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Mordor, Defiance, and Hope

Katie

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light

I was intrigued going into Book VI at how this last leg of The Lord of the Rings was going to stack up in reality versus memory. While I’d always held Book VI to be my favorite, I’ve gotten the impression that that’s not a terribly common opinion. Kate Nepveu over at Tor, for example, associates it largely with an endless slog of long, grim walking. And that is… not wrong! “The Land of Shadow” covers twenty pages in my edition. Most of it consists of a long Despair Walk over Evil Lands. The land is sharp and ugly. There’s not enough food or water. Frodo’s hope meter has dried up entirely, and he powers himself forward solely on a blunt, practical reserve of duty. He assumes he’s going to die. It’s just a matter of giving it a go until then.

It says a lot about the tone of the chapter that within the first page Frodo and Sam dangle off the parapet of the Morgai road and then drop blindly into blackness, not knowing how far they are going to fall. They do this quickly and undramatically. What else could they do? It’s a brutal mirror image of the slow, pained descent through Emyl Muil, so many chapters ago. There, the hobbits nervously creeped over edges, armed with rope and light and rest. Things seemed bad then, ominous and pocked with danger. Here, they simply fall off a bridge into darkness. They make it: they have the luck (“luck”) to fall only twelve feet into a thorn bush. But there’s every chance in the world that they wouldn’t.

And that desperation characterizes the rest of the chapter. Frodo, when he speaks, does so in distracted, short sentences.  “Look here, Sam dear lad,” he says at one point.  “I am tired, weary, I haven’t a hope left. But I have to go on trying to get to the Mountain, as long as I can move.” And Tolkien remains pitiless towards his characters. For every instance that he gives them a trickle of bitter oil-water or allows for a “dreary canopy dim light [to leak] into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison,” he also floods the path of Mount Doom with tightly-packed camps. Or he makes Frodo and Sam, after a twelve-mile walk (on hobbit legs!), endure a brutal forced run.

It’s no wonder, throughout this chapter, that Frodo so consistently abnegates himself. He rarely seems to think or feel, simply focusing his energy on the mechanical completion of his task. His personality seems largely blunted out. He cares about their obstacles only abstractly, repeating how unsurprised he is that things are going poorly. And in a particularly frightening moment, he reveals that not only his sense of self but his own past seems to be being stripped away. “This blind dark seems to be getting into my heart. As I lay in prison, Sam, I tried to remember the Brandywine, and Woody End, and The Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now.”

 mordor

Light and High Beauty in Mordor

It’s disheartening how this sense of loss pervades even the chapter’s moments of relative hope. Sam’s wish for light is granted with an impressive speediness.

Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields. 

It’d have been easy to make this an obviously triumphant moment. Something akin to the shaft of light illuminating the king’s head at the Crossroads. A new wind blows across the Pelennor, Éomer gets his eucatastrophe, and Aragorn turns the tide of battle. It seems things will metaphorically play out above Frodo and Sam, in that “battle far above in the high spaces of the air.” But there is so much distance. The light that comes is weak and grimy. Even when Tolkien steps in to tell us it’s the fifteenth of March, he chooses the grimmest depiction of what’s happening: Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields. It’s an objective moment of hope, but in the moment it feels… largely useless. Mordor filters the light and the story into its grimmest iteration, like a depressed brain stuck in thought patterns that silence the good and augment the distressing.

It’s even, as per usual in Tolkien, reflected in the landscape. Mordor, Tolkien notes, “was a dying land, but it was not yet dead.” There seems to be some hope in this, especially since it comes on the tail of Frodo and Sam finding a trickle of unpleasant-but-potable water. It could be a moment of resistance, of the land itself fighting back against what Sauron has done to it (in a light parallel to Saruman). But instead, as we get deeper into the landscape, we find that all that has survived is violence.

Coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives.

Beyond that, the orcs and midges in the land have all be marked, branded by a Red Eye. And by the time Frodo and Sam reach the Morannon it is utterly desolate, bereft of any life at all. Over the course of the chapter, what started as apparent resistance is revealed to only be an allowance at best, and an articulation of Mordor itself at worst.

In both cases, moments of potential hope get kneecapped before they can really take hold. There is one moment, though, that seems like it manages to transcend this: when Sam sees a star.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for the moment, his own fate, and even his master’s ceased to trouble him.

