Weave and spin, weave and spin…
(When is China not China?
or, What is this thing called fantasy, really?)
I spend half my life living in dreams, in alternate realities.
That might sound bizarre to some, even verging on pure lunacy – but it applies to every writer of fiction out there. Whether you’re writing contemporary thrillers, historical bodice-rippers, science fiction or pure fairy tale, you face one simple truth – whatever the world you’re in, it’s a world created by YOU.
Sometimes that world is a faithful mirror of your own. Sometimes it’s a deeply bizarre and twisted thing that makes readers gasp and wonder just how much you paid the idea peddler (that IS how we all get ideas, didn’t you know?) for that particular doozy. Think China Mieville and New Crobuzon, for instance – or, for that matter, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books.
There are places out there that feel like they have been torn out of the gritty gray reality of our own workaday world, where you can smell the smog in the streets and hear the squeal of brakes or distant emergency vehicle sirens lost in the hum and distance of big city white noise, or equally simply breathe in the scent of snow on the cedars on the islands off the misty coast of the Pacific Northwest. The writers who can create that world will take you to places whose smell, sound, texture, sights you will instantly recognize. Sometimes down to a particular address painted on a front door, to the extent that you can find it, book in hand, as though you were following a map. It’s the kind of pure reality on which a lot of writers have built careers.
There are writers who spend their entire lifetimes writing in certain tropes – think Dick Francis and you think horseracing; think Grisham, and the next word in your head is “Objection!”; think Danielle Steel and see life through a rosy mist of romantic ever-after; think Stephen King and shudder. There are other writers who skip and jump between tropes and genres with the ease of a flat stone skipping on still water, and there are some who are so much themselves that whatever they write is identified with their own identity and voice and it doesn’t matter in the least what the subject matter is. Hemingway could be writing space opera and he’d still be Hemingway.
And then there are those, like me, who like to just make it all up.
The very first book I had published was a series of fairy tales. Admittedly they were a little more literary than “and they lived happily ever after’. A friend who read the book called me up when he was done and demanded in a somewhat aggrieved manner if I had ever heard of the concept of a happy ending. These were literary stories, modeled rather more on the emotional and subtle and almost mystical fairy tales as told by Oscar Wilde (tales such as “The Nightingale and the Rose”, which still makes me cry when I pick it up because of the sheer beauty that it contains) than on the Brothers Grimm. Only one of them had anything to do with a Royal Princess, and that one was probably the most tragic of the lot.
But every single one of those stories had one thing in common. They were set like tiny gems into a setting of their own particular world, a setting I took pains to build and create, a setting in which I lovingly breathed life into every leaf and every rose petal and every drop of sea foam I wrote about. Worldbuilding is one of the most exhilarating, heady things that it is given to a writer to do. The process of building a world – star by star, tree by tree, shimmering piece of magic by shimmering piece of magic – is unsurpassed by anything that it is possible for the human mind to achieve.
I continued to write fantasy as I grew older, and more experienced as a writer. Not, as many people tend to assume, because it was somehow “easier” than writing reality-based books. On the contrary – true fantasy is extremely hard to do well, because you cannot rely on the familiar scaffolding of the world that your reader is already familiar with in order to tell your tale. You are forced by the very circumstances of your plot, by the very voices of your characters, to create it all from scratch – and build a scaffolding that is not only the equal of that familiar one which you discarded, but its superior. The setting of a fantasy has to be so strong, so unbreakable, so seamless, that it is invisible – much like the real world is in a contemporary novel – and leaves its readers, at the completion of the book, waking up as if from a lovely dream almost finding it hard to believe that they had not in fact spent the previous few hours in a wild forest or sailing some unfamiliar sea instead of safely ensconced in their own armchair at home.
I wrote – and published – what became a fantasy duology. In Australia and New Zealand, where it was first published, the books were known as “Changer of Days”, Volume 1 and Volume 2. In the United States, they were renamed “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days”. The story is pure high fantasy – and it contains three very different settings.
The first is a familiar one, based on Celtic mythology, legends and history; the second is a harsh and beautiful desert country full of power, built from aspects of the culture found in places like Morocco or Arabia; the third – briefly visited, but with a definite presence – is probably recognizable to anybody who has ever been to Venice.
That is rule number one in a fantastical world – you cannot have homogeneity. There is no possible way to build a believable world where a single homogeneous culture exists and thrives. Where’s the conflict? Just as you have different climactic zones on a planet, there will be different cultures springing up, affected by their environment, affected by their mindset and their history and their people.
The point I am making here is that I wrote a story of pure high fantasy – and yet, to its readers, certain aspects of the tale were hardly unfamiliar at all. They were simply taken, like strands of a pattern, and woven into a new reality which encompassed the new parameters. Even with pure high fantasy that kind of grounding is invaluable for the plausibility of one’s world, and there have been many good – even great – fantasies written by those rules.
But there is another kind of fantasy, one which I value even more highly – the kind that magically invokes an otherness that is almost painfully familiar. The kind of thing written by Guy Gavriel Kay, with his exquisite renditions of El Cid’s Spain cunningly disguised as a land known as Al-Rassan, or the glory of Provence in his realm of Arbonne, or the tangled politics of Byzantium in the world of the Sarantine Mosaic series, or the layer upon layer of complexities in the incomparable “Tigana”. The kind of thing written so beautifully by Judith Tarr, who placed Elven kings at the Battle of Hattin in the Crusades that we are all familiar with from the history books. And you know, the Elves fit quite well there.
