The Big Idea: Robert V. S. Redick
Wind your way towards Sidewinders, the second installment in Robert V. S. Redick’s Fire Sacrament trilogy. Follow along in his Big Idea as he tells you of the genius that went into creating this novel.
ROBERT V. S. REDICK:
On the last page of my epic fantasy Master Assassins, everyone is laughing.
Everyone who isn’t dead, that is. The laughter is triumphant but hysterical, almost unhinged. They’re on a mountaintop, backs to a cliff. The corpses of their enemies lie at their feet. The victors are cheering a young man who’s just saved all their lives—but the way he’s done it has left them stunned and appalled. He hasn’t lifted a finger. He hasn’t called down lightning or lopped off heads. All he’s done, really, is talk.
Dodging the spoilers is tricky here: let’s just say that some believe they’ve witnessed a performance, others an act of demonic possession. But all of them know they’re looking at someone they have drastically misjudged.
When I finished that scene, I sat back in my chair, mule-kicked. This young man’s name is Mektu Hinjuman. He’s a clown, an unbearable buffoon, born to the lonely mission of never buttoning his lip. Even his loved ones struggle with the urge to smack him. It’s a wonder that he’s reached the age of twenty-four.
Of course I knew Mektu had other qualities—a plain buffoon is of no interest to anyone—and yet the shock of what he’d just accomplished left me dazed. I’d misjudged him too. I’d ignored the radical nature of his gifts.
The next book, Sidewinders (which is both sequel and standalone) dealt me dozens of such glorious shocks. The cast tripled in number—and such such oddballs, every one! Earnest, passionate, subversive, awkward as hell. Their minds were great agitated hives of thought and feeling. Their insights were so much keener than my own.
I was drowning in character. I began to feel like the MC at some last-minute Open Mike Night, with no names on my clipboard except some undiscovered weirdoes called Leonard Cohen, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan…
And then the music began, and time stood still. Genius, I thought suddenly. This story is a meditation on genius.
An odd realization at the best of times. But halfway through a trilogy about war and empire, plague and enchanted deserts, giant vultures, ghouls? How did genius sneak onto that clipboard? What did the word even mean? And which of my characters possessed an ounce of the stuff?
Well naturally (I decided), it’s the peasant woman, born with nothing, who claws her way to a medical education so that she can open a clinic for the poor. And of course the retired general, blackmailed back into service but quietly fighting all the spies and schemers pushing his country toward war. And what about the tireless young Chancellor, surrounded by elites who never notice that she’s keeping their city from collapse? Or the son of a deranged messiah who discovers a serum that may change the world?
Who was the brightest? I found I couldn’t choose between these people, couldn’t rank their share of genius. Nor could I exclude their opposites: the deranged messiah herself was a tactical mastermind. The spies were starting a world war with nothing but their lies. I might be taken with the notion of “moral genius,” but my subconscious had filled the tale with amoral prodigies as well. For every Mandela I had a Putin.
That review of my characters yielded no proofs about the nature of genius. But it did remind me of an old truth about my relationship with story and character. Great deeds—the defense of a city, the destruction of a golden ring—only move me when they’re welded to a deeper mystery, which is a quality of mind and heart we have no better word for than “genius.” That’s what astonishes. That’s where wonder lives.
The actual deed may be tiny. Sarah in The French Lieutenant’s Woman rescues only herself. The nerd-hero of Love In the Time of Cholera wins his true love’s heart only after fifty-three years of invincible faith. Or the deed may be epochal: think of Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness, dragging his hermit planet into the galactic light.
But what about figures like Mektu himself? Make no mistake: he’s an ass. An overgrown child without filters or impulse control. A man who shows up at a weddings only to praise the groom’s long history of sexual exploits. Who volunteers for night ops and then blows everyone’s cover because “silence makes him nervous.” Who can’t keep himself from insulting the thief with a knife at his throat.
Don’t put him in your book! an editor begged me. People will hate him, he’s a crazy pig!
I didn’t invite him! I countered. He crashed the party. What can I do?
Editors are often right, but not this time: readers soon made it clear that Mektu was their runaway favorite. His antics are part of his, um, charm—but again, there’s more to the picture. He loves deeply, albeit with the selfishness of a six-year-old. He’d jump into a volcano for his friends. Moreover, he sees what others miss. His genius is the kind that pierces lies, leaps past rhetoric, shouts out the Emperor’s nakedness while others are still wondering whether they should bow or kneel.
Novels don’t exist to answer questions. A good novel, however, spurs a thirst for better questions, broader thinking, richer dreams. In the end, I’m clear on just one point. The acts of genius I’ve witnessed are triumphs of perception, and perception takes many forms. We need all the good ones, all the gifts. If the world of Sidewinders can be saved from war and disease, sorcery and global criminals, it will owe a lot to those doctors and generals. But the crazy pig will have a hand in the saving as well. Or at least a hoof.