Starting a Fire(brand)
Firebrand is my fourth writing project and second book series, both of which have been purchased and will be published by Aethon Press. In many ways, Firebrand is my love letter to the traditional stories of wizards, though at the same time, I seek in a number of ways to reinvent or subvert those traditions and tropes. In anticipation of release day on Tuesday, July 25, I wanted to talk about my reasonings for writing this particular series.
The primary inspiration is Ursula K. Le Guin, a favourite author of mine and a pillar of the fantasy genre. In her Earthsea Cycle, the protagonist Sparhawk spends time at the magic school on Roke, though it takes up only a small part of the first novel. I always wished that the book spent more time delving into this school milieu, which given the success of other book series dealing with magic schools, it's probably not just me.
For that reason, the first books of the Firebrand series deal with our hapless hero, Martel, a teenage boy as he studies to become a wizard while taking classes, making friends and enemies among his classmates, and constantly getting embroiled in (mis)adventures in the Imperial capital due to his need to meddle and get in over his head.
An important feature of the world of Firebrand is that magic talent is given at random. There are no ancient bloodlines, strange potions, or vats of toxic waste. Magic, for whatever reason, in its inscrutable wisdom chooses children at random to receive the ability to manipulate this powerful force. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, it feels a worn trope in fantasy that to be special, you must come from a special family (and the new Star Wars trilogy has hammered this home). Whether it's magic being passed down through genetics or inheritance rights to the throne, it feels outdated to me that you won't be a hero if you come from simple peasant stock like the absolute vast majority of humanity does; you have to seemingly be an orphan, who is actually the long lost child of the dead king (insert slight variations upon family relations and context to fit countless fantasy stories). In the most extreme interpretation, it seems almost an argument in favour of eugenics. I want every reader no matter their background or family history to feel that this is a world where they can be special; like Martel, they could have the power to change things and possibly be a hero.
Secondly, magic being unpredictable makes it much harder to control. The predominant setting of Firebrand is the Asterian Empire, which runs like any empire you could imagine, on bureaucracy and military might. If magic manifested itself e.g. through bloodlines, the ruling aristocracy would indeed carry out a eugenics programme to ensure that all mages were born to their families, letting them control the magic. Instead, the Empire now coexist uneasily with magic; it recognises power and makes use of that power for its own gain, but at the same time, it must constantly be vigilant to control its mages, who come from all layers of society and all provinces of the Empire. It allows for an unlikely hero like Martel, coming from a far-flung, distant corner of the Empire to be ushered towards the Imperial capital, arriving with a completely different understanding of the world and how power such as magic should be wielded, to be contrasted with the rulers living at the heart of Imperial power.
Another familiar trope of fantasy is the chronological setting. Probably in particular thanks to Tolkien, but also many other writers, the European mediaeval times is the period par excellence for fantasy writers, which I am guilty of myself in my first book series. For that reason, having already written more than 800,000 words in such a time period, I wanted Firebrand to be a little different, at least. At the same time, I did wish to take advantage of the interesting features of mediaeval times, such as the slow movement of information, where it will take a letter from home a month to reach Martel at his school; more than that, I also wanted to take advantage of the symmetrical cosmology of the mediaeval world, so rarely exploited in fiction.
In my experience, most fantasy writers copy the feudalistic aspect, the warfare and the chivalry, and to some extent the daily life of mediaeval times for their settings. Almost none ever delve into their cosmology – how they believed that the light of the celestial objects (Sun, Moon, the planets) created the metals in the earth but also influenced us to become sick (hence the word flu from influenza, influence); while the idea of the four elements is common, there is rarely ever mention of aether, the fifth (and origin of the word quintessential) element that fills the cosmos beyond the circle described by the Moon, which I have reimagined to be magic flowing through everything, and so on. Thus, I found a treasure trove of world-building in the setting so often used, yet rarely touched upon in these particular aspects.
Still, just as humanity always innovates, so should any setting populated by humans. For that reason, the world of Firebrand is technologically at the renaissance stage with the introduction of early gunpowder weaponry having been developed over the last century. The potential of such weapons, still in their infancy, provides a contrast with the power of magic, possibly breaking its monopoly; a mage can kill an ordinary person by simply pointing their finger at them, but so can anyone with a flintlock pistol by pulling the trigger.
Given the length of the series, this blog post could continue near indefinitely, and perhaps it is best to end it now with the examples already given. On the surface, Firebrand is a light-hearted story, the coming-of-age tale of a wizard, but with deeper elements of society, power, and politics lurking underneath. If any of this has intrigued you, I hope you will consider giving the first book a try.