Sounds like I’m making excuses already, doesn’t it?
Well, there’s no denying that my most important mission when writing is to entertain as many people as possible, so I suppose this really is an admission of failure in a way. I love to read fantasy, I love the way it transports you to another world. The more epic the scale of the narrative, the happier I am. I love to be immersed, to sink deep into the comforting creases of the story, the conventions; the very rhythm of the author’s chosen prose. This is something I strove to create in ‘Io and The Extraordinary’.
However, to build something like this is to follow a certain blueprint. Stop me if you’ve heard this before…
A hero of humble origin discovers finds himself subjugated and dispirited in a land rife with unrest, he hears of a power source (ancient artefact, aspect of his lineage etc.,) and takes steps to find it. He encounters many problems along the way, not least in his own nature and finds himself at odds with a dreadful antagonist. He eventually uses his power to defeat his great enemy and restores order to himself and his world. He may also rescue some damsels in distress along the way, unless he is in fact a fiery sorceress.
And I’m not saying this is a bad thing. In fact a pre-established structure is an ideal basis on which to expand on important subjects, be that objectivism (a la Terry Goodkind) or feminism or any other topic that has been covered by the fantasy greats. They make for excellent reading, too.
When I set out to write ‘Io and The Extraordinary’, many years ago I certainly had no intention of doing anything other than writing a very standard, commercial novel with characters I liked in a setting I thought was fetching. As soon as I tried however, I began to question myself.
‘Why’, I thought, ‘do we write Fantasy the way we do?’.
‘Is this the best way?’ I wondered.
After that I subjected every single decision I made to painstaking analysis and this became deeply ingrained in the writing process. This doesn’t sound so unusual, I’ll grant you, but you’ll see I took it to extremes.
The story itself does roughly fall into three acts, and does roughly follow the form I illustrate above, but that’s because when I examined it, I decided that this was the best scaffold for the rest of the tale. It is at least one area where the reader may find comfort.
Many of the rest of the decisions I made conflict with conventions that aid the readability of a novel in this genre. For example, instead of the identifiable everyman, Io is an expert in her field. She is not a young woman just embarking on life’s adventure, a virgin canvas upon which a reader’s point of view may be readily transposed. She is at the end of her conventional journey; her conventional career. I made this choice for several reasons. For one thing, I felt that field of fantasy is somewhat overpopulated with callow youths treading the difficult path of a bildungsroman, although that is only what prompted me to examine the idea. Io’s story is not one of a youth: her personality, while flawed, is established; her achievements are already impressive; her life is settled into a certain groove. Sterk’s restlessness results from a kind of spiritual malaise, generated by what passes for magic in her world. I didn’t want her character to be read as basic. I didn’t want her quest to be ordinary. I didn’t want her story to start at the beginning. If you seek Io’s beginning, it has already been written; she is the hard-bitten hero of a thousand legendary wars, unsung and unloved though she may have been. This leaves me free to relate what I see as the really interesting part of seeking an awesome mythic force; living with the weight of it once you have it, and where it might lead.
This process of ignoring the straightforward typifies my approach. Naturally, it has its drawbacks. Continuing with the example of Io Sterk, starting ‘halfway through her story’ left me the problem of needing to explain some of her past as the novel goes on, being as I also had set myself the task of writing very in-depth characters.
To give another example, the world itself is a typically pre-industrial setting, except that it very much isn’t. To my mind the best fantasy worlds have colossal histories, linked in with the power at the heart of the story. I tried to write a conventional kind of magic but I wasn’t satisfied. It had to have a basis in some sort of reality. At this point I turned to A.C. Clarke’s famous aphorism: ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Jallentine- Io’s home- became a land briefly colonised by a futuristic scion of humanity, and left bereft. As you can well imagine there’s a whole story behind that as well, but we’ll leave that for another time.
This all starts to have an impact on the pacing and heft of the narrative. It certainly begins to tack onto the length, with ‘Io and the Extraordinary’ standing at a prodigious 255,000 plus word count. Now that’s a lot, I’ll grant you, even for a fantasy novel. This though, is no ordinary fantasy. Characterisation was only one of thousands of facets that I probed before committing word to page. Fundamentally, though it may have aspects of the archetypal tale I mentioned before, the novel also reflects a creative struggle. In allegory and actuality, Sterk’s tale delineates the relationship between a creative aesthetic and readable literary form.
It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?
This attitude of examination, rejection of the obvious and elaboration upon existing conventions within fantasy typifies the way I write. I sought to wrest so much from the genre, and so much from this single work.
You may not like it because of those very facts. This particular novel is cumbersome. It indulges itself at points. It veers away from certain satisfying tropes. The lead characters are sometimes inscrutable and they certainly aren’t particularly sympathetic. Romance isn’t high in the mix, the magic isn’t magic and really, it isn’t a fantasy at all.
I wanted to write a story to make you think about stories. Io is a woman to make you think about women, a person to make you think about people. The baddie- who may not be exactly bad- I hope will make you think about the nature of iniquity itself. I don’t doubt that it isn’t always an easy read. If you’re looking for a novel to effortlessly wash away the hours, this probably isn’t it. Let’s face it though, nothing worth doing is easy. Having written ‘Io and the Extraordinary’, I should know…