Winter is coming – but not soon enough. Ahead of next month’s long-awaited TV finale of Game of Thrones, George RR Martin fans can get their fix with a new fantasy fiction novel that packs enough violence, politics and bloodlust to fill each of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, finds Lucy Bryson.
After well over a year of speculative agony, Winter is almost over. When HBO’s season 8 finale of Game of Thrones (GoT) finally airs on April 15, it is set to become one of the biggest moments in TV history. Reports suggest that 25.1million viewers tuned into its sixth season alone, excluding millions more who watched it illegally through online torrents.
But GoT’s phenomenal success should come as no surprise given its creator’s commitment to storytelling. George RR Martin reportedly had no ‘eureka moment’ but rather took years to conceptualise his A Song of Ice and Fire novels fully. The fruits of his labour now generate a reported personal income of about US$15million annually from the TV series and another US$10million from his literary works.
Thanks to visionaries like Martin and his predecessors – Tolkien and C. S. Lewis among them – fantasy fiction made the unthinkable leap from niche genre to mass mainstream consumption. Today, that market continues to surge as increasing numbers of high-quality books hit the real and digital bookshelves.
Among them is Beyond Falcon’s Reach, a novel I received last week and which I devoured in a single sitting. Like those great works before it, Jay Northearn’s debut novel is wonderfully original fantasy fiction. Drawing on British and European medieval history, the story is set in a mythical world divided by religion and social standing. It is grounded in a dark version of reality where deep-rooted superstitions have created an ancient and bloody rift between ‘Landfolk’ and ‘Mountain-People’. At the centre of the action is Tianna Fell, the beautiful, empowered daughter of monied landowner, Kaylan – the Landmaster of Dartingvale. When Tianna is abducted by the mountain dweller, Mourde Cullis, who plans to extract her blood and her life essence, Kaylan sets out to return her to safety.
Northearn’s book is epic in tone and cinematic in scope. And, much like GoT, it’s also gritty (and, in places, not for the faint-hearted). His villain, Mourde Cullis, is brilliant, original and memorable. Cullis has a bloodlust like no other and has developed a torturous blood-sucking machine, the ‘Autom’, with the aim to extract a mythical blood-based elixir called the ‘Immaculate Condensive’ from living Landfolk. Tianna is far from the first of the landfolk to suffer the excruciating pain of the Autom, but she is the first to deliver some of the fabled elixir for Cullis and which promises to bestow upon him greatly-improved strength and stamina, as well as a lengthy lifespan. His experiments, however, come at a high cost when he learns that madness and monstrous manifestations are among the side-effects of his illicit blood harvest.
Much of the book feels politically relevant. After a period of scientific ‘reasonism’, a malignant cult has embraced cultural fears brought on by a dramatic climate change and a threat to world resources, to manipulate peoples’ fears for their own power-hungry ends.
What makes Beyond Falcon’s Reach so good – and to some degree so unique – is its genre-blending mix of epic fantasy, steampunk and off-beat vampire fiction. Whilst these ingredients work well singularly, a combination of one or more is in my experience hard to swallow and even more difficult to digest. Not here, though: Northearn’s sharp storytelling and eye for detail shines through from the outset. He’s successfully translated defining ages and empires into a mythical world of Viking-esque Shaigoth, Lockean ‘Reasonists’ and horse-riding adventurers who will stop at nothing to protect themselves and their loved ones. He creates a monstrous cast of characters intent on ill-doing, as well as handsome heroes and beautiful heroines. Tianna is a fabulous protagonist, and no slouch with a sword, who reminds me of GoT’s Arya Stark. She’ll need those fighting skills, and those of her allies, as for as long as there is a thirst for Immaculate Condensive, her life will constantly be in danger. As the book’s non-stop action races towards a somewhat grisly conclusion, the scene looks set for a next chapter: it can’t be game over for Tianna…can it?
The book deals with some real-world issues around religion, class and race (albeit transplanted into a fictional universe) and takes some very dark turns. But it’s also imbued with a Great British wit. Banter between the characters is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, with the protagonists throwing out some nifty insults, even when staring death in the face. Many of the swear words and slang terms are recognisably British English, which may help it to stand out in a sea of US-based fantasy films, books and TV.
