A painting, depicting haunting scenes of a ruined palace and a scarlet-haired goddess in front of a fiery city, arrives unheralded in an art gallery with a cryptic note saying, “The world needs to see this.” The painting begins to change the lives of the woman who is the gallery's curator and that of an ancient man of the fey Aetherial folk who has mysteriously risen from the depths of the ocean. Neither human nor fairy knows how they are connected, but when the painting is stolen, both are compelled to discover the meaning behind the painting and the key it holds to their future.
Can I swap my Black Hat for your White Hat?
by Freda Warrington
There are all sorts of reasons for writing fiction, but for me the main ones are the characters and their interactions and relationships. As my new novel GRAIL OF THE SUMMER STARS comes out from Tor, I’m sitting here musing about my protagonists and how they travel from A to Z, changing and growing and making mistakes along the way. Most books, especially in genre, have heroes and villains – but do things always have to be black and white? All through the twenty-odd novels I’ve written so far I have played with – oh dear, how can I avoid the phrase “shades of grey”? – gradations along a scale. Shades of grey sounds better, but you know what I mean.
Grail is the third of my Aetherial Tales series, following on from Elfland and Midsummer Night. Each novel can be read as a stand-alone, but they are all set against the same background. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of beings who look human but aren’t – elves, demons, vampires, angels and so on – and my Aetherials are not precisely any of those, but my own version of an “other-race”. The setting is the contemporary human world, but they can also wander into their own Otherworld, also known as the Spiral.
Sometimes my players leap into my head fully formed. At others, I have to work harder at finding out who they really are. Sometimes I know they are basically good people at heart – for example Rosie, the down-to-earth heroine of Elfland, and Mistangamesh and Stevie in Grail. At others, I know they have a villainous streak – the attractive bad boy Sam, for example, or his father Lawrence, or Rufus – the cruel, mischievous brother of Mist – who must be stopped before he does something daft like destroying the world…
But do heroes always do the correct thing, and remain heroic to the end? Are baddies – like Sauron, or Lord Foul the Despiser – doomed to stay relentlessly bad? Much of the fascination I find in my characters is exploring them as human (or human-ish) beings – not angels or demons but a mixture of conflicting motives. In my Blood Wine vampire series (the first, A Taste of Blood Wine, republished by Titan Books) many of the vampires revel in what they are, while others try to live by some sort of moral code – but none of them could be categorized as goodies. They are not half-hearted, “vegetarian” vampires. They all need human blood.
In Elfland, Rosie is a basically good, kind person, yet she ends up making horrific misjudgments that bring pain and tragedy to those around her. In Grail, Mistangamesh – trying to untangle the mysteries of his ancient Aetherial heritage – is a placid, kind, compassionate (not to mention gorgeous) man at heart, but he’s forced to be ruthless in order to avert a potential apocalypse. At least, to try.
In my fantasy worlds, my baddies are rarely bad for the sake of it. They are usually doing what they think is best, or right, or for the good of others – rather as I’m sure Hitler or the Spanish Inquisition thought they were doing what was best for the world! Rufus (in Midsummer Night and Grail) is an exception. A long-lived Aetherial, who uses his seductive powers to torment humans and Aetherials alike, with a track record of murder and mayhem behind him, he is hell-bent on being as evil as possible for the sake of it. But he didn’t get like this for no reason. Events in his early life made him angry and resentful (poor soul!) and, unfortunately, thirty thousand years of existence have not helped him to grow up! Perhaps he really is beyond hope, but in Grail, one way or another, he must grow up and face the consequences.
Then we come to Albin – a sinister character who has hovered ominously in the background of all three books, whose story completes a major arc in Grail. Albin is a cold pale Aetherial in an ice white tower. He is heartless, devoid of love and compassion, and utterly devoted to his puritanical cause of cutting off the Otherworld from the Earth. He’s convinced that his extremist beliefs are the only answer for Aetherial-kind, a sociopath who would even sacrifice his own family to achieve his aims. Some characters truly are beyond hope and there’s nothing to do but fight and destroy them…
Or is there? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. Characters convinced of their own goodness stare in disbelief at the carnage they’ve created. Even the most hard-line villain may see that his plans can come to nothing, and his only way forward is to fall on his sword – metaphorically or literally. In my fantasy worlds, the paths my characters take, however difficult, may be crystal-clear. Often, however, the black hats and the white hats may be swapping around like musical chairs as they work through onion-layers of good and evil until they find out what really lies at the centre…