Making My Mark in a Crowded Genre
by Mark T. Barnes (Giveaway details at the bottom of the post)
One fantasy author I’m acquainted with one once described fantasy readers as a tribe, drawn together by their shared love of wonder and the fantastical. I’m proud to be one of the tribe, but as a new author trying to break into a well-loved and robust genre, I faced a hard question: do I try to write something I think can be popular, or try to create something unique? In the end, any innovation, any idea of trying to carve a place for myself, came down to writing the kind of story I’d want to read.
In some reviews, my series (Echoes of Empire, starting with A Garden of Stones) has been flatteringly compared to the work of genre luminaries such as Steven Erikson, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and Frank Herbert, though of those authors the only one I’d read before I wrote the first trilogy was Frank Herbert. I’d moved away from reading fantasy for a while, and when the time came to begin the initial world building the influences in my head were stories like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, and Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories. There were others, but these were the stories that had the stylistic and plot elements that appealed to me. There were also elements of television writing that helped shaped what I did, in particular the work of Aaron Sorkin, J. Michael Straczynski, and Joss Whedon.
Even so, how to avoid getting bogged down by my influences, unconscious or otherwise? In my case, I tried to hew closely to a few different approaches:
- Built the world first and made it as rich, interesting, and unique as I could, while also making it feasible in the context of the story. I created races that were new to fantasy, and shaped a unique world history that featured both technical science and arcane science, innovative ways of resolving conflict such as wars of assassins and government approved vendettas, etc.
- I was tired of reading stories with a Dark Ages European influence. I wanted to write my story set in an age of enlightenment and reason, with some elements of an Orientalist setting (India, Persia, and elements of the Mediterranean). The change in setting offered me choices in the overall feel and context of the world and its people, social mores, ingrained racial conflicts, and character aspirations.
- I created a world that didn’t have the lunacy of our own history, where either gender was valued over the other. Part of that was developing a new language to remove the gender-bias from titles, and to ensure that there were as many well-rounded women in the story as men. The same thing goes for sexual orientation: nobody in this world cares if people are straight, gay, or bi. Of course, there are still other cultural prejudices unique to this world, such as those held against the Nomads, spirits who return from death rather than staying in the Well of Souls.
- No gods or orthodox religion of any kind. The closest I have is Ancestor worship, which is a very real and immediate knowledge of those who’ve come before.
- I created a new magic system based on scientific principles that had reasonable and dangerous consequences for its use. Part of history saw the industrialisation of arcane science, its use as a weapon, and the outcomes of those decisions on the modern world. Flying ships, arcane devices, artificially created races, etc, all exist. And:
- I tried to develop characters that don’t adhere to some of the more popular fantasy tropes. They’re older, more experienced, have lived their lives and suffered tragedy and loss as part of that. One protagonist, Indris, is a classical hero faced with a different set of challenges than those of many fantasy protagonists; he’s not a young farm boy just coming into his own, for example. The same can be said for the other point of view characters. It gives them a perspective that helps them be less predictable in the way they respond.
The narrative unfolds using a standard structure with three point of view characters. But rather than start softly, the reader is introduced to the world in a whirlwind: the nation in which the story takes place is in a period of upheaval, and I took a risk in throwing readers right in the middle of that conflict. Once they have found their footing in the chaos, have engaged with the world and its people, everything becomes more familiar, and they see events with clearer eyes just as the characters do.
Thanks to the team at Adventures in Scifi Publishing for giving me the chance to talk about my work, and congratulations to the winners of the giveaway. I hope you enjoy the read!
Mark Barnes lives in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the epic fantasy Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North. The series includes The Garden of Stones (released May 2013), and The Obsidian Heart (released October 2013). The Pillars of Sand is the third of the series, due for release on May 22, 2014. In April 2013 The Garden of Stones was announced as a finalist for the 2013/2014 MORNINGSTAR Award for Best Fantasy Newcomer/debut.
Mark’s books are available in print, ebook, and audiobook and can be ordered at any reputable bookstore, or purchased online from sites including Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository, and Barnes and Noble.