Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to bring your story “I Would” to our readers. Can you tell us what inspired this story and how it came about?
This story started from two angles: the comfort of a familiar setting and sheer ambition. On the comfortable side, this is a setting I’ve written in many times. I have a trunked novel, and a short story published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (“Weights and Measures,” November 2020), and at least four more short stories either out on submission or buried in the depths of my hard drive. In this world, all magic comes from faith, which provides a great story engine because it forces power and purpose to stay intertwined. Somewhere along the line I created the North Star, goddess of prophecy, hope, motivation, and travel-towards. This story was my chance to give the North Star her moment in the light, elusive but clear.
On the ambitious side, I wanted to push myself as a writer. The funny part is, my first ambitious-writing goal wasn’t the branching story structure, but an attempt to write in second person! In early versions, Knira’s prophecies were told to “you.” You might still be able to spot vestiges of my original idea: the first and last prophecies would still work in that format. But late in revisions, when a beta reader pushed me to ask “what is the second-person adding to the story?” the only answer was a fake-out where Knira seemed to be drawn to Atyce instead of her sidekick Despina. The story didn’t need that, so out went the second-person voice. Half of my original motivation, out the window! “Kill your darlings” isn’t always the right writing advice, but it certainly was here.
To me, the story reads like it’s riffing on tabletop RPG tropes, especially given the characterization of Atyce and Despina as a typical adventuring party. Were you drawing on anything in particular here, or am I completely off-base?
Absolutely! It’s been a few years since I played a proper RPG, but my roleplaying cred is officially unassailable now that I’ve published a story where characters describe a band of traveling heroes as “murder hobos.” (Okay, “murderous vagabonds,” but you clearly got the reference!)
I wasn’t drawing on any specific game or system, just the underlying world-logic of adventure fantasy. When an adventuring party shows up—especially uninvited—you had better convince them you aren’t this week’s side-quest. That’s hardly a new idea, but I wanted to further invert the standard tropes of who has agency and who doesn’t in an adventure fantasy. The real decisions aren’t made by Atyce and Despina, nor by the pashas and queens, but by the seemingly helpless woman locked up in the tower.
Knira’s ability to see potential futures reminded me of game structures such as save-scumming or choice-based narratives, while placing her in a role that differs from the “typical” protagonist in this flavour of story. Was Knira always this way, or did her role and situation in the story shift from the initial concept?
I started with that atypical protagonist from my first word. This wasn’t one of those stories where you discard the first three trite ideas before you get to the fresh one; I started with “imprisoned seer manipulates her own escape,” and from there this story’s basic structure emerged immediately. But while I always knew Knira’s role and situation, it took me a few drafts to figure out the character lessons she needed to learn to give her story its emotional weight.
Video game structures weren’t consciously part of my plan, though I’m an inveterate save-scummer, so I’m sure they were lurking in my subconscious. My intended focus was on the idea of prophecy, and how to make it work for a point-of-view character. There’s a fine line between certainty and agency: Dr. Manhattan’s deterministic life is a curse I wouldn’t wish on anybody, but Yoda’s foresight adds nothing to a story when the interesting futures are always clouded. I tried to resolve this by giving the North Star a god’s-eye view of the current world, which allows for some very good predictions of possible futures. When Knira says, “it’s not prophecy, it’s prediction,” she’s not lying, but she’s not quite correct either. It’s both.
Despite knowing the truth behind Queen Iroda, when her part in the story peaked, I couldn’t help but be emotional, especially given the soft but comfortable queerness here and elsewhere in the story. What led you to wrap this story so tightly around this kind of queer narrative?
I originally drafted this story in early 2020 with an eye toward the Silk & Steel anthology from Cantina Publishing, but I started writing too close to the deadline to get my story sufficiently polished in time. Still, that set me writing a f/f romance. Since I’d written in this world before, I knew that queernorm was the default setting for most of its cultures. So once this story had a couple of queer women, why not more?
Ultimately, that’s the real answer: “Why not?” These narratives should be common and unremarkable, in our fiction and the world. We’re not there yet, but at least I can do my part to bring us closer to that future.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? What can our readers look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I have a lot coming out this year, but I’d love to highlight two science fiction stories that draw heavily on my personal experience. “Cruise Control” is coming out now-ish (July 2021) in Fireside Magazine, and I leaned hard into my neuroscience background to create a bittersweet little tragedy about installing retiree brains in self-driving cars. Later this year, “A Living Planet” will come out in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, inspired by a very different chapter in my life: the year I spent married to a spouse on Mars.
Sometime farther down the line, I hope you all get to read the novel I’m querying. Set in the far future of our solar system, it’s a space opera about a cold war between AIs who revere and emulate their human predecessors and AIs who reject the heritage and minds of humankind.
Spread the word!