Epic Fantasy Interview Swap – Helen Lowe interviews Ian Irvine

April’s such a great month for epic fantasy fans, with the release of both Ian Irvine’s VENGEANCE and Helen Lowe’s THE GATHERING OF THE LOST! We wanted to celebrate by doing something a bit different on the blog –  and we thought: ‘Who better to interview a fantasy author than another fantasy author?’

This is the first part of that interview, in which Helen interviews Ian about his new series The Tainted Realm. Look out for the second part, when Ian interviews Helen, this time next week!

Click through to hear all about Ian’s pet hates in fantasy, how his background as a marine scientist affects his writing, and also just what’s wrong with magic in Harry Potter…

This image shows both the cover of Vengeance and the cover of The Gathering of the Lost

Helen: I first met Ian Irvine at Worldcon 68 in Melbourne, where we shared a signing table. As a very new author my signing queue was considerably shorter than Ian’s—but I fully felt the privilege of sitting beside so experienced an author and even getting to chat in his few quiet moments. So when Orbiteer, Jenni Hill, suggested that with Ian’s new book, VENGEANCE, and my second-in-series, THE GATHERING OF THE LOST, just about to come out, it could be a great time for an author interview, it felt very much like picking up old threads.

Ian, what are the essential elements of epic storytelling that you believe characterise VENGEANCE, Book 1 of your new trilogy, The Tainted Realm?

Ian: Firstly, a mystery and a quest. VENGEANCE begins with a brutal murder seen by two very different children. Tali, an eight-year-old slave girl from underground Cython, sees her mother’s head cut open and something taken from inside. Though dreadfully traumatised, she vows to bring the killers to justice.

Rix, boy heir to the biggest fortune in Hightspall, also witnesses the crime. And soon the nightmares begin – that he’s linked to the murder, and that when he grows up, he’s doomed to repeat it.

Ten years later, Tali realises that the killers are coming for her. She has to escape from Cython, though in a thousand years no slave ever has. When she does escape, it precipitates Cython’s war on a desperately unprepared Hightspall. After a chance meeting with Rix, they flee together through a land at war. But then Tali recognises Rix as the boy she saw after her mother’s murder. How can she ever trust him?

And how can Rix trust himself with her?

Secondly, detailed cultures in original settings. For instance, the Cythonians are masters of alchymical warfare but regard any kind of magery (magic) as an abomination. Art is also a vital part of their culture – every stone wall and tunnel in Cython is carved into magnificent dioramas depicting the homeland stolen from them by treacherous magery.

Thirdly, an epic struggle that involves the fate of nations. Ice sheets are closing around the disaster-prone island nation of Hightspall, and its people feel that the land is rising up to cast them out. Then the Cythonians attack using alchymical weapons Hightspall has never seen before. Its only defence is magery, but Hightspall’s magery is also failing …

Helen: Epic closely overlaps with High Fantasy, and in both cases magic tends to be an important part of the storytelling. Do you feel this is true of VENGEANCE? What characterises the magic of the story for you? Did you spend a lot of time developing the magic system before you began writing, or did it evolve with the story?

Ian: Magery is fundamental to the clash of civilisations at the heart of VENGEANCE. To the Cythonians, magery was a sacred art only used by the king to heal his people and the disaster-prone land. But the invading Hightspallers used a darker magery on King Lyf, forced him to give up half his country then walled him up in the catacombs to die. The invaders also wanted Lyf’s king-magery, but it vanished when he starved to death, apart from a residue which allowed his wrythen to cling to existence.

Two thousand years have passed. The Cythonians are strong again, Hightspall is failing, and Lyf’s wrythen is bent on vengeance. And on finding his lost king-magery, because his troubled land is in great need of healing.

How magery works? I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on this before I started writing – I prefer to lay down the bones, write the first couple of drafts of the story then, once I’ve seen how magery is used in action (which isn’t necessarily how I planned it), develop it in more detail. However I do have three general principles:

  • Magery should be used infrequently;
  • It should come at a cost to the user (such as pain, weakness or exhaustion). Much as I love the Harry Potter books, I could never write scenes where the characters use a hundred spells in a fight, yet suffer no ill-effects;
  • It should often go wrong, or fail to work.

In other words, magery is like a treacherous friend – it can cause more trouble than it’s worth. And that’s as it should be. In The Tainted Realm, everyone and everything is there to cause trouble and grief for the main protagonist, Tali, and prevent her from bringing her mother’s killers to justice.

Helen: Ian, that sounds like a fascinating storyline, edge of the cliff stuff indeed! But you say that magery is “like a treacherous friend” and “that’s as it should be.” Is that a particular (i.e. to The Tainted Realm series) or general view of magic in Fantasy? And could you envisage writing a story where magic was a more benign influence on the story?

Ian: It’s a particular view for this story, Helen. Tali has a powerful gift for magery but, having grown up as a slave in Cython, where magery is regarded as an abomination, she’s never consciously used hers. Slaves who manifest the gift are executed on the spot and she’s spent her whole life repressing hers. Even after her escape, it’s difficult to overcome this psychological block.

I’ve written other stories where magic was a more benign influence. It all depends on how I design the story.

