The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos

In today’s Big Idea, author Matt Mikalatos considers the idea of justice, and how it works both in our world in and the world of his novel, The Heartwood Crown.


“Whatever happens, don’t go to the police.”

Twenty years ago I lived in a totalitarian state. Still, I was an American, and was treated with general respect. We Americans brought a decent amount of money into the country. My acquaintance who warned me away from the police brought in more than a decent amount.

Someone had broken into his house in a gated community and stolen some electronics. He made a report, and the police returned his belongings a few days later. They had caught the thief, they said, and executed him. The thief’s family had been required to pay for the execution.

The emotions coming out of this moment would become a core part of The Heartwood Crown. The horror of someone losing their life over a VCR. The recognition of how messy it is to seek justice. Do we consider issues like this thief’s poverty? Why is justice harsher if he steals from the rich and influential? Wasn’t another injustice created by killing this man? What does that mean for his family, his friends, his community? What is the role of government and the police force here? And, years later, realizing that this sort of thing happens here in the United States, too… that too often terrible costs are paid for small crimes.

The Heartwood Crown is the second book in a trilogy. I already had the big idea for the series overall: There’s a fantasy world called the Sunlit Lands that’s only open to teenagers. What’s more, to cross from our world into the Sunlit Lands they have to be teens who have experienced tragedy or true injustice in their personal lives.

And I already had the main characters, carrying over from the first book, The Crescent Stone:
Madeline Oliver is a privileged American with a terminal illness.

Shula Bishara is a Syrian war orphan.

Jason Wu lied to his parents, and his sister died as a result.

Darius Walker had a loved one stolen away by the magical people of the Sunlit Lands.

The big idea I was lacking was a theme. I knew that I wanted to explore issues of injustice, generational wrongs, revenge, mercy, and forgiveness, but I was having a hard time narrowing all that down.

I had plenty of in-universe ways to explore those themes. Madeline discovers her terminal illness was the result of magical interference in her life. There are people in the Sunlit Lands called the Scim who have been in generations of poverty because of another people group, the Elenil. Shula is dealing with the loss of her parents and siblings. And all these teenagers had the passion and desire to fix the world, they were looking for solutions.

The intersection of injustice and the question “what do we do about it?” finally brought my big idea into focus: exploring the myth of redemptive violence.

My whole life I’ve been taught that violence is the solution to injustice. Entire genres of movies taught me that if someone threatened my loved ones, I should hunt the bad guys down and kill them. The government taught me that if there’s an evil regime somewhere in the world, we should go to war. When I was a child, some people in my religious tradition even taught me that a loving God required not just death but violence in response to evil actions. “It’s only through violence that we can have peace,” they would say. It sounds like a George Orwell quote, but that’s the message of redemptive violence. It’s what leads us to places where criminals are executed for stealing a VCR or selling loose cigarettes.

Fantasy novels often embrace this idea. We have to kill the evil king, fire bomb the city with dragons, build our undead army, or find the magic spear that can slaughter our enemies. It’s not that other tools don’t exist, but if there’s injustice we reach instinctively for the sword.

So now that I had the big idea, I had to flesh it out. Darius already had a magic sword and a thirst for revenge, so I sent him off for the traditional quest: build an army, then find and kill the evil king.

Meanwhile, Madeline’s perspective changes as she confronts her own mortality. She doesn’t want to kill anyone – her own impending death is more than she can bear — she just wants to fix the world. Does she have the moral imagination to find a solution? Is power and violence required to change the world?

Shula is wrestling with the violent deaths of her own family… and how could anything other than a violent response be sufficient?

And Jason is dealing with the very real question that haunts many of us: How can he forgive himself?

This led, of course, to flying cats and swamp monsters and necromancers and a kitten-sized unicorn named Delightful Glitter Lady. There are unbreakable oaths and dirigibles and enchanted shackles and – yes – revenge. Secrets. Sacrifice. It’s still a fantasy novel, after all!

Ursula K. LeGuin said, “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing good do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.”

Twenty years ago a man was executed for stealing from an acquaintance of mine. Today there are spaces where our culture keeps pushing us, over and over, toward violence. The Big Idea for The Heartwood Crown is that maybe, just maybe we can expand our moral imagination to find new solutions to the problems that plague us. As Jason often says in the book, we have to learn to change our story. That was a little frustrating as the author since he would never do what I wanted (he refuses to fight warriors, confront dragons, or accept the consequences of magic), but it’s good advice for us in real life.


The Heartwood Crown: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Here’s a link to the first couple chapters of the book. Matt’s website and Twitter account.

