Do you like a little gray — that is to say, moral complexity and ambiguity — in your fantasy? Author Bradley Beaulieu is a fan of it, not only in his writing, which includes his latest novel The Straits of Galahesh, but also in what he reads. Beaulieu pops in now to explain why these shades of gray appeal so much.
BRADLEY P. BEAULIEU:
When I was young I gravitated toward Big Bad Evil sorts of books. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were my entrance books to the world of fantasy, but I quickly moved on to things like Dragonlance, The Sword of Shannara, Thomas Covenant, and plenty of others. And I suppose I was perfectly happy with them for a time, but somewhere along the way I started to find another sort of book I liked better, one where things weren’t so black and white. I found myself drawn to books with grey characters living in grey worlds. Thieves’ World had a big effect on me when I read it. Paradoxically, for a world described as the armpit of the Rankan Empire, it was like a breath of fresh air seeing so many characters not out to Stop Evil, but to further their own ends. C.J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun Trilogy and Celia Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy had an even stronger influence. In these books I was dealing with people only a shade or two different from me. Yes, they’d been raised in a world different than mine, but I could see myself having the same hopes and fears, and doing the same things because of them.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the coals in which my writer’s voice was being forged, a voice later sharpened and honed by authors like Glen Cook, Guy Gavriel Kay, and George R.R. Martin.
Around this time (my college days at the Milwaukee School of Engineering) I became transfixed by the lead up to and eventual deployment of Desert Shield. I was certainly interested in the war from an American citizen’s standpoint, but I’ll be frank, I was more interested in it from a humanist standpoint. I’d only ever experienced war through history class and documentaries and through the utterly imperfect lens of movies. To watch what were essentially first-hand reports of bombs dropping down chimneys was not merely chilling; it upended my views on the meaning of war. Through the wonder of technology, I was seeing war, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if a bomb were guided by laser down my chimney—or worse, down my mother’s or my father’s or my best friend’s.
I marveled at how easy it was for nations to go to war. I marveled at how, even in our supposedly modern day, a mere handful of individuals can bring us to a place of senseless carnage, a place that has little to do with what we were supposed to be fighting for in the first place. I marveled at how few people can be involved in such momentous decisions, at how many would be affected, at how small the world was becoming. As time went on, Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm, and eventually we ended up with the Afghan War, the Iraq War, and countless further complications from events that had occurred not just in the past few decades, but in the past few centuries.
Through all of this, it became clear just how capricious we can be—and by we, I don’t mean Americans or British or Iraqis or Afghans; I don’t mean Atheists or Christians or Muslims or Jews; I mean humans. This long-term fascination with conflict spurred an interest within me to explore its very nature, an itch that these novels, The Lays of Anuskaya, are finally allowing me to scratch.
Mind you, I didn’t set out to recreate the conflicts of our world in my fiction. I was, after all, writing in a secondary world filled with cold, inhospitable archipelagos and Muscovite leanings. Plus, by the time I started writing The Winds of Khalakovo, the whole question of how and why we turn to war and what comes of it had largely been absorbed into my psyche as something that needed expression; it was part of the very soil in which I was working. So while I didn’t set out to recreate any one conflict from our world in my Cyrillic fantasy, you’ll certainly see echoes of colonialism and exceptionalism in my work. You’ll see fundamentalism and the polarization of politics. You’ll see the rigidity of views passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter.
This is all really dancing around the premise of this blog, though. What is my Big Idea? Like many authors, I had a difficult time nailing this down, but if there’s any one Big Idea in my trilogy, I suppose it would be this: to explore our inability to back down in even the smallest of ways when we stand on the opposite sides of an argument. In The Winds of Khalakovo, I explore exactly that, this rigidity of thought, and in the second book, The Straits of Galahesh, I show the first tentative steps toward reconciliation, hands extending in friendship even while swords are raised to lop them off for doing so.
And in the third book… Well, we’ll have to wait and see how things turn out.