The Big Idea: Helen Lowe

Stories have their protagonists and their antagonists — their “good guys” and “bad guys” — but in practical terms, what’s often the difference between the two sides? This is a question Helen Lowe asked herself, leading up to the writing of her “The Wall of Night” series, of which The Heir of Night is the debut installment. What answers came to her? Did answers come to her? Lowe walks you through her thought process on the matter.


I have loved epic fantasy since I first discovered the Greek myths and legends as a kid, quickly moving on to the Norse sagas with their twilit darkness shot through with treasure and blood and magic. Later, reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as a young teen, I recognized the debt he owed to those Norse legends and their epic sweep, while fully appreciating the fresh magic he wrought with them. From Tolkien I proceeded to read as much SFF as I could find—and found some great reads.

But even as a younger reader, I experienced a growing dissatisfaction with much of the fantasy that I was picking up, in particular how one dimensional it was in terms of the traditional “good versus evil” storyline. “Bad/evil” tended to be a clearcut and easily recognizable external force, its adherents demonic—or at least ugly—in form and usually wearing some variation on black. “Good” would also be primarily recognizable by simple virtue of standing in opposition to “bad”, the characters’ “goodness” usually demonstrated, not by integrity of behavior, but by actively smiting the ugly crew on the other side—oh yes, and wearing some version of white.

Three things struck me about this. One was that these so-called “good guys” did a lot of questionable stuff, but that was ok, by implication, because they were on the “right” side. Secondly, even as a kid, but increasingly as I participated in the adult world, I realized that “Life’s Not Like That.” And finally, that the genre had moved a long way from its roots in the Greek and Norse myths that had hooked me into fantasy in the first place. In those stories, it is the internal conflict within the protagonists—their struggle between the pressures of self-interest, the socio-political forces in their societies, and the codes they hold to be true and right—that drive the power, drama and tragedy of the narrative.

Real life’s like that, too; the same forces are constantly at play in our lives. Any values of “right” and “true” that we are taught as individuals are constantly under pressure, being eroded even, by self-interest and self-preservation and by societal forces driving to achieve particular outcomes in terms of resource use / allocation and to enforce belief systems. I imagine that most of us try to have “bottom lines” and boundaries that we don’t cross—but we live in a world where boundaries are often blurred and the pressure to push the margins further out, and then just a little further again, is a constant.

So there I was, reading fantasy with all these thought swirling around—but the moment I “stopped dead” was with a story where the “good guys” walled a “bad guy” up alive. Unarguably, this character had done some horrific things. Think about it, though: walling someone up to die of thirst and starvation—that is also an horrific deed. Oh, sorry, what was that? They’re the “good guys”, the one’s wearing the “white hats” so that makes it completely ok?

Sorry, not in my book.

That was the idea that worked away in me until it drove me to write The Heir of Night—to take the kind of epic fantasy story that I love and explore what it is that really makes “good guys” and “bad guys”. So yes, The Heir of Night, which is the first in The Wall of Night quartet, does respect a lot of the epic traditions:  it is a fundamentally medieval world (although there are hints of “other”) and it ostensibly sets up a struggle between externally conceived forces of “good” and “evil”. Or does it?

Readers of The Heir of Night may notice certain things:  that this book is focused very much on the people known as the Derai and their bleak, twilit world of the barrier mountain range known as The Wall—or Shield-Wall—of Night; and that the Derai, although they believe themselves to be the champions of good and right, are a society that has been fractured by civil war with its legacy of prejudice, suspicion and fear. Another dimension is that both the Derai and their aeons-old enemy, The Swarm, are alien to the world of Haarth in which their conflict is currently being fought out—and the indigenous inhabitants have their own perspective on the Derai and their ways. This introduces an important cultural dimension to the traditionally conceived conflict, one that I have rarely seen explored in the good-versus-evil formula of much epic fantasy.

These, for me, are the two aspects to the Big Idea that drives The Heir of Night and The Wall of Night series:  the concept of a society that perceives itself as the defenders of good and yet has a darkly chequered history, and the consequences of that history for the individuals caught within the rigid codes of a “people under arms.” Plus the idea that those from the “other” cultures may have a very different view on a conflict that has been imposed upon their world. There are demons and battles and magic, and protagonists who must undertake their “hero journeys”, because this is still epic fantasy. The epic adversary does exist, as well—but whether it remains traditionally conceived through Books 2 to 4 remains to be seen. I suspect the above may have left a trail of clues in that respect—but then again, no tale, epic or otherwise, is ever over until we reach the final line.

One thing you may be sure of is that good and evil do exist in this story. You won’t recognize them by the color of the characters’ “hats”, though. You will also have to make up your own minds about the characters based on what they do in light of their own codes, not where they stand in relation to a line drawn along the Shield-Wall of Night.


The Heir of Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog.

25 Comments on “The Big Idea: Helen Lowe”

  1. Since I started reading this blog, I’m spending a fortune on books that I don’t have the time to read–and this’ll have to be another one. Antagonists that aren’t your classic “bad guys” have always been something I look for in a story. Better still if one can root for the “villains” but still understand why the protagonists do what they do.

  2. Sounds interesting. It always bugged me that the bad guys are often bad simply because well, duh, they`re ugly so they MUST be bad :p

    Gonna have to check out the first book :)

  3. Cannot tell you how many fantasy books I’ve wanted to throw against the wall because the fact that the protagonists are psychopathic assholes is excused because they are “the good guys.” Other characters’ behavior is judged and scrutinized and subjected to holier than thou rants, but hey, as long as you’re wearing the Magic Underwear of Good Guys, all is forgiven and excused.

