to stop a crusade in a balkanized United States run by martial neo-Christian Churches. Alas, Scar doesn’t come out until 2018, so it’ll have to wait for its big promotional moment in the sun, which at the rate the EPA plans to roll back its regulations might be burning much hotter by then.
But I have another book out February 21, the conclusion to my Seven Eyes trilogy, called Enemy. It’s about this chronically depressed prince who suffers a coup by an upstart, spoiled lord and then has to find his missing queen, figure out how to live with magic that blinds him, and fight a foreign invasion. Cheerful stuff, right?
While it’s uncomfortable to talk about your own book at any time, it feels trite along about now even though this is my actual job. It’s been worrying me, the relevance my fantasy novel has in Alt-America. What does Draken have to do with daily slap-fights between the government and the press or fake massacres because the real ones apparently aren’t bad enough? It doesn’t feel like enough somehow, like I should have written a different book with a theme more pertinent to the times. This insecurity fits right in with my fear that We the People aren’t enough to save our democracy… not loyal enough, radical enough, liberal enough, conservative enough, smart enough, pragmatic enough.
And then my kids marched with their fellow high schoolers the week of the election.
Millions of people around the world protested peaceably the day after the Inauguration.
Millions other people with chronic depression, people with other conditions, people with no conditions started speaking and getting heard. Daily Dissent on Facebook. Senate offices swamped with phone calls. More protests with signs that read, “See you next weekend.”
There is inspiration and energy all around us, which only makes me feel worse about discussing my new book.
But when I revisited the flap copy, I realized with no little shock that two years ago I accidentally wrote a story in which every rational and irrational fear I’ve had since the election happens to Draken. Akrasia is a nation of several races of immigrants and all the prejudices and privileges of diversity. After spending years building bridges among the people, he loses his family, his home, his future. Women lose their rights to fight, to own, to be more than just ancillary to men. Friends are disappeared or murdered for being the wrong race or in the wrong place. His country loses all its hard-won stability and safety.
Overnight, Draken goes from prince to enemy of the state. It takes him a while to sort out facts from lies, danger from paranoia. It takes him longer to realize who he is actually fighting. But the strides he made before are not gone; only the path has changed. The people who want peace and happiness for all are still out there, waiting for their opportunity. Just like our own people are still here, wanting our world to be the best it can be.
Since the election I’ve been reading and reading like a madwoman, always with a book in my hand. I haven’t been that way since I was a teenager doing my best to ignore a world I failed to understand, a world of sharp edges and barbed words. It’s not a bad tactic to avoid reality. Frodo, Adam Dalgliesh, Miss Marple, and all the rest were good friends to me then. They let me into their worlds when no one would let me into my own. They taught me how to be a part of things when I had no practical experience.
I’ve realized again how story bolsters us through harrowing times. We can relate; we’re all trying to write our own. Immigrants are trying to rewrite their own lives into happier stories of security, safety, family, and growth. Parents are trying to write the world around their kids into something they can live well inside, and write the kids into people who can live well inside the real world. The government is trying to rewrite the US into something… else.
Writers, hell. We’re just trying to write anything at all, reality be damned and truth revered.
But that’s the crutch of the thing, right? Stories matter. Right now it might be the stories skirting reality which matter most of all.
Fantasy tends to sell well during wartime. Fantasy is a reflection of our world painted in more brilliant shades. The sun burns hotter, the blood runs redder, the tropes are tropier. But the heroes shine brighter, too. We aren’t at war yet, not like some people say.
And yet we are. Lucky for us there are thousands of books full of other worlds in which the protagonist who makes a difference is unlikely, as unlikely as you or I. Even princes like Draken are unlikely; he’s got a truckload of fears and faults holding him back from doing the things that matter. I know I do.
Far be it from me to offer anyone advice on how to change the world into a better place. I’m a storyteller, not a life coach. But I will say this. When Draken is made powerless and realizes he has become the enemy, he focuses on what small thing he can do, and he does it with a vengeance. I don’t think he’s an anomaly. I think there is something each of us can do, maybe small, even accidental, and it will matter. It will add up.
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Everything Draken thinks he knows is wrong.
The last time Draken traveled Akrasia, he was the highest lord in the land. His journey before that was eased by royal favor and the grace of the gods. This time is different. His adopted country buckling under attack from religious fanatics and his Queen presumed dead, Draken must flee a deadly coup by an upstart lord. Bitter from fighting an insurmountable war and losing the life he’s built, he lets the ghosts of past mistakes drive him into vigilante revenge. But Draken is about to learn gods and wars have a way of catching up to a man.