Is Siege Line the end? For author Myke Cole, no. He will have more books coming. But for a particular trilogy of books, and a phase of Cole’s career, the book represents a final stage. Not with a whimper, though — with a bang, and one that required more of the author than he initially expected.
Apocalypse fiction loves a good wasteland.
Most of us have heard of Ragnarok, the Viking idea of a “Twilight of the Gods” in old Norse mythology, where the world is swept away and the final battle between good and evil is fought. Ragnarok is hardly a unique idea in mythology and religion. Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest recorded faiths, likewise has the world scoured with lava and a final battle between the wicked and the righteous. Christianity has the Book of Revelation, which talks of the final fight between Christ and Antichrist, and Islam has given us the apocalyptic vision of the 12th Imam, who comes to herald the end time, and the final scouring of the wicked from the earth. Buddhism, Hinduism, Rastafarianism. They all have their apocalypse visions, and nearly all have the same central elements: The world scoured, laid waste, heralding the final battle between good and evil.
My favorite visual summary of this idea is in the last of a quartet of paintings by the 19th century American landscape painter Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life. The paintings depict a soul’s journey through life from birth to death. The final painting, Old Age, shows an old man on his way to heaven. What stands out most is the landscape he leaves behind. At the end, all is stripped bare. Nothing grows, nothing moves, nothing lives. The apocalypse of all these myth-systems echoes in the oils – at the end, there is only wasteland.
We love wastelands for our final showdowns in fiction. By stripping away all distractions, they help focus the narrative on the final conflict at hand. The warring characters come into stark relief, unhindered by background. It’s the literary equivalent of wearing a drab gray suit to a job interview. Undistracted by your clothes, the hope is that the interviewer will focus on your job skills.
But here’s the thing about real wastelands. They’re far from empty.
Deserts teem with life. The “hostile” environment of the arctic features around 3,000 different species of flowering plants alone, and around 130 species of mammal. And this doesn’t even count the human cultures that have flourished in these harsh regions without the benefit of advanced technology. The Bedouin and the Hopi, the Inuit and the Ainu.
When you really dig deep, the truth is that “wasteland” is really two words: “Waste,” which is a term of judgment used by those of us living in temperate zones with the benefit of climate control, and “Land,” with all the species, and human cultural diversity that implies. So, while wastelands may be a useful backdrop for final showdowns in fiction, they’re far from empty, and the “Twilight of the Gods” is likely to have significant fallout for the folks living in the warzone where the ultimate battle is playing out.
And that’s the big idea behind Siege Line.
Siege Line is the 3rd book in my Reawakening prequel trilogy. The Reawakening is the prequel to my military fantasy Shadow Ops trilogy. The six books together represent the first arc of my writing career, staking out my own subgenre, fleshing out my narrative, and seeing it to its conclusion. And like all good myth-systems, mine ends with an apocalypse, a final showdown between the wicked and the righteous, set against the backdrop of the wasteland so popular for these kinds of things. What can I say? I want to go out with a bang.
I chose the harsh subarctic-polar landscape of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the tiny hamlet of Fort Resolution, nestled on the south shore of the Great Slave Lake. It’s barren by the standards of my comfortable Brooklyn neighborhood, but like all real-life wastelands, it has a vibrant and complex community and ecology, and people living there who go back generations, far earlier than the founding of either America or Canada, and who are fiercely proud of their culture and legacy.
This was the coolest discovery in writing this book, the background I picked refused to be background. The supporting cast swarmed the pages, demanding their voices be heard. With every hour of research I did, the culture and society of Canada’s “NWT” colonized my mind, changing first my perspective, and finally my narrative.
By the time the smoke cleared, my protagonist had been upstaged by the Sherriff of Fort Resolution, an Afghanistan vet and proud Dene woman, Wilma “Mankiller” Plante. Mankiller was unimpressed by my ignorance of her culture and land. If I was going to tell a story in her town, I was going to tell it her way.
It was a pretty sublime experience. Every writer dreams of these moments, when a character is so real, so fully fleshed out, that they literally take over the narrative, leaving the writer as a mere copyist, taking dictation and relaying what they see. Mankiller came alive, and Fort Resolution, the whole Slavey region, came alive with her.
George R. R. Martin has famously divided writers into “gardeners” (pantsers) who just sit down and write, and “architects” (plotters), who meticulously outline and plan before laying down a single word of prose. I have always prided myself on being an UBER-architect. I usually write more than 100 pages of outline before I begin work on a book. Having a book take a left turn when you’re an uber-architect can be frustrating.
But Mankiller wasn’t going to let it lie, and to be honest I’m glad she didn’t.
Can’t wait for you all to meet her, and to step into her world. It’s cold, sure, but there’s a lot more life there than some warmer places I’ve been.