The Big Idea: Kate Elliott
For years I’ve hung on to a rotary dial phone, one that plugs into the wall jack and needs no power to run. We don’t use it; it sits in a drawer in case of emergency. My daughter grew up in the digital age. When she was ten years old she found the phone, studied it for the longest time, then turned to me and asked, “How does this work?”
Change interests me. It can come as a convulsive explosion, a social earthquake that shatters, or it can rise like a tide in such slow stages that you don’t realize you’re drowning until it covers your mouth and nose.
I’m typing this on a MacBook that weighs less than many a book. It has 8 GB of memory, which is nothing special until I recall that my first hard drive (external, of course) had the mind bogglingly large capacity (for the time) of 20 MB. That’s a massive difference, yet viewed from this side it can be easy to flatten all the amazing leaps and startling bounds of the span between that hard drive and this MacBook into a gently inevitable curve.
Change happens in every society, even the most hidebound. No empire rules for a thousand years, static and unchanging. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it fell in pieces, over centuries, and fragments still remain with us. Imperial China has a hugely complex history of ebb and flow and significant change across eras. Ancient Egypt only looks like a monolith if considered across a gap of thousands of years. The most borrowed-from setting for fantasy, the European Middle Ages, was not one thousand years of credulously ignorant peasants who toiled in the fields below stone castles ruled by feudal lords; it was a vibrant period of social and technological change taking place across a vast and complicated geographical region. Talk to me about Al-Zahrawi the “father of surgery,” or the introduction of the heavy plough and its role in agricultural and economic change, or how the spinning wheel (which comes from Asia) transformed aspects of domestic labor, or the rise of mercantile capitalism in the thriving urban centers of northwestern Europe.
With Black Wolves I specifically wanted to explore the idea of change in a fantasy landscape, how a culture can start taking a new shape and losing its old boundaries and customs piece by piece so that often people don’t notice it slipping away as meanwhile new contours take form. New technologies influence economy and politics. Religious beliefs shift. Social interactions develop with greater openness or freshly-imposed constraints. Experience becomes memory, and memory turns into a variety of histories, each of which give a different account of the past.
I chose to tie the larger thematic story of cultural change into a personal story of how, as we get older, we may be required by circumstances to look at the past and untangle how much of it is lies we have told ourselves and how much a truth we may not want to hear, especially truths about the people we love who may not be everything our golden memories make them out to be or who we may have misunderstood all along.
And let’s be honest: I wanted to write a book whose main character is a snarky older woman in a position of authority who has had enough of your shit. Interestingly, of my beta readers, it was only women who asked if I might consider making Dannarah more “likeable.” The male beta readers were all cool with her personality.
59-year-old Dannarah is one of an ensemble of five point of view characters. Black Wolves features my (trademark?) method of introducing seemingly disparate character threads and weaving them together as the larger plot unfolds until you see why they are all necessary and inevitable and how their stories tie together. Besides Dannarah, Black Wolves also features a 73-year-old retired soldier called back to duty, a good girl and a bad boy (no, they don’t become a couple), and a polymath. You will also find giant justice eagles, demons who walk in human form, and the all important answer to the question of whether Ri Amarah men actually have horns hidden beneath the head wraps that cover their hair.
An early reader reviewed the book as “a murder mystery at the heart of a political thriller wrapped up in an epic fantasy setting.” Another called it “Jane Austen’s Persuasion meets Dragon Age.” A reviewer described it as “the epic fantasy for someone who loves ladies, politics, the word ‘cock’, and dudes constantly embarrassed by ladies.”
Probably it is a book I could only have written now, looking back at 27 years writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy and seeing how the field has changed while wondering how it will continue to change. The thing is: We can make informed guesses but we don’t truly know. We live in the constantly flowing waters of change because change permeates our lives, and we can drown, or we can fight it, or we can delight in the prospect of discovery of what’s next and the flowering of each new generation. I wanted to write a fantasy novel that reflects this universal aspect of human life and culture.