Tolkien compared stories with soup. He said that, as readers and critics, we should look at the whole dish rather than the ingredients that went into it.
While I take Tolkien’s point – that it’s important to enjoy and immerse yourself in the story in its own right – I also like to think about the ingredients. A lot of different flavours went into the latest story I have out – Sand Dancer in James Tallett’s The Ways of Magic Anthology. So, for those of you who like to play literary chef, or just want to make sure there’s no rat in your word stew, here are a few ingredients that went into this story.
For me as a westerner, there’s something exotic and romantic about the Middle East. It’s a place full of strange beauty and unknown dangers, a place of djinn, minarets and shifting sands, of fine architecture, fine learning and the fine voice of a distant call to prayer.
Of course, the way we romanticise the East is problematic. Edward Said’s concept of orientalism – simply put, that we romanticise Asia in a way that also lets us look down on its people – is old hat, though sadly still relevant. As an outsider to these countries I’m cautious about using their culture for my own creations.
But what’s the alternative? That everything I write is full of white people living Anglo-American lifestyles? That all my fantasy is Tolkien-style elves, dwarfs, dragons and castles? Isn’t ignoring other cultures even worse? Also boring, of course.
I loved those old Sinbad films when I was growing up, the ones with the Ray Harryhausen monsters (sorry writers, actors and directors, but however good you were it’s still a Ray movie in my mind). I love Disney’s Aladdin, for all the problems that Disneyfication brings. I love the short stories of Saladin Ahmed, and am looking forward to reading his novels.
So, for good or for bad I’ve written a few stories that try to depict an Arabic fantasy setting, and this in one of them.
The clue’s in the title of of the anthology – Ways of Magic. This story is built around a particular way of creating magic, one that combines art, passion and power through the medium of dance.
I like to use the arts as mechanisms for magic systems. They stir passions within us that are a good fit for a powerful and evocative magic system. They have rules and patterns a writer can use. They make adventure stories about more than politics, power and wealth, bringing a society’s culture to the forefront.
For an Arabian fantasy story, combining this with belly dancing seemed a natural fit. I know next to nothing about dancing, so again I’ve darted outside of the familiar, but I hope I’ve done it some justice.
I try to create a balance in my fiction, with about half the leads male and half female. It would be easier for me to just write blokes – after all, I am one. But I want the world to provide women and girls with role models they can relate to. I want my nieces to see a variety of women in fantasy fiction, to see that they don’t need to be princesses or Xena lookalikes to matter in those worlds. And for myself, I want my fiction to be more interesting and varied.
I wrote this story just as I was starting a concerted effort to improve the gender balance in my writing, so it’s probably not my most nuanced attempt at a female lead. I won’t apologise – we all learn and improve by doing – but I will say that I’m still striving to do better.
Sand in your gears
Those three are the biggest ingredients that went into this stew. It’s also flavoured with clockwork robots, because I can never resist a bit of mechanical fantasy, and with some familiar themes about authority and rebellion. I like to think that it makes for a tasty read, but you’ll have to be the judges of that.