In 2017, I published my first straight fantasy book, The Water of Awakening. Some people loved it; some hated it. Either opinion is fine because I made the book exactly the way I wanted to make it.
For 2017 (or 2023, as I write this) it’s something outside of the typical modern approach to fantasy. I wanted to do something really different from what I saw repeated in the same overlong fantasy books from the prior 20 years. I wanted to avoid a romance B-story, a subplot I had become exceedingly bored with (though I used one in my next fantasy book, Needle Ash, and used it in a previous book, Muramasa: Blood Drinker). I wanted to have a character who was married, and whose romantic devotion was already settled. Motivations leaning on an established marital relationship is something I rarely, if ever, see in modern stories.
I also wanted to avoid a strictly structured plot, like what I used in my previous books Prophet of the Godseed and Muramasa, which featured three and five-act structures, respectively. I wanted to craft an adventure story that flowed through all of its parts rather than something which relied on large, pre-determined “beats” for its pacing as if it was a screenplay. At the same time, I wanted to avoid wandering soap opera stories like those of George R.R. Martin that focused on character drama rather than adventure.
I wouldn’t say I necessarily wanted a female protagonist abstractly, but I picked one despite their popularity at the time because that was how I imagined the story as I thought it all up, driving for hours down the very straight CA-99 one night in 2017. In most stories, it’s the man who sacrifices for the woman to gain or to keep her, and the woman is passive. I wanted a relationship that went the other way, too, as real marriages will.
I also wanted to show off my world, a world of weird magic and strange history, which would be different from what was (and is) popular, which is the magic-as-science “worldbuilding” settings. I wanted a world that felt like anything was possible, where you couldn’t guess what dangers were lurking around the corner or what the hero would discover in the next chapter. I wanted a world of sorcery and high adventure.
While I consider these elements to be decidedly “unmodern,” they are far from original. I took inspiration from many books that had fallen out of the mainstream canon, especially the work of Michael Moorcock, but also from classics. The biggest inspiration was probably The Hobbit, which captured all these feelings and more, but also ancient works like The Odyssey and The Edda, and adventure classics like Treasure Island and the work of Robert E. Howard.
The Hobbit uses what I call the “Odyssey Plot Structure,” which is a flexible organization of a series of adventures rather than a strict ordering of event types like what is used in drama. Each chapter is a separate, semi-self-contained story with a conflict and resolution, with each episode slowly building up the character of Bilbo Baggins and pushing him from a passive weakling to a hero. That separation of each adventure keeps everything fresh and moving forward. There is no need to take a deep dive into the nature of goblins and their conflicts with the free people of Middle Earth; they are a threat encountered on the journey and dealt with, just like Gollum, spiders, wolves, elves, and ultimately a Dragon. Since the final goal is a destination, the threats don’t need to turn the plot in different directions. They are surprising all on their own.
Using this format in Water of Awakening allowed me to throw into the mix many more ingredients than I might otherwise be able to pull off. We have wolves, an evil sorcerer, bizarre, monstrous zombie-like beings, a dragon, mysterious and obsessive dark elves, treacherous fae beings, and talking ravens, to name a few.
There is another thing I lifted from Homer, which is the hero him(her)self. Helga, the protagonist of Water of Awakening, is an Odysseus archetype, only in reverse. Rather than trying to get back to a filial claim and responsibility, Helga fulfils the role with a departure. To fulfil the marital bond, she must depart. Like Odysseus, she returns to find that her home has been disrupted by attempts to usurp the marriage, and she must engage in conflict to claim what is rightfully hers and punish the usurpers.
Unlike Odysseus, Helga returns transformed. She is unrecognizable in a literal sense, appearing to no longer even be human, though she doesn’t understand this because of the solipsism of her own perspective. Even when she looks in the mirror, she sees herself and doesn’t understand how the journey has changed her. Compounding this, her husband loses his memory of her, so rather than returning to fulfill the permanence of home, her home is revealed to be in a state of undefinition, a figurative blank page.
The importance of Helga’s female form is also related to The Hobbit. Bilbo is a physically small and weak character, unequal to the task Gandalf has set for him, but Gandalf’s faith is proved true in that Bilbo grows into the role through his own confidence and, perhaps just as importantly, a type of divine intervention in the form of the ring of power. The ring allows Bilbo to become the burglar Gandalf saw that he could be, and he never settles back into his old life in the same way when he returns to the Shire.
Helga, as a woman, is physically disadvantaged for adventure. All the people of her village say so, and though she initially gets some help out of pity, even that proves too little. Helga, through most of the story, is essentially at the mercy of the people she comes across, both good and evil. She gains some wisdom and strength, but it’s only after she reaches the Fay Lands, in this world the source of divine growth and creation, that she gains the power to forge her own destiny. This contact with God works a real, physical change, not merely a mystical one, and she returns having taken a form closer to the unfallen form of humanity (in this world, the more natural and long-lived and magical “elvish”).
The volva, who initiates the quest, is likewise a Gandalf-type sage, only in reverse. She gets the hero out the door, but not because she has a gift of prophecy and can see the hidden qualities of the hero, but because she intends for the hero not to return at all. She sees a foolish girl who will run off and get herself eaten by wolves.
There is one more significant inversion: the dragon. Rather than a wrathful, greedy, evil creature, Garamesh is benevolent. Unexpectedly, he does possess the treasure that is the goal of the quest, but he parts with it freely. He embodies the chaos of the Fay: things may not be what they appear, and what is possible might be very different than what is expected.
You can buy Water of Awakening below, along with the sequel (originally a trilogy), Needle Ash. Keep an eye out for the third book in the series, King Leper, which will come out later this year. You should also check out the related Moonsong series and the “Legends” series, which details the mythic past of the Eternal Dream.