E and I both feel head over heels in book love with the Majat Code series by Anna Kashina. (To share the love, see E’s review of Blades of the Old Empire, or our joint review of The Guild of Assassins. Our joint review of the third book, Assassin Queen, will be posted tomorrow). When her publisher, Angry Robot, asked if we would be interested in a guest post from Anna, we were over the moon. One of the more interesting points in the entire Majat Code is that Anna has managed to write a coming of age fantasy story where the heroes and heroines don’t lose or kill off all of their parental and mentor figures. We asked Anna to give us a little bit of insight into that decision. And here she is!
Using parental figures in fantasy without killing them off along the way.
Like it or not, we all tend to be prone to stereotypes. In adventure fantasy, these stereotypes tend to involve a young, rebellious misfit with some sort of a latent ability that would eventually make this person better than anyone else. Don’t get me wrong – I think this type of a character is a winner, and I enjoy such books a lot. But there are certain plot points that tend to come with those features that I don’t like all that much.
When we talk about a rebellious youngster, it seems natural for this character to have disrespect for authority, including the elders that may have been in charge of this character’s upbringing but are now explicitly or implicitly suffocating this character’s growth. This is natural too, we all tend to feel rebellious when our parents tell us to come home by midnight or forbid us to play games when we need to study for exams. It’s just that in a fantasy novel it is too tempting to take these understandable feelings to an extreme. Too many stories tend to fall into the pattern of either making these parental figures despicable and worth breaking away from at all cost (e.g., Cinderella) – or killing them off as a symbolic act of age-coming and gaining independence (e.g., Dumbledore). Such sacrifices do an additional job of infusing strong emotions into the story, maybe evoke a tear or two from the readers, and overall add to the load of the conflict in the book. I have seen it become almost a formula in some people’s minds – up to a point where an author I know got a request from a major publisher to kill off one of the main character’s parents as a condition of acceptance of a children’s book.
Personally, while I do find the stereotype of a young rebel with a hidden talent nearly irresistible, I hate the idea of killing the elders as a tool of upping emotions and emphasizing the character’s independence. To me, this is always a no-win. I know that my opinion on this does not represent the majority, but I do feel strongly about it. Having elders in your life makes you wiser, and those who make a difference are simply too precious to waste. When I read, this kind of a death always takes away from the book, no exceptions. So in my “Majat Code” series I resolved to use parental characters differently – and I am so glad I did.
In Blades of the Old Empire, the major point of view character, Kyth, is only eighteen, and his father, King Evan, is still in his prime years (forty five or so). Evan gets his fair share of action in the book, and has several point of view chapters, which really would not have worked without him. I love his cynicism and practicality in matters where everyone else is driven by emotions and ideals. Throughout the series, he does not always come through as positive–such as the ending of Assassin Queen, where Kyth has to stand up to him in a major way –but that just makes him more realistic. Above all, Evan is a strong king, and while by the end of the series Kyth has hopefully developed into his worthy successor.
Several other parental figures show up in the Majat Code books, including Mother Keeper, Lady Ayalla, Dagmara, and even the ever-ambiguous and annoying Aghat Seldon who plays a very big part in Assassin Queen. I loved each and every one of them, and their experience and judgment definitely helped me with the story. But the one I love the most is Magister Egey Bashi.
Egey Bashi is the second in command in the scholarly Order of Keepers, a superb healer who is also very proficient in politics, but is careful in maintaining an image of a simple soldier, which often makes people underestimate him. As a man of action, he is always on the front line. He is the one to step in and confront the leaders of the force when they are in need of a reality check and everyone else is unwilling to speak up. He will force his way into the Majat Guildmaster’s study against explicit orders and at the risk to his life. He will volunteer to be locked in a room with an enraged Mai for a confrontation that could easily end in violence. He is called upon to heal the deadly wounds everyone else is afraid to touch. People know his wisdom and turn to him for advice. They also know they may not like what he has to say, and that gains him additional respect.
In Blades of the Old Empire, Egey Bashi has several point of view scenes that I really enjoyed writing. In The Guild of Assassins, where the young characters often face too many emotional challenges to think clearly, I found myself using his point of view even more, often as the only impartial observer in the scene. During this book, I bonded to his character so much that I had to write a standalone story, Majat Testing, to take a closer look at what he was like in his young days.
When I started writing Assassin Queen I fully expected Egey Bashi to be a major point of view character again, but I was surprised to find out that as the young characters grew and matured emotionally, they became quite capable of handling the situations that previously only the Magister could resolve. When Mai -who carries the weight of the entire campaign on his shoulders and all the associated stress – becomes volatile, it is now Kyth or Ellah who would step in to bring him to his senses and help resolve the conflict. Kara throws herself between Mai and Seldon when their disagreement gets out of hand, and is able to single-handedly deal with the aftermath. Egey Bashi is still around and available if needed, but he plays a much more of a secondary role.
To me, this course of events seems very natural, and I am so glad it worked exactly as I wanted in the Majat Code series. In real life, our elders teach us most of the things we know, and they usually remain in our lives even when we no longer need their everyday guidance. It is still OK to love them, and even turn to them for advice from time to time, without compromising our independence or our ability to make decisions. There is no need for them to die at the point of our age-coming, even if, unfortunately, it does happen sometimes.
Thinking back on all this, I believe that the use of parental figures without killing them off in my books roots deeply in my personal life. I was always very close to my grandfather, the man who taught me to be a writer and has always been a role model for me in nearly everything I did. I consider him my best friend, my soul mate, and my spiritual guide. I always felt stronger when he was around. When I lost him to old age, back in 2013, I felt as if the ground has been kicked from under my feet. Without him, I may be more independent, and more of a grownup, but I will always feel incomplete. In my books, I would never want to convey even an echo of this feeling to my characters or to my readers.
ASSASSIN QUEEN (MAJAT CODE #3)
Defeated by the Majat forces, Nimos and the other Kaddim Brothers retreat to their secret fortress in the southern mountains. Nimos knows that the Majat’s victory is only temporary: during the flight, he managed to place a mark on Kara, one of the top-ranked Diamond Majat. His mind magic would now allow him to use this mark to confer her fighting skill to the Kaddim warriors and turn her loyalties to their side.
The new Majat Guildmaster, Mai, is planning a march against the Kaddim. His key ally, Prince Kyth Dorn, is instrumental in these plans: Kyth’s magic gift can protect the Majat against the Kaddim mind control powers. But Mai and Kyth are having trouble getting over their rivalry for Kara’s affections – even after they realize that this rivalry is the least of their worries, at least for the moment. Something about Kara is not right…
ASSASSIN QUEEN was released on June 7th 2016. Our joint review will be posted tomorrow, June 10th.