The Big Idea: Howard Andrew Jones
History is often an inspiration for fantasy, but as Howard Andrew Jones explains in this Big Idea for Lord of a Shattered Land, how that inspiration hits can be a surprise, even for the author himself.
HOWARD ANDREW JONES:
It seemed like such an obvious what-if question I couldn’t believe no one had written about it yet. And for a long time I thought my answer to that question was my big idea. It turned out simply to be the gateway to the real one. Let me explain.
Famous generals are sometimes associated with the defense of territory, but their renown is usually about conquest. The summary of Hannibal of Carthage’s activities in intro level history class makes him seem like all the other commanders out for land. After all, he invaded Italy with an army, famously via an alpine pass with a contingent of elephants.
The truth is a little more complicated. Hannibal meant to defeat the Romans but had no illusions about transforming Italy into a Carthaginian colony. He expected other regions of the peninsula to rise against their oppressors and join him in a confederation that would break Roman power. He foresaw that if he did not act, Rome would one day bring an end to his people.
He came close, but not close enough, to stopping Rome, and his fears were realized some fifty years after his death, for Rome famously razed his city and sold its few survivors into slavery. The Third Punic War wasn’t so much a war as an extermination, and Cato the Elder’s exhortation at the end of every one of his senate speeches, regardless of subject, that “furthermore, Carthage must be destroyed” is one of the earliest calls for genocide in recorded history.
I got to wondering what might have happened if Rome had come for Carthage during Hannibal’s lifetime. What might he have done? He was absurdly brilliant, not just one of the greatest generals of all time but the master of at least a dozen languages, a scholar, even a statesman, who, once elected into power after the war, reformed his government so that its senators no longer had lifetime rule but had to be elected annually. He possessed a Sherlock Holmes level intellect without the crotchety personal attributes, for he seems to have been beloved by his followers.
To free myself up a bit I decided against working on this idea via the alternate history genre. Writing in a secondary fantasy world would allow me to play fast and loose with the geography and events and add in gladiators and emperors and praetorians, as I knew people would want. And then, of course, in a secondary world I could have sorcery that actually worked, and monsters, and make some other changes besides. But the character of Hanuvar remains pretty much as I’ve grown to picture Hannibal over the years, bolstered by my study of brave figures who gave their all for their people.
Like Audie Murphy. In just one of the true but impossible-to-believe incidents from Murphy’s life, he ordered his troops to fall back when their position was overrun by German soldiers, then held off the attack from a machine gun mounted on a burning tank destroyer. When even more German soldiers swarmed forward he called in an air strike on his own position. He somehow survived, and was asked by a reporter why he’d taken such extraordinary risks. With touching sincerity Murphy replied that he had to because they were coming to kill his friends.
In a previous Big Idea column I wrote about my fascination with heroes, and how I wished we heard more about them. Heroism can supersede our cultural wars because it isn’t about defending a narrow set of beliefs dictated by a few who want to stay in power. It isn’t defined by ideology, but by the selflessness of those who protect others.
Once I started writing this book, I understood that while my what-if question had seemed like the core concept, the real big idea behind it is selflessness. Hanuvar, its central character, isn’t motivated by revenge or greed or lust. He’s not a young man thrust reluctantly into adventure, struggling to understand his powers and shielding himself with snark. He’s seasoned and experienced and doesn’t need to find himself. For him, the only thing that matters are his people.
When the Dervan Empire came for them, the people of Volanus fought block by block, house by house, until most fell with their swords in hand. Only a thousand or so survived to be led away in chains.
The city’s treasuries were looted, its temples defiled, and then, to sate their emperor’s thirst for vengeance, the empire’s mages cursed Volanus and sowed its fields with salt. In their lust for destruction they overlooked only one detail: Hanuvar, the greatest Volani general, had escaped alive. Against the might of a vast empire he has only an aging sword arm, a lifetime of wisdom… and the greatest military mind in the world, set upon a single goal. No matter where they’ve been sent, from the festering capital to the furthest outpost of the empire, Hanuvar will find his people. Every last one of them. And he will set them free.