I was a complete bookworm growing up, and I think being an only child fed that. I was shy, I had plenty of time, and I buried myself in stories. My parents would take me to libraries and bookshops where we could buy an entire bag of books for $5, which was a dream. I’m pretty sure I got mounds of obscure books no one has heard of. And while I happily read almost anything in my early years, I’ve forgotten most of them. There are just a few books that truly gripped me, sank into my soul, and made stories more than just a pleasurable way to pass the time.
It’s special to me that my first novel is a fantasy, since that’s the genre that hooked me on reading. I don’t read fantasy novels predominantly anymore – and some of my friends are surprised to know that I haven’t read some of the most popular contemporary fantasy authors, like Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin. Maybe it’s heretical for me to say, but I attempted The Way of Kings and Game of Thrones, but dropped them both. (I might give the former another chance, though). From the bits I read, I can’t deny that the world-building in both is stunning. But that’s never been the thing I loved most about fantasy.
The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books to capture my imagination. I didn’t knock on the back of my closet, hoping to find Narnia, simply because C.S. Lewis built an amazing world. Rather, it was because he peopled it with unforgettable characters. I remember how Aslan’s sacrifice struck me in the heart, how I wished for a friend like Lucy, how I hated but then grew to love Eustace, and how I adored Reepicheep and Puddleglum for their nobility and spunk. The world of Narnia gave them a place to come to life and flourish, but it was always the characters I loved most, imbued with such heart and personality.
Not surprisingly, The Lord of the Rings was my next great love (or obsession). My mom wanted to see the first film because she heard it was a classic, while I wondered how a story about jewelry could be anything but a snoozefest. I walked out of the theater totally enthralled, and hunted down the books so I could read them before the next movies came out. Undoubtedly, Tolkien created a rich world with different cultures, languages, and landscapes. He was a genre master. Peter S. Beagle called him a “colonizer of dreams.” As much as I would love to live in Rivendell or the Shire, it’s not the places themselves that inspired me most. It was the story of little hobbits shaking the fortresses of the mighty, a man of exile rising from the ashes to be king, and an unloved son who still loved his people to the bitter end.
Some might say these stories are old-fashioned. People are not so simple, so black-and-white. We love to explore characters who are gray, toeing the moral line. There’s a trend in contemporary fantasy towards dystopia, and morally questionable heroes. Fewer stories today make people say, “I want to live there with those people!” And they don’t all need to. But those are the books that won me over, and that’s the spirit I hope I capture in The Vermilion Riddle.
I have some of those gray characters, and I try to dig into some of those hard questions about justice and revenge. The story is told from two characters’ point-of-views, and one of them is certainly not a hero. But by and large, The Vermilion Riddle is classic fantasy in its themes and morality.
You might call it old-fashioned. But like Phil Coulson tells Captain America: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”