Our story, The Ember Inside for New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine (download it for free!), found itself an early critic:
2nd story was meh. Felt like a lecture disguised a story.
Is it a lecture? We’ll let you decide. Should Fantasy shun deeper meaning, or politics? Absolutely not. One of the old Lancer Conan books had this in its introduction: “In these stories, don’t look for any hidden meaning or philosophies,” and that’s become something of a gospel to some S&S readers. I think it was Dr Nicole Emmelhainz who offered the theory that it was a marketing ploy, in an era of political upheaval: “Rest assured, friend, there are no feminists or uppity Black people to be found!”
When you know a little bit about Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard, then you also know that his work was a reflection of and reaction to his own life and world. Scratch the surface of any of the great works of SFF literature, and you’ll find a deeper meaning, deeper concerns. Was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four not politically charged, and was his Animal Farm just about talking animals on a farm? Was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings not about his own changing world? And did Margaret Atwood pull her Handmaiden’s Tale out of thin air, while her Gilead becomes less and less fictional?
When invited to submit a story for New Edge we did what we often do, and had a look in our folder of ideas. This is where we dump any notions, ideas and outlines that come to us. Often, they’re incomplete, or have yet to gel. They may be as slight as a setting, or a theme, or a MacGuffin. (If you haven’t read The Ember Inside yet, you may want to do so before reading on – there be spoilers ahead!) From the folder, we picked this as a starting point:
Kaila and Ymke caught by sorcery, putting them to sleep and taking from them ‘that which they treasure deepest in their hearts’. They wake up, each years earlier, Ymke on the farm, Kaila on the road to the mountains. From there, the paths of their futures diverge. Ymke grows old on the farm, marrying the neighbour’s son; not loving him, but doing her duty still, giving him children that she loves, but cause her health to worsen. She stares out over the horizon, knowing she’s lost something, heart-broken her whole life.
…And from a “Poe, by way of Roger Corman” outline called House of Phantasmagorias:
Also – eyes in the walls, behind paintings. Artist has corridors behind the halls to spy on them. He’s without inspiration, and this is how he gets notes for new works: out of the imagination, the fear, of others.
We figured we could combine these bits into something that would work. In line with New Edge’s remit to evolve Sword & Sorcery into something more inclusive and diverse, we thought that Ymke’s foil would be a writer of ‘traditional’ S&S, who finds himself sidelined by progressive whippersnappers. This meant that we’d have to have an idea of what he writes. Beowulf immediately came to mind, and the word Berseker. This became Bersk, the bear-raised feral man, later renamed Bärsk because an ‘ä’ is even more metal. Our heroes Kaila and Sebastien would be fans of the blood and guts stories, while Ymke would have ‘higher’ literary standards. We then set ourselves to writing a bit of the tale, to form the intro to our own story. Out came Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and we wrote a paragraph, faithfully following Beowulf’s rhyme scheme and alliteration.
But what of Ymke’s alternate life? While we liked the idea, it felt as if Ymke meekly assented to her captivity. We were just starting to put the elements together when, in the USA, Roe vs. Wade was repealed, and with it the constitutional right to abortion. This caused a lot of upset and worry among many people we know, and we decided that this was the missing angle: the loss of bodily autonomy. We knew we were painting a picture of Ymke in what amount to a marital rape situation, where she must bear the children of a man she’d been wedded to for the sake of a land grab, and we wanted to explore how she would survive that. And we were thinking not just of her physical survival, but of how she would keep her individuality intact, and how we could show her as more than the sum of what others did to her.
This thought informed the whole of Ymke’s alternate reality. We then decided to bring Kaila into her world, albeit as a mercenary, and one not yet tempered by friendship and love. With this all in place, Angeline wrote a first draft in a single afternoon. As this was very much Ymke’s emotional journey, it felt right that it was written from a female perspective. Then Remco did the next draft, focusing on the action, and fleshing out Bärsk and his creator. Though storyteller Sigismond was the villain of the piece, we could not resist writing him with a modicum of compassion.
Ymke’s story and the framing narrative are distinctly different, tonally speaking, which is intentional. If it jolts the reader, then all the better, as Ymke’s enforced dream is supposed to be different from the life she leads with Kaila. Our editor, Oliver Brackenbury, also was on board, and in a Sunday afternoon Skype session we talked through the story. The questions he asked guided us to sharpen some areas which were unclear in their meaning, and hinted at some loose ends we could tie up.
At the story’s end, Ymke is less resistant to the idea of Bärsk, and we can well imagine her posting Bärsk fanfic on her world’s equivalent of AO3. It echoes our own feelings on Sword & Sorcery: far from wanting to burn all the old S&S tales, as some have feared, we believe that while some works are rightfully forgotten, others are worth treasuring, despite elements that are not of this time. There are giants on whose shoulders we gladly stand. We also believe that by writing our stories, we cannot do other than put ourselves and our feelings about the world into them.
And we think that goes for most writers, even for our critic, a writer himself, and not averse to bringing a point across with fiction. It seems to us that those who complain about a story being about something have a bigger problem with the nature of the message than with its presence.