A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“Why should you have all the writing fun?” I said to the Dissertation Troll. “I’m going to write a novel.”
He laughed for a good ten minutes about my misuse of the word ‘fun.’ Then he said, “Well, what kind of story will you tell?”
I already had in mind a protagonist with a complicated relationship to her own culture and society, somehow partnering up with a Viking-sort of guy who was outlawed from his culture. I should’ve just said,
“This story will be about people who don’t fit in,” but instead I said:
“Revolution, religion, socio-economics, politics, and gender.” (Which is the same thing, on some level.)
“Ambitious,” said the man writing a dissertation, without any trace of irony. He handed me a cup of coffee and shuffled back under the bridge, leaving me the vaguest of premises and an unwritten novel.
So then all I had to do was start. Right.
Begin with the most cliché opening line ever:
It was a dark and stormy night.
Except outside my window right then, it was brass-bright September heat, sky yellow with smoke from the wildfire–oh. Wait. So there, smoke, something burning. Start with that. But I wanted a lead-and-pewter sky, heavy with cold, with that air-too-still feeling that means a storm is about to hit. Enemy started out as my fantasy, because there, it was winter. Real winter. Killing winter. And also mountains, like that corridor of I-70 where you drive over the continental divide and there’s snow on the highest peaks (bare, bald, too tall for trees) until July. Enemy began in weather and geography and my nostalgia for home.
And then what? An excellent question. I knew what I didn’t want: some variation on medieval castles and knights and kings. No feudalism. Sorry, Gawain and the Green Knight. not you. Beowulf, please come to the front.
I wanted Vikings to go with the landscape I’d already established. But revolution, socio-economics, religion, gender–that was bigger than Vikings. I was gonna need…Rome.
I’d just read Colleen McCollough’s Masters of Rome series, so I was soaking in fall of the Republic/rise of Empire and what it might’ve felt like to be Roman; for the history, I had a handful of books left over from a university classes (Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico). Conquered people, clashing cultures, a stratified class system, a hereditary Senate, a Republic instead of a kingdom. Legions, which were primarily infantry, so–no horses. Just forget it. No horses. (My inner 12 year old wept bitterly).
The problem with Rome, though, is all the damned patriarchy. I write SFF in part because the world I live in has limits I’d like to break and explore. I live in a patriarchy. Don’t need to play in it, too. But strip that out of Rome–the codified inequality, the paterfamilias and his absolute power over his offspring, the cultural assumptions about male/female–and you ripped out a major piece of the culture, with all the prejudice, expectations, potential conflict, and injustice that went with it.
So, patriarchy is out, but I didn’t want a utopian matriarchy, where women rule gently and fairly just because of imaginary gender essentialism, the end. And I certainly didn’t want a “revenge” matriarchy, where the men are abused as some sort of object lesson for readers (this is how it feels, guys! this right here!), or to show that women would be ‘just as bad.’ Those things are fine, certainly; but they seem too easy. I wanted to explore the seams of culture and society, where gender and class get messy.
Rome’s patriarchy was limiting and limited, certainly, but it also wasn’t entirely rigid; the rights and freedoms slipped along socio-economic lines. A high-class woman was more constrained than her middle and lower class counterparts, who could and did own businesses or apartment blocks and have trades and careers. Of course, there were exceptions; privilege does have its perks, and some paterfamilias were more permissive.
So I flipped it for Enemy.
As with Rome, the family in Illharek is the primary social unit; in the Illhari Republic, the head of household is always a woman (and a mother). The Illhari practice polyandry and have only recently reformed their legal code to allow high-born men to pursue careers in the legions (with maternal permission, of course). Women are always legal head of household; men run the day-to-day operations. Men have some legal right to own property, but none to divorce. A man passes from his mother’s house (or his sister’s) to his wife’s. Patrimony doesn’t matter to an Illhari; the mother is the important parent. In fact, it’s taboo to discuss who one’s father is. That uncertainty helps keep the peace between the great houses (am I attacking my granddaughter through my second son? I don’t know! I shouldn’t attack). Highborn women run the Senate exclusively, and hold most positions of authority in the Academy and the legions.
