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Politics in Polgara the Sorceress

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Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Only two of the books in this series list both David and Leigh Eddings as co-authors. It’s fitting that they are Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. This duology shows the way that POV shapes history and politics. The 1997 Polgara the Sorceress wraps up the entire series. It showcases the moments Belgarath wasn’t there for and the hidden moments where he was. This book is a fitting conclusion to their longest collaboration, and to their own hidden metaphor.

Spoilers for all of Polgara the Sorceress and the Eddings’s previous works.

So, What Happened?

Birth to Beldaran’s Death

Polgara starts with Ce’Nedra and Garion’s arrival at Polgara and Durnik’s farm. Ce’Nedra asks Polgara to tell her side of the story, and Polgara refuses. Ce’Nedra manages to manipulate Poledra into thinking it’s for Geran and the future to know ‘the truth’. Poledra then manages to convince Polgara that it’s a worthwhile task.

Polgara’s biography starts before Poledra gives birth. Poledra and Aldur shape Pol and Beldaran’s brains to better suit them for their tasks. Then, it details Pol’s grudge against Belgarath, and her adoration of Beldaran. When Belgarath arranges Riva and Beldaran’s wedding, Polgara protests and goes to live in the Tree for a time. They arrive at Riva, Polgara ‘pretties up’, and starts playing adolescent games with young courtiers.

After Beldaran’s wedding, Poledra and Belgarath educate Polgara in magic separately. When they return to Riva for Beldaran’s son’s birth, she also learns about medicine. After Daran’s birth Polgara and Beldaran go visit the Mrin and Darine prophets. Eventually, Poledra summons Polgara to Riva, because Beldaran was dying. Polgara can’t save her because the priest of Belar sabotaged any attempt to give Beldaran medicine. He’s a member of the Bear Cult. Belgarath puts Polgara and Daran in charge and leaves. Polgara and Daran accuse the priest of witchcraft and eventually exile the members of the cult. Eventually, she returns to the Vale of Aldur, and studies the prophecies for several centuries.

Arendia to Vo Mimbre

Poledra summons Polgara to Arendia, and tells her that Ctuchik was planning something. Polgara proceeds to stop three Murgo plots. She tells the Duke of Waconia that his advisor is a Grolim. The Duke of Asturia proves incompetent, and she initiates a rebellion against them. She then collaborates with one of Mandorallan’s ancestor’s. They prove to the Duke of Mimbre that the supposed ‘Tolnedran Legion’ on his banks is a fake.

She remains in Arendia for the next several decades. Polgara rescues the son of the Wacite Duke from the nephew of the first Asturian Duke. The three Dukes then give her the Duchy of Erat, which then becomes Sendaria. Polgara spends a great deal of time guiding Sendaria into competency. A tournament to name the Duchess of Erat’s champion leads her to Ontrose. Ontrose is the only man Polgara loves before Durnik. He’s the quintessential knight: intelligent, sensitive, powerful, and handsome. Eventually, Ontrose’s friend betrays Erat and Wacune to the Asturians, and they destroy Vo Wacune.

Belgarath drags her back to the Vale to keep her from fighting. However, she works through factors to protect Erat, the survivors of Waconia. For the next several centuries she protects Erat, as it becomes Sendaria, bartering with Tolnedran Emperors and Alorn Kings to keep it free.

This persists until the death of Gorek, whereupon she takes charge of protecting Geran and the line of the Rivan King. She apprentices various heirs to artisans, and then eventually buys out the shop of their childless teacher. They occasionally flee from Murgos and move around Sendaria and Aloria. Then comes the Battle of Vo Mimbre, which progresses as Belgarath described it. Poledra and Polgara spy upon Torak and Zedar in the form of an owl. Poledra helps Polgara defy him when Torak confronts Brand.

Gelane to Garion

From Vo Mimre, Polgara resumes her task of protecting the Rivan heirs. Gelane, the heir during Vo Mimbre, proves slightly troublesome. He knows who he is, and Chamdar, or Asharak the Murgo, finds him, and controls him. Belgarath and Polgara break this control and move the family away from Sendaria.

Things continue peaceably from there, with Polgara making a side trip to Nyissa at one point. She meets a former Salmissra, and prevents Chamdar and Ctuchik from manipulating her into causing problems. After educating and befriending ‘Sally’, Polgara returns and moves the Line to Annath, where Garion will be born. There’s a short trip to Nadrak, where she meets Yarblek and Drosta, when Poledra realizes that they’ll be significant.