Character descriptions, meanwhile, are vivid and written with a healthy dose of wickedly dark (gallows) humour and with a delightful sense of the tongue-in-cheek absurd. Take this early encounter between Veskin, a one-armed poacher (with quite the backstory as to how he came to lose a limb) and Linden, a rich young man who claims to be on a Grand Tour of the lands:
“Still gettin’ nowhere, lad. Just say what comes into yer head.”
“That’s hard for me Veskin!”
“Think what it’s like where I’m standin’!”
The book’s madcap brilliance and Northearn’s impeccable eye for scene-setting detail no doubt lie in the author’s background as a video games artist. Between the late nineties and early noughties he worked on concept design for popular strategy games such as Fragile Allegiance – a game still talked about in hushed tones among gamers more than 20 years after its creation – before translating his latent literary skills to the page. (Northearn is on record stating that Beyond Falcon’s Reach is a form of literary “revenge” for a labour-of-love gaming project that was abandoned by its producers, the now defunct Gremlin Interactive, at the last minute for financial reasons). [You can find out more about Northearn in the Meet the Author and Q&A, below – Ed].
Readers of medieval fantasy fiction – and of GoT, specifically – will delight in Northearn’s debut, which is the first in a planned trilogy. But so too will fans of vampire fiction. It’s much to the author’s credit that he’s dispensed with over-used tropes associated with the vampire genre – the stakes through the heart, coffins and vampire bats, to name just a few – to present bloodsuckers in a new and compelling way and breathing new life into a timelessly popular concept.
Verdict: A fantastical, gripping and thoroughly deserving debut.
Beyond Falcon’s Reach by Jay Northearn (Nuff Said Publishing) is out now on Amazon UK priced £14.25 in paperback and £2.26 in Kindle Edition. For more information, visit Jay Northearn’s official Facebook page.
Meet the Author: Jay Northearn
The British author Jay Northearn’s debut novel, Beyond Falcon’s Reach, is out now. Here’s everything we know about one of Britain’s rising fantasy authors…
Jay Northearn knows a thing or two about creating tales of adventure on an epic scale. From 1995 to 2002, he worked in the computer games industry as a digital artist and counts Fragile Allegiance, the space-strategy asteroid mining game released by Gremlin Interactive in the mid-90s; Galaga Destination Earth for the PlayStation; and Soldier of Fortune for Dreamcast amongst his many credits.
“I worked on a few other projects which never made it to publication, which is one of the most frustrating things about the fast-moving games industry,” he says. “Huge amounts of time and creativity were binned overnight if the project wasn’t predicted to be sufficiently profitable.”
Northearn, 51, made the effortless sidestep into fantasy fiction after a fantasy-orientated game of warring factions, called Tribal Lore, suffered the same fate. The game was based loosely on peoples of the ancient world and was set for international release in the late ‘90s. “All seemed well, then wham – out of nowhere the publisher pulled the plug and the project, and all my work, was forever consigned to the slush pile. I was later told it was a financial decision made by people far removed from studio development,” he explains. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his first novel, Beyond Falcon’s Reach, was published recently through US-based indie press Nuff Said Publishing to widespread acclaim. Its publication is, Northearn admits, his “sweet revenge” on an industry that did him no favours. “It’s my own small way of putting two fingers up at a system that bled me and others dry,” he adds.
The 330-page novel (reviewed above), which “demanded to be an epic”, started life as “scribbled meanderings” on a free sharing writing website called Booksie. The feedback he received from the site and its visitors was the “shot of nitroglycerin” he needed to complete his debut masterpiece and find a publisher.
“I’ve tried to create the kind of book I’d want to read myself, but writing is about communication”, Northearn says. “If others respond well to my efforts, then all that bizarre stuff in my head resonates with some others. I am not alone!”
Northearn lives and writes in the home in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, that he shares with wife, Julia. The pair met at the Liverpool Institute of Higher Education (now Liverpool Hope University) where Northearn obtained a degree in Art and English.
