The Big Idea: Shana Mlawski
Here’s a joke I sometimes tell when people ask me about the inspiration behind Hammer of Witches: “I was getting tired of medieval European fantasies, so I wrote a book about wizards in 15th century Europe.”
It’s not really a joke, though. I mean it. Let me explain.
Nowadays many authors subvert the tropes of traditional fantasy quest stories, mainly by making them meaner and bloodier. (As if the problem with Lord of the Rings was that it wasn’t violent enough!) But these subversions tend to avoid grappling with one of the biggest problems with quest fantasies: They’re friggin’ colonialist.
Consider the basic outline of the Hero’s Journey. A young peasant boy (he’s almost definitely a boy—also white, able-bodied, and straight) of unclear parentage leaves his home to answer a call to adventure. He quickly learns he has special talents because of his noble, or even divine, blood. He quests through dungeons, sea voyages, cities, and towns, which our omniscient narrator describes with guidebook precision. These stops provide the hero with villains to slay, victims to save, women to love (or be tempted by), and mentors who supply hints, prophecies, and magical gifts. Be they villain, bystander, love interest, or sage, these secondary characters have one purpose: to help the hero come of age and complete his quest. When the trials are overcome, our boy-hero takes his rightful place as a man, a warrior, a leader, a husband, a messiah, and, often, a king.
It’s a great story—one of my faves, and I say this without irony. And if the Gospels are any indication, Christians love this story as much as I do. The whole thing has a real New Testament vibe to it.
Hammer of Witches asks the question, “What would happen if you took that standard quest story and set it in the real world in 1492?” The answer is, things get real interesting real fast, because Christopher Columbus was a big fan of this story, too. In his letters and diaries he characterizes himself as a poor but brilliant man of mysterious origins who sets out on a holy quest to a foreign land. There, he is helped by the angelic Taíno people, who feed him and give him gifts to help him on his travels. But gasp! Some of the Taíno have revealed themselves to be aggressive non-believers who want to hinder our hero in his quest! Columbus reluctantly but bravely strikes down these foes and takes his rightful place as king—or, at least, governor.
Suddenly our favorite quest story doesn’t look so innocuous, does it? When the map in the front of the book is of Earth Earth instead of Middle Earth, the quest story reveals itself to be a justification for conquest. That’s why these stories tend to have omniscient narrators. For the justification to work, readers must hear only one side of the story, and no one must ever question the teller of the tale. Columbus would agree. He would never let the Taíno share their perspective. To him, that would be like asking if we should get Arwen’s point of view, or the orcs’. It doesn’t make sense, because, in his view, the Taíno are mere side characters in his own legend.
Hammer of Witches approaches the quest story from a different angle. Here the narrator isn’t an omniscient god but a semi-unreliable teenager who spends most of the book unclear on who’s the hero and who’s the villain (or if these terms are even useful). He’s surrounded by stories of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Taíno, and Classical origins, which continually undermine his perspective. In this fantasy, characters’ powers don’t come from their pure, noble blood but from their ability to uncover and control the meanings of stories. Every time our narrator thinks he has a handle on these stories, some other character butts in to explain why he’s got it all wrong.
Call it postmodern, postcolonial, multicultural. You could even use the term “Talmudic.” It views history as less of a straight line leading to apotheosis but a series of arguments that are constantly in flux. That’s why the joke I made wasn’t really a joke. When you take the familiar medieval European fantasy story and actually set it in medieval Europe, the story doesn’t look so familiar at all.