Guest post by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto
As the author Charlie Stross once noted fantasy, and particularly high fantasy, is a conservative genre:
"And to make matters worse, the traditional format of a high fantasy novel is that some source of disruption threatens to destabilize the land; it is up to the hero (usually it is a 'he') to set things right and restore the order of benign tyranny to the world."
As Stross points out, most of the population of fantasy worlds who are not a) the hero of the story; or b) royal (or at least noble) and male have lives that are simply awful. But most fantasy doesn't dwell on these conditions, and there is an inherent idea that the status quo that must be maintained is, inherently, a Good Thing. Combined with the idea that the past was better than the present, that our forefathers were greater than we, you have the basis for a good deal of modern fantasy.
We came by our love of the genre honestly, both of us growing up reading The lord of the Rings and playing Dungeons and Dragons – the former being the archetype of High Fantasy, the latter very much wearing its influences on its sleeve (Tolkienesque elves and dwarves, Vancian magic). We unapologetically enjoyed big, thick books with maps at the front and appendices at the back filled with nonsense words full of apostrophes.
As geeks and as gay men we were both outsiders in our way and, in hindsight, always nascent storytellers. We played games that told stories, wrote stories on our own. So when we sat down, as adults, to play a role-playing game together, perhaps it was inevitable that the tale we told would be one of outsiders in a high fantasy world. And perhaps it was inevitable that it would become much more than just a game.
As we played, we built the Imperial City of Rodaas, the fog-shrouded, rumor-haunted capital, built on the crumbling remains of a former civilization that one day simply left behind the safety of their walls and the comforts of their civilization and never returned. There we met Marina Kell, known to all and sundry as Duchess, once a member of the nobility and now a bread girl of the lower city.
Even as a noble Duchess' choices would have been limited. Her father was widely respected as a scholar, and Duchess would have gladly followed in his footsteps, but such things do not happen in Rodaas. She would most likely have been married off as soon as she reached the age of majority, a pawn in the game of the great noble Houses to cement an alliance with another family. A pretty bird in a gilded cage.
But then even that small hope was taken from her. Her home burned, her family dead or vanished, she found herself living with people who were not her parents, sleeping in a room with two girls who were not her sisters. And here, with Duchess having fallen through the cracks of Rodaasi society, we found our story.
There among the city's forgotten we found Lysander, a ganymede who, along with his fellows, sells his body for coin, who captured Duchess' heart when she was still a girl and to this day remains her best friend. We found Minette, an obsessive collector of secrets who puts each one towards her own inscrutable ends. We found the wretched poor of the Deeps, the working underclass of the Shallows, and the beggars who cry for alms along the Godswalk. And there also we found the Grey: a secret society of thieves, spies and rumormongers, who stand supreme in a city where corruption and lies are common coin. They are as unremembered and invisible as the rest, but lay claim to a subtle power that could shift the fortunes of high and low alike.
And slowly, inevitably, the game and its story became The Duchess of the Shallows, and then its sequel, The Fall of Ventaris. (A third is on its way!) Through these novels, we've explored a world where the status quo is, perhaps, not a Good Thing, where those in power do not share it lightly, and the slightest threat of change can bring terrible retribution. Where the past is a storm of secrets and horrors that make the troubles of the present pale in comparison.
We came by our love of fantasy honestly. But through our work we hope to show that fantasy can be more than just a romantic wish for days gone by, or the restoration of, as Stross puts it, a benign tyranny who might rule wisely and well. We hope to find in the cracks and amongst the forgotten, hope for a different and, perhaps, better way.
The Duchess of the Shallows by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto
Available on: Amazon, Barnes and Noble
Official website: http://peccable.com/duchess/
Follow the author on Twitter: @peccable