The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor
Ryk E. Spoor has a lot to say today about his Balanced Sword Trilogy, of which Phoenix Ascendant, his new novel, is the final installment. I’m going to let him get right to it. Except to say, for those of you who want it, here’s Spoor’s summary of everything that’s gone on before. Got it? On we go!
RYK E. SPOOR:
With the publication of Phoenix Ascendant, final volume of The Balanced Sword trilogy, I finally finish telling a story I started working on a quarter of a century ago, and bring Kyri Vantage, Tobimar Silverun, and Poplock Duckweed to the end of the adventure that brought them together.
That adventure begins, really, with the realization (in Phoenix Rising) by Kyri that the Justiciars of Myrionar – holy warriors for a god – have become corrupt and have been directly responsible for the murder of her parents and her brother, and gods only know how many other things.
This raises a question that is not answered until the end of Phoenix Ascendant: how is it even possible for the sworn servants of a deity to act against that deity’s basic will and not lose their powers, not be revealed and cast out by the god? Zarathan, the world Kyri and her friends live in, is a world where the gods are active. They may be bound from directly, personally interfering currently, but that forbiddance does not in any way apply to their own churches, their own servitors. By everything that they know, a god whose servants started taking a wrong turn would first lose their powers, and – if they persisted– be banished from the religion entirely, if they were lucky. If they weren’t, the god might well literally smite them where they stood.
Yet the Justiciars have not; in fact, they seem to retain their powers, and Myrionar has been utterly silent on their betrayal. The issue of their powers is partially answered when the heroes discover that the Justiciars have a tremendously powerful patron who can, apparently, give them the ability to emulate a Justiciar’s powers, but the question of why the god has done nothing, said nothing, even while the god’s power has been being whittled away to almost nothing remains.
The answer is that not merely the matter of Myrionar, but the chaos into which the entirety of Zarathan is descending, is part of a set of plans by a master manipulator – dueling with other chessmasters of power and tactics for a prize that the heroes do not even grasp until the final confrontation, and if Myrionar were to act before, as Jack Sparrow would say, “the opportune moment”, they could lose EVERYTHING.
Now, readers are usually willing to tolerate a certain level of mystery and confusion, but for that to be worth it, at the end there has to be a moment of “oh, of course, that makes sense of all these things that happened before!”. I, the author, can only successfully pull off the surprise reveal of the mastermind’s plans if that reveal stands supported by previous events, so that – even in the midst of the “oh my god” reaction, there’s also an element of familiarity, of the feeling that the reader COULD have figured it out if they had just put together all of these previous elements correctly.
This is the same challenge faced by many mystery writers – the ones who write mysteries where neither the reader nor the detective knows who the criminal is and the reader is actually supposed to end up almost, but not quite, figuring the answer out before the detective does.
The trick to making that work, however, is pretty challenging. You have to give the reader enough information so that if you laid that information out for them clearly and in the right order, they would – with a fair likelihood – come to the correct conclusion, or one close enough to the truth to be given credit. You have to “play fair”, especially with more modern audiences who don’t like the detective/characters to just suddenly pull new information out of thin air that makes the mystery clear when before it was obscure.
Yet, at the same time, you have to hide that information – you cannot allow the reader (or most readers, anyway) to be able to easily “connect the dots”, or you have suddenly lost a huge amount of the tension for the reader, the questions that they’re reading to answer. In a trilogy like The Balanced Sword, it’s also a matter of keeping sympathy and identification with the protagonists. If the answer seems blindingly obvious to the readers, they can often start losing sympathy with the protagonists if any significant time passes. “How STUPID can they be? I saw this coming TWENTY CHAPTERS AGO!”
So as a writer I somehow have to conceal the truth … while keeping it in front of the reader all along, until the moment when I suddenly, dramatically point it out, managing a simultaneous moment of surprise and affirmation. I like to call this a “sleight of mind”, where I’m not using physical movement, but manner of presentation, emphasis, and expectations to distract the reader while I run key elements past them, to sit innocuously until their relevance abruptly becomes clear.
Many mystery writers do this well. One of the classic examples is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which she has the first-person viewpoint character be the murderer… and most readers never figure it out until Poirot reveals the truth. We literally watched through the murderer’s eyes and – by careful selection of exactly what we saw, and when scenes ended and began – Agatha Christie keeps us from recognizing that we have just been present at a murder.
An example of this not being done is the well-known “WHAM” moment in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader says “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”. Luke, of course, responds that he was told enough – that Vader killed his father – to which Vader replies, “No. I am your father.”