Helen: How strong an influence is your experience of Australia’s natural environment on the world building in your writing?

Ian: Not very. When I started writing fantasy (25 years ago) I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone or anything. Silly me – no writer can escape their influences. However I never wanted to retell, or be strongly influenced by, any mythology, legend, history or story I’d read.

I wanted to create my own unique worlds. I wanted to take my readers to places they wouldn’t go to in any other story, and show them things they wouldn’t see anywhere else. For instance, the Dry Sea in The View from the Mirror quartet – a stifling, salt-coated wilderness four kilometres below sea level, is an environment that hasn’t existed on Earth for five million years. Or the weird and toxic, tar-saturated depths of Snizort, in The Well of Echoes quartet.

I do draw on Australian landscapes from time to time. I live on a fertile, rainy plateau in the mountains of Eastern Australia, in an area that was covered in temperate rainforest a hundred years ago. I used aspects of this place in creating the environs of Fortress Gastoride, where parts of REBELLION and JUSTICE, Books 2 and 3 of The Tainted Realm, are set.

Helen: In terms of not wanting to “be strongly influenced by, any mythology, legend, history or story I’d read”—do you think that’s really possible for any author, given the extent to which classical, biblical and historical material imbues both our literature and also our wider culture? Do you have a method for alerting yourself to them and actively culling them out?

Ian: No, and it was naive of me to think it. We are what we’ve seen, read, experienced and believed. To try and rid myself of such influences, I plan my stories in great detail, analyse the plan for external influences and repetition of characters, situations and plot elements, and change as needed. Because I’ve written so many big books, I’ve used up hundreds of characters and situations, and if I didn’t plan stories in great detail I’d end up unconsciously repeating myself.

Helen: You have said that you try not to be influenced by other stories, but most writers are also keen readers—so are there elements when reading fantasy that “spin your wheels” when reading fantasy, ones that you try and incorporate into your own writing?

Ian: It might be simpler to list what I don’t like to read in fantasy (except when a master storyteller does it. Then, all is forgiven).

  • Good versus evil. A story can be set anywhere, anytime, with any of a thousand themes, so why do half the fantasy novels ever written deal with the battle of good versus evil – and often, evil for evil’s sake? Where my antagonists do bad things, which is often, they do them for reasons that are logical, reasonable, and right to them.
  • Stories set in some romanticised version of Europe in the Middle Ages. There are plenty of other lands and societies and periods of history that could be used. And on the topic of geography, why are most fantasy novels set in the northern hemisphere of the planet?
  • Violence for the sake of violence. Fantasy worlds can be violent places, but it should serve the needs of the story, not the other way around.
  • Women restricted to traditional roles (except where it’s a historical fantasy). I like to write stories where the female characters have as many adventures as the males. It’s fantasy, for goodness sakes – writers can create whatever kinds of worlds they like best. Perhaps that’s the problem.
  • Women acting exactly the same as men (i.e., stories where a female character could be changed to a male and there would be no need to change the character’s behaviour).
  • Traditional heroes and heroines. I hate ‘farm boy becomes hero’ stories. I don’t know why, I just do. Any man, any woman, any boy, any girl can be a hero. In VENGEANCE, the main protagonist is Tali, a petite slave-girl who starts out with nothing but her loincloth, yet ends up changing the fate of nations.

Helen: Coming back to writers also being readers, you’ve talked about what you try to avoid when writing fantasy yourself. But are there writers and books that are ‘highlight’ reads for you?

Ian: Glancing at my bookshelves, a few of the many books I’ve loved include Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, The Lord of the Rings, Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, Max Barry’s Jennifer Government. And one of my all-time favourites, The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s decades since I last read this book, and I can’t say precisely why I loved it so much, though I expect Ursula Le Guin’s creation of a new and different human society was at the heart of it. A society that resonated with me as none of the other societies I’d read about in SF at the time ever had.

Helen: Ian, you’re a marine scientist as well as an author—has that been a big influence on your writing generally?

Ian: Not on my fantasy novels, though I have drawn on it in other stories. My scientific background is also valuable because it gives me a different way of looking at the world, and different sources of inspiration and imagery. Think of a portal, for instance. Differences in air pressure would probably result in wind howling through it. And because of differences in humidity and temperature, the other side could be obscured by fog, or steam, or clouds of ice crystals. Such details make it real.

Helen: How would this affect VENGEANCE, for instance?

Ian: VENGEANCE is set in the island nation of Hightspall during the final struggle for supremacy between the native Cythonians and the invading Hightspallers. The Cythonians are skilled miners and alchymists, and one of the original inspirations for Cython was a treatise on ancient mining I came across while studying geology at uni – Agricola’s De Re Metallica, first published in 1556. Incidentally, it was translated from Latin to English centuries afterwards by Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer who made a fortune in Australia and later became President of the United States.

Helen: One of the things I really love about FSF is the way so much can be drawn into it—not just myth and landscape, but science and also the anthropological approach that characterises so much of Le Guin’s writing. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss your approach to your writing and learning more about your new book, VENGEANCE, in particular—I look forward to the next books in the series coming out.