The clash of civilizations: Not always a great thing to live through, but a often very interesting to read about in a book. Which brings us to David Hair’s latest novel, Mage’s Blood, the first in series of books known as the Moontide Quartet. He’s got thoughts on civilizations, both in his books and here on Earth.
Bridge over Troubled Water, by Simon & Garfunkel . . . was absolutely NOT the inspiration for the Moontide Quartet. I think if I was going to write a book about bridges based on a song, it would have been On the Floe by Thin White Rope: “There is a bridge they’re afraid to complete; creatures walk on it, wearing ruts with their feet”. Cool song, great “lost” band.
No, Moontide is about East and West, and how never the twain shall meet – or rather, that they should meet: because only by meeting and understanding each other will the narrative of our world be changed from the current cycle of hatred and exploitation.
I was raised very much in the West, in New Zealand, and worked mostly in financial services. Very unexpectedly I found myself living in India, from 2007-2010. I’d never lived in a “developing country” before and it was a wonderful, viewpoint-changing experience. To suddenly be transported into a place where whole swathes of the population live and work on the side of the street in lean-tos you wouldn’t have kept your dog or your firewood in at home was eye-opening, to say the least. To see such places built right up to the edge of massive marble and gilt edifices was doubly stunning. Sure, we were living in a compound with guards and servants (and that was weird too), but we certainly didn’t remain penned inside. Some days I’d walk for hours around the city, to discover what was out there. You can never leave your front door in Delhi without seeing something you’ve never come across before. We visited dozens of other cities and towns too, saw amazing monuments and abject poverty, colours, sounds, smells that alter you. Basically, I spent four years being a wide-eyed tourist.
I loved it, and would go back in a heartbeat. But there were scary aspects too. While we were there, bombs exploded in markets we frequented, though thankfully not while we were present. There was a pattern to such events: they tended to happen just before the evening news, so you learned to tailor your movements accordingly. We visited Mumbai a few weeks prior to the 26/11/2008 terror attacks, including going to the Taj Hotel and Leopold’s Café, both struck in the atrocities. A good friend of ours was in cell phone contact with someone trapped inside the Taj during the attack (thankfully, they got out alive). Friends and acquaintances were posted to Afghanistan. East versus West was very much on our minds.
Cultures have been clashing throughout existence. It’s not a new idea for a book, but it is pervasive, arguably the fundamental theme of our times: from 9/11 through Iraq and Afghanistan to the financial crises, engendering many cultural responses. Some are overtly on topic, like Zero Dark Thirty, while others are directly influenced (any movie with a swarthy Eastern-looking villain). Other such influences are more subtle, like the resurgence of zombie movies: hordes of incomprehensible invaders who just keep coming at you. All the fear and insecurities of our age are subtly linked to the image of unassailable towers crumbling from an utterly unexpected and horrifying attack. Any book that wants to deal with East and West, in any form, does so in the shadow of that moment.
For myself, a fantasy-head from childhood, any attempt I made to capture how I felt about that theme would need to cover both my fascination with the East, my internal responses to seeing suffering and splendour side by side, and the moral ambiguity of the conflicts we see played out on the news every night. I wanted it to be big (because I love big fantasy stories), portrayed mostly from street-level (I prefer “everyman” protagonists), and to show both sides of the conflict. I wanted good and evil to be played out in the choices of the protagonists, without any blanket “all people of this race are good/bad” fall-backs. I wanted it to be primarily a tragedy: because that is what conflict is.
It’s most definitely not an allegory: I’m not trying to make any specific points about real world events. There are no shadow versions of Bush and Hussein! However I did use many real-world words quite deliberately, so that elements of the story would feel familiar and require minimal explanation to the reader: it’s a long enough story without having to explain too many of the words and customs, and those long descriptive passages tend to attract red ink from my editors. Oh, and it’s got NOTHING to do with the events of the Third Crusade of 1189-92.
In terms of the Western side of the story, one place the story definitely goes to is social class, specifically in terms of the purity of a mage’s blood. In Moontide, the bloodline of a mage most definitely matters: a pure-bred mage is intrinsically much stronger than a mixed-blood mage. This distinction between the haves and have-nots is fundamental to the Moontide world, and drives much of the action.
Any writer brings their own baggage: in New Zealand we pride ourselves on fairness, sensible and practical thinking, and a “classless society” (as distinct from a “tasteless society”). Sometimes we even live up to those ideals. I like to feel that we Kiwis can see two sides to most conflicts. The result, I hope, is a story that is even-handed, colourful, and transports you to a place that is both familiar but alien. My goal is to entertain, first and foremost, and if it achieves that, then I’m happy. And if you emerge with a desire to see foreign places and understand them better, all well and good. It is that sort of East meets West story: of people coming together and finding that we’re all human after all. I think we need more of them.