He now splits his time between writing new material, playing guitar – he’s “no Eric Clapton but can whack out a tune” – and as a residential support worker for adults with brain injuries and learning disabilities, a role he obtained in the aftermath of a serious road accident that left Julia fighting for life.
“I’m a creative at heart,” he says, “which means I’m happiest when I’m working.”
Exclusive Q&A with Jay Northearn
We sit down with the Beyond Falcon’s Reach author Jay Northearn, and his US publisher Nuff Said Publishing, to find out more about his inspiration and plans for the future.
Q: Beyond Falcon’s Reach paints a vivid picture of another world, with its own societies and lore that are both unique and familiar at the same time. Where did you draw inspiration for your book?
Jay Northearn (JN): As far as the unique yet familiar aspect is concerned, it’s an approach found in a number of books and films that have inspired me. For example, one of the great visual pulls of the Star Wars saga, especially when it first hit the big screen, was the dusty, oily realism of the ships, robots and the general technological atmosphere that audiences hadn’t really seen before in sci-fi. So much of this we owe to the late Ralph McQuarrie’s concept designs. Everything looks well-used, built with serviceable-looking parts, often battered – to the point of Han Solo having to thump the dashboard to kick-start the Millennium Falcon. How much more real can you get in sci-fi? Not much.
Aside from the purely visual, I like a grounded approach in cultural and historic terms. Read Frank Herbert’s Dune saga and you could be reading an account of how economic powers on our own planet vie for dominance over oil reserves, except that in the Dune galaxy it’s ‘spice’ at the heart of the power struggle. I love Tolkien, but there’s no magic ring at stake. It’s a finite resource – an issue all too familiar in today’s world.
As I worked on Beyond Falcon’s Reach, I was intent on creating a vampire mythos whilst avoiding the trappings of high fantasy. That is: no wizards casting lightning bolts and glowing runes. There’s nothing wrong with high fantasy, but I just didn’t want that for this story. In so doing, I realised that the vampires should follow suite, therefore deconstructed in a new context and on another world – almost explainable in an anthropological way. Mirrors work fine. Garlic is no problem, and, as the story is set in a culture without Christianity, there are no crucifixes to contend with. Even if my vampires were challenged with a hulking gold cross, they’d just ask what it is! Having said that, some traits endure: long life-span, extraordinary physical prowess, need for blood, and, yes, an irritating cultural snobbery. Similarly, there are magic users in the story, but they are shamanistic and bound to natural forces. It’s a kind of parallel world with intriguing nuances, rather like a Planet of the Apes what-if alternative reality.
Q: You shared the early chapters of what was to become Beyond Falcon’s Reach on online publishing site Booksie.com. What did you take most from this experience as an author, and how did you deal with any negative feedback?
JN: Booksie was instrumental, because Beyond Falcon’s Reach gained front-end featured status not long after uploading the first chapter. This unexpected promotion caused a sudden spike in readership, the work got some great comments, and this gave motivation to continue. It’s hard to operate in a vacuum, and Booksie solved that problem. There are other writing share-sites such as Wattpad, and for anyone starting a book of any kind, I can’t recommend writers share-sites highly enough for global feedback. Honestly, it’s gold-dust! The opinions of closest friends and family are, sadly, not to be counted on too much – either because they don’t want to hurt your feelings (if they don’t like what you’ve written) or they’re just not interested. Opinions from strangers can be more objective and valuable. It’s not all roses when negative comments come through, or some readers have lost interest, but that’s life. I’ve tried to take on board what seems meaningful and accept that you can’t please everyone.
Q: Your novel is a sprawling work of epic fantasy. With a full-time job, how did you manage to find the time and space to write?
JN: Finding time is very hard. Authors dream of writing full time … emphasis on dream because this is speculative fiction in itself for most! To fit writing Beyond Falcon’s Reach with work and daily responsibilities, I had to exploit the early mornings, often starting at 5am when there are no distractions. I also think the brain is more charged-up at that time. Solitude is important for concentration, so I have a laser-fence and missile system installed around my writing zone … well, not really … just a ‘do not disturb’ vibe around me, seldom encountered in the wee hours, thankfully.
