Why I Write Fantasy: A Suitcase of Treasures, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about the green suitcase in our garage that yielded two world-changing books, the first of which was Nine Princes in Amber. The second book I found in that fateful suitcase (and now that I write about this, it is such a strange happenstance to have so impacted an impressionable child) was not the first in a classic series, but the second: Patricia McKillip’s Heir of Sea and Fire. I read over and over again about land rulers, a dead king wanting his skull back, wizards who spent hundreds of years as trees, Ghisteslwchlohm, (If you need to find a reason for my own multi-syllabled wizards – look no further than big G.) and shapeshifters of mysterious intent. And Riddlemasters, in a college that managed to make all the arts into a riddle course – which, to be honest, sometimes seems fair, except there should never be a single answer.

As with Nine Princes I searched in vain for the other books in the series, and then, five years later I was in John Menzies on Princes Street in Edinburgh and I found it: a new edition of the Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy sitting on a shelf, with Heir of Sea and Fire set between these two other books in an unfamiliar cover. I thought – who is this Riddlemaster of Hed? Raederle is the heroine! Then I remembered all the references to that Morgon guy. He seemed a bit dull, but did show up with powerfully gathered muscles and a cool sword at the end of Heir. Raederle was where it was at for me, facing off absentee dads, dead kings, and people made of shells and seaweed! Who was this Morgon guy? In my mind I had created pre and post stories for Raederle and Morgon, and in a sense had been quite happy with them. I think that’s what the kids nowadays refer to as ‘Headcanon’.

Patricia McKillip’s world, filled with arresting imagery, strong women, powerful minds, and allusions to long histories not always explained, utterly enchanted me. The wizards and dead kings especially hung in my memory, but also the leading lady front and centre. My original main character, in a story I think I began even before my first attempt at a novel, was a young woman called Lyn. I think that can be attributed to Raederle more than anything else, though the leading ladies of Pern will also have been an influence! (Was Dragonflight also in that suitcase, I wonder? I begin to suspect so.) I have no idea now what happened in Lyn’s tale, but I have it somewhere, 30 odd pages of scrawl on UK A4 sized paper, wide ruled. (I graduated to using the narrow ruled for writing later. I felt very grown up!)

The writing in Heir of Sea and Fire is so evocative, like catching a dream on paper with images of flashing light and liquid shadow, poetry in prose so alluring it makes your mind drift and dance to its rhythms at times, that it was and is for me an intoxicant. And Patricia McKillip has only grown more skilled as a writer with the passing of time, a vivid economy of word, idea, and emotion that I can only admire, and seek, one day, to begin to emulate. Not in her style of course, that is all her own!

Two books, found in a musty suitcase at the back of a garage, have had an outsized effect on my imagination, and along with the core influences of fairytales, Tolkien, and Lewis, are inescapable influences on my writing life, for which I am very grateful. Reading them in isolation, away from the context of their companion novels, led me to a great focus on the detail of each, and that focus has lingered in the way in which I approach fantasy, I think. My imaginings (all forgotten now) of how their stories could have gone were very different from how the authors resolved them, but the shards of those thoughts and memories may still have an effect on what I choose to write, or how I employ certain characters and images. I wanted so much more on the Lungold wizards – so I have created a world full of them! Other striking books and authors have come along, and I shall mention them in future columns, but when I look at what I write, it is easy for me to see the traces of Nine Princes of Amber, and Heir of Sea and Fire. I consider that no bad thing.

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