In my last post on State of Grace, I discussed how I came to write a fantasy-thriller mashup. I was now free to write the kind of story I wanted.
And so I did. I penned a Cold War thriller. My main character, Wolf Dasher, was an agent for Urland, a Western nation that is essentially a fusion of the U.S. and U.K. (When I listen to their voices in my head, Wolf has an American accent, and his superior, Micah Bartleby, has an English one.)
Urland is pitted against the old Soviet Union in the guise of Phrygia — a massive northern empire that subscribes to communism and isn’t very warm. The novel is set in the former capitol city of the conquered country, Bretelstein, which has been divided in two by Urland and Phrygia after the two countries defeated its mad dictator in a war several decades before. Bretelstein’s capitol, Mensch, was a stand-in for 1960’s Berlin.
I had a good time writing this novel, which I titled The Armageddon Clock, and it had all the feel of a good West vs. East Cold War spy yarn. And when I was pretty sure I had it in publishable shape I realized something.
It was terribly dated.
The Cold War ended in 1991. While readers my age and older would no doubt recognize the themes and maybe even smile, younger readers wouldn’t know any of it.
Moreover, the book had no relevance. The Soviets aren’t the bad guys anymore. One of the aspects of fantasy and sci-fi literature is its ability to discuss issues of the day without taking them on directly. By placing the events in a fictional world of the future or of legend, there is a distance from which they can be examined.
So, despite the fact that I enjoyed writing it and think it is a pretty good book, I put The Armageddon Clock away and started over. I may use it at some point in the future. Perhaps five or six novels into Wolf’s adventures it’ll be time to get it out again. But for now, I felt I needed something that was fresher.
That’s how I came to create the nations of Alfar and Jifan. Once they were one united country of elves. But 13 years ago, they engaged in a religious civil war that split them in two. Jifan seceded and established a rigid, fundamentalist theocracy. Unable to fully conquer its neighbor, Jifan sponsors terrorism aimed at destabilizing Alfar’s shaky coalition government. Alfar requires support from Urland’s military and Shadow Service to maintain its grip on power, but the conservative factions of the government want the human forces gone from elfin soil.
The situation is further complicated by magic trade between Alfar and Urland. The Urlanders don’t believe the situation in Alfar is stable enough for a full withdrawal, and they can’t afford for their interests to be threatened. The magic trade helps maintain their competitive advantage over Phrygia. (I couldn’t bring myself to fully throw out the cold war motif.)
My goal in creating this dynamic was not to say anything directly about U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am not educated enough to comment intelligently on that subject. Rather, what I wanted was a setting that would feel familiar to a modern reader and would be incredibly complex for a foreign secret agent to navigate.
For the same reason, I monkeyed with the traditional take on elves. The elves in Wolf’s world bear some resemblance to classical ones from Norse mythology (a subject I know a lot more about). However, I made them an extremely devout people that has suffered a terrible religious schism. In addition to there being two sects of elfin religion that both worship the same god and prophet, there are extremists and moderates in both factions that can’t agree on policy and philosophy.
Furthermore, their religion, while similar to human belief, differs starkly on the importance of a key prophet and his revelations. Thus, the religious beliefs of elves are poorly understood by humans. Naturally, this draws a parallel to Muslims and Westerners. Again, I do not attempt to say anything about Islam itself. There are as many sympathetic characters among elfin believers as there are villains. Rather, I wanted a world that would feel familiar to the modern reader.
So this is the hornets nest into which Wolf adventures, seeking the identity and motive of the person who murdered his colleague. He is thrown into a culture he doesn’t fully understand and has to navigate it despite his ignorance. Along the way, he stumbles onto a plot that could bring down two governments and change the balance of power worldwide. He’ll have to overcome his own mistakes and prejudices as well as the machinations of several powerful individuals to succeed.
State of Grace is a better novel than The Armageddon Clock for one simple reason: it is more familiar and more relevant. It was hard putting the first book away, but I’m convinced I’ve made a decision that makes Wolf Dasher’s first adventure more marketable. Since my goal is a sustainable career as a novelist, it’s a decision I’m comfortable with.