Q: What is it about speculative fiction, and fantasy fiction in particular, that you find so compelling?
JN: Even in my middle-age, this world terrifies me, in the sense that life is so heavy on everyone, and people can be so heavy on each other. It only takes a perfect storm of illness, bereavement, job redundancy, whatever, and bang! You’re sleeping rough. It’s true that speculative fiction is a kind of escape (isn’t all fiction?) but it offers some rationale to all the pressures, the angst, the rapidly changing technologies we’re facing. When you see you’re just a speck in a much bigger scenario – created from immense forces from the past and those looming in the future, so much outside your control – you can go a little easier on yourself, aside from environmental responsibilities. You’re only human, so you might as well draw some entertainment from it.
The reason I’m drawn to fantasy fiction stems from the same thrill I get visiting ancient ruins, or even wondering around the British Museum: that numinous sense of being part of a much bigger story. All the struggles, achievements and dramas of the past shape our world today; not just the physical, but the way we think. With Christianity, for example, its impact on western democracy, beliefs and society has been colossal; more than many would like to admit. Speaking for myself, when visiting an early Christian site, in Greece for example, I find it amazing to think how people so long ago put things into motion which influence the culture I live in. For me, fantasy is about collective expanse combined with individual imagination. The freedom of the author is in how that is conveyed, and what manner of world to sub-create. As a European, my vision for Beyond Falcon’s Reach has a European flavour, but it’s great to see more writers from different cultures using the fantasy genre to re-interpret their own histories and mythologies. I think this is an area where science fiction and fantasy meet: both genres make us feel big and small at the same time.
Q: There’s a definite Game of Thrones vibe to your writing, in its gritty and realistic tone. Was the TV series an inspiration, and were there any other forms of popular entertainment outside of the literary world that helped inspire you?
JN: I haven’t followed every episode of GoT, but I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen. The effects are dazzling, the characterisation, screenplay … everything is a knock-out. It’s raised TV fantasy to a level we couldn’t imagine twenty years ago. The giants, for example, are believable giants; just large enough without their musculoskeletal systems collapsing under gravity. It is a fantasy world, but disturbingly Machiavellian. Look no further than the House of Medici and their rival clans of the renaissance. GoT bears the reality of human greed and power-play at its heart, and the really clever aspect is how it’s all convincingly transplanted into a fantasy landscape.
Music is also a big influence for me, and I dabble to this day with a Roland workstation keyboard. It takes up obscenely large room-space, and equal headspace to figure out how the thing works! I like evocative music with layers and textures – music that flares up the imagination. In this respect, ‘Beyond Falcon’s Reach’ was first inspired by a song from Peter Murphy (ex-frontman of the post-punk group Bauhaus). There’s a particular song on his ‘Ninth’ album called ‘The Prince and Old Lady Shade’ which blew me away with its fascinating lyrics, and its landscape of light and shade. Abstract glimpses from the music struck imaginative sparks, which eventually, somehow, formed the beginnings of a gothic-inspired story. It is strange how inspiration comes from different angles, and not necessarily other books.
Q: You’re now in your early 50s. Why did you to come late to writing fiction, and do you think it has given you any particular advantages over younger first-time authors?
JN: People should write at any age, as soon as the urge takes them. I don’t think there’s any ideal life-period or blueprint. For me, the desire to write has been a cumulative thing resulting from a lifetime enjoying books, art, film, music, whatever. I have tried fiction- writing a few times in the past, but it was familiar story of fading fire and not seeing it through. As I have got older, my concentration has actually improved. It takes disciplined focus to write a full-length novel, with nobody setting deadlines for you. These days, I appreciate that things will only happen because you make them happen. Nobody else will do it for you.
Older writers may often have advantages in more secure life situations and, therefore, more time to write – whereas a lot of younger people today are struggling to get jobs, education and put roofs over their heads, let alone write! It’s a disgrace, to be honest – a total slap in the face to the coming generations. Having said that, if you really want to be creative, no matter how that manifests, you’ll make time somehow.
