This is one of those “in the family” moments — Harry Connolly is a long-time commenter here at Whatever, who has also been plugging away at the writing thing all the way. It’s paid off today with the publication of his debut fantasy novel Child of Fire, which earned a big fat starred review from Publishers Weekly (“[it] will enthrall readers who like explosive action and magic that comes at a serious cost”). Excellent. It’s fun when people you know do well right out of the gate.
How did Child of Fire get that coveted star? In part because of the way Connelly approaches the subject of magic and those who use it: Both in a decidedly non-romantic way. He’s here to explain it all for you.
I want to talk about negative space.
The most famous use of negative space is probably the Rubin vase but I think the one I want to talk about is a painting called “The Big N” by Al Held. Here it is.
For those of you who don’t want to click on a random link, here’s a brief description: It’s a huge white canvas, nine feet by nine feet, with two tiny black triangles on it. One triangle is on the top edge pointing down, and the other is on the bottom edge pointing up.
Together, those two triangles create, out of all that blank canvas, a really humongous letter N.
I first saw it I was on a school field trip, and my friends and I were just dorky enough to think it a Very Cool Thing. It was one of only two paintings I remember from that trip, but I’ve thought about it often over the years.
See, I construct stories out of negative space.
When I sat down to develop the setting, plot and characters for Child of Fire, my debut novel, I had no clear idea what it was going to be. I knew it would be a contemporary fantasy and I had a very vague idea of the story, but nothing else.
What I had instead were two simple ideas about what I was not going to do. They were my two tiny triangles.
The first triangle (I think of it as the one at the top, but maybe that’s a little weird) was that I wanted a setting without religious magic. In fact, I wanted to push all folklore off the canvas (with one small exception–see below). I didn’t want demons from a Christian Hell or rakshasas or skinwalkers or vampires who cringe away from crosses (seriously, don’t get me started on vampires and crosses). I didn’t want the sorcerers to speak with angels or higher powers, and I saw no reason for them to know all the rules of the afterlife–or if an afterlife even existed. Why should the magical community have certitude where we other people have only faith and skepticism?
Essentially, I wanted a kind of magic that altered the way the universe works, that opened portals into Other Places so unlike our own that humans can’t truly understand what they discover there, and that could call beings to our world that… well, maybe I should save some stuff for the book.
For the second triangle (at the bottom), I decided I wanted to do away with “cool.” No dusters or trench coats. No steel-toed boots. No “leathers.” No centuries-old katanas, Harley-Davidsons, wide-brimmed hats or all the other trappings that so much of modern urban fantasy uses to signify that characters are seriously kickass-cool people.
Ray Lilly, the protagonist in Child of Fire, isn’t a operative in a secret government agency or a bounty hunter who works the fringes of society. He’s a low-level car thief who tried and failed to go straight after a miserable stint in prison. He’s been forcibly conscripted into working for a sorcerer who hates him, and all he knows at the start of the book is that he’s driving her somewhere so she can murder someone.
And he’s wearing a windbreaker, because what if it gets a little chilly out?
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against books with vampires, leather dusters, or swords sheathed on the sides of high-end motorcycles. I buy and read those books, and when they’re very, very good I hug them to my chest on crowded buses without any embarrassment at all.
But I didn’t want to write one.
Oh, and that single exception? A few secondary characters are werewolves, because werewolves freak me right out and no matter how big your idea, every writer should respect the freak out.