If I were to sum up the works of Deborah J. Ross in one sentence, I would say that her stories are tales about the many forms of love, regret, and second chances.
My only regret is that I missed these books when they first came out in the early 1990s. Ross entered the book scene just past the first wave of women writers re-examining and questioning the kaleidoscope worldview of science fiction. She was able to offer a wonderful blend of both action and quiet contemplation. Her women are strong personalities on the cusp of great change (whether they want change or not) and her men, in counterpoint, are freed from the common stereotypes of SF heroes. Each character is allowed to be who and what they are destined to be, without market expectations weighing them down.
Both Ross’s early novels, Jaydium and Northlight, are science fiction, but Northlight takes place on a world with lower technology than modern Earth, so at the beginning it’s easy to mistake it as fantasy. You can see from afar how Ross and Marion Zimmer Bradley became first friends and then colleagues. They are interested in some of the same questions about cultures, people, and interpersonal relationships. I found Northlight first, and that shaped how I discovered Deborah J. Ross’s worldview.
Kardith the Ranger is an exiled woman of the steppes who has found a home and a purpose working as a border ranger for the country of Laurea on the planet Harth. As Northlight begins, she is in a panic, half-killing her beloved horse as she tries to reach the capital city in time to get permission to search for her friend, the Ranger Aviyya, who has gone missing in the badlands. Laurea is on the verge of war with the northern barbarians, and Kardith’s superiors will not allow any ranger to go off on a fruitless rescue mission.
Kardith has a slim hope she can convince their leader Pateros to give her that permission — partly because her friend Avi is the daughter of a powerful government official, a woman who saw her people through a great plague and now tries to moderate the military’s influence on their peaceful land. Kardith’s hope fails when a would-be assassin strikes Pateros, leaving the capital in chaos.
As it turns out, Kardith has one person who believes in her and will help her. Avi’s brother Terricel has grown up into a young man dangling at loose ends, relegated to his mother’s shadow, his own future as a scholar threatened by his mother’s power and fame.
Terricel is a person who notices things — like Kardith’s awareness of something “wrong” before the assassin even struck. Kardith has a talent for recognizing breakers — the heart of a group, the focus of energy, the end point of a chain of events.
Together they will discover conspiracy at home, secrets beyond belief and a future poised on the brink of disaster. Where do you go when you need answers, when myth may actually be history, and some kinds of progress may destroy an entire civilization? The barbarians go to Northlight — and in the end, so will Kardith and Terricel.
There is a special place in science fiction and fantasy for the “door in the wall” story. Sometimes it takes place on a completely different world; occasionally it takes place with alien minds front and center. In Jaydium, we have the repeating mirror of multiple time periods, the branching universe of “What if?” Events are magnified, showing us different ways the universe has played out – and how one small world may be the home of a sentient alien species, the ruins of a once-great civilization, or a rock with a bonanza of energy wealth buried within it.
Ross poses important questions through the thoughts and actions of her players. Our major protagonists include jaydium miner and pilot Kithri, left on an outback world after her scientist father’s death, unable to raise the money to leave and find an education and a future. When ace pilot and war hero Eril arrives in port, and volunteers to help her make a valuable duo pilot run, Kithri agrees to take him out to the mines.
The mind link of duo piloting can cause strange intimacies and physical attraction, but the bizarre portion of their trip begins when an unstable jaydium deposit and a sparking force whip combine to cast the pair and Kithri’s ship adrift in time. Along this tunnel of possibility they pick up a spaceman from an earlier galactic civilization and an anthropologist from an alternate universe.
It takes them time to trust each other because no one knows which time is “right” and which history should be believed – and then the final snap of the wormhole drops them in what appears to be the past of Kithri’s planet, when it was still a lush, watery world. The planet has an alien civilization so foreign to humans that it will take all their combined efforts to prove to this race that they are sentient, much less from the future and bearing a warning.
