The Big Idea: Marie Brennan
Posted on July 11, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
Holy crap, I nearly got through the whole week without posting a Big Idea piece. And, well, that’s just wrong. So, let me correct this by introducing you to Marie Brennan, whose Midnight Never Come is chock-full of Elizabethan-era faerie goodness (“Stunningly conceived and exquisitely achieved” — Publishers Weekly, in a starred review), and which went immediately from my “in” pile to Krissy’s hands once it arrived here, so it’s not like I’ve gotten to read it. Sometimes that happens. One makes allowances for the desires of one’s spouse. But Krissy’s enjoying it so far, at the very least.
In this Big Idea, Marie Brennan explains how and why it was she made the faerie realm a dark mirror to the human one — and how she deals with keeping the two realms separate, even as they reflect (and even rely) on one another.
As I’ve been saying any time someone asks me where this book came from, Midnight Never Come grew out of a roleplaying game. Which is not what I want to talk about here; I’ve already been asked about that in several interviews, and I have other things to say. (Besides, the Big Idea of the game — a 650-year alchemical experiment — is not the Big Idea of the book.)
But I give you that context so you’ll understand why the foundation of the novel’s concept came when I was trying to make up a faerie history for England. The one written for the game system, Changeling: The Dreaming, was incredibly lame, so I threw it out and started from scratch. What would faeries be doing while English history is trundling along? Of course, that automatically implies something: that the fae aren’t static, timeless creatures. They have a history, too, and it reflects, contrasts with, or otherwise interestingly comments on what humans are doing.
Fittingly, then, the first thing I came up with was Invidiana: Elizabeth’s dark mirror. Being a faerie, she’s all about immortal beauty; Elizabeth tried desperately to create an unchanging image of herself as the beautiful Virgin Queen, even as she aged and her teeth went bad and smallpox left its scars. Elizabeth never married; Invidiana is the most loveless creature you can imagine. And both of them, of course, are reigning queens of England. I originally just implied a metaphysical link between them, but in the book it’s explicit: when Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower during Mary’s reign, she made a secret deal with Invidiana, that they would help each other out.
Which set the tone, not just for this novel, but the whole series — however many of them I end up writing. There’s a faerie palace hidden beneath London, the Onyx Hall, and its inhabitants care about mortals enough (benevolently or otherwise) that they choose to live in terrifyingly close proximity to church bells and iron nails and other things not very friendly to them. They consume mortal art, copy mortal fashion, and generally mirror mortal doings — but always with a difference.
The challenge in this, if you have the kind of academic brain I do, is deciding where to place the boundary between the two. How closely can my fae reflect humanity before they turn into human beings with pointy ears? (Not that I ever say their ears are pointed.) The practical questions I always try to answer when creating a secondary world, I deliberately leave unanswered here, because they would leach all the numinous out of the fae. So you know how the Onyx Court gets the bread country folk leave out for the faeries — but what about the rest of their food? If I start down that road, pretty soon you need faerie farmers and faerie carters and faerie millers and blacksmiths and wheelwrights and all the other mundane professions that keep an actual society functioning, and it stops looking very mythic. They have banquets; don’t ask where the food comes from. (Much less where it goes afterward . . . .)
Also, since I’ve set up this connection between Invidiana and Elizabeth — how far does that go? The notion is that Invidiana does things to help Elizabeth on her throne, and vice versa; more broadly, each one of them is manipulating the politics of the other side for their own benefit. But it’s very easy to turn that into a Secret Masters of the World setup, where all the cool things in English history turn out to be the work of fae. And I definitely don’t want to do that, because it trivializes the achievements of the real people who lived at the time. Instead, I look for the cracks, the places where there’s no explanation, or there’s room for another one. The Spanish Armada’s the easy example: sure, there’s the work done by the English navy, but there were also storms. Freakishly unseasonable ones, in fact. That wasn’t any human’s doing, so I have no problems claiming it for the fae. Or Elizabeth never marrying; I can easily acknowledge the personal and political issues that kept her single, while also implying Invidiana might have something to do with it.
The desire for that balance runs from the microscopic to the macro level of the book. I did everything humanly possible to get my history right, so the places where I add a layer will actually mean something. (Hello, unscalable mountains of research.) I also have two protagonists — one human, one fae — and kept count while I was writing, so their points of view would have roughly equal screen time, so to speak. I didn’t start off with this whole developed mission statement, though; it grew as I wrote, as I found myself making choices for Midnight Never Come, and when my publisher and I agreed I would write a second book, I looked back and thought, “okay, these are the rules I’m playing by.”
If I can keep up that balance through the appalling political morass that is the English Civil War, it’ll be a miracle.
Midnight Never Come: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Book Web Site | Read an Excerpt | Author LiveJournal
Ditto. This sound awesomely original and interesting.
I’ve told Brennan before that I have read novels which are not as interesting as her research-spurred Livejournal posts. I am happy to say that hers is not one of them. The research is a solid foundation for a very good book.
OK, the premise and the first couple of paragraphs were so interesting that I had to stop reading to avoid spoilers! Will pick this up when I get the next Temeraire!
Yup, will be getting this no doubt. Love the premise and it sounds like it’s achieved swimmingly.
I finished this a couple of nights ago (after meaning to read it for a few months now as I had gotten an ARC from the publisher), and it is fabulous! My primary genre of interest is romance, but this was well worth stepping out of my comfort reading zone. I’m definitely looking forward to Marie’s next book in the series to see how she handles the Onyx Court and the changing political winds of England.
How do the Fae get their food?
By Shaping, how else?
You keep making me buy new books. Stop It! ::shakes fist::