Q: You come from a background in the British computer games industry, where you worked as a digital artist. How did you find your experiences in this field useful in writing your novel?
JN: I mentioned attention-span, and you do need that in the games industry. As a concept and digital artist, I found the job exciting, especially for original game projects when the look and structure are planned out, but later stages can seem as laborious as any other job. I’m certainly not suggesting that writing is laborious, but that trouper spirit comes in handy when editing draft after draft. The first will be bilge … period! The first draft is just telling yourself a story. A book suitable for people to read will only happen after multiple edits.
The games industry is an entertainment industry, like book publishing, so I have no issues in writing to an audience, as long I can trust there’s a readership out there who see and feel things the way I do.
Q: Beyond Falcon’s Reach features a vampirical race, but never actually calls them ‘vampires’. Does this mean they’re not vampires as we’d understand them, or are they some kind of alternative version? What was the attraction of adding this race into the mix for your novel?
JN: The vampires in Beyond Falcon’s Reach exist on another world, and therefore in a different context to terrestrial vampires, so I’ve dispensed with the ‘V’ word in favour of ‘mountain-people’. Their numerous dynasties reside in two mountain capitals and high-altitude, provincial strongholds. Likewise, the human equivalents don’t refer to themselves as humans – why would they if this is another world? These valley people are known as ‘landfolk’, who have developed a respectable league of tenant countries, collectively under the Mourdant Hegemony. For long ages, a symbiotic relationship has enabled the mountain-people to ingest landfolk blood for continued existence: all in a frightfully civilised, chinking of wine-glasses way.
It all goes pear-shaped with the rise of a fanatical cult among the mountain-people of Farr City, who believe that landfolk blood is a religious birth-right, not an historically ratified privilege. So, with their blood-need, greater physical prowess and much longer life, the mountain-people do have classically vampirical traits, but by displacing the whole vampire phenomenon into another reality, where there’s a whole aristocratic empire of blood-suckers, we get a different picture. As the tale moves on, there’s an anthropological undercurrent to it all, but I won’t give anything else away.
Q: Are there any particular experiences or influences from your childhood that have borne fruit in the themes of your book?
JN: I grew up in a household full of books, as both my parents (now deceased) were academics: my mum a religious studies teacher and my father a university lecturer in Astronomy and Geology at Leicester University. It was my mum who put the C. S. Lewis Narnia chronicles and Arthur C. Clarke science fiction stories on our shelves, whereas books like ‘Nitroglycerin Experiments for Toddlers’ was my dad’s doing … just kidding, but you get the drift. I went straight for the fantasy and SF and was drawing pictures of aliens and spaceships from an early age. At secondary school, with the Dungeons and Dragons craze hitting the UK, I made my own fantasy comic called ‘Dark Ages’ featuring dwarves and centaurs, and so on. It was terrible, sold a total of one copy to a ponytailed eleven-year-old lass who thought Tolkien was King Arthur’s pet wizard, and that was it. I look back with immense gratitude to that sympathetic child, and chuckle. The fantasy genre was a fringe thing back then, but it’s far more mainstream now.
The emergence of 2000AD played another big part. Enter Issue One with the free space-spinner, and no kid of my generation had ever seen such incredible artwork and stories in a humble comic, and it was full of anti-hero rebels who don’t fit the mould. I’ve never been one to conform, so my weekly delivery of Tharg the Mighty’s thrill power was like nectar. My dad read it too. I’d often find him at the dining table on Saturday mornings, thumbing through the latest Judge Dredd, which was pretty cool, though I didn’t think so at the time because he always beat me to the letterbox.
Q: Your novel is the first part of a planned series. Where will things go from here, and when can readers expect the next instalment?
JN: I’m already busy on the sequel to Beyond Falcon’s Reach. I aim to elaborate on the world of the Mourdant Hegemony with more detail on things only touched upon in the first book. That’s the great thing about creating a series: the capacity to build up a world in layers. However, I want to be careful not to introduce an endless salvo of new characters, as there’s a danger of swamping everything into a gooey mush. Readers need to know the cast properly if they’re to identify and empathise, and a cast of hundreds isn’t a story in my eyes, it’s more like reportage. Overall, I’m happy with my progress, but there’s a lot of work to do. Hocus focus!