This passage was deeply meaningful for Little Katie. I remember re-reading it solemnly the way some people probably re-read the Bible. I was very attracted to the idea that beauty or hope could be a piercing, physical sensation. It always made me feel both hopeful and sad. That’s still there, but I am intrigued by the last two lines, which I hadn’t particularly remembered. The distinction provided here between defiance and hope is a fascinating one to me: the position of the self. Where Frodo’s despair seems to be manifesting in the loss of his own self, Sam seems to find hope in the same thing: in their very transience of their roles in the grand scheme of the story in which they partake. It’s a nice, complex moment, especially given how central individual choice is to Tolkien’s moral cosmos.

mordor

Final Points

  • We get our seeding for the return of Gollum next chapter. I hadn’t recalled that Frodo inadvertently saved Gollum’s life here. His mail shirt, discarded on the first day of their walk, was picked up by Gollum and saved him from being killed by an orcish arrow in the back. I think I’m going to wait for our big conclusion next chapter to comment on that. But one of Frodo’s few moments of active choice in this chapter—to discard his mail shirt and sword, under the assumption that he’s done striking blows—saves the being that will ultimately save the mission.
  • In a chapter that is decidedly Not Funny, I got a big laugh out of Sam saying “Let me drink first, Mr. Frodo” upon finding a trickle of water. Frodo, vaguely put off about it: “Alright, but there’s room enough for two.”
  • It seems a reasonable reading to say that the star Sam sees is Earendil, though Tolkien doesn’t explicitly state it. (Kate Nepveu in the article linked above says Tolkien reveals it in the Appendices, but I haven’t checked). It works either way, both readings adding different kinds of complexity to the story.
  • I have been delighted to find out how gossipy Mordor is and how ineffective its propaganda machine is. The orcs on Sam and Frodo’s trail note they don’t even know what they’re hunting for. “First they saw it’s a great Elf in bright armor, then it’s a sort of small dwarf-man, then it must be a pack of rebel Urukhai; or maybe it’s all the lot together.” The defeat of the Witch King of Angmar has also leaked, despite the party line that the War is Going Well. I like this both for the insight that some factions in Mordor are treasonously delighted at the demise of the “Shriekers,” and also because it makes me wonder if Tolkien cribbed some of this from the notorious role of propaganda in World War I.
  • Prose Prize: “Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.”
  • Contemporary to this Chapter: As you can see right above, it’s Battle of Pelennor Field Day! As far as I can tell this chapter covers March 15-19, reaching the early parts of our other heroes’ march to Morannon. Also interesting, though, is the fact that Sam thinks on Lórien and Galadriel as they were being hit by the second assault of Mordor forces. “If only the Lady could see us or hear us, I’d say to her: ‘Your Ladyship, all we want is light and water: just clean water and plain daylight, better than any jewels, begging your pardon.’ But it’s a long way to Lórien.” Sam sighed and waved his hand towards the heights of the Ephel Dúath, now only to be guessed as a deeper blackness against the black sky.”
  • In two weeks: the end of all things! Meet you at Mount Doom.

Art Credits: Art, in order of appearance, is courtesy of WiseSnailArt, suwi, and Ted Nasmith.

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

This chapter and the previous one are great! I love the descriptions of Mordor’s flora and fauna, fleeting though they and their descriptions are. I love the glimpses of Orc dynamics, perhaps because this isn’t the grimdark sort of book where they’re the norm, not a novelty; they’re also fine expositionists. I love the return to a small scale — no more battles and kings and stuff, just two brave little people who care deeply for each other, making their way through a hostile place with hopeless determination. I haven’t exactly been in that situation, but somehow feels more relatable… Read more »

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

This chapter and the previous one are great! I love the descriptions of Mordor’s flora and fauna, fleeting though they and their descriptions are. I love the glimpses of Orc dynamics, perhaps because this isn’t the grimdark sort of book where they’re the norm, not a novelty; they’re also fine expositionists. I love the return to a small scale — no more battles and kings and stuff, just two brave little people who care deeply for each other, making their way through a hostile place with hopeless determination. I haven’t exactly been in that situation, but somehow feels more relatable… Read more »

Bo
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I love that those are short sentences in Tolkien world. Even short sentences have multiple commas.

I think chapters like this are why Tolkien’s descriptions of the landscape never bothered me. It all pays off when you get to Mordor and it’s just so bleak and awful. I miss all the hills and glens and rivers and brooks and dales.

Chapters like this are also why Sam is the best and I love him so much. I freaking am Sam, and it strikes me hard in chapters as dark and sorrowful as this one.