This is a terribly effective instant in cinema, but for me it always rang false, and after a bit I realized why – because, unlike my prior example, Lucas hadn’t played fair with me. There really were no hints to this sudden revelation; there was no evidence that it was true (other than the in-universe “search your feelings, you know it to be true” and implication that the Force was supporting this statement, it could’ve just been a total bulls**t ploy on the part of Vader), and in fact it’s known that Lucas only decided on this plot twist while he was working on Empire (meaning that even the odd phonic connection of “Vader” being similar to the German “Vater”, meaning Father, was a simple coincidence).
That always felt cheap to me. It’s easy to invent plot twists if you do it after the fact, and don’t go back to make the material support it. It’s lazy. (It also suddenly made the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi into a devious weasel). Once I started writing seriously, I was determined that no matter what ludicrous plot twists I was going to throw at my readers, those plot twists wouldn’t come out of nowhere; they would be moments not just of surprise, but of revelation, where the reader simultaneously says “What the heck???” and “Now I understand.”
This is what I hope I have accomplished in the final denouement of Phoenix Ascendant.
NOTE: the following sections will become increasingly spoilery for parts of the trilogy! If you don’t like spoilers, STOP NOW and (if you want to come back) go read the books first!
Both the question of why Myrionar could not speak or act against the false Justiciars, and the answer to that question, are bound up in a single statement which is repeated – in varying wording – several places in the trilogy, and best summed up as: “a god cannot act contrary to its nature.” I had to make sure that this fact was implied or, sometimes, outright stated multiple times… but do so in a way so that it was emphasized as a mystery, as a question, not as the answer, unless the “answer” was, itself, another false trail… because while that was indeed part of the answer, the real import of that fact was something very different, bearing on one of the other primary questions:
What does the true adversary of the trilogy want?
One of the common motivations of the Big Bad in epic fantasy is to conquer the world. When we first seem to discover the identity of the main adversary, the “patron” of the Justiciars, it appears that this is its goal. It is Viedraverion, first son of Kerlamion, King of All Hells, and Viedraverion is the mastermind behind Kerlamion, a classic “Man Behind the Man” scenario in which the monstrously powerful but rather straightforward Demon King would be the unwitting agent of his own son.
This isn’t the Big Bad’s true goal, however, and so in fairness I had to make this clear; in the scenes written from its point of view, the adversary reveals a rather disparaging attitude towards the entire concept of world conquest. Its actual objective is best hinted at, in fact, by commentary and thoughts relative to the other people it must interact with, and a careful reading shows that its greatest approval is reserved for someone who is not a demon at all, but a man: Master Wieran, the coldly fanatical alchemist-mage who is one of the primary antagonists in Phoenix in Shadow.
Yet it is also clear that all of this focuses on Kyri and Myrionar, when Myrionar is an extremely weak – dying, in fact – god and Kyri its only remaining true Justiciar. Master Wieran’s focus made sense; he was making use of the power of Terian, acknowledged by all to be one of the most powerful of all gods. If the true adversary’s goals were in any way like Wieran’s, how could they be served through a focus on such a weakened deity?
Again, here I had to scatter the clues to the answer in a way that did not draw attention to them, these clues being: 1) that Myrionar was considered a true ally of, and connected to, other much more powerful gods including Terian, Chromaias, and the Dragon Gods, among others, and 2) that Myrionar had sworn its oath to Kyri “on the very power of the gods”.
These clues are, of course, also clues to the solution of the problem, to the way in which Kyri and her friends can successfully oppose their enemy, and most importantly to how Kyri herself can confront something which has obviously worked to weaken and corrupt the entirety of her church to the point that only one temple, one set of priests, and one Justiciar remain.
The single largest clue to the entire plot, though, was shown early in Phoenix in Shadow, during the short discussion with the Wanderer, and encapsulated best in this simple exchange:
Kyri stared at him, anger, concern, and confusion making a nauseating mix in her gut. “What do you mean?” She made a leap of intuition. “A prophecy. You have a prophecy.”
For a moment, that smile returned, sharp and lopsided, too knowing yet edged with sadness. “Not… precisely. Though, perhaps, close enough for your purposes.”
That quote above shows one of the other problems of writing this kind of story. From my point of view, I’m practically screaming the answer to what’s going on. I had to hope that with it being in the middle of other discussion, and a full book and a half away from the real beginning of the finale, the reader wouldn’t really sit down and start picking away at that. Judging from the reactions, that hope was generally justified; I didn’t have any of my beta readers, or later readers, immediately write to me and tell me “Oh, I know what that means!”.
It’s hard for an author to know what’s too obvious – or too subtle – because we know way, way too much about what’s going on, and what seems to be a subtle clue to us may be utterly opaque to the reader. Alternatively, if we don’t realize what frame of mind the reader may be in at a given point, something we think was subtle turns out to be a dead giveaway surrounded by flashing lights. Trying to minimize either of these mistakes is one of the reasons writers have beta readers.