Here Ross shows a touch of genius as she weaves together a new, sentient race struggling to determine if what they have found is intelligent with three very different human cultural attitudes to dealing with an alien civilization on the brink of their first interstellar war. Kithri’s universe has just been ripped apart by warfare. The spaceman Lennart remembers a galaxy at peace, at a price, while anthropologist Brianna comes from a vast interstellar alliance that is a strange mix of both peace and much higher levels of violence.
Do they interfere in the plans and discussions of these aliens? Should they? Was Kithri’s world born from the success of these creatures, or of their failure? And is there any chance of getting back to their homes, to their lives…and again, should they? Eril was looking for a partner pilot for the Courier Corps, and came to that port to meet Kithri. Can they find a future together – and where?
As she did in Northlight, Ross examines betrayal, survival, healing, second chances, even redemption. There is a lot of adventure, a touch of romance, and new worlds and aliens to get to know. The question of what is sentience, and could we recognize intelligence so different from ourselves, adds to the story.
In short, fans of the Miller & Lee Liaden books, the Cherryh Atevi books, the Smith Idomeni books or my Nuala books will probably enjoy Ross’s novels as well. You can find Deborah’s books in e-format through Book View Café and the usual Internet outlets, and in old paper editions from DAW with the author byline Deborah Wheeler.
Q: Tell us your take about Jaydium and Northlight.
Deborah: My first novel, Jaydium, was science fiction of the “adventures in parallel universes with really cool aliens” variety. Jaydium started with the image of the space ghost — I still have the pages of scribbled notes — and went sideways from there. In some ways, the planet Stayman draws from the same iconic out-of-the-way desert as does Tattooine, only I was more interested in zooming off not only to the past of such a place, but the present that might have been, had history gone differently. I also wanted characters with different motives, histories, and skills forced to make a really difficult choice: if they get what they want — to go home — it will destroy an entire alien civilization. The love story needed to develop slowly as Kithri and Eril not only get to know one another, but also come to understand themselves on a deeper level.
Northlight has elements in common with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels, in that both are technically science fiction but have a strong fantasy flavor. It was a breakthrough in several ways. I’d written a really awful first-attempt a number of years before, which received a thoughtful rejection letter from Sheila Gilbert at DAW, and set it aside. Then I joined a Clarion-style writers group and worked like a maniac on Jaydium. I sent it off to DAW and went to live in France for the better part of year. Three months after I returned home, I received the offer for Jaydium.
While in France, I went back to that draft of Northlight. I realized that the story didn’t come alive for me until Kardith arrived and then she just ran away with the story. So I ripped out 150 pages of sedate Laurean politics and focused on Kardith.
Q: How did you create Kardith?
Deborah: I didn’t base Kardith on any one person, but through my friendships with women engineers, scientists, and martial artists, I learned how women might make their way in a man’s world (the dojo, the physics laboratory, etc.). But characters that are always strong get boring, and from the first, I realized there must be something really dark in Kardith’s past life to make her so unafraid of physical risk. What’s the opposite of physical risk? Emotional risk. And why would she be so terrified of it…?
Q: What about Terricel? What makes him tick?
Deborah: Terricel has had a lifetime of trying to live up to his mother’s expectations. His fear is not so much that he will be hurt as that he will never live his own life at all. Coupled with that fear is his extraordinary ability to see the larger whole, even the passageways between parallel worlds. His compassion balances Kardith’s physical assertiveness. They each complete the other. This reversal of the usual roles (the warrior woman, the visionary man) is a lot more common now than it was 20 years ago, when I wrote Northlight, but it’s still one that I love. The more role models we have, the more freedom we feel to be everything that we are, not just what society expects of us.
Q: Do you see yourself ever returning to the universes of Jaydium and Northlight? Or have you said what you wanted to say through them?
Deborah: Much as I loved creating these characters and their stories, I’m inclined to leave them as they were conceived, as stand-alone novels. There are so many stories I want to write, many of which I could not have tackled successfully two decades ago.
Q: You’ve continued the “Darkover” series created by Marion Zimmer Bradley. What is it like to write in another author’s world?