Maidens and Mules
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Maidens and Mules

This chapter is the source of “where there’s a whip, there’s a way,” which in turn gave us the delightfully campy song of the same name from the 1980 animated Lord of the Rings film. Much like he does with the Old Forest, Rivendell, Moria, Lorien, and Fangorn, Tolkien writes Mordor like it’s a character. However, unlike the others, Mordor is a character which has hosted Sauron for so long, it does not die, but it does not grow either. It’s like the effect of the Ring on its bearer applied to a whole landscape. Yet just as the Ring… Read more »

Angelina
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I love this chapter for being… very, uncomfortably real, I think? Somehow Tolkien manages to delve into very unpleasant realities without going full grimdark or “torture/despair/coprorealism porn”.

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

Comment by Steve Morrison, posted on request: This is in answer to the question about how we know Sam’s star over Mordor was canonically Eärendil. The clinching reference is in Appendix A part 1i, Númenor. The sentence “Eärendil was not permitted to return to mortal lands, and his ship bearing the Silmaril was set to sail in the heavens as a star, and a sign of hope to the dwellers in Middle-earth oppressed by the Great Enemy or his servants,” is footnoted. The footnote is just a string of page references; following the very last of these references leads you… Read more »

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The Steward and the King (and Éowyn)

Katie

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Éowyn

People (nerds) have already spilled bottles of ink over the fate of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings. Some find her romance with Faramir and her change of heart a fitting and satisfying end to her character’s series-long arc. Some find it a betrayal, a last-minute shunting of the story’s primary female heroine, who had regularly eschewed traditional gender roles, into the “safe” role of wife and healer. And… both of these are true! So, come on, friends. Let’s talk about some feminism.

“I Looked for Death in Battle. But I Have Not Died.”

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: pretty much any question about the appropriateness of Éowyn’s character arc would have evaporated on arrival if Tolkien simply had more women in his story. As we’ve noted here before, Tolkien is… sparing with the women who appear in his story (though when they show up, there’s often better than their modern fantasy counterparts). Éowyn is one of the only women in The Lord of the Rings. She’s certainly the only women to so clearly question the gender assumptions of her society.

So when Éowyn declares that she “will be a shieldmaiden no longer nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren,” it can feel like that narrative is going back on its promise. It’s easy to assume that Tolkien intended to say all of her earlier critiques and actions had been misguided, or “wrong.” Éowyn wanted to go out and fight with the guys, but she would have been happier nursing and cultivating all along.

This becomes especially difficult to swallow when this transformation occurs as she falls for a handsome prince/steward whom she had just met. Her courtship with Faramir, on several occasions, seems predicated on Éowyn “weakening” herself. When she demands that Faramir let her leave the Houses of Healing before the doctor-prescribed time, “her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself,” fearing that Faramir will find her childlike and petulant. On another occasion, talking to him, Faramir notes that her voice became “like that of a maiden young and sad.” Out of the context of her entire story, this feels very much like Éowyn attaining happiness by softening her edges, by giving up her earlier demands to become a maid, uncertain and waiting to be saved from her sadness.

And… none of that is exactly incorrect. Where I question that strand of criticism, though, is in its tendency to reduce Éowyn to Valiant Fantasy Warrior Maid, whose narrative role is to defy the men keeping her down. If that were simply who she was, her ending would absolutely be a betrayal. But Éowyn’s story has always been more complicated. Her desire to cast herself headlong into battle has always been both deeply understandable and deeply misguided: a fusion of justified anger at her restricted role and a misplaced glorification of battle that borders on a lust for self-harm. Éowyn is not a badass fantasy warrior who just wants to fight. We’re never told that she loves sword-fighting, or tactics, or cavalry formations. Éowyn loves the idea of fighting, the lifestyle of it, those riders who get to go out and make choices and affect their own futures. She is a person whose life has become some terrible and so circumscribed that she feels her best option is to blaze out in battle. Perhaps people will sing songs about her. Better that than to have leave to be burned in the house, when the men will need it no more.

By the time she reaches The Houses of Healing—and honestly, well before that—this desire has verged on the suicidal. “I looked for death in battle,” she tells Faramir in their first meeting. “But I have not died.” So, so much of Éowyn’s story has been centered on choice, and how it is almost always denied to her at every turn. You get the sense, reading The Lord of the Rings, that her attempts at choice were whittled down so far that death would be welcome to her, so long that it was something that she chose. But then she was not even allowed to do that.

