As The Were Chronicles series (well, the FIRST series – there are more stories to be told in this world) draws to a close with the appearance of “Shifter”, the third book, it might be time to revisit some of the issues and questions that lurk within these pages.
In random (hah. “Random” Book 1.) order, then.
1. Whose head are we in? (or, the whole triptych thing…)
This whole series started out life as a short story, a romp on the trope of Were Creatures, and my own creation, the Random Were, stepped up to take center stage. In the original short story, that was actually funny and some of that survives in the whole “my mother is a were-chicken” thing.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize that what I had in my hands was much stronger meat, and the short story wanted to be a book… and then three books.
Why three books?… and why not a classic trilogy where #1 begins things, #2 carries on and #3 finishes off the story, instead of a triptych?
Because I was doing something that was pretty rare (possibly because of good reasons…) and that might have been pretty near hubris to believe to have the ability to carry off. I used a triptych structure rather the classic trilogy because these books are technically the same story arc. But they are each told in first person by a different person, and therefore the events – even when shared to the point that individual protagonists from different books all take part in the same scene – are inevitably DIFFERENT when seen from the point of view of a different participant.
Here be spoilers so if you haven’t read the books and wish to you may want to skip this next section.
Book 1, “Random”, is the Book of Jazz. Jazz is YOUNG. She is frustrated with being overprotected because of events in her family’s past over which she had no control but for which she is the one paying the price. She is curious. She is impulsive. She is empathetic. She is precocious. She is also the first in her immigrant family who is truly FROM this new place to which they have come, and carries no old-world baggage with her, not personally. She has never known that other world.
“Random” also serves to set up my milieu, this world where Were and Human live side by side in an uneasy truce – the world where acceptance is real but comes at a price and where there are undercurrents the depth of which may not be immediately obvious to the participants or even to anyone watching from the side. Jazz has to live with trying to find her own way in the world, of champing at the bit and pulling at her harness, of wanting to taste that freedom which she knows she ought to have – and she blunders into a situation where the thing she Turns into, when her Were proclivities come into play, is enough to change both herself and her world.
Moreover, the fact that her first Turn came unexpectedly early and before her long-suffering, guilt-ridden, sullen, wounded, fragile, and yet so incredibly strong brother Mal had made HIS first Turn changed the family dynamics.
Mal – the hero in Book 2, “Wolf” — had actually lived through the events only known to Jazz through the diaries her dead sister left behind and thought he was the CAUSE of her death of his sister and never stops blaming himself. He had been very young when the family left their old world and came to the new one but his roots are still back there and his attitudes and his background knowledge are drawn from THAT paradigm and his own responses to the situation in which he and Jazz find themselves are perhaps extreme but very different from Jazz’s own.
When Jazz finds out what was really behind her sister’s death, she is horrified and recoils But she is that one step removed from it all and all she can do (at least in the beginning before she becomes involved up to her neck) is to observe as a non-participant.
Mal’s response to what he understands to be his older sister’s death by overdose is always and forever colored by the fact that he was the one who had handed her those pills. His choices in the aftermath events that transpire from HIS point of view gives them quite a different shape than when seen through the Mal prism.
The story arc – spoilers ahoy – for all three books is really Celia’s, the eldest child of the Marsh family, the older sister of Mal and Jazz. And here it is in an nutshell: Celia was a self-aware young but not too young child when she came to the new country. She endured endless savage bullying at school, from both her peers and then a particularly malevolent teacher. She thought she had found a way to circumvent her Were-imposed circumstances, but failed to plan the whole thing properly and overdosed on a drug which could delay the Were Turn, the pills having been supplied to her by her younger brother Mal. She dies, but leaves behind diaries detailing the circumstances of her death. The stress of finding those diaries and learning the true story of her sister’s death may have been a factor into her premature Turn. And that in turn triggers Mal’s choice to pre-empt his own failure to Turn by trying to become something more than the Random he was born and aiming for a true Lycan (or traditional Wolf) Were alter ago,
Against all odds he succeeds and while he’s trying to find his Lycan feet, he finds out that Lycan scientists have had their own agenda for generations, and discovers that the sister he loved and thought lost was still alive but devastatingly crippled and locked away in a Were-proof fortress . He makes a plan to rescue her with the help of his friend Chalky – he cannot do anything directly so Chalky is the one who plans and executes the rescue. Celia is rescued and ‘re-born’.