Nuff Said Publishing is an independent press dedicated to speculative fiction. It is based in Tampa, Florida. Here, founder Jonina Stump discusses Northearn’s book, the future of indie publishing, and the most common mistakes that authors make in the submission process.
Q: As a publishing house that specialises in speculative fiction, you must receive a lot of submissions. What, then, made Jay’s writing stand out from the crowd?
Nuff Said Publishing (NSP): We are smaller press, and we do see a fair amount of submissions. What made Jay’s submission stand out was the fact that the world-building was so intricate. It also never hurts when an author is aware of self-promotion, and Jay is most definitely driven.
Q: Fantasy literature has had its ebbs and flows in terms of popularity over the years. What is the public appetite for speculative fiction at present, and what does the future hold for the genre in terms of public appeal?
NSP: Like any genre, speculative fiction is on a cycle. At present, it seems to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, most notably slip-stream fiction (that being fiction which is hard to categorize). Audiences seem to crave more and more complex stories and, thus, creators are featuring nuanced plots, sometimes mixing fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Jay’s story is also a slip-stream novel, featuring fantasy, horror, and mystery.
Q: Independent publishing houses are very different beasts to the larger national, and international, publishers. What do you think an indie publisher can offer their authors, and readers, that the big fish can’t (or won’t)?
NSP: What a smaller press can offer, or at least what we offer, is the chance for a writer to be a bigger part of each step of the publishing process. We ask authors for input on the cover, and then work with them, sending and resending different proofs until it is right. Most presses give authors very little creative control on the cover. One of the biggest differences our press offers is a larger royalty percentage than most: 65 per cent of eBook and 55 per cent of print royalties go to the author.
Q: You’re a US-based publisher though you do have a few Brits, including Jay, on your roster. Do you feel that British writers have a somewhat different ‘voice’ or style to their American counterparts?
NSP: We have featured authors from the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Overall, a good speculative story is a good speculative story, and there seems to be no difference in how the story is told based on the author’s origins.
Q: On a related note, you are based in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, Florida. Are these places particular hot-beds for speculative fiction talent? Is the UK also a hotspot on the global map?
NSP: We are based in Atlanta, in Tampa Bay, because they are cities in which our editors and graphic artists are located. That being said, Atlanta has been a growing hub for writers and entertainment over the last few decades, and that is worth noting.
Q: What is it about speculative fiction as a genre that compels you to specialise in it?
NSP: The mission of our press is to promote well-written written stories, and to do so from a more diverse perspective. We believe that the world of speculative fiction is vast, varied, and invariably changing, with a range that exemplifies the potential for diversity. Although speculative literature is a genre of storytelling unto itself, it of course encompasses a sub-set of three influential fiction slots: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. This range invites several different types of stories, which is what we’re looking for. Disparate as each sub-genre might be, the “what-if” element is the central connection, with fictions based in escapism or heavier issues. The modern landscape of literature is changing, and the change is even more apparent when measured against the non-diverse founding writers of each sub-genre. When considering Raymond Williams and his belief in “culture as ordinary”, white protagonists are the cultural norm in many fictions, or as a product of culture. Utilizing that same theory, if what is ordinary is culture, then incorporating a more diverse cast of characters would not be an inorganic insertion, but merely an accurate reflection of the growing diversity of US culture.
Q: The book publishing industry has changed a great deal in the last few decades – something that some of the larger publishers have struggled to adapt to. As a smaller, indie publisher what do you make of these changes, and how do you view the future for indie publishers?
NSP: The changes to the publishing landscape are both a good and a bad thing. For instance, the changes in the industry have allowed writers to flourish, even without the help of a publishing house. It has also helped to promote the creation of smaller presses, like us. At the same time, the changes in the industry have perpetuated the illusion of a wide-open field, when in reality, not every book will be a hit. In such a competitive atmosphere, it is harder for a story to stand out. Overall, the changes to the publishing industry have also resulted in a demystification of the process, at least somewhat, so in general this is a very good thing. Accessibility on a larger scale is also part of the mission of our press, and so we have to take the good with the bad.
