The Big Idea: Juliette Wade
Every society has systems it runs on. For Inheritors of Power, author Juliette Wade had to create systems that not only explain the culture, but show how every system binds those in it… for better or worse.
Imagine a man (yes, let’s start there). He lives in a nation called Varin, in an underground city with electric lights, because the planet’s surface is an uninhabitable wilderness. He belongs to a powerful family. The more we learn about what surrounds him, and who surrounds him, the better we understand him. He seems to have all the privilege in the world, but he is constrained by his family and his caste — not just socially, but genetically. His social constraints make his life difficult. His genetic constraints make his life even more difficult. He has been taught to be very proud of both. But at the same time, no power he gains will ever be enough. He is the Eminence, Grobal Nekantor of the First Family.
Our understanding of Nekantor deepens with every aspect we learn of the systems that surround him. We come to understand how he is constrained, and how he is empowered. And the more deeply we know him, the better we understand what happens to the systems that he touches. Those systems are complex and far-reaching, and Nekantor is far from the only human being in Varin.
Inheritors of Power, book three of The Broken Trust series, is the first book seen entirely through the eyes of characters who are not members of the nobility. Imbati Catín, a prodigy of the Imbati Service Academy, is navigating a political world steeped in Nekantor’s influence, and attempting to get closer to his manservant, Imbati Xinta. If Catín could safely treat Xinta like a person, it might be natural for her to be friendly and offer to help him. However, her vow to her Master, the Heir, makes Xinta her enemy. The system conspires against her.
And not only her. For the first time in the series, Inheritors of Power lets us see the whole rest of the picture, top to bottom. This means meeting point of view characters from the undercaste, and seeing how Varin’s social systems affect them, and exactly how far the consequences of Nekantor’s actions reach.
While writing Inheritors of Power (and the rest of The Broken Trust series), I operated with a set of rules of thumb about the effects of Varin’s restrictive social system. The most important rule for Inheritors of Power was that members of the undercaste shouldn’t experience much direct caste-based insult, but should constantly experience avoidance behaviors, abuses justified as impersonal rule-following, and actions motivated by bias in the system.
To make that possible, I had to construct systems on multiple levels of complexity.
The caste system of Varin isn’t just a list of names and the jobs associated with them. Each group has its own values and culture, and is constrained in its own ways. Each has things it admires about itself, and unique ways of viewing other members of the system. Furthermore, each caste has concrete, logistical systems that it participates in. The best way to show how that works is to tell you about the Akrabitti undercaste characters Meetis and Corbinan.
Akrabitti Meetis works in a prison kitchen with children as young as twelve. Her entire family works at Daronvel Secure Facility, which pays them in housing, clothes, and food. They receive no money at all. Guards from the Secure can enter their home at any time, and they can be punished for mistreating clothes that, strictly speaking, do not belong to them. If Meetis’ family wants to buy anything beyond what the Secure gives them, they have to find another source of income, so the community collects lichen and pounds it into a spice and sells it to merchants.
This is illegal for members of their caste, so they have no recourse if the merchants try to cheat them. Worse, the guards at the Secure, who know about the money, extort it from them with threats of violence. The system itself is a trap that makes it impossible for them to live without breaking rules and being punished.
Akrabitti Corbinan works at a trash collection center in the capital city of Pelismara. Trash collection centers pay their employees only in cash, and not very much of it. That means Corbinan lives in an apartment with seven other people so that they can collectively cover rent and still afford to buy food for themselves.
Of course, gangs of homeless children also know that the trash workers carry cash, so Corbinan often gets ambushed on his way home on payday. If he wants to keep the money to afford rent and food, he and the others he lives with have to go home as a group, and be prepared to fight to keep their money. People of Higher castes therefore consider him a member of a violent gang, and act accordingly. Again, the system is a trap.
We should at this point be able to step back and realize that the Varin system is a trap for everyone who participates in it. It makes abuses easy and keeps them almost invisible. It is my hope that experiencing Varin’s systems will help readers to see how such systems operate, and maybe even to help us discover the traps that surround us in our own world.