This is the under-story of ALL THREE books, and that’s what makes them a triptych, three leaves of the same thing, rather than a trilogy, a continuous three-book story which goes sequentially and chronologically and does not revisit already covered ground.
This was a conscious decision in POV focus. I had to write a story according to how it would appear if I saw it first through one prism – and then through a different prism which cast light and shadows into entirely different places – and then again through a third prism which changed it again.
In my mind these are *three different stories* and each is shaped by the detail of whose head we’re in, whose eyes we’re looking through. There is enough material that is “new” to each novel in that I’m talking of divergent lives even when certain events have been shared by more than one character – but because the same BIG PICTURE exists in all the books.
Yes, that does mean that some of the same ground is covered in each book – that sometimes entire scenes are played out again, as observed by our new protagonist. But I have never seen these are purely repetitive or padding – they’re stories with psychologically significant differences, and it fascinated me to see how changed the basic story was according to whose eyes I was seeing through, whose voice I was telling it in.
It was a calculated risk, a literary choice and a stylistic bravura, and I could only hope it would be seen and understood as that. The jury is still out on it
2. The underlying issues (or, what’s the problem here?)
The individual books took on a different character according to what the basic underlying issues turned out to be in each story.
“Random” dealt with the ideas of bullying, discrimination, acceptance, of the price of liberty and who would be willing to pay it and how much they would be willing to pay. Celia – my poor doomed Celia – was the one put through the wringer in order to illustrate these things, and Mal himself followed closely behind in those footsteps. I shone the bright lights into the shadows of these ills in our own “real” world, and I’ve had responses that tell me that those shadows have been illuminated. Because there was a recognition factor in play. Because readers responded with – “oh, not that specifically… but things like that *have happened to me*. I understand this.”
I am using the Were as the face of the persecuted ones but in fact they could be anybody at any historical or geographical context. The paw print that identifies the Were on their ID cards is a reflection of a yellow star on a coat. The herding together of the thing that is feared and mistrusted and hated is a reflection of places like Manzanar. The relentless bullying because one is somehow different from the rest is not unlike the bullying one experiences if one is gay and coming out into an unaccepting hetero world, or someone of a different faith, race, or ethnicity coming into conflict with a world which does not accept those things and responds with inflicting pain.
What this book was about was simply this: “THIS IS WHAT THIS IS LIKE”. I suppose I hoped that such things would be recognized – by those on the receiving end with an accompanying message of “you are not alone” and by those who might have meted it out in the past with a horrified realization of what they had inflicted on others. It was message of empathy and hopefully of putting someone in a bad place on a path to redemption.
“Wolf” was my bow to my education – it was all about science, and how science can be used and misused. Genetics, pharmacology, all the promise of the good things and all the possible ways that the good things can go bad. I dealt with addiction, with medical experiments, with the idea that sometimes people are used and abused and then discarded in the pursuit of some esoteric piece of knowledge or of power.
In “Shifter” I turned my focus on fundamentalism and how those who believe utterly that they are right and everyone else is wrong can ruin the world for everyone else around them.
I might write fantasy but these books, as one perspicacious reviewer pointed out, are more about being HUMAN than they ever were about non-human “monsters”. In fact, in this book, a lot of the monsters ARE pure human and the creatures we so love to think of as monstrous are just as fragile and vulnerable as we would be. The enemy is ALWAYS us.
What I write about are the concerns of the human mind, the human body, the human heart, the human soul.
I do not, never have, never will, aim for preaching my own gospel through the bully pulpit of my own fiction. All I do, as the writer, is choose an issue, a problem, an idea, and use the power of story to reveal it, to explain it, to disarm it, perhaps to conquer it through understanding. I hope my stories are entertaining enough to be read for their own sake – but as a reader, and most emphatically as the writer, I always want my stories to have more depth to them than just the surface glitter of pretty sunlight on the surface of water. And when I tell a story the underlying stories are always there. Not preachily, not dogmatically, I would never do that to my readers any more than I would like it done to myself, but they’re there. They will always be there.
