September 26, 2012

Guest Post: Kevin Harkness on Fantasy Settings

Today I'm happy to welcome author Kevin Harkness to Book Labyrinth for a guest post. Kevin is a fellow Canadian whose YA debut was released earlier this year.

Here's a little bit more about him:

Kevin Harkness is a Vancouver writer who has just finished a third career as a high-school teacher. His first two careers: industrial 911 operator and late-blooming university student, were nowhere near as dangerous and exciting as teaching Grade 10s the mysteries of grammar and the joys of To Kill a Mockingbird. He also taught Mandarin Chinese – but that’s another story. Outside of family and friends, he has three passions: a guitar he can’t really play, martial arts of any kind from karate to fencing, and reading really good stories. In this fourth career, as a writer, he attempts young adult fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Fantasy Settings: This Doesn’t Look Like Camelot Anymore
By Kevin Harkness

Fantasists are cocky. We write a world, sometimes a whole universe. If you read any fantasy novel, it’s all there: a stone to stub your toe against, a big, blue - or red - sky to wonder at, a stalking beast to fear. Authors take all these bits and weave them into a new land, an ‘undiscovered country’ for the reader. Opening the first page is like drawing back the curtain from a window. If the author does his or her job, you’ll climb through that window into wonder. If we fail, you’ll mash your nose against the glass.

I wonder what we expect to see in that first glance.

I know what I was trained to expect. I grew up in a time when fantasy almost always took place in a quasi-medieval setting, half of it borrowed from the fantasy of King Arthur’s court and the other half from a mish-mash of western mythology and magic. If you were lucky, the story carried you through the overly familiar parts: another many-turreted castle, another knight in too-shiny armor.

Then a revolution broke out, an expansion of fantasy settings into new lands, new mythologies. I first experienced it when I read Andre Norton’s YA novel, Shadow Hawk. It was set in ancient Egypt, a land and time that I still find fascinating forty years later. What a revelation! Sword and sorcery could happen outside an Arthurian or even Tolkienesque world. That liberating trend has continued. Fantasy worlds now range from post-apocalyptic dystopias to Norse sagas and Arabian tales. It is an amazing time to be writing in this field. Or reading.

My own YA fantasy novel, City of Demons, began as an experiment. I taught English in high school and YA novels were a big part of the job. I wanted to see what it took to write one. I began with a concept: what kind of person could stand up to a psychic attack of paralyzing fear? That gave me a protagonist, but where to put him? The medieval setting wouldn’t work. Knights in shining armor would be very easy prey for my demons. So what would my setting be?

In the end, this world had elements of real world historical settings – I was also a Social Studies teacher. There was a bit of Renaissance Europe in the streets and guilds, and medieval China lent an influence to the land’s writing, religion, and theatre. Finally, and I think most importantly, the city of Shirath is shaped by its own imaginary history. For six hundred years, demons have attacked and killed its citizens. I discovered that every aspect of the city is shaped by this danger, from the power structure to its physical dimensions. It is a city built by humans, but shaped by demons.

And maybe that is the secret. You can put your fantasy characters in any setting you want, but the setting can’t be a cardboard cutout for them to lean against. It must be dynamic, changing. Place should be like character: a vital part of the story.

And thankfully, when we go into that rarest of settings, an independent bookstore like White Dwarf Books in Vancouver that is dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy, we are surrounded by many, many inviting, open windows.

Thanks for the fabulous post, Kevin! I totally agree that when a setting is truly great it becomes like another character in the book. I also love that the concept of what a fantasy world is has become more diverse in recent years.

Demons are invading the Midlands for the first time in centuries.

The farmers have no defences against the murderous creatures. Swords in the hands of ordinary soldiers have no effect against demons, for the ability to resist a demon’s power – a projection of paralyzing fear – cannot be taught.

Garet’s life is forever changed the night his midlands family is attacked. Demonstrating a rare talent for resisting demon fear, Garet is taken to the city of Shirath to become a Demonbane: one who can withstand the demons’ psychic assault, trained in combat, and learned in demon lore.

But the ancient city isn’t a safe haven, it’s a death trap. While opposing political forces vie for the throne, a new demon terrorizes the citizens. To save Shirath, Garet must find friends and allies quickly, because the biggest threat to the city isn’t the demons, but the people living within the city’s walls.
Be sure to add City of Demons to your TBR list on Goodreads or purchase it through Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. That was a great post! thanks for sharing it ;)
    I think the setting is one of the things I enjoy the most about fantasy, even though it's not really my genre.


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