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.