“Do something different with heroic/epic fantasy” was kind of the brief I set myself when I was writing the insect-kinden stories, starting with Empire in Black and Gold Certainly, finding new ways to stretch the genre is a boom industry at the moment – flick through the books of the last couple of decades and it’s like time-lapse photography. The rolling hills and verdant forests, the idyllic Middle-England of Middle Earth, all of it has apparently been well overdue for a scouring. Traditionally it’s the villains who want to turn it all into a grim wasteland that’s hell to live in. Now it’s the authors. Perhaps that makes us bad guys. Bad guys have more fun. They’re more interesting too.
And the kings and their conveniently delineated kingdoms are looking shaky, too. Up the revolution, say I. Just as in the history books, owning great tracts of land is suddenly a shaky power base. Fantasy has been turfed off the land and gone looking for work in the cities, and where there’s no work, it steals. There’s an incredible crime wave going through fantasy at the moment.
And there’s unrest, because nobody believes in the divine right of kings any more, and we know that the rulers are both fallible and corrupt. And as for prophecy . . . turn up in a book these days with a birthright and the words of some ancient oracle on your resume and they won’t give you the time of day.
In my SHADOWS OF THE APT series, the insect-kinden have had a rough time of it. Both the Wasp Empire and its enemies in the Lowlander city-states have been pushing the boundaries of their technology. The treaty that ended the last war is fooling nobody, and both sides have been furiously working away in the background of the last couple of books. We’ve seen some of the telltale signs in The Scarab Path and Heirs of the Blade. Whilst Tynisa and Cheerwell sort out their family issues, we’ve had the Imperial Engineers drilling for oil in the Nem desert, and putting into action their plan for a new aerial corps. We’ve seen the inventors of the Iron Glove cartel become the dominant power in their corner of the world, and the Beetle-kinden of Collegium haven’t been idle either. Book 8 is called The Air War, after all.
In traditional epic fantasy, nothing ever changes. The only person trying to alter the world is the Dark Lord, and to defeat him is to restore the status quo, in the manner of a surly working class fellow being evicted from a pleasant country pub in Surrey. The world follows a circular course, and the grand prophecy is interested only in putting everything back where it came from, and putting the oiks – sorry, orcs – in their place.
Science fiction tends to follow a linear approach, whether it’s the optimism of going on to the Stars or the pessimism of an inexorable dystopic decline. Progress, though, is time’s arrow that only goes one way, not round and round.
The technology of the kinden is not ours, it’s a bizarre mash-up of steam and clockwork and wishful thinking. It moves forwards, though, just as ours has. Each advance prompts a counter-advance, weapons, transport, communications, medicine. The kinden are solving the same problems that our own history has had to deal with, but they have very different tools at their disposal.
The world of Shadows of the Apt, of the insect-kinden, is changing, and it’s not all going back in its box. Political boundaries are being redrawn, technology is advancing at a fearsome rate, entire communities are going to be obliterated in the war that’s to come. The very cultures of the major players are going to start rupturing under the strain. Whatever will be left at the end of the last book will be a far cry from the world that I started with.