Éowyn

Éowyn and Faramir

Faramir, of course, allows Éowyn to choose.

It’s the heart of their relationship, and it means that it works better thematically than as a palpable romance (Faramir seems to think Éowyn pretty and sad; she seems to think him pretty and nice). Things move pretty fast—which, eh, the world’s ending and they are both pretty, have fun, kids—and their chemistry is nothing to write home about. But I think it works nicely as a thematic end to Éowyn’s story. Things start off by seeming like more of the same: Faramir won’t let Éowyn ride off to chase after Aragorn and the armies marching on the Black Gate (rightly pointing out she wouldn’t be able to catch up in time anyway). But after that, Faramir leaves the agency largely to Éowyn. After their first meeting, he simply tells her that they can meet more if she’d like, at her discretion.

“You shall walk in this garden in the sun, as you will; and you shall look east, wither all our hopes have gone. And here you will find me, walking and waiting, and also looking east. It would ease my care, if you would speak to me, or walk at whiles with me.”

It’s such a kind offer of support to someone in Éowyn’s position. He lets her know that he would like to spend time with her but also leaving the choice entirely up to her. They spend most of their time together simply sitting or walking and talking, coming to understand each other and the commonalities of their past. And, eventually, he asks her to choose what she wants. And she does.

Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone upon her.

I, uh, have this engraved in wood and hanging on my wall. It’s very simple, but it also means a lot to me. So much of Éowyn’s story is so very sad, and so much of her action through the story is driven by desperation, by a drive to assert herself that’s so strong that she’s willing to destroy herself in the process. In this context, Éowyn’s turn at the story’s end is not a betrayal of her integrity as a character or a patriarchal demotion. It’s a moment of brightness. That with such a slight shift, and with just a bit of help, she was able to turn and warm and choose and grow. For me, at least, Éowyn was never a “feminist” character primarily because of her pushback against Middle-earth gender norms. Rather, Éowyn was a “feminist” character because of her constant assertion of her right to be able to make choices about her own life, even in the face of widespread pushback from those who cared about her most. In the end, she was finally able to choose. And her life was better for it.

 

The Return of the King

So much of this chapter focuses on the stories of Faramir and Éowyn that I’d nearly forgotten that it’s also the chapter where Aragorn is crowned king, enters Minas Tirith, finds a Nimloth sapling, and gets married (!). Life gets busy when you’re a king, I guess.

Aragorn is quite remote by this point in the story. So while there are some nice moments here, everything also feels very elevated, very lofty. Kate Nepveu has noted that in a book that starts and ends very heavy on the hobbits, “The Steward and the King” is the clear low-point of hobbit saturation. And it shows! It’s a more formal, cooler, more aloof chapter than those that surround it, so much of Aragorn’s actions here are things that I appreciate but care about largely in abstraction. There are still some good ideas floating about, though.

The first, and largest, is simply the sense of loss embedded all of this. It’s funny: Aragorn’s reign is Minas Tirith’s canonical golden age. Tolkien notes specifically that under his rule the city became “more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory.” But there’s still a sense of sadness, stretching forward and stretching back. Gandalf articulates the obvious one, the one that’s been highlighted throughout the series: that things that were will be lost.

“The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.”

I like that the nostalgia here—“much must now pass away”— is twinned with potential growth. The language focuses on saving and on preservation, but the fact that this sits cheek-by-jowl with the command to Aragorn to order the Fourth Age’s beginning is a nice reminder that in Middle-earth loss is often accompanied by possibility.

Of course, the inverse is true as well. Even at the high point of Minas Tirith’s history, there is a sense of impermanence. Tolkien notes that after Aragorn’s coronation, the city was

filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble; and the Folk of the Mountain laboured in it, and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there; and all was healed and made good, and the houses were filled with men and women and the laughter of children, and no window was blind nor any courtyard empty; and after the ending of the Third Age of the world into the new age it preserved the memory and the glory of the years that were gone.

It’s a beautiful picture, bright and happy. But the sudden perspective shift into the ambiguously-distant future almost creates its own sense of sadness. Jumping forward to give the encapsulation of Aragorn’s glorious reign functions to make it feel to the reader as though that were in the past as well (which, canonically, it is). It’s an interesting combination. Tolkien is using very old forms and archaic systems in most of his handling of Aragorn in this chapter. But he’s using them to convey a sense of transience, of continual change and momentum.

