My first series, The Tales of Einarinn, took the epic fantasy focus away from kings and princes to look at ordinary people threatened by warfare and wizards. So why did I decide to write my next story about that archetypal fantasy figure; the absolute feudal ruler? Because I was getting very tired of commentators insisting that epic fantasy is conservative, consolatory and uncritically, if unconsciously, advocates old-fashioned, hierarchical political systems.
As someone moderately left of centre in British political terms, that's so very much NOT what I write. So I decided to take a good, hard look at the realities of absolute rule, in particular its fatal flaws. Because it's no surprise that most societies aim for democracy (with all its imperfections) as far as they can, and that the world's currently seeing the mass migration of people desperate to escape tyranny.
With great good fortune, I'd already introduced the autocratic, autonomous warlords of the Aldabreshin Archipelago in the Tales. So I set about exploring and expanding that particular society, creating the backdrop for an exciting, intriguing fantasy series that would incidentally explore that particular hinterland. This process soon involved consciously including elements to make a reader think 'Wait, what?!'
Let's start with the warlords. As the saying goes, rank has its responsibilities as well as its privilege. When trouble strikes for an absolute ruler, that's the person everyone looks to for answers. But what does a warlord do, if he doesn't have any idea what's going on, still less what to do about it? That's the challenge for Daish Kheda in Southern Fire, first book of the Compass. The Aldabreshin Archipelago is a culture wholly and in every respect opposed to wizardly magic - which turns out to be a massive problem when magic-wielding enemies turn up to start terrorizing and murdering innocent villagers, burning their houses and crops to the ground. The Aldabreshi literally have no means of fighting this sorcerous fire with fire.
As Kheda frantically seeks the means to beat back the invaders, the obvious answer is surely finding magical allies? Except that would irrevocably destroy his people's loyalty and faith in him. Aldabreshin hatred of magic isn't negotiable, not something easily eliminated for plot-convenience. It's integral to the system of astrology and prediction which underpins Archipelagan life, from highest noble to humblest peasant. So we see a second limitation of absolute power. An autocrat can tell people what to do but it's much, much harder to tell people what to think. Historically a good few absolute rulers have come to grief when they've believed that their divine right means they can challenge a central tenet of prevailing culture or religion.
Absolute rule also relies on the man or woman in the hot seat being up to the task. While Daish Kheda does his utmost best for his people, as a good hero should, the other warlords now threatened by these wizard-backed invaders are a very varied bunch. Some are simply ineffectual while others are more interested in exploiting this situation for their own selfish ends. And that's for their own personal advantage, not necessarily concerned with the fate of the people they rule. Benevolent paternalism is a nice idea but if an absolute ruler is no damn use, or opts for callous exploitation instead, ordinary folk have absolutely no recourse.
That's something Kheda realises. He's not stupid and he's very well aware of the brutality of some of his neighbours but he's not about to do anything about it. How can he? Interfering in another warlord's realm invites anyone else to do the same to him. If you believe in absolute rule, you believe in it absolutely.
This isn't his only blind spot. Aldabreshin society has several aspects which Kheda accepts as normal because that's what he's grown up with, which readers will find jarring. The presence of eunuchs is one. Trust me; I haven't just included them to make this tropical society 'exotic'. Historically castration - and worse - has been used in various cultures to solve one of the other big problems of feudal rule. If the succession's been successfully passed on to the first born heir, what do you do with the spares? And you will need spares in a pre-modern society where raising a child to healthy adulthood can be a real challenge. A fall-back position's essential as historically, regencies and child rulers left even powerful countries very vulnerable. That's going to leave an absolute ruler determined to hold on to power facing some very hard choices indeed. How's that consolatory fantasy looking now?
So Kheda's been raised to consider castrating those with a rival blood claim as a perfectly valid, potential solution to this issue. As a writer, this works very usefully for me in another way. Writing heroes can be a challenge. Where's the interest or uncertainty to intrigue the reader if the good guy can always be relied on to do the right thing? Well, what if there's the distinct possibility that the reader's definition of that right course of action might be very different to the main character's? In the case of a story like this, where Kheda's very much the dominant point-of-view character, this also raises the possibility that he could be an unreliable narrator. But the reader's only going to find that out when some point of contention comes up. Till then, who knows?
Which brings us to slavery. Kheda's definitely a good guy in that he abhors any cruelty and indignity towards those are so wholly dependent on their owner's goodwill, and despises those who inflict it. But it would never occur to him to question the institution of slavery itself. Once again, normal's what he's grown up with, so that's another blind spot. And once again, this goes beyond mere set-dressing for me as a writer. Quite apart from anything else, doing that would be to trivialise the appalling reality of slavery which persists today and historically did such violence to individuals and societies in Africa and elsewhere.
Firstly, I've woven the institution of slavery into Aldabreshin culture to underscore how different the Archipelago is to any standard cookie-cutter Fantasyland. A reader would be very ill-advised to make assumptions about this place based on other epics they might have read. Secondly, I hope the portrayal of slavery throughout this series makes readers think a bit more deeply about its unthinking use as set-dressing in some other epic tales. If the good guy treats his particular slaves with kindness and consideration, that doesn't change the fact that the slave, the serf, the indentured labourer is stripped of any real security or self-determination and remains powerless in the face of abuse.
These things, alongside misogyny and homophobia, are all too often presented unquestioned - and inaccurately - as 'historical reality' in fantasy backdrops. As the genre matures and develops, I think we can and should demand more and better from epic writers. Especially when it comes to exploring the dangers of abuses of power, as our own democracies look increasingly vulnerable to oligarchs, demagogues and selfish factionalism among a ruling class increasingly divorced from the 99%'s ordinary lives.
So that was my starting point, for readers and for my central character, Daish Kheda. But that was by no means the end of it. I wanted Kheda to think through the encounters and events that challenge his preconceptions throughout the course of these four books. Will he be able to go home, so everyone can celebrate the return of the king who's won this game of thrones, as though nothing has really changed? That's the final test he faces in the final volume, Eastern Tide. As well as the rival warlords and magical foes who are doing their utmost to kill him, obviously.