Read all of my books with an eye to what it means to be a human being, and a part of a world where any and every human being has an individual story worth knowing, worth telling, worth reading.
3. The real thing (or, where’s the [fantasy] beef?)
A corollary of all that in Question #2 is simply this – the way I choose to tell the stories of THIS world, the stories which are sometimes too painful to address directly because they may trigger responses from readers which are entirely too close to the bone, is by cloaking them in that layer of silver tissue that is fantasy. I tell real stories which are transplanted into fantasy worlds; I aim for a bewildered recognition of a reader’s own self in the glimpse of a dragon, or medieval knight, or desert tribesman, or a lost princess, or a Were-creature, or even just another fellow human trying to make sense out of a world which sometimes stubbornly fails to cooperate or be helpful in any way at all.
Mary Poppins, the Queen of Nannies, had it wrapped up in that maxim that it’s a spoonful of sugar which helps the medicine go down – and sometimes that little bit of sugar is all that is necessary. You provide the reader – to change the metaphor completely – with a beef sandwich of a story – the two layers of bread are the fantasy disguise and they are nice and fresh and fragrant enough to tempt the eyes and the hands and the taste buds – but when you bite into it and the taste floods your mouth it’s the inside layer, the beef, the fundamental truth, that gets chewed on, too.
All fiction is fantasy, really, because all fiction is essentially a lie and therefore a fantasy by definition. But the sub-genre of fiction that is directly identified by that moniker implies that you are telling stories of what can never really be. Things like fairy tales and the Syai Empire, Narnia and Middle Earth and Hogwarts and Westeros. Things are bigger there, bigger than life. They can be both more obvious and more subtle (depending on the power of the storyteller) but they are still dismissed as, uh, impossible, fantastical, you know, “kid’s stuff”.
Except that they are not. They have never been. As GK Chesterton once said in a favorite quote, fairytales are not there to tell our children that there are dragons out there, it is to tell them that dragons can be conquered. True fantasy – while bringing delight and enchantment – also arms its readers against real monsters and tells those readers that the monsters can, in fact, be conquered.
This is the strength of fantasy. This is what I hope to reach for by choosing to tell my stories in this genre. The beef is quite simply the truth… given taste and allure by a condiment called “fantasy” which is sprinkled on it with a hand that can be as liberal or as frugal with that application as is deemed necessary.
The stories I tell are all true. Just close your eyes and stop staring at the bread before you take a bite. It won’t take long to discover the beef hidden inside. And no, I am not cheating. I have ALWAYS been offering you a sandwich, not two pieces of fairy bread hiding between them something you never knew was there.
Fantasy is a perilous and beautiful land. But it’s how you engage with it that matters. It is entirely possible to stay on the road and look neither right nor left and the road will still be a fantasy highway – but look to the sides and you see more than the highway – you see the world it runs through. And the story – which can be just the journey, and that’s fine too, but it’s sometimes just so inadequate… – becomes more than just putting one foot in front of another. It becomes not a journey so much as a context, and the context begins to draw you a picture of who you really are, deep inside.
I read because I love stories, I write because I love to build worlds and spin dreams like the Fates spin lives. I blog to share my eclectic interests — books and writing, travels on earth and in space, puns, animals, photography, the environment ….
I am Alma Alexander and my greatest joy, my greatest passion, comes in building my own worlds. I have written and published well over two million words, most about places which never existed before I imagined them into being.
I was born in a town on the banks of the Danube in a country which no longer exists. When I was ten, I left the country of my birth, never to live there again. I have lived in five countries on four continents and now spend a good deal of my time in the realm of Cyberspace.
More than a score of my books are in print, including my YA series, Worldweavers, which Voya has recommended for those suffering from Harry Potter withdrawal, and The Were Chronicles, which creates a whole new shifter universe. One of my novels, The Secrets of Jin-shei, has been published in 13 languages and has touched readers around the world. Just recently, for example, a young woman talked excitedly about it in a video on her blog. I think she liked it, but since it was in Portuguese.…?
I was born on the fifth day of July six years before man walked on the moon, and I am married to a man who wooed me over the Internet and lured me to America. I am owned by two cats.