    Have been rereading an old fantasy series that I loved when I was younger, but am finding it increasingly irritating because the good guys make me want to slap them silly.

    All this to say, I will buy your book for that alone. ;)

  4. For similar reasons as above, I really enjoyed watching David Suchet as Poirot in, “Murder on the Orient Express.” Suchet’s Poirot had to struggle with his own, rigid concept of right and wrong when confronted with a murder that, by the end, is presented as very possibly justifiable, as hard as that is to believe. It brought up questions of, “Did this murder have to happen?” “Was it right, or is murder ever right?” “What about vigilantism?” “Should a moral code be flexible, and if so, what does that mean for morality?” It went beyond what a person might think of as the “Agatha Christie” genre to pose some genuinely useful and interesting questions. Watching the movie made me want to pick up the book.

    Reading this review makes me want to pick up this book, too. Thanks.

  5. Another sale here. This site is one of my favorite ways to find new books. Thanks! My kid has been asking what I’d like for Christmas, because he’s trying to get something set aside for everyone, and I can just point him to this book and say, “Here ya go! I’d like this, please.”

  6. My husband and I were just talking this morning about how many people are WILD about Harry Potter; he said he couldn’t understand it. I said, “Well, it’s a comforting view of the world, isn’t it? I mean, yes, there’s great evil and the world is at war, but it’s so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. In the real world, Newt Gingrich doesn’t reside as a face on the back of someone else’s head, and Sarah Palin doesn’t call her followers ‘Death Eaters’ or shoot a skull into the sky every time they meet. It’s a lot harder, in the real world, to figure out who the bad guys are and how strongly one should resist them. The kind of clarity you get in the Harry Potter books is comforting.”

    Your book sounds not at all comforting … and essential. :-)

  7. Firstly, I’d very much like to thank John for giving me the opportunity to do a Big Idea post here on Whatever.

    And thank you for your comments–it’s nice to know that there are people out there who think/feel the same way about epic fantasy as I do!

  8. This idea is exactly why I was so drawn to the Song of Ice and Fire series where the concept of good and evil is a moving target based on duty, honor, circumstance, and a character’s actions and inner dialog more than just black vs. white. I can’t wait to jump into this series, thanks for the write up.

  9. David–you probably won’t be surprised to learn that GRR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series is one of my ‘top fantasy reads.’

  10. Lovely to get your take on what drove the complexities in the Heir…. It has brought more depth and thought to the book. The tale is fantastic by the way I have just finished the first one and can hardly wait for the next!! A great read rich with context and themes that you spoke of in this blog. Thank you Helen for turning me into an avid reader!!!

  11. While I was reading this story I kept thinking that the Derai basically highjacked this planet and brought their war. I feel the original inhabitants might not see the Derai as the good guys. It brings to mind the whole “ends justify the means” vs. “means justify the ends”

    I am excited to find out how this story is going to unfold!

  12. I don’t read much fantasy as a rule, but this looks really interesting to me, especially as the author is questioning common perceptions of good and bad such as the “good” guys are still totally ok if they wall someone up and leave them to die. They are the all-out good guys, right? Nice to have the question asked. Cheers!

  13. Sharon S: Good to see you here–and I promise you that Book 2 is definitely unfolding a-pace!

    Em–thank you for your comment; and Anthony, glad you like the blog.

  14. I am currently reading the story – it is excellent so far and I am looking forward to getting back to it to read more! I also don’t make a habit of reading these types of books, but now I am converted and want more. Buy this book, you won’t be disappointed. It is word craft at its best!

  15. I’m going to buy this tonight. Thanks.

    The Time Master trilogy by Louise Cooper was a series that rattled the whole good/bad axis for me years ago, so I can’t wait to sink into this story.

  16. I have read “The Heir of Night”. It is a very good read and I enjoyed the story. The presumed heroes of the story, the Derai, have lots of internal issues. Reading this blog does put a certain perspective on the overall story of Heir.

    Robin Hobb’s blurb which is on the front cover of the US release of Heir gets the story exactly right in my opinion – “A richly told tale of strange magic, dark treachery and conflicting loyalties. Set in a well-realized world”.

    I am looking forward to Books 2, 3 and 4.

  17. I’m with you. Epic fantasy was my bread and butter reading when i was younger. Couldn’t get enough of the Tolkiens or the Mckiernans. Then, it seems, i grew out of it. I tried to pick it back up a few times since but it always felt like what i was reading was pretty much copy and pasted from what i had read before.

    Then, when i thought i was done with the genre for good, a very persuasive friend made me read Joe Abercrombie’s series. What a kick in the pants and a poke in the eye (in the good way you get poked in the eye….what? go with me here…) that series was! So refreshing to read a fantasy based story directed solely for adults containing truly messed up characters going on even more messed up journeys that end up being for naught. Bleak! I love it! Gimme more!

    Since then I’ve slowly started trying out new authors and I’m happy to be adding Helen to the mix.
    Plus, as an adopted Kiwi, i feel that i must. Go All Blacks!

  18. Cornman, thank you for adding me to your list. And what can I say in response to “Go the All Blacks” except: “black, black, black!” :)

  19. I was curious if you ever thought of changing the layout of your website?

    Its very well written; I love what youve got
    to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content
    so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?