Geran and Ildera, Garion’s parents, meet and get married in the usual fashion. Then tragedy strikes. Darrel, Geran’s father, is killed in a rockslide. His wife forgets that he’s dead, her mental health deteriorates, and Polgara and Ildera care for her. They later discover that Asharak engineered both events, as well as Alara’s madness. Alara wanders off on Erastide, and Polgara goes to find her. Ildera gives birth, and Asharak kills Geran and Ildera. Only Belgarath’s timely arrival prevents him from stealing Garion. Polgara heads to Faldor’s farm and establishes herself there.

The epilogue shows the life of Geran, Garion’s son, one winter in Riva. He plays with his baby sister, and Ce’Nedra reads to him from Polgara’s book. Ce’Nedra then fully realizes the impact that magic had on her life as she puts her son to bed.

Gender Politics

Women vs. Women

One of the persistent problems in Polgara the Sorceress is how women are pitted against each other. Their relationships prove adversarial, except for sisters, mothers, or mentors.

Even then, Polgara spends a good portion of her childhood trying to be ugly. She never combs her hair, bathes, or changes clothes unless forced. Polgara rationalizes it by saying, “Beldaran and I were twins, and we should have been identical. The master changed that, however.” (p. 28). Polgara compares herself to Beldaran and finds herself wanting. Only when Beldaran and Riva fall in love does Polgara clean herself up. She looks at Beldaran when she enters and thinks, “I’d rather hoped to see just a twinge of envy there.” (p. 59) Beldaran remains nonplussed, to Polgara’s mild disappointment.

The precedent of comparing women to other women based on looks and pitting them against each other continues. At Riva, Polgara joins the other young courtiers and sets about breaking hearts. She captures the attention of all the young men based on her looks. Polgara remarks that, “quite a few of the ladies pled headaches and quietly left the room. It might have been my imagination, but after they left I seemed to hear a gnawing sound — a sound that was remarkably like the sound of someone eating her own liver.” (p. 70). She enjoys the pain she causes other women because of her conquests.

The competition between women continues even between Olane and Alara, Geran and Ildara’s mothers. The wedding planning devolves into one-upmanship between the two. Women can compete against each other, yes, and they frequently do. The fact that only the sparse mentoring and familial relationships remain free of competition makes this problematic.

Men vs. Women

Another thread in this book shows how men try to force women to submit. Polgara rebels against this, of course, and tries to help other women, but it proves slightly outdated in this respect. At Beldaran’s wedding Polgara notices something. “I idly noticed in passing that all the rights fell to the groom, and the duties and obligations were the bride’s domain.” (p. 85). This thread of spousal submission continues in the book’s discussion of spousal abuse.

After Beldaran’s death, Polgara helps Daran try a case where the husband abused his wife. The families quarreled over some land. Daran dissolves the marriage and then punishes the husband further by whipping him in court. When Polgara leads Erat, she establishes laws that harshly punish spousal abuse.

“A man who’s stupid enough to beat his wife isn’t likely to listen to reason, so I instructed the constable of each village to ‘persuade’ wife beaters to find another hobby. I did urge the constables not to break too many bones in the process however.” (p. 358).

While abusers seldom listen to reason, removing the victim from the range of the abuser would be better. Polgara created schools, hospitals, and an informal lady’s academy. She could easily create a system to remove the victims from their abuser’s reach rather than leave them at the continued mercy of their husband.

Men vs. Polgara

Polgara just notes these events in passing. She dwells more on the instances where men attempt to personally control her. Lathan, the man who betrays Erat and Wacune to Asturia, committed treason because he couldn’t possess Polgara. He hoped to beat Ontrose and be her champion. As Polgara says, “Arendish literature positively swarms with improprieties involving highborn ladies and their bodyguards, and Lathan seemed to be well read.” (p. 362). His loss to Ontrose led him to betray Wacune and Erat.

Torak also desires to control Polgara. When Poledra and Polgara spied on Torak and Zedar before the battle, they learned of Torak’s plans.

“She is not fond of me, but, truly, I shall much enjoy bending her to my will. She will obey me—nay, even worship me. … My brothers have cast me out, so now must I father a new race of Gods to assist me in my domination of the world. Who of all the women of this world is fit to share my throne—and my bed?’ ‘Polgara?’ Zedar asked incredulously. … “I will have Polgara to wife, and will she, nil she, Polgara will be mine.” (p. 563).

Torak wants to possess both the Orb of Aldur and Polgara. The Eddings’s frame the two in the same light. Torak with the Orb would control the Purpose of the Universe. With Polgara, he would further disrupt that purpose.

