We are very lucky to have Devin Madson answering our questions on the blog today – on the UK publication day for We Ride the Storm, no less!
Stories where a character can hear or see things others can’t are often metaphors for mental health and feelings of isolation. Why is it important – and effective – to address such issues with fantastical settings?
In my experience when people are faced with ideas of mental health in the real world, they can find it too confronting. It sits too close to home and can be rejected before being considered, but by removing it, not only to a fantasy world but to an allegory, it is possible to encourage people to engage with the representation and emotions without making it overwhelming.
My character Cassandra, who hears a voice in her head as well as the singing of the recently dead, feels isolated, different, and like she doesn’t belong. For someone else who feels the same for their own reasons to see her grappling with the emotions this creates, allows them a safe space to see themselves represented on the page with enough distance for safety. They also get to see the ways this affects the people around her and the relationships she builds, and to see what the world looks like for someone who struggles with this whether or not she, or any other character, overcomes this challenge. I think it’s also important not to fall into the trap of always having to ‘fix’ the problem, which can create a negative representational experience for some.
What are some of the pros and cons of having multiple narrative pov’s in the same novel?
My favourite thing about having multiple POVs is getting to see the same characters, events, and places from different points of view. I tend to play with characters from varying backgrounds, whether class, cultural, gender identity, magic ability etc. That way I can examine how things such as traditions and history are viewed differently depending on one’s experience of life. And how especially with history, certain subsets of society are more likely to be represented and remembered, while others are forgotten or misquoted. The idea that history is written by the winners has always fascinated me. Being able to see the way this concept plays out in everyday life is a great addition not only to world and character building, but narrative tension.
I also enjoy the breadth of story you can tell with multiple POVs all sharing the same story and yet very much also carrying their own stories. It allows so many facets to be explored, well beyond what I could achieve with the same pacing had I only one POV character.
The biggest con for me is in juggling them in a natural way. Making sure they are all contributing to the story, all bringing something important to the narrative, and that their arcs are following different trajectories. They cannot all be on downswings at the same time or the tone would suffer, and where one is travelling it doesn’t work for them all to be travelling, or all of them to be in a lull between moments of action and tension. And all this has to be balanced with the actual timeline of events as best as possible, which occasionally leaves me tearing my hair out.
Tales of toppling empires are nothing new – overthrowing oppressive power structures will (sadly) always be relevant. How do you go about bringing something new and fresh to an idea as old as society itself?
It wasn’t something I set out to do originally (I’m quite the definition of an archetypal pantser/gardener type author), but I feel given the general anger at the world that seems to live permanently at the core of my being the older I get, it’s not very surprising I would write about change, about the toppling of certain power structures, or at least the struggles to do so and how people tend to keep falling into the same traps and habits, that the very person who seeks change can unwittingly create something just as monstrous in its place. True, permeant change and social progression is a slow thing that creeps in opposition to the greed, cruelty and selfishness humanity is all too capable of. I think what I hope do, not only with this series but all the books I write in this world, is to show that there is no sudden happy ending, no toppling of an empire only to have a perfectly realised democracy in its place. We can’t jump like that as a society now and so I don’t write that way (personal choice, not a judgement on anyone who likes their fantasy more fantastical). The struggle, the false starts, the backward steps, the individuals and the groups who push and pull in both directions – in choosing to write all my books in the same world, I hope to build a complex picture in which there aren’t always easy divisions between good and bad, right and wrong.
Your two female POV characters fit into archetypes with a lot of baggage – princess and assassin. What elements of these archetypes did you hope to invert, if any? And what are your favourite tropes in these archetypes?
With Miko, I wanted to write a princess who lacked a lot of the qualities we usually associate with a princess, while still managing to FEEL like a princess. She is not beautiful the way their society considers it, she’s broad-shouldered and strong, capable with a bow, more interested in her ambition to sit on the throne and tear down the patriarchy standing in her way to care for much else, and yet she achieves all this without losing any of her femininity or acknowledgement of her emotions. There is a tendency to say female characters can only be strong and ambitious if they are hard-hearted or overly masculine, and it was an idea I wanted to push back against. As for tropes, I think my favourite princess trope is the badass secret identity. One I never want to see again is any that boil the character down to being rescued or protected by a man, or getting fridged for a man’s motivation.
With Cassandra, the assassin, I didn’t consider where she would fit within the archetype when I started writing her because being an assassin is, to me, the least interesting thing about her character. I guess you could say that’s where I sought to invert expectations, as often the most interesting thing about assassins is that they assassinate. They plan and they watch and they find the best ways of ending life for money, but Cassandra does it as much because she has an affinity for dead bodies, able to hear them calling to her, and that aspect of her (as I discussed a little in the earlier question about mental health metaphors) is the one I have leaned into the most.
My favourite assassin trope is definitely an assassin getting contracted for the life of someone they love, while one I would be happy never to see again is the rakish assassin who effortlessly picks up girls everywhere he goes because he’s so mysterious and broody.
Pitch us We Ride the Storm! Why should we pick up a copy?
We Ride the Storm is the story of an empire disintegrating beneath the weight of hereditary grudges and a violent history. A snarky assassin, an ambitious princess, and an honourable exiled warrior must find their way through the chaos while trying desperately not to lose their sense of selves and their dreams. It is an epic fantasy full of battles and intrigue, trippy necromancy and respectful beheadings, but at its heart it is a story about how messy it is to be human. Choices are not always easy, consequences can be unbearable, and the decisions we make will live with us forever. We may set out to do the right thing but in the end we can only do our best, and sometimes stubbornness, ambition and love are much stronger forces.
Devin Madson is an Aurealis Award-winning fantasy author from Australia. After some sucky teenage years, she gave up reality and is now a dual-wielding rogue who works through every tiny side-quest and always ends up too over-powered for the final boss. Anything but zen, Devin subsists on tea and chocolate and so much fried zucchini she ought to have turned into one by now. Her fantasy novels come in all shades of grey and are populated with characters of questionable morals and a liking for witty banter.