5 Comments on “The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos”

  1. I love these “big idea” posts, this one in particular. I don’t have anything profound to add; just expressing appreciation.

  2. The current popularity of superhero movies in particular feels as if lots of people subscribe to the redemptive violence myth. The most contradictory of the superhero crowd would have to be Wonder Woman, as she’s supposed to be both a teacher and someone who deals out violence when needed. I’m curious to hear Mikalatos’ thoughts on the themes explored in “The Heartwood Crown” vs. the superhero genre.

  3. @peter

    Hey, that is a great question. Please forgive the mini essay to follow! :)

    I love superheroes. I worked in a comic book shop for three years and have been reading them since forever.

    So, when we look at the roots of superheroes we see a lot of them are power fantasies. Superman started out as “If only there was a strong man who cared for the needs of common people.” If you look at Action #1 he fights mobsters, corrupt politicians, and a guy who beats his wife. There’s a reason Superman’s #1 villain is a corporate CEO (and a reason Clark’s a newspaper reporter… a “little guy” fighting the man with truth!).

    Batman of course is “What if I had the strength to stop unjust crime” (like what happened to his parents) and it’s maybe one of the most interesting psychologically because the *entire Batman mythos* is basically a child’s view of crime and a fantasy about stopping it by being smarter/stronger/better trained.

    Since a lot of this boils down to “what if I was strong enough” it plays immediately into the myth of redemptive violence, which tells us that the morally best will eventually also be the strongest and overcome evil. Of course that also means that the status quo must be morally better than the previous regime, because they were strong enough to overcome. And if you’re too weak to bring redemptive violence, perhaps it’s because you don’t have moral authority on your side.

    A lot of critiques of superheroes go along those lines, trying to show us the lack of moral authority or the corrupt reality of powered “heroes.”

    That’s why, though, the best Superman stories are about a guy who has amazing power but never uses it incorrectly. He can’t mess up, that’s not his thing. That’s corrupting the fantasy. He always saves people, never kills the villains, never becomes the villain. He never does the obvious thing and takes over the world, nor is he tempted to do so. He always finds a way to save innocent bystanders, never takes the easy way out. And the worst Superman stories are about brute strength.

    We can see the myth of redemptive violence on full FULL display in Avengers: End Game, though (mild spoilers in this paragraph). The heroes literally bash Thanos until they get his powerful macguffin and use it against him and his forces in the precise same way he was using it. The only difference is in intent. Thanos was killing innocents in an attempt to save the universe. The Avengers kill evil aggressors in an attempt to save the universe. Talk about a lack of moral imagination: the Infinity Stones supposedly could do *anything* but our heroes literally used it to “snap” the bad guys instead of something more creative.

    Anyway, I think for most of us this idea of redemptive violence is so hard-wired culturally that we have a hard time thinking of anther solution. In fact we might even push against the idea.

    In The Heartwood Crown, it’s not like those options don’t exist. There’s a powerful magical sword called the Sword of Tears that was forged by the Scim people that, when unsheathed, doesn’t rest until it drinks the blood of those who have murdered Scim people. There’s an army ready to go to fight to the finish.

    But one of the core characters, Madeline, who has a terminal illness, is seeking another solution that’s based in the idea of disempowering the unjust rather than destroying them. She’s working to change the rules of the game.

    One of the questions that I’m always interested in is whether death is truly a just punishment for horrific people who have killed others. Since we all die eventually, it seems strange that this would be seen as the ultimate punishment. Wouldn’t it be worse to keep them alive and rehabilitate them? Teach them to see the horrors of what they’ve done? Maybe that’s too cruel, I don’t know.

    One of the major themes of Heartwood Crown has to do with forgiveness, also, which isn’t a theme often explored in superhero epics (not that I’m asking for that).

  4. “the best Superman stories are about a guy who has amazing power but never uses it incorrectly. He can’t mess up, that’s not his thing. ”

    The best story is about all powerful beings who are infallible? You know you’re describing religion, right?

  5. @greg

    I mean, sure. That’s a pretty traditional reading of Superman, actually. There are a lot of religious impulses evident in his creation. His Kryptonian name is Hebrew for “voice of God.” It’s a common critique of Superman, too! And some of the Superman stories lean pretty heavily into that religious piece… in the Christopher Reeve movies they push it toward more Christian iconography, but the Hebrew/Jewish subtext is pretty strong in the comics starting early. He literally died and rose again in the comics (and eventually the movies).

    But I think if you’re going to have a power fantasy about an all-powerful being who brings justice and protects the innocent and marginalized it’s pretty likely to wander into religious spaces.

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