But the legions are where men can gain some social power and prestige. The legion hierarchy to some extent supplants the civilian social order, blurring the lines of gender and privilege.
But I didn’t want to neglect the class angle, either; Snowdenaelikk, the protagonist, is a half-blood, lower-class woman whose social station limits her potential advancement in the Academy. She has a lot more in common with men, vis à vis certain types of power/privilege, than she does with highborn women, and responds accordingly.
The Illhari (and the Romans) are a practical people. If something doesn’t work, they stop doing it and find something else that will. Roman state religion was very much do ut des: a transactional understanding that rituals performed would earn a particular response. We do these things for you, o gods, and you, in return do these things for Rome. So when Illharek’s goddess, Tal’Shik, ceased to benefit the Republic’s stability and prosperity (born of conflict, and robbed of external foes, she turned to encouraging infighting and political upheaval), they cast her off and systematically erased her from their history. The Laughing God, whose followers were largely male and disenfranchised, escaped the worst of the Purge because of Illhari culture overlooked men/lower class practice; but his worship continues, because the injustice and inequality remains.
…Which led me to the supernatural elements of this world-build. Gods and magic. Magic and gods. Someone asked me recently why the gods in Enemy are so awful and why anyone would ever worship them: they were clearly not a source of moral goodness. Well, no. They’re individuals, limited and bound by laws. Partisan, if you will. The cosmology here is all spirits; Tal’Shik, protector of the Illhari Republic, gives power in exchange for worship. To some extent, she is Illharek (or thinks she is); she is not a creator-deity, or a dispenser of justice. She’s bound by oath and affiliation like any person would be. Perhaps a little more so, because she is spirit, not flesh; as Veiko notes early on, there are rules when dealing with spirits that bind both sides. The Illhari, in his mind, are just doing it wrong.
Veiko comes from an animistic tradition borrowed (loosely) from Saami and Finnish practices inspired by The Kalevala and Juha Pentikainen and Anna-Leena Siikala’s works on circumpolar shamanism. Special individuals within the tribe, noidghe, are tasked with maintaining relationships with the spirits. To Veiko, the Illhari gods are just spirits with bad attitudes who’ve taken advantage of their followers’ ignorance of the rules. Veiko doesn’t worship spirits; he works with them. Snow, on the other hand, is not only a worshipper of the Laughing God, she is also a conjuror–a practitioner of Illhari magic, scholarly and systematic, accessible to anyone with sufficient skill and practice. She’s the scientist, he’s the shaman. The cosmological connections between Veiko’s noidghe magic and Snow’s conjuring becomes clearer in Outlaw. No spoilers here.
Veiko is, most obviously, my Viking-type, and the research for him was easiest. The spouse and I have shelves full of Du Bois, H.R. Ellis-Davidson, and Simek on Viking religion/culture; the Icelandic sagas, the Poetic and Prose Eddas, and the Viking Romances (seriously. These are a thing, and they are awesome). Also, three different translations of Beowulf. So it made sense to start the story from his POV: my snow-bound outsider, peering into a world where the opposite sex holds most of the power and privilege, and class shapes a person’s opportunities.
So Enemy starts with storm and fire, a clash of cultures, and messy alliances and it ends with…storm and fire, clashing cultures, and messy alliances. And I’m still missing the snow.
K. Eason – Enemy (On the Bones of the Gods). 47 North, ISBN: 1503934497
No linking theme this week, except that I'm really looking forward to all that's on offer. An alliterative mysterious Malcolm on Monday? Can't wait! On Wednesday, if you like to spend time in the ancient world, will you like John James? I do, and I really want to know. And, as someone who had mixed feelings about ITV's Victoria, I'm dying to find out on Friday if they were the same feelings, and were just as mixed, as Jackie's.
Monday: Simon reads C.S. Lewis' letters to the mysterious Malcolm.
Wednesday: Colin travels beyond the limits of the Roman Empire in the historical novels of John James.
Friday: Jackie has mixed feelings about the PBS/ITV series Victoria.