Thursday, 24 October 2013

GUEST BLOG: At the Heart of Heartwood - Freya Robertson

Kia ora (that’s Kiwi or New Zealand-ish for hello!)

I’m here today to talk to you about what inspired my epic fantasy, Heartwood, which will be published by Angry Robot Books later this month (29th October 2013.)

Wow, what a question! Where to start? Writers gain inspiration from so many sources including movies, books and games. And all of these played a part in the creation of Heartwood. Epic movies like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, books like Terry Brooks’s Shannara series and Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series, and games like Guild Wars 2 (especially my level 80 guardian!) have had an impact on Heartwood. So have myths like King Arthur and Robin Hood, and the part they play in English folklore. But for this article, I’m going to concentrate on the historical influences.

There’s a lot of talk about epic fantasy at the moment—it appears to be having a resurgence, and articles are focussing on what this Neo-Epic Fantasy has to offer that’s different from the traditional Tolkien-esque fantasy. Traditional epic fantasy tends to involve a quasi-European medieval setting, a battle of good against evil, a vast landscape and often well-known creatures like elves, dwarves and orcs.

When I drafted ideas for the story, I had to balance what I was going to pick from that list of traditional themes, and what I was going to create anew. It’s not easy! Change the period, the setting, the high stakes and the creatures, and do you still have epic fantasy? I don’t know the answer, and it seems neither does anyone else. Various definitions of epic are “heroic”, “ambitious” and “classic”, and I wanted my story to retain some of these recognisable features, even though I didn’t want to write a copy of what had gone before.

I studied history and archaeology at university and I was interested in many different periods. I considered writing a story set in prehistoric times, or the Roman or Saxon period. And I considered moving it from an English-style setting to an Eastern European one. But from a child I’ve been fascinated by medieval knights, armour, weapons, castles and monasteries. When it comes down to it, that is my passion. So that is where I decided to set Heartwood. And that is where the “classic” part of the epic fantasy label comes in. I studied castles and fortifications, weapons and armour through the medieval period, but my greatest fascinations was with two things: Templar holy knights, and monasticism. And thus Heartwood became a blend of the two.

Heartwood itself is a fortified temple surrounding the Arbor—an ancient oak tree that holds the Pectoris, its heart. And the Militis are Heartwood’s holy knights who live in the monastic-style complex and both worship and protect the tree. The “heroic” and perhaps “ambitious” part of the epic classification feature in the high stakes, the battle of good against evil and the dangerous quests that the characters have to endure to try to save the land.

So there’s the traditional part of epic fantasy. All well and good, I hear you say. So what makes Heartwood different?

One thing I really wanted to address was the gender balance. I love historical fiction, but I don’t particularly like writing it because it’s often difficult to write strong females leads at a time when women (in general—no need to quote me all the important women of the period!) were not regarded as equals to men. I wanted to set the story in a quasi-medieval period that felt familiar to readers who liked medieval history but nevertheless featured strong female characters. The point with Heartwood is that gender is immaterial, and although much of the rest of the land has a medieval attitude to women, in Heartwood women can be knights and they are widely respected, and the leader of the Heartwood army is a woman. One inspiration for this was the movie version of Starship Troopers, which has a scene where men and women shower together. It’s not sexy, it’s not even commented on—it’s just accepted that by this time men and women fight together, and gender is irrelevant.

The other major change from traditional epic fantasy is in the creatures that populate the land. There may be different races of humans, but there are no elves, no dwarves and no orcs. The series name—The Elemental Wars—illustrates that these stories are about the elements. The people of Anguis are formed from the element of earth, and in Heartwood the element of water is metaphorically and literally on the rise. The Darkwater Lords appear from the oceans and rivers to attack the land of Anguis and steal the Arbor’s heart, and if the only image you’ve ever had of mermen is from My Little Mermaid, hopefully this will completely alter your way of thinking!

I hope this has shed a little light on Heartwood and its sequel, Sunstone, which will be published next March/April. If you like epic fantasy, then hopefully you’ll find Heartwood a modern twist on the traditional view of the genre.


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