This week, BTGS is lucky enough to host one of the major fantasy debuts of 2017: Anna Stephens. We asked her about grimdark, what it’s like being a woman in the industry, how she writes female characters and why you should be reading Godblind. Without further ado, over to Anna!
Why are you drawn to fantasy? Why has it proven such a successful vehicle for epic storytelling?
As a child with a very vivid imagination, fantasy was my reality. I always think that any child you watch totally absorbed in playing with their toys has the potential to be an artist of some sort – author, actor, painter. I like to think people like us are people who never lost that sense of childlike wonder and the ability to anthropomorphise inanimate objects.
I read a lot of fantasy as a child, and that and historical fiction remain my two favourite genres. I like the ability to create my own rules, my own systems of government, religion and magic. And fantasy is an excellent vehicle in which to examine some of the biggest and most contentious issues of the day, but in a ‘safe’ space. For example, you can address gender inequality in fantasy and point out its obvious flaws; it’s usually when you try and do that in this world that you get shot down in flames, though of course, any book in which you buck the status quo will have its haters.
Epic storytelling is, by its nature, a vast and sprawling beast. I think fantasy fits it so well because it doesn’t have defined edges – there’s no limit to what you can do with fantasy, so there will never come a time when the story you want to tell doesn’t fit. However big or jagged your story, fantasy provides the framework to fit it.
How do you feel about being labelled a grimdark author? Has this sub-genre had its day?
It was something I was a little surprised at when I first heard it, because I didn’t – and in a way still don’t – think that Godblind is grimdark. It’s grim and it’s dark, yes, but there’s also hope and life in there as well. That being said, readers will always make up their own minds and I certainly don’t dislike the label. There’s some pretty nasty stuff that happens in it which could justify the term.
I don’t think grimdark has had its day yet. Yes, there’s the resurgence of ‘lighter’ fare, and the ‘noblebright’ movement which is trying to counteract grimdark, but I think there’s a reason this label/sub-genre came into being. With everything that’s happening in the world, with tales of terror and horror from all across the globe, it’s almost as though grimdark is a warning – or a lesson. When this happens to your country, this is what you need to do. Don’t rely on others to save you.
Perhaps we’re educating ourselves for the apocalypse, but I think grimdark has its place and potentially always will. While I love reading high fantasy and the triumph of good over evil and all the good guys get to live, I also like – or need – to see reality. That’s what grimdark is, in its broadest sense. It’s like watching those movies from the 60s and 70s that depict war, in which people are stabbed or shot and fall to the floor with one small patch of red on their immaculate uniforms. Grimdark is the equivalent of the film industry’s decision to use buckets of fake blood and show the horrors of warfare in minute detail.
Grimdark has been associated with men and male writing. In some circles, it still is. Do you think this is changing?
Not fast enough, no. There was a venn diagram of authors doing the rounds on Twitter recently – it showed 20 or so authors. 19 of them were men. I’ve been involved in ‘discussions’ on Facebook in which male readers have said “women can’t write war, they just don’t understand it”. Considering the war I’m writing is fought with medieval weapons and technology, there’s no way he or I can truly, 100% understand it – neither of us have been in it. Therefore, why would my ability to imagine a war fought in this way be different to a man’s?
But it’s also not just a grimdark problem – it’s all fantasy. Another reason to rant on Twitter lately (honestly, that platform isn’t good for my health some days) was a man who’d cut ‘all pointless female scenes and characters’ from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The resulting ‘film’ was 46 minutes long, but ‘worked a lot better’.
I don’t even know where to start with something like that. I honestly don’t understand how anything can be better when it erases half the population and gives every scene of empathy, courage or intelligence only to men. Aliens? No problem. Women? Are you kidding me?
All I can say is that we’re fighting the good fight, and there are definitely male readers out there who appreciate us. I’m lucky enough to have met/be friends with a lot of them, and their vehement rejection of the prevailing attitude will hopefully have an effect. Again though, there’s a slight feeling of female authors being forced to rely on male readers to change male perspectives, and while that grates a little bit, a fan of any gender is always hugely appreciated – especially as a debut author.
Historically, fantasy has a bit of a bad rep when it comes to gender representation. Female characters are either hopelessly stereotyped or their strength originates solely from “borrowed” masculine traits. With all this literary baggage and community awareness of the problem, how do you go about creating female characters?
I was brought up to toe the line, so for me when I was told I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because of my gender, I gritted my teeth and accepted it. As I got older though, and more confident in myself and my abilities, I started rebelling. From there it pretty much snowballed. Having practised martial for years and being a member of a real ‘bros only’ gym, it’s been a long time since I’ve listened when someone has told me I can’t do something, especially something physical. I treat my female characters the same way.
I also don’t understand what a borrowed masculine trait is. A woman hates someone? That’s hate, it’s not a male emotion. A woman wants to kill someone? Same. A woman relishes physical exertion, enjoys hard work, likes a good scrap? That’s a feminine thing too. Karate and deadlifts are two of my favourite things, pushing myself to my physical limits, doing things I don’t like because of the buzz I get afterwards. That doesn’t make me a man. It makes me me.
But also, I’ll sit and cry at sad scenes in shows or movies. I can be petty and belligerent and self-centred and selfish. Whatever your feelings are, they’re your feelings. A woman who likes to lift weights isn’t a man. A man who can cry about something that affects him is not a woman.
I write the women I am or would like to be. I write women to make other women feel liberated. I write women to make men take notice. And if they don’t? If they accuse me of writing Mary Sues or women with ‘masculine’ traits? Well, tough. Go and read your bromance instead and pretend you’re the hero of your own world. I’m not here for you.
Why should we be reading Godblind? (The pitch question)!
You mean all that above didn’t convince you? Alright.
Godblind is an epic tale of violence and religious intolerance, betrayal and self-sacrifice. The Mireces of the mountains worship the Red Gods, and the Red Gods have told them their destiny is to invade Rilpor, conquer its people and force them to convert. The Rilporians worship the Gods of Light and want only to live in peace, but intrigue in the capital city and traitors in the highest levels of government are working to overthrow the king. Some people will do anything for power.
At the centre of the novel is a group of men and women – from both sides of the conflict – doing their best to survive, thrive, steal power and save lives as war descends and religions clash. Slaves, priestesses, warriors, kings, soldiers and commoners collide as the Mireces sweep out of the mountains and slaughter all in their path. In the midst of the bloodshed and the vile practices of the Red Gods’ chosen, hope and love fight against destiny and despair. But the outcome is far from certain.
Anna Stephens is the UK author of gritty epic fantasy, the Godblind Trilogy. Book 1, Godblind, is now available in the UK and Commonwealth, North America, France and Germany. Book 2, Darksoul, is due for publication in summer 2018.
She is represented by Harry Illingworth in the UK and sub-agented by Cameron McClure in North America. Along with the territories mentioned above, further publishing deals have been struck in Poland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
A literature graduate from the Open University, Anna loves all things speculative, from books to film to TV, including classic Hammer and Universal horror films, as well as the chameleon genius of David Bowie.
As a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being punched in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.
Buy Godblind now.