The Big Idea: Tim Susman
Independence does not mark the end of a revolution, for a country or for an individual. This is a fact well illustrated in Tim Susman’s newest novel, The Revolution and the Fox. Read on to find out how a revolution turns out after the smoke clears.
The fight is over and the good guys won. Now what?
That’s the question I asked myself when I set out to write the fourth and final book in my magical alternate history series about the American Revolution. The Calatians follows the titular fox Kip, one of a race of magically created animal-people, and his human friend Emily, as they struggle to escape the prejudices against their kind and gender (respectively) and prove their worth, first in a college of sorcery, then in a war. At the end of the third volume, the American Revolution is over and Kip and Emily have established their reputations beyond any doubt. More than one of my beta readers assumed that must mean the end of the series. This is perfectly reasonable, especially for American audiences with our heavily mythologized origin story; just like coming-of-age stories for people, coming-of-age stories for nations tend to end with the achievement of independence. But my Big Idea for a fourth book was to go beyond that ending and find out what my now come-of-age protagonists and their fledgling society would make of their new independence, and the responsibility that comes along with it.
When given the freedom to choose your own path, at that one rare point in our lives when almost any path is open, what do you do? In some ways, this freedom is deceptive; sure, we can take any path, and a post-revolution country may shape itself in any image, but we can only walk the paths we know, and we favor the familiar ones—even those that turn us into the people (or countries) whose influence we just escaped. We inherit beliefs and habits from our parents, some we’re conscious of and others we’re not, and those last ones especially can direct our futures without us realizing it. I didn’t want my protagonists to fall into that trap.
So the fourth book had to expose them to new ideas, and that meant there needed to be a reason to search out those new ideas. Since the end of the war, Kip and Emily have established a magic school without restrictions based on race and gender. It’s kind of working, but they’re still living among people for whom those goals weren’t priorities, and who don’t care as much as they do about maintaining the school. If their new country isn’t going to support them much more than their old country did, they need to find a solution elsewhere.
Since one of the common abilities of sorcery in my books is to be able to instantaneously go anywhere the sorcerer has already been, I was able to open up the world to my characters early on in the series, so I went back to that device to broaden their horizons here by having the Dutch put on an International Exposition of Sorcery that would include countries from around the world. I relied on some of my own travel experience and a lot on research, but as I was mostly concerned with how sorcerer schools worked in other countries, I had to do a lot of guessing and making up things based on what we knew about those countries two hundred years ago.
This part of the writing opened up something for me that I hadn’t expected: much as I was trying to open up my characters to new ideas about sorcery and society (as well as how to be an adult in this world), I found that I was challenging my own ideas about how I’d made up the world of sorcery in the first book. Schools, I’d decided, were arranged like so, students took this course of study and ended up in one of these three broad destinations, the sorcerers had a particular relationship with the government, and so on. By the time I was writing the third book, the institutions might as well have existed in my mind for the hundreds of years they’d existed in the world.
So when I set out to expand the world of my characters, I had to challenge my own preconceptions first. Why was sorcery integrated into society in this way? It made sense because I was working from a perspective steeped in American and English history, and so I slotted sorcery into the patterns I knew instinctively. But of course, duh, sorcery doesn’t have to be only one way. So I got to go through and re-examine every bit of my imagined sorcerer society.
I’ll say right here that I’m sure I missed an order of magnitude more opportunities than I took to change things around. I could have happily researched and studied and invented for a decade. But the book had to come out, and I wanted to focus on aspects of the world that would most directly inform my characters’ choices—for example, how the sorcerers treat demons, the powerful and capricious spirits they summon from another world to do their bidding.
In the end, the choices the characters make about who they want to be directly impact the kind of society they’re trying to form. I had fun revisiting a time when I could make those kinds of decisions, and challenging myself and my characters to think about our preconceptions, even the ones we weren’t aware we had. It would’ve been easy to stop with independence, but if I had, there’s so much I would have missed.