And while it’s a bit on the nose, I do enjoy Aragorn’s rediscovery of the White Tree, and Gandalf’s insistence that “if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world.” It fits in quite nicely with the themes of growth, renewal, and cultivation that are littered throughout the end of the story. We see some of it here in Éowyn’s reorientation towards healing and growth and we’ll see it more later in Sam’s upcoming replanting of the Shire.

Éowyn

Final Comments

  • Aragorn apparently makes peace with the Easterlings and Harad after the fall of Mordor. They are still hard for me to reckon with, as part of Tolkien’s world. They are such ciphers and such others in the story, and problems quickly arise no matter what reason you ultimately settle on for why they served Sauron.
  • “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, I said, and that was how it was all discovered. And Mithrandir, he said to me, “Ioreth, men will long remember your words, and – ” I was a little annoyed by Ioreth back when we first met her in “The Houses of Healing” but I was kind of charmed by her here? Honestly, who am I to say, that if I got to talk with a wizard and hang out with the new king on his first night in town and help him do is healing, I wouldn’t tell absolutely every person that I knew.
  • I laughed out loud at the phrase “the harpers that harped most skillfully.” Which is fine linguistically, I guess, but is also a ridiculous phrase, J.R.R. Also, in related news: harp comes from Proto-Germanic harpon, also the source of Old-Saxon harpa, or “instrument of torture.” Please make fun of all your harpist friends accordingly, even those that harp most skillfully.
  • I enjoyed it very much that Éowyn moped around Minas Tirith, passive-aggressively ignoring her brother’s invitation to the Field of Cormallen. And then when Faramir shows up to ask her about it, she almost immediately yells at him to speak plainer and just express his feelings.
  • One more word on Éowyn: I think her story fits nicely on Tolkien’s attitude towards war and battle itself. She is arguably the biggest battle hero of the entire book, and she’s praised for that. But war is at best a grim necessity in Tolkien’s moral universe. The Rohirrim’s battle lust is often viewed as someone childlike and immature. Even the best warriors don’t put too much stock in the glory of battle. The level to which Éowyn elevates it was never going to be good for her or for anyone in this story. But Tolkien is also aware that Aragorn’s attitude towards war comes from a place of privilege that Éowyn does not possess.
  • High Point of Faramir Seduction: When he respects her boundaries but lets her know that she is welcome to chat and go for walks with him if she wants to. Yeaaaahhhh.
  • Low Point of Faramir Seduction: When a few days after meeting her, he decks Éowyn out in his dead mom’s star cloak. He is pleased by how pretty and sad it makes her look. Yikes.
  • Prose Prize: And they went up by steep ways, until they came to a high field below the snows that clad the lofty peaks, and it looked down over a precipice that stood behind the City. And standing there they surveyed the lands, for the morning was come; and they saw the towers to the City far below them like white pencils touched by sunlight, and all the vale of Anduin was like a garden, and the Mountains of Shadow were veiled in a golden mist. Upon the one side of their sight reached to the grey Emyn Muil, and the glint of Rauros was like a star twinkling far off; and upon the other side they saw the River like a ribbon laid down to Pelagir, and beyond that was a light on the hem of the sky that spoke of the Sea. The whole thing is rather nice, but the last bit cinched it. “A light on the hem of the sky that spoke of the Sea.” That’s so lovely.
  • Next time, on November 28th, we’ll dive into “Many Partings.” As far as I can remember it is a chapter where everyone hangs out and is friends and give each other presents. But in a slow, melancholic way because, well, that’s the tone into which we’re heading. See you then.

Art Credits: Art, in order of appearance, is courtesy of Snow-Monster, s-u-w-i, Jian Guo, and aegeri.

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Creator Corner: Interview with Author Mirah Bolender

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A few weeks back, my city hosted a week-long book fair, complete with panels, book readings, sales, and a whole bunch of other goodies a book nerd like me can’t get enough of. Of course, I couldn’t stay away from the panel entitled, “Fearless Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” That’s my peak aesthetic. While there, I got the pleasure of listening to debut author Mirah Bolender talk about her debut novel, City of Broken Magic. I also managed to snag an ARC (advanced reader copy) of her book, and she graciously consented to do an interview with me. If you like fearless female protagonists and magical bomb squads, you’re going to want to check out City of Broken Magic.

Gretchen: What got you into writing? Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer or come to it more recently?