Deborah: The first project, the “Clingfire” trilogy, was jump-started because Marion and I worked together on the outline of the first book in the months before her death, and I had a firm sense of where the overall story arc was going. The characters for that trilogy, as for subsequent books, are a mix of established characters, created either by Marion or one of the other authors she worked with, and new characters entirely my own doing. Fortunately, my natural literary voice is very close to Marion’s, and I’d already written a number of stories for the Darkover anthologies, so I was familiar with the world not only as a reader but also as a writer.
Writing Darkover novels is very much like writing historical fiction. I do research using not only Marion’s published work, but also her letters to me, The Darkover Concordance, and her articles in the old Darkover newsletters. Marion’s secretary, Elisabeth Waters, and Marsha Jones at DAW have been invaluable as nitpickers and sources of arcane details.
I try to create story lines that are true to Marion’s vision of Darkover and the themes that were meaningful to her. Since I work closely with the MZB Literary Works Trust, I hammer out a detailed outline before I start. Once that’s approved, I turn the process over to my creative back-brain. Because I’m not trying to distort my own voice, I can then write from my heart. I trust that the footwork will lead me in the right direction and that I can flow with what comes to me.
Q: How did you meet Marion Zimmer Bradley and how did you get to continue the Darkover series?
Somewhere around 1980, I wrote Marion a fan letter. I’d been training in martial arts (t’ai chi chu’an and kung fu san soo) and we began a conversation about empowerment, women, fantasy, and writing. This was just before she began editing Sword & Sorceress, for which she bought my first professional short story. Over the years, we became friends as well as colleagues and editor/writer. Toward the end of her life, as her health declined, we talked about working together, as senior/junior writers. She was familiar with my work from all the stories she had edited, not only for S & S, but many of the Darkover anthologies, Spells of Wonder, and her fantasy magazine.
Q: What’s next? What are you working on now?
The next Darkover novel, The Children of Kings, is coming out from DAW in March 2013. It’s an action-adventure set in the Dry Towns, featuring the grandson of Regis Hastur, some smelly oudrakhi, and interstellar smugglers who start arming the Dry Towners with Compact-forbidden weapons.
In May, Dragon Moon Press will publish Collaborators (under the Wheeler byline), an occupation and resistance novel set on an alien planet. A crippled Terran spaceship makes orbit around a planet whose gender-fluid native race teeters on the brink of international war. As misunderstandings mount, violence escalates. Ultimately, it is up to the people on both sides who have suffered the deepest losses to find a way to reconciliation.
In June, the first volume of my epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, will be coming out from DAW, with subsequent volumes at 6 month intervals. The series is based on my “Azkhantian tales” from Sword & Sorceress. Eons ago, a great king used a magical device — the Seven-Petaled Shield — to defeat the forces of primal chaos, but now few remember that secret knowledge. When an ambitious emperor conquers the city that safeguards the Shield, the newly-widowed young Queen, guardian of the heart-stone of the Shield, flees for her life, along with her adolescent son. It’s got magic, battles, love stories, and oh yes, some wonderful nomadic horse people.
Q: I see interesting themes echoing through your work. You talk of traumatic loss, of healing, of reconciliation — and of going on when reconciliation may not be possible. Are any of these themes conscious choices? Do you believe that they rise from your history and the books that have influenced you?
Deborah: Without being explicitly autobiographical, I write about things that are important to me. I believe in the power of storytelling to heal us as individuals and as a community. The insights I have gained from my own experiences and the compassion that has been extended to me have profoundly influenced how I regard the potential of human beings to transcend our tragedies.
One of the most remarkable people I have ever had the honor of knowing was a woman named Ellie Foster, who had lost both her daughter and son-in-law to a serial killer. At a time of great pain and darkness in my own life, she told me of how she too had felt overwhelmed by grief and rage, and how she faced the choice of whether to let them destroy her or whether to let those feelings go. I believe that we move at our pace through the cycles of growth and loss, of pain and discovery, but that we do so best in the company of kindred spirits. For so many of us, this includes journeying with beloved friends through the pages of a book. I hope that what I have created, the stories I have told from my heart, will find a home in the hearts of my readers.