My first novel began as a speculative mission seeking answers to things teenage me wanted to know. Like, if grown ups are so mature, with so much knowledge, patience ect, why do sane adults start wars? And where can I hang out with people as emotionally mature as me? And when can teenagers do shit that actually matters, instead of stereotypical, hormonal, dull, monotonous real-world crap? Where’s the action, adventure and interesting places? And how fast can you rush through them, trying to achieve how many goals? This blog explores the influences that answered these questions in my first YA Fantasy Manipulator’s War.
My escapism into fantasy began with Narnia, read to four-year-old me by my mum. To this day, I enjoy re-reading the books periodically, so naturally my first fantasy featured a royal heir and characters from the real world. I liked contrasting a blunt, irreverent Aussie cast with posh, British-inspired rulers, so Linh, Troy, Fiona and Michael are Australian. And while Narnia seemed a place for C.S. Lewis to revisit his childhood, teenage me was grappling with grief and trying to understand the world I lived in. So my Ruarnon Trilogy was going to be darker. It would be as uncertain and insecure as I found life (and later the pandemic). There wouldn’t be physically present gods, this would be an antheist’s reply to Narnia.
Archaeology and Realism
Teenage me knew that in kids books bad guys are bad and good guys are good and those are the lies adults tell kids, the real world being far more complicated (and hopefully less sexist and gender diverse oblivious now than it was when I was a kid). At Uni, I studied the ancient Mediterranean World. I learned that for all the talk of nobility and what’s right and just in kids books, usually people start wars because other people have stuff, and they want it. But that was boring. A king who believed in pacifism declaring war would be much more interesting. Maybe I could have the greedy bastards wanting to seize stuff somehow twisting said ruler’s arm to make them go to war against their will? What would that take? Yes, Manipulator’s War answers this question 😉.
As for ‘bad guys are bad and good guys are good’, wouldn’t it more interesting if the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ had the same values, goals and desires? The same motivations? So Kyura and his traitor-filled court came to be, opposite Ruarnon and their generally more loyal court.
My external conflict would be people wanting stuff. Those people (the Zaldeans) philosophies and beliefs about the afterlife are influenced by Celtic Warrior culture. To make it interesting, they’d need to be an empire. But ’empire conquers kingdom in exponential expansion’ = boring. Rome vs. Carthage is more interesting because it could go either way. What about a war that had gone both ways, between an empire invading a colony-turned-kingdom allied to a second empire? The allied empire would need to be a sometimes selfish, unreliable ally, because undying loyalty is predictable. Enter the Timbalen Empire.
The Ancient World
As for a setting, I studied ancient Egypt at Uni, so there was every chance fashion, architecture and Tarlahn afterlife beliefs would have Egyptian influences. I particularly liked the idea of the heir becoming co-ruler with the current king, for on-the-job learning. The fashions would be more androgynous than the world I’d grown up in, and Tarlahns would be more accepting of nonbinary and gender non-comforming people than say, the Romans. Meanwhile, the Zaldean Empire would be hardcore warrior culture and generally toxic masculinity, hence the Zaldean insatiable appetite for war.
Characters Getting Bits of Me
But what of characters? I’d have a ‘prince,’ yes. But I’m nonbinary, and I wanted to write an alternate form of ‘masculinity’. In hindsight this was a nonbinary main character using he/him and they/them pronouns. But mixed pronouns for a point of view character written in third person may do reader’s heads in, so I stuck to they/ them. To balance the patriarchy and sexism of the Zaldeans, and ‘good guy’ Tarlahns, I’d need ‘gender non-comforming’ (read kick arse and highly competent 😉) women: enter Ruarnon’s best friend Lenaris and General Takanis.
What of the Aussie characters? As recently as 2020 I thought, I really should write some more diverse characters. So Michael became an Aboriginal Australian. (The Murai were always BIPOC, and never colonised or enslaved). But what of LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity? Well, my aversion to labels had, it turned out, prevented me from identifying as nonbinary. I knew I was asexual, though only later in life did I hear of a-romantic. When I did, sure enough, I realised I’d subconsciously written a nonbinary main character (Ruarnon) and subconsciously written them as asexual and aromantic, with an Aussie offsider who was also asexual and aromantic (Linh).
So it only seemed fair to give other LGBTQIA+ identities a place as well. When I thought about it, it made a lot of sense for people loving Troy to be pan-romantic. And it wouldn’t just be trauma and a lone wolf nature that introverted Michael was quiet about, he’d be queer too. And it would be wrong not have lesbians. And in this day and age I feel trans people’s humanity needs to front and centre in their representation, so both trans women in this trilogy are in loving relationships, one surrounded by friends.
I decided to give the portal characters their own personalities and voices by portioning my own character traits between them and exaggerating those traits. Again, only later in life with the benefit of much reflection, can I spot that Michael got my autistic traits, while Troy embraced my ADHD ones wholeheartedly and Linh I think has a smattering of both but by either ND identity. Fiona was the ‘normal’ character, but she’s a sweety, so I think we can forgive her.
Ruarnon would carry the weight of their people’s survival on their shoulders. They would be a bookish heir, standing in the shadow of a war hero father, defending their people. Inexperience and an introverted personality would make them struggle to persuade others to follow them. They would be quiet and thoughtful, when the people are used to loud, large leaders swinging their spears around.
As for Linh and my portal characters, having apparently stumbled into a fantasy world by accident (it wasn’t accidental ofcourse, but only later do they learn why), uncertainty would be the bain of their existence. Restlessness, and having to choose between staying safe and never seeing loved ones back home again would propel them into danger. And through the experience none of us wanted of uncertainty during a pandemic, their challenge would mirror ours. As may the strategies they would learn to maintain perspective and to manage their mental health.
L.O.T.R, Final Fantasy & Shakespeare
I love the fellowship in Lord of the Rings, and how close knit (after Edmund sees the light) the Pevensie children are. Friendship in the face of adversity was an obvious theme to explore. But so would be manipulation, treachery for self-gain and the struggle to sustain belief in what is right in the face of overwhelming opposition. That way was likely to lead to tragedy and is how I suspect studying Macbeth, and learning that tragedy in ancient Greek stories was thought to expunge the spirit of evil thoughts, bled into Manipulator’s War and Kyura’s character arc.
Another large thread of my Ruarnon Trilogy was influenced by playing Final Fantasy, a thread of mystery. I loved the experience in those games of learning about the big baddies piece by piece, fighting their lieutenants first, then finally meeting the big baddie in a dramatic in person clash. I also love murder mysteries, Midsummer Murders and Poirot being among my favourites. But the standard elements of a Who Dunnit are SO familiar to readers and viewers. I wanted something less predictable, an alternative, like why is Nartzeer only sending his lieutenants abroad to fulfil his will?
But the greatest mystery I could align with my story was who is Nartzeer, what does he want, and how can everything my characters learn about him be turned up-sidedown? How can Ruarnon and allies anticipate, let alone combat an enemy whose acts of hostility make no sense to them? That mystery, and developing my ultimate antagonist, King Nartzeer and his backstory were my favourite parts in writing this trilogy. I hope you have (or will) enjoy reading Manipulator’s War and the Ruarnon Trilogy nearly as much as I enjoyed writing it.
For more about me and my writing, see my interview by fellow author and poet Lily or my answers to fellow YA Fantasy author Nikky Lee’s 10 Questions.
For more about my queer identities: Identifying as Nonbinary, and What Does Pride Mean to You?
And my neurodiversity: I Think I’m Neurodiverse and Managing my Neurodiversity.