The Big Idea: Sam Hawke
The thing about “happily ever after” is that it skips over so much. What happens when you don’t skip “ever after?” Is it actually happy then? Sam Hawke has thoughts on that, as it relates to the newest installment of her Poison War series, Hollow Empire.
Winning was easy, young man, governing’s harder.
There’s a temptation to stop a story at the point at which the good guys have ‘won’, whatever that looks like. Maybe they won the war. Defeated the dark overlord. Found the thingamajig, rescued their true love/family member. Deposed the despot. But life is more complicated than that, and even though we are trained to be satisfied with the big finale in terms of story beats, I’ve always been fascinated by the what-happens-after.
If there’s a recurring theme in my work so far it’s something to do with bad power structures – identifying them, dismantling them, and then (this is the hard bit) trying to do better. On the surface City of Lies was a murder mystery with the poison-tasting main characters trying to unmask a traitor and stop a civil war, but at its heart it’s also a story about privileged people being forced to reckon with the evils they’ve benefited from. Hollow Empire, it follows, is about what happens next, when you’ve resolved to right the wrongs: all the grand gestures aside, what does ‘trying to better’ look like in practice, today, tomorrow, next year? So in planning where I wanted to take the story, the core driving force was the desire to explore how my main characters—all fundamentally decent humans, for all their flaws—might go about trying to do better. And that has to be shaped naturally, even inexorably, by the events of City and how the country would try (and possibly fail) to change itself in light of a seismic shift in its people’s understanding of the world.
We’ve all read books where the main characters seem to reset after each book, fresh and ready for more adventures, unchanged by their last lot. Or one problem is solved in the big showdown and then that conveniently fixes all of the related mess; Simba comes back as rightful king to take his place and oh good! The rain is here to end the drought and fix that whole messy starvation issue! The main character’s love interest was imprisoned and tortured but it’s cool, they’re free now and definitely not permanently traumatised, don’t worry! There’s an easy appeal in that; after all, it means you can think up new adventures for the same beloved crew but you can leave the set-pieces relatively static and preserve the character dynamics that worked for you in earlier books.
Change is hard, change is messy. But in epic fantasy the stakes are frequently sky-high and the events of previous books world-changing. Failing to give the effects of those events sufficient gravity—that is, failing to properly explore consequence—is a sure way to drop my interest in a series. (In fact an exploration of consequence is a cornerstone of my favourite series of all time, Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, in which personal choices made by Fitz in book 2 are still impacting how minor characters react to him in book 14!).
After City, things couldn’t go back to the status quo. The opposing sides of a civil war agreed to a peaceful resolution, but what does that really mean? How do the aftereffects of rebellion and recognition of decades of abuse actually change the fabric of a country socially, economically, culturally? In Hollow Empire I wanted to explore how, in practice, a government might expand to be more inclusive and make reparations for the kinds of large scale wrongs it has perpetuated, and, importantly, how this could (and likely would) go wrong. We’ve got plenty of real world examples to see how resistant those in power are to sharing it or (heaven forbid) giving it up, and how on a personal level even people who understand the fundamental injustice on which their privilege is based will try their best to resist change, as if a problem is fixed merely by identifying it. We can’t go back to the status quo, but boy some people will try hard to keep us there anyway.
So Hollow Empire finds us with our characters a little older, still making mistakes (and still, quite often, wishing desperately for a cup of tea instead) but still trying their best. Trying to wrangle the country into a stable and fairer future, holding the fragile peace together despite the efforts of an unwieldly and antagonistic Council with its uneasy mix of old and new representatives. Looking to the future and the next generation by adopting their relatives as heirs, forced to reconcile responsibility and love for a child with training them in an inherently harmful and dangerous job (it is one thing, after all, to accept that a beloved uncle fed you poison as part of your training; it’s still another to do the same to a child in your care). Grappling with the aftereffects of their secret duties creeping into public lives. Dealing with the physical and emotional fallout of what happened to them before. And being given access to power previously denied, and finding it isn’t entirely as expected.
Of course, none of this is the main the plot of Hollow Empire. The story is another political intrigue/suspense/mystery, set in an overstuffed Silasta during effectively the Fantasy Olympics, in which our poison tasting protagonists are once again on the clock to protect their country and their loved ones from danger. There are assassins on the hunt, sneaky diplomatic games among the visiting dignitaries, a criminal gang running a sinister new drug, and an old and determined enemy. But I hope that this driving force of not just the question—how can we do better—but also the ultimately optimistic viewpoint that we can and should keep trying, is something that readers take away from the Poison Wars.