I should note that this “sleight of mind” approach is in no way limited to the major themes/plots/resolution of the trilogy. Two of my favorite examples within The Balanced Sword were in Phoenix in Shadow, specifically the way in which Kalshae was defeated, and shortly thereafter the defeat of Sanamaveridion. Both of these were set up early in the novel, by relatively offhanded events, and then built on with a few seemingly-unrelated facts to allow the resolution that we see. There are other such tricks in the final battle of Phoenix Ascendant.
It is often important for the readers to know something that the main characters don’t, of course, and at the end of Phoenix in Shadow the readers witness an event that shows that the Big Bad is not, in fact, Viedraverion at all, but something else using his face and identity, something that Miri calls “Lightslayer”. Miri’s memory of this encounter is erased, so the readers now have the tension of knowing that our heroes are wrong about their adversary’s identity, and wondering when – and how – they will have a chance to find out their mistake.
Really, REALLY Big Spoilers for the End of the Trilogy so if you have read the rest but don’t want to be spoiled on the end STOP!
That forgotten confrontation with Miri – along with a few other clues including visual description – can allow some readers to figure out just what the Big Bad is, especially if they happen to have read Paradigms Lost, my urban fantasy novel. The antagonist’s nature is referred to in all three novels, and his name mentioned early on in both Phoenix in Shadow and Phoenix Ascendant well before “the reveal” happens, but – as with the other such facts – buried amidst other information that, I hoped, would not make their presence obvious. In fact, the reveal is a two-stage one and the second and final stage happens when the antagonist speaks a line which – for those who understand what it implies – is possibly the most chilling in the entire trilogy:
“You know me? Oh, child, you have not yet asked my name.”
Of course, if most readers find that line (in context) has no impact, it means I failed on the setup – that the hints I gave were entirely missed, not merely obscured. I devoutly hope that isn’t the case, but – as I mentioned earlier – telling what’s obvious and what isn’t is one of the hardest parts of this job.
From the above, probably anyone who has read Paradigms Lost can already guess the true identity of the antagonist, even without reading any of the trilogy: the only villain that would fit the profile would be Virigar, the Werewolf King, the being whom all the other monsters in the book fear. In Phoenix Ascendant, we get to see what he’s like when he isn’t playing the game to fit the vastly lower-magic world that Jason Wood inhabits.
But important as the secret of the villain’s identity, and even his plan, is, the most difficult sleight of mind to pull off was the nature of the solution – of how and why Kyri, who in no way compares in power or resources with her opponent, could ultimately undo his plans and defeat him. And again, that answer comes back to the clues of the nature of the gods and their commitments, to the oath that Myrionar swore, and to the Wanderer’s implication of something that isn’t a prophecy… yet might as well be one. Myrionar is weak, dying, and cannot in any way match her opponent; Kyri is mortal and even less capable of doing so; and those two facts are precisely the keys to the Big Bad’s plan. Yet, ultimately, they – and the villain’s own nature – are what turn the tables.
Depending on how carefully the prior parts of this essay were read, the reader may already have guessed that, somehow, time travel must be involved. The Wanderer doesn’t have a prophecy, he’s been told what will happen – by someone who has been there, to the future – and doesn’t dare tamper with what he knows is supposed to happen because all the current plans depend on those events.
Thus, also, Myrionar’s reluctance: Myrionar can’t change these events, no matter how much it might want to, because it knows the events happened, and the only way to spring the trap that Myrionar, Khoros, the Wanderer and even the other gods have set for the Big Bad is to let everything play out to a very particular point. The Wanderer even emphasized this by describing how such things could go wrong even with the most well-meaning of actions. Ultimately, when Kyri suddenly realizes why Virigar’s own plan gives her the key to her own survival and victory, the reader should be only a half-second behind her revelation.
The existence of all these carefully-laid trails of clues and answers doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t leave any genuine mysteries. The final part of the confrontation between Virigar and Kyri certainly has an event that Virigar understands, but no one else (except, possibly, Khoros) does, showing that some things lie beyond the easy explanation of the gods and those who witness the events. The world of Zarathan is a very large one; I have been working on the world itself for nearly 40 years now. There are still mysteries, large and small, to be unraveled – what will Kyri and Tobimar and Poplock do now? Whence has Master Wieran fled? What, exactly, did the Five do that ultimately sent Kerlamion and the Black City back to the Hells? What did Kyri’s sister Urelle find in her adventures with the young Camp-Bel warrior, and did Aunt Victoria find her in time to help? What, ultimately, is Virigar’s fate?
One day I hope to answer all of those questions, and you can be sure that each of the books will contain more than a little sleight of mind, to keep the reader guessing and surprised – yet, at the same time, reassured by the truths revealed that even this fictional world makes sense to those within… and those without.