The “historical” fantasy. The kind that you read knowing, just knowing, that this IS in fact your own world… only different. The kind of book where the author has done a LOT of research into the details of his or her chosen period, and although choices were made for the sake of the story that may not match perfectly with the original historical events, those events are recreated in such a manner that the provenance of the fantasy itself is immediately warmly familiar.
When I began writing the book “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, this is the kind of book that I aimed to write. I took the rich tapestry of Imperial China, and I unraveled it thread by thread, and then re-wove it into a different world, a different China, my China, one that never really existed – but which owed everything to the time and place of its inspiration and which breathed the same mystical oriental air. I researched meticulously – but this is not the kind of research that is done for a purely historical novel and aimed at checking facts. I was not going to recreate the facts, I wanted to re-create the sense, the feel, the atmosphere.
My China, a land I called Syai, shared a lot of things with ancient China – not least a religion based on the Tao, and an Imperial court full of beautiful wives and concubines dressed in scarlet brocades and jeweled embroidery. My characters lived and worked according to some very recognizable rules of business and etiquette. Things such as the Beggars Guild were taken straight from the pages of history – with the only change being the casting of a deposed mage as their leader.
Most importantly of all, my central premise – the secret women’s language I called “jin ashu” and the bond of sisterhood known as “Jin-shei” that gives the novel its name are both real. There is a women’s language passed from mother to daughter over generations which has survived to the present day in this magical form, although the last of the women who learned the language, nushu, organically at their mothers’ knee are now almost gone. There was a sisterhood, known as “Jiebai Zhimei”, which sometimes linked women in strong bonds of friendship and which had its roots in this secret language that the women shared.
But this is NOT the real China. In the real historical China women did not have the kind of power that the women in Syai do. In the real China the women’s language and the secret sisterhood have considerably less global influence than portrayed in the Syai of my novel. I took the reality, unraveled it, re-wove it into a fantasy cloth rich with myth and legend and tradition and history – but only the memory of reality. Syai is not China, any more than a painting is a precise likeness of a photograph. Syai takes its inspiration, its very existence, from a real place – but to take its story at historical value makes the novel into something quite different than what it was intended to be.
When I first submitted the novel for publication, the response was that it was something that “transcended fantasy” – and the novel was subsequently sold to a publisher far more mainstream in outlook than I might have expected it to go to. Reviews have stated that the book is a “genre-buster” and have called it “mainstream fantasy”.
And yet I was afraid that there would be people out there who would inevitably pick it up as a “pure” historical novel, and who would shred the culture and milieu of Syai on the basis of the historical inaccuracies on which has been built. Indeed, that happened. For example, one reader wrote in her blog:
I need another recommendation for a good book. The Secrets of Jin-shei turned out to be a pretty good book being female-centered and all. but I still don’t agree with how the author changed so many things with the Chinese culture (ironically enough, she wrote a whole acknowledgement on how much research she did for the novel), but I think that is the ethnocentric me talking. I also can’t help comparing it to Memoirs of a Geisha. that book was also written by a non-Asian, and he also did his research. but after reading his book, I couldn’t help but feel like I was enriched with the Japanese culture… after reading Secrets I couldn’t help but feel cheated. China was never a matriarchal society and yet that is how she portrayed it. BLAH! technicalities…
“Secrets” was never meant to be a factual representation of a culture or a world in the manner that “Memoirs of a Geisha” was. And yes, I wrote quite honestly that a lot of research went into the writing of the novel. But it is not the same KIND of research required for a strictly historical novel, and the liberties taken with the base culture that provided the inspiration for the novel are basically what the plot of this book is about.
Weave and spin, weave and spin – creating worlds is what I do, and I can no more be held accountable for not producing a realistic Imperial China than denizens of Byzantium-that-was, today’s Constantinople, can hold Guy Gavriel Kay accountable for the vision he painted of their history in the Sarantine books or the contemporary Spaniards could kvetch about his recreation of medieval Spain in “The Lions of Al-Rassan”. Any more than Judith Tarr can be pilloried for bringing the king of an Elven kingdom to the Horns of Hattin and making him have a real conversation with real people such as King Baldwin the Leper of Outremer or Saladin the Saracen Prince of legend.
“The Secrets of Jin-shei” is a dream, not a reality.
It is true, of course, that all fiction, even if set in the ‘real’ world, is fantasy, a story told about a place that seems real, but is not. But it is here, in the realm of fantasy, that this becomes something very important. Before it is possible to read a book like “The Secrets of Jin-shei” or “Tigana” or “Alamut”, it is necessary to suspend one’s disbelief in a different manner than is required for purely historical or contemporary novels. It’s that scaffolding. You have to choose to climb it, and by doing so you accept it for what it is, not what it can never be.
Think of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, if you like, as a Westernization of an ancient oriental fairy tale – of the kind that took the world by storm when ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” made its explosive debut on the cinematic scene. (One of my favorite reviews of “Secrets of Jin-shei” , from a place that went by the completely appropriate name of China Books, cited that movie: “Combine ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ add elements of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and you have this astonishing novel.” )
It is a dream. An alternate reality. A place that could have, might have, should have existed… but never did, except in my heart and my mind.
It is this magical place that I invite you to come in and explore.
Interested in taking another look? You can get it here
The paperback cover:
The US hardcover cover art, my favourite:
Some foreign editions: