I am always on the lookout for standalone fantasy novels. Not that I don’t love a good series, but there’s something so very satisfying about a self-contained story. When I heard about Starless, the latest novel from bestseller Jacqueline Carey, I could hardly contain my excitement. So what did I do? I asked her a few questions!
What is it about fantasy fiction that has you so enamoured?
Ever since I went through the wardrobe with Lucy Pevensie as a young reader and found myself in Narnia, I’ve loved fantasy. I love the magic it awakens, the sense of wonder it evokes, and the escape it affords. As a writer, I love the freedom that enables me to create a world that allows me to tell any story I want.
Much of your work has roots in history. How do you decide which periods of history to draw upon in your work? How do you go about recontextualizing elements from history in radically different settings?
One of my readers called my usage of history in the Kushiel’s Legacy series ‘cafeteria style,’ which was so apt, I’ve adopted it. It starts with what appeals to me. “Oh, I’ll have the meat loaf and some of those mashed potatoes, please; and I’ll isolate Britain to prevent it from experiencing the cultural development occurring across the Channel. A slice of pineapple upside-down cake and a Carthage that was never destroyed, thanks very much.”
Once those decisions are made, it becomes a process of fitting the puzzle pieces into a framework that makes sense. The great thing about writing historical fantasy, as opposed to straightforward historical fiction, is that you’re held to a standard of plausibility within the setting you’ve created, rather than accountability in the context of actual history.
So it’s not like I’m going to get called out by a bunch of history buffs explaining that no, if the Channel Straits were controlled by an immortal, cursed demigod, the Celtic tribes would never rally under the leadership of Pictish ruler!
Why did you decide to tackle a Shakespearean retelling? Was it daunting? What difficulties did you encounter here as opposed to writing a completely original story?
Taking on the Bard? Heck yeah, it was daunting! Miranda and Caliban is my retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I love Shakespeare. I remembered the play as one of his frothier, more light-hearted works. And then I re-read it a few years ago, and thought… “Wow, Prospero is really controlling! Miranda is raised in deliberate ignorance of her entire history, and Caliban and Ariel are virtual slaves.”
There’s a very dark psychological underbelly to that play, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to explore it. Choosing to work within the strictures of the play was in some ways confining, and in other ways, liberating. I enjoyed the process of reading between the lines and drawing out the subtext.
Hence, my choice to depict Caliban as a feral child, abandoned on the island upon the death of his mother. It fits perfectly within the play’s parameters, and the evolution of his voice, going from an essentially nonverbal state to a particular singsong rhythm, is one of my favorite things I’ve written.
In your debut novel, Kushiel’s Dart, you explore masochism and elements of sexual slavery. These are difficult subjects to get right. How did you tackle the research and writing process here? Why did you want to address issues of sexual exploitation and women owning their bodies and sexual preferences in a fantasy context?
From the first inkling of inspiration, my heroine Phèdre was who she was, an unabashedly masochistic courtesan-spy. Sometimes there’s no arguing with the Muse. I had to think long and hard about whether or not this was a concept that could be pursued without being exploitative. Ultimately, I decided that dealing with the intersection of violence and sexuality that’s so prevalent in popular culture was an opportunity to examine the tropes of female victimization in an unexpected and subversive way.
A fantasy setting allowed me to create a world in which, at least in the primary setting of Terre d’Ange, love is divine, sexuality is sacred, and consensuality is sacred tenet. The characters don’t always live up to those ideals, but they exist. And I think that’s an important concept to model, especially for younger readers.
(Disclaimer: I don’t recommend the Kushiel’s Legacy series for readers under 16.)
I kept lousy research notes. There was so much of it covering so many different aspects of that novel! I read a lot of personal commentary in online forums that probably haven’t existed for 15 years. One resource I’m happy to recommend for the BDSM elements is the book Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns. There are probably more contemporary introductions to the lifestyle at this point, but I think the basics hold up.
Why should readers be excited for Starless?
Oh, so many reasons! First of all, there aren’t a lot of standalone epic fantasies out there that deliver the whole package in one satisfying chunk. I think this one does. It puts a spin on lots of familiar tropes of the genre, while some seriously strange and funky gods walk the earth. The worldbuilding has an element of New Weird, inspired by authors like China Mieville. I hope it will draw vivid pictures in readers’ minds that they’ve never seen before. And I think it deals with some interesting issues of representation, though I can’t get into the details without spoilers.
My hero Khai is a violent and bloodthirsty young desert child-warrior from the get-go, and yet endearing.
There’s a prophesy. There’s a dark god rising. There’s a sheltered princess with a fierce intellect. There’s a ship drawn by sea-wyrms. There’s a guy with dragonfly wings. There’s a giant clairvoyant octopus.
What’s not to love?
New York Times bestseller Jacqueline Carey is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, postmodern fables Santa Olivia and Saints Astray, the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy series, and the forthcoming standalone, Starless. Jacqueline enjoys doing research on a wide variety of arcane topics, and an affinity for travel has taken her from Iceland to China to date. She currently lives in west Michigan.