“Yeah,” I said, trying to sound supportive. “You’re probably at the wrong table.”
Well, at least I’m honest.
Firebrand, the second in my Steeplejack series, is a fantasy novel set in a world that looks like a steampunk-y version of South Africa. Among the lions and elephants are some animals I made up, and there’s a light source — for those who can afford it — which comes from an exotic mineral called luxorite. I made that up, too.
But that’s about where the fantasy ends. The story is driven by racial tensions, political maneuvering, profiteering, fights over immigration and refugees, and the rise of a populist demagogue who plays on people’s nationalism, paranoia and bigotry. All of which is why I recommended the lady at my table try something else if the brand of fantasy she was looking for was expressly escapist.
Don’t get me wrong; I recognize the value of escapist fiction and I see the impulse to seek it out in myself. There are times I want to shut the world out and disappear into a land of beauty and moral abstraction, where conflict is clear, unambiguous, and connects to nothing beyond the book itself. Sometimes there are elves.
But I find that I tire of that kind of escapism fairly quickly because at some point I have to return to reality, a reality which is invariably maddening, confusing, and full of all manner of conflict and injustice. That’s where I live… not with the elves in the magic forest. That’s where my readers live, too and, while I want them to have fun with my books, I also want to retain enough of the reality in which they live that they feel like they are engaging with the world, not running away from it.
But, right now, that desire to run hits me every time I look at the news or log onto social media. I don’t think I’ve ever had a stronger desire to retreat from the world I live in, to reject what it seems to stand for and who it represents, so that I feel like I’m constantly tossed from anger to depression to a numb incredulity that this government is one chosen by the people of this country and that we’re basically ok with it. I’m not. I’ll spare you the rants, but I’m really not, and one of the ways I deal with my feelings is through my fiction.
I should say that I spare you the rants in my fiction, too. I try to stay even-handed, if only because most people don’t pick up fiction ready for a 350 page sermon, and I try using the real world to create a social backdrop to the action of the story and the lives of its characters. And I mean action! Firebrand begins with a rooftop chase, and the pace never really lets up as the mystery and adventure mounts, but the core of the story is a tale of poverty and racism, exploitation, bigotry, xenophobia and human trafficking.
It’s not, in other words, the fantasy model of The Lord of the Rings (which, incidentally, I love) and its brand of the strange and foreign. It’s of the “fantastic” that comes from looking at the reality through a kaleidoscope, where things we know are transformed, magnified and distorted so that we thrill to their newness without losing a sense of the true earth from which they spring.
Better yet, we get to watch a young woman experience all which is happening in that world, watch her assess its implications and stand up to it. We get to live with her as she enacts her own resistance, standing up to those whose “values” she rejects, taking them on, fighting her corner and that of the people she represents even as the battle seems lost and her enemies seem to dwarf her in power and influence…
Fantasy? Let’s hope not.
Firebrand releases from Tor Teen on June 6. Want to read Steeplejack and Firebrand? Fill out the form below to win one set of A.J. Hartley’s Steeplejack series. Prizes donated by Tor Teen. Open to the U.S. and Canada only. Void where prohibited.