Q: If a compelling work of speculative fiction was a recipe then what would the main ingredients be?
NSP: Speculative literature is hard to define, but at its core is the import of slip-stream writing to create universal appeal. Altogether, the definition of spec lit will always lead to debate, and for good reason. Every theorist has their thoughts on what the genre is, and every one of them touches on something intrinsic. To start, R. P. Gill frames the genre as an open entity, or “works that fall within the micro-subjects of speculative fiction conjecture about matters that in the normal course of things could not be.” Not everyone shares the abstract approach to centralizing spec lit and would even call for a de-labelling of some genre work.
Once a novel is consigned to a category like fantasy, it may be dismissed due to the established tropes. For instance, the presence of dragons or talking rats could overshadow the bigger message of political import because, according to Terry Pratchett, “in [my] book the rats go to war, which is, I hope, gripping. But then they make peace, which is astonishing.” The simple part of spec lit is that a reader is transported from reality with the help of vampires, dragons, or space ships, but the complex part is that (sometimes), the vampire might reflect back a larger aspect of social, cultural, or political life, which, on the surface, may seem silly, but if rats can do it, so can vampires. The entirety of the genre is continually undermined and redefined, with some resisting the sub-genre labels, such as “fantasy”, because they fear the associated tropes therein may discourage audiences.
However, to acknowledge the use of genre conventions as tools can serve to strengthen fictions. For instance, Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972) is similar to Pratchett’s novel because it features a civilization of bunnies intent on surviving in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Yet, the inherent adorableness (and somewhat ridiculousness) of a bunny-helmed story is quickly negated in a plot laden with themes of power, regret, and survival. After studying Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s theories, Adams drafted his story with the belief that “all the stories in the world are really one story.” Whether the story of the hero is put on display using fantasy, science fiction, or horror, these are devices for furthering the titular mythos and themes, and need not be shrugged off, but embraced in the way that Adams embraced a fantastical world to create a story with crossover appeal. Watership Down brought in traditional fantasy audiences, and other groups due to the richness of the story development, and this is part of what’s special about spec lit, the ability for cross-over, or as mentioned earlier, slip-stream writing. If there is a recipe, it’s to utilize genre tropes, turn them on their head, and tell a story rich in meaning.
Q: As mentioned above, you must receive a lot of submissions from new authors. What are the most common literary clichés or mistakes that make your eyes roll as you spike the manuscript?
NSP: The most common mistakes that we see from submissions are incorrect use of dialogue tags, incorrect formatting or no formatting, and telling rather than showing. A lot of these mistakes are common and can be worked out during the editing phase. However, a mistake that will definitely result in rejection is overly relying on genre tropes without self-awareness of the clichés, or an overuse of violence and sexuality without any deeper meaning other than sensationalism.
Q: If you could recommend three works of speculative fiction that every author hoping to become a success in the field should read before putting pen to paper, what would they be, and why?
NSP: Three speculative works which exemplify the genre would be Frankenstein (1818), The Area X trilogy (2014), and Fledgling (2007). All of these novels are simultaneously speculative, and slip-stream. Frankenstein is helmed as both a definitive work of modern science fiction and a seminal work of horror. The Area X trilogy is, initially a work seeming to mirror Lovecraft, edges into science fiction then back into horror in the second novel, and with the third novel, it reaches towards fantasy, science fiction, and horror. As for Fledgling, it is the last novel published by Octavia Butler, and it works as a retelling of the vampire mythos, through the lens of a science-fiction background because the lead vampire is a genetic modification. The story is shared through the lens of a diverse perspective, as the lead vampire is black, surrounded by white vampires who distrust her based on her differences. A good work of speculative fiction will immerse the reader in an entirely new world. A great work of speculative fiction will do just that, while also introducing the reader to a new perspective, relying heavily on what Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement.” In Frankenstein, there is estrangement with the creature, and Area X and Fledgling seem to be based on isolation and estrangement. For this reason, they are works of speculative literature that every writer should not only read but aspire to.