Mirah Bolender: I’ve been writing since childhood. My uncle recently unearthed an old photo album of me at 10 years old, with the note that “Mirah wants to be a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.” The exact direction hasn’t always been clear, but the writing always has been.

G: What drew you to writing fantasy in particular?

MB: Almost every single piece of media I enjoy is fantasy or science fiction. It always feels fresh, inventive, or engaging, and I’m a sucker for inventive world building and fun characters. Fantasy provides a much wider playground. Also, I can’t write nonfiction to save my life.

G: I’d love to know more about the moment it clicked for you that you wanted to write this specific book. When did you realize, “I have a novel?

MB: I cannibalized a lot of old story concepts to fill in gaps. Since the original piece began as a prompt, it wasn’t very balanced and catered more toward checking off boxes, but the more I eliminated the newer, stranger bits, the more I realized that the makeshift mortar worked. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a five-year-old idea finally work in a plot, and I had about eight of these old threads coming together. I really wanted to see where it led, so I kept writing, and kept writing… 75,000 words later I realized this was becoming a monster itself and I loved it!

G: The setting for City of Broken Magic is early industrial/late 19th-early 20th century, was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?

MB: The characters came first, so the world was shaped in response to my first image of them and the equipment they used. I wanted the setting to be modern enough to accommodate what I had, but also not too modern as to limit the fantasy aspect. A lot of times when a fantasy happens in contemporary times, it becomes limited by the real world—by locations, by politics, or otherwise. I wanted there to be no illusions that this was operating in a completely different world, and I wanted the freedom to explore from a blank slate.

G: City of Broken Magic features what amounts to a magical bomb squad, how did you come up with that idea?

MB: It actually came through multiple steps. My original concept had the monsters less substantial, nightmares to be driven off by sunlight. I changed it up for a story prompt in class—“A day on the job,” where it became a more physical monster. Then where did it come from, if not a nightmare? The more I wrote, the more the context came together to become what it is now.

G: This is a two-parter, but they go together: 1) What is your favorite thing about your primary characters? 2) Summarize each of them in a sentence of 20 words or less, if you can.

MB: I think my favorite things about my primary characters are how easy it is to write Laura, and how fantastic Clae is for grumpy exposition. Sometimes I’ll start writing another story and have to stop and say, Wait a second, I’m writing Laura all over again. She’s become my default character voice and it’s hard separating from it. If I were to summarize them, they’d be:

Laura: “Come back here and say that to my face!”

Clae: “Bite off more than you can chew and then CHEW IT!”

G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or like the creative juices aren’t flowing?

MB: Revisiting anything I enjoy helps. Last year I was watching Return of the Jedi on TV, and I had the strongest urge to create something even half as cool… after that I wouldn’t put down my notebook to pay full attention to the movie. It doesn’t always give you a direction, but sometimes that excitement is all you need to kickstart motivation again.

G: As a debut author, what was the most useful piece of advice you were given during the writing, querying, or publication process?

MB: Ironically, the best piece of advice was that I can ask for advice. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been phenomenal in teaching and supporting me through the publishing process, but, like in every piece of work, there’s inevitably one or two details that slip through the cracks— what seems obvious to the experienced isn’t always such to me. So long as you’ve done some research and are genuine in your questions, there’s no reason not to ask for more details. If you know more about how things work you can better do your job, which will help them do their job, and together you can succeed! Sometimes I get bogged down by the mentality of ‘I can’t bother anyone,’ so they reach out to check in on me and make sure everything’s okay.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

MB: City of Broken Magic is actually the first planned in a series, so I’m working on book two at the moment.

G: Oooh, that’s exciting! Anything else you want to share with us before we go?

MB: If you’re writing, try to keep track of your old ideas. It could easily be that you just haven’t found the right setting for them yet.

G: Thank you so much for the interview!

MB: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me.

About Mira Bolender

Mirah Bolender graduated from college with majors in creative writing and art in May 2014. A lifelong traveler, she has traveled and studied overseas, most notably in Japan, and these experiences are reflected in her work. City of Broken Magic is her debut fantasy novel.

City of Broken Magic will be available for purchase later this month, on November 20th, though you can read an excerpt over on Tor.com to get you hyped up. Stay tuned for a review, which will be released on publication day.

In the meantime, check out Mirah Bolender on Twitter and visit her website to keep up to date on all her work.


Images Courtesy of Mirah Bolender and Tor

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