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The Big Idea: Sarah J Daley

In today’s Big Idea, author Sarah J. Daley lets you in on a secret for how to create a badass character, like she has in her novel Obsidian. All you have to do is break some stuff first. The whole world, for a start.

SARAH J. DALEY:

Everyone loves an apocalypse. There’s just something intriguing about taking a perfectly normal, ordinary world and smashing it with a hammer. The popularity of post-apocalyptic settings is evident in the plethora of zombie tales and dystopian science fiction. Fantasy is no different; we love broken worlds. Torn up and trampled on societies. Intrepid survivors navigating a dangerous hellscape.

I suppose I’ve always been drawn to these types of stories. Maybe it comes from being a GenXer; we grew up under the shadow of impending doom, after all. I wrote stories in high school about a post-apocalyptic future, and just assumed everything would go to shit by, like, 2010. We’ve lasted a bit longer, thankfully, but that post-apocalyptic world I imagined never fully faded from my mind.

The inception of Obsidian didn’t start with an apocalypse, however; it started with a person. A tattooed young woman who refused to be put into a box; a woman trying to navigate the world on her terms and no one else’s. Tough and competent, fearless, and more than a little wild, she doesn’t take shit from anyone, and I love her. I took this woman, this vision, and I gave her power. I gave her magic. I gave her obsidian blades out of the rainbow of gems she could have chosen. And I gave her attitude – wait, she brought the attitude. Then I dropped her into a nightmare world of corruption and blight and scheming enemies. My badass heroine found herself in a place broken by magic-gone-wrong, a tainted land where those with power ruled those without. And she was having none of it.

Once I established that Malavita wasn’t an ordinary place, that something awful had happened long ago to turn it into a wasteland, the story evolved and expanded. Now, there was a before and an after. Humans can’t help but mark those moments in history; a moment of collective memory that shapes us from that time forward. Devastating floods, horrific wars, deadly plagues. In my world, an apocalyptic battle between two opposing forces led to Malavita’s destruction, but also her creation. Everything in my world comes from that long ago war: the Veils, the gemstone blades, the tattooed bloodwizards, the Brotherhood church.

My heroine, Shade, owes her tattoos and blades and her blood-born power to the forces that ripped her world apart. Malavita’s religion arose from this event, the worship of the Four and the Hidden. The Four Faces of God are the elements bloodwizards control with their gemstone blades and tattoos, elements they weave into shields to protect Malavita’s inhabitants from the brutal, blighted Wastes – these shields are the Veils of Malavita. A Veil means life, protection, prosperity. It is the ‘normal’ world in a brutal wasteland.

But sometimes in the ‘after’, people forget what really happened to break then reshape their world. History becomes fluid and our collective memory fails after the first surviving generation passes. Events become misunderstood, religion twists historical records into myth and legend. Why should Malavitans be any different than the rest of humanity? Even in fantastical worlds, humans are still, well, human. No matter how pure we think our motives are, we see things through lenses colored by our own preconceptions, our own self-interest.

So, what was once an honorable aspiration – to clear Malavita of her blight and restore the normal order – has become a power grab. The Brotherhood priests who control the raising and maintenance of the protective Veils have lost their true purpose and want nothing more than to retain their power and the status quo, and they use the most corrupt and powerful of the bloodwizards to enforce their control.

And into this oppressive regime enters Shade Nox to turn their carefully maintained world order on its head. Her motive is simple: Protect her people from the ever-increasing dangers of their homeland because no one else will. Of course, she’d also like to stick it to her enemies, the ones who called her an abomination and framed her for murder. She’s not that noble or selfless.  

I started this post thinking my Big Idea was the apocalypse which destroyed the land of Malavita, but I’m beginning to believe that event was just a vehicle to showcase the really big idea: Shade Nox, my tattooed girl who wants to change the world, and won’t stop no matter what happens. Even death won’t stop this badass witch. I guarantee it.


Obsidian: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

2 replies on “The Big Idea: Sarah J Daley”

“Maybe it comes from being a GenXer; we grew up under the shadow of impending doom, after all. I wrote stories in high school about a post-apocalyptic future, and just assumed everything would go to shit by, like, 2010. “

The generation before you felt the same way, because of the Cold War, and then the environment, and then…. Come to think of it, there is apocalyptic SF from the late 1800s– including the first use of the post-apoc Statue of Liberty, three years after it was erected (John Ames Mitchell, The Last American). I think we’ve long lived with this fear, with varying degrees of justification. But if that fear also produces fiction about, say, badass tattooed witches who want to change the world, it’s serving a valuable purpose.

I hope you both succeed.

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