The Eddings’s use of gender politics showcases the biases when they wrote. They recognize the evil in spousal abuse and the submission Torak wants. But they don’t understand, or properly convey, the strength that women can give each other. It’s to their credit that they address these issues, and I strongly suspect Leigh’s hand in it.  But time has outstripped their understanding in the past 21 years.

Politics, Economics, and Our Metaphor

Politics

We discover Polgara’s enjoyment of politics in Polgara the Sorceress. She attended the first meeting of the Alorn Council and established the Arendish one. Both of these events occur because of pressure by the Murgos and Grolims. The arrival of the Murgos, Nadraks, and Thulls on the Western Continent precipitated the Alorn Council. Polgara’s foiling Ctuchik’s plots in Arendia led to the second.

The Alorn Council grows into a pseudo-United Nations, and it began with the intent of preventing Angarak influence in the West. The parallels between the Cold War barely need to be drawn. It reads as the Red Scare all over again, except with less cause. With the Arendish Council, it’s more along the lines of the Middle Eastern Cold War-era conflicts.  The guerilla warfare fits Arendia better than the political machinations in the United Nations. Also because the Arendish Council dissolved after Haldon’s betrayal.

Another aspect of politics in Polgara the Sorceress lies in duty. After Gelane’s seduction by Asharak, Polgara gave him a lecture. “There are two sides to nobility, Gelane. Most people only see the fine houses, the fancy clothes, and all the bowing and scraping by lesser nobles. The other side’s more important, though, and much simpler. Duty, Gelane, duty.” (p. 631-2). Polgara teaches Gelane that lesson because it proves the most important one to the Cold War. The politicians refocused on preventing nuclear war and considered that more important than everything else. Polgara’s treatise on duty to Gelane keeps him and his family safe, and it leads to Garion and the end of the cycles.

Economics

Polgara the Sorceress also showcases the only example of unrestrained capitalism in the entire series. We saw it through metaphor. But now, in her stewardship of the Rivan line and her shepherding Sendaria, we see it firsthand. She lectures Ontrose, and he repeats her lesson, economics 101, back to her.

“For certes now can [the emancipated serfs] purchase such goods as previously were beyond them quite. The merchant class prospers, and their share of the tax burden doth lighten the load borne by the landowners, thy vassals. The prosperity of the former serf is the base upon which the economy of the entire kingdom doth stand.” (p. 364)

Polgara spends centuries hammering that principle into the heads of her vassals. That shapes the national character of Sendaria and ensures it’s prosperity. Despite the archaic speech, it speaks truth in linking the economy on the spending of the masses, rather than the hoards of the wealthy. The fact that Polgara’s economics leads to a healthy Sendaria, the most sensible country, furthers the metaphor.

In addition, Polgara threatens to create a mall to some vulture-like merchants after the death of a Rivan heir. “Then, when the new widow is virtually out of her mind with grief, they make ridiculously low offers for the family business. … I told them quite casually … I was seriously thinking about expanding the business. … They wouldn’t have to spend whole days wandering around town to buy what they needed. … [they] bought me out at about three times what the smithy was worth.” (p. 520). In doing this, the Eddings’s take what’s normal to their audiences, a mall. Then, they insert it into their fantasy world, and in doing so, normalize the conditions and systems that create such things.

Conclusion

At the very end of Polgara the Sorceress, we discover that Geran dreams about Zandramas and remains terrified of her. It shows the very slow steps out of institutionalized fear of the enemy. Geran thinks, “if he refused to think about them, they’d go away entirely.” (p. 745). All of this plays into the final metaphor, because now the cycles are over. They just need to ignore the nightmares, and it’ll all go away.

The end of Polgara’s story undercuts that, however. Her history ends with Belgarath, Garion, and herself at Faldor’s farm, hiding from Asharak. The Eddings’s later pointed out that Polgara completed a literary cycle. You can go straight from Polgara to Pawn of Prophecy. This proves especially ironic because their entire metaphor counted on the breaking of cycles.

The entirety of this book, and this series relates in so many ways to its cultural context. No one could not write this now, because the events that underlie the plot and philosophy of the book. Despite the undercutting via the literary cycle, the metaphorical one is complete.


Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books

Angela is a full-time fantasy nerd. She is either reading a novel or talking about one. Or is watching Lord of the Rings for the hundredth time. Character archetypes and cultural context always fascinate her.

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Fireside Fandomentals: Sci Fi Horror on YAS Pitches with Gretchen

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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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