Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Walking a Tightrope: Heroic Fantasy and Throne of the Crescent Moon

Today, we welcome guest contributor Saladin Ahmed, whose debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is released today!  Saladin in the author of numerous poems and short stories, including "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela," which was a 2009 Nebula Finalist for Best Short Story.  You can find him on the web here.

Thanks so much to Fantasy Matters for having me!

I'd like to talk briefly about the challenge of writing characters for heroic fantasy, and how I attempted to respond to those challenges in my debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon.

A great book may be able to convince us otherwise, but the fact is, literary characters aren't real people. The complex, information-packed stew of memories, feelings, thoughts, reactions, allegiances, fears, etc, etc, that make up one person's consciousness can't ever be evoked in all of its nuance using mere words on the page.

That, of course, doesn't stop novelists from trying. And at their very best, these attempts have produced some of the greatest art in human history. But even in those cases – Don Quixote, Victor Frankenstein, Ishmael and Ahab, Clarissa Dalloway, Ellison's Invisible Man – where a unique, nuanced character springs forth from the forehead of a novelist, *types* are inevitably referenced, however unintentionally. Indeed, it seems to me that, in almost all fiction, the writer is walking a line between familiar type and unique individual when she or he creates characters.

In heroic fantasy, where a certain set of familiar set pieces and concerns are absolutely central to – even constitutive of – the genre, this appeal to character type gets turned up to 11. So as I came up with a cast for Throne of the Crescent Moon, I found myself challenged to introduce readers to something new while referring to something familiar.

Complicating this was the fact that - in large part due to my Arab and Islamic heritage - I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write my own fantasy in a quasi-Middle East rather than the usual quasi-Europe. So my choice of setting and a cast of characters who reflect that setting culturally made the above even more of a challenge.

How did I respond? A mix of old wine in new bottles and new wine in old. To take the three main characters as examples:

The main character of Throne of the Crescent Moon is Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, a soon-to-retire, tired-of-this-shit ghul hunter. Adoulla is cruder than Obi-Wan, less powerful than Gandalf, more human than Merlin, and harder than Fizban. Yet and still, he is a CRANKY OLD WIZARD

Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla's young assistant, is an ascetic holy warrior whose swordsmanly skills would require Wire-Fu to be depicted onscreen. He doubts what's right more than Galahad does, he's not as kind as Luke Skywalker, and he's more immature than Sturm Brightblade. Yet and still, he is an UNBENDING KNIGHT.

Adoulla and Raseed eventually join forces with Zamia Banu Laith Badawi, a tribeswoman looking to avenge her slaughtered tribe. She doesn't have Xena's dark past, she's more butch than Princess Leia, and she's earthier than Wonder Woman. Yet and still, she is a WARRIOR PRINCESS.

There are other 'archetypes with complications' in Throne – a WISE GRANDMOTHER...who's also a warrior/proto-scientist, a CRONE WITH SECRET KNOWLEDGE...who's charming and sexy and connected rather than scorned and socially isolated. With each, I've tried to walk a tightrope, balancing familiarity on one side with a sort of gentle provocation on the other. It will be up to Throne's readers to decide if I've succeeded!