I’ve always loved the Matter of Britain: the essential tragedy of the never-ending fight of light and literacy vs. encroaching ignorance and suspicion;1 the intersection of wandering and belonging, Us versus Them; and the hint of mist and moors, menhirs and magic. But I was always put off by the essential straight, white, classist, nativist Christian touch-points of the legend. So last summer, when Jenn Northington and Swapna Krishna asked me to contribute to an anthology of queer Arthurian stories, I almost said No. But then an image dropped into my head—a cave, a girl, and a woman in red armour—and I saw how I could write a short story that took the myths and legends of first millennium Britain and blended them with real-world events like climate change, mass migration, and the multi-ethnic Roman occupation of Britain, to make something new. So I said Yes. They paid me half in advance and gave me a deadline of mid-January. I cashed the cheque and went back to working on Menewood.
Fast-forward to mid-January, when my brain was ablaze with Menewood, and I got email from Jenn reminding me the story was due the next day. I had totally forgotten (because Menewood, because blazing, and also because I saw the pandemic heading towards us like a freight train and was planning for that). So I wrote back and told Jenn I hadn’t started it but that if she gave me three weeks I was confident I could get it done. And I was confident—it turned out that those initial ideas had been breeding and mutating and were definitely alive and ready to be born. I set Menewood aside, opened a new document titled “Red,” and began.
But here’s the thing: I hadn’t reckoned on the energy that reworking the myth I’ve known all my life would unleash in me; it was like riding a rocket powered by sheer joy. In 3 days I had already roared past the 10,000 limit. I told Jenn it was going to be a long novelette rather than a short story. She said that was okay because some of the other contributions were coming in a bit short. I kept going. A week later I had steamed way past novelette length and the story was still not slowing down; I doubted I could even keep it to novella-length without spoiling what it had the potential to become.
It was at this point that I had to choose between being a professional who honoured her contract, or a writer who honoured her story. (To be clear, usually it’s perfectly possible to do and be both; that’s what ‘professional’ means. This time, eh, not so much.) I chose the latter: I apologised profusely and gave the money back.
The first draft took 17 days. When I was done, “Red” had become Spear, a short novel. (The title may change.)
What occasioned this burst of productivity? Perhaps, it really was the blazing delight of getting to queer the legend I love, to fuck with the the straight, white, male, cis, nondisabled, classist, nativist, patriarchal Christian crap we’re all fed about history all the time. Perhaps it was the opportunity to write a story set in the Long Ago, like Hild, but with magic—not only the wild magic of the landscape, and of love and the human heart, but also the sword-swinging, monster-killing magic of myth and demigods. There again, perhaps what really did the trick was the purchase of our first espresso machine.
So what is Spear? Well, Hild, but with magic—Hild let off the leash, unbound by those pesky historical constraints—and set a hundred years earlier, in Wales rather than England. The setting is throughly Celtic-flavoured, and so is the language: instead of spear-straight English I aimed for prose that’s rhythmic and rippling and periphrastic. Arthur’s/Arturus’s Companions (Fighters Previously Known as the Knights of the Round Table) are much more various than the myth, the grail is very much not what it seems, and Caer Leon/Camelot is queered six ways from Sunday. In many ways, though, all that is peripheral. What takes centre stage is the journey of Percival/Peretur, a girl and then young woman who leaves home to find out who she is. Climate change and other real-world events are there as underpinnings—you won’t notice unless you’re looking—but essentially this is a Hero’s Journey, or, more accurately, a
Heroine’s Real Hero’s Journey2. All Heroes set out to win, and Peretur is no exception, but winning for her is not just about the slaying of monsters—which she most definitely does (both human and otherwise), and with great élan—but about connecting: finding her people and a place to belong. In many ways this book is a kind of homecoming—not just for Peretur but for me: a coming-together of two parts of my career. So I’m thrilled it will be published in an unusual editorial collaboration between two of Macmillan’s imprints: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (publisher of Hild and my other non-SF novels), and Tor.com (publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror). Excitingly, there may also be budget for interior illustrations; more on that when I have it—but I think this could be a beautiful, gift-worthy item.
Mainly, though, what I want to convey in this blog post is just how very much I loved every step of this journey. I hope you will too. It will be published in world English in hardcover, ebook, and audio in April 2022.
But wait! There’s more! After finishing Spear I was absolutely and thoroughly revitalised. When I went back to Menewood it blazed along more brightly than before, and now the first draft is done. I don’t think that would have happened without Spear: the sheer energy and joy of that work smashed the box I’d put around both myself and Menewood, and freed the book it could be. I’m pleased with it—I’m delighted with both books. They will, I hope, tear out your heart, sear your soul, and turn your brain inside out. Chortle.
Because I am so fucking happy right now—not only do we have a new administration coming to mitigate some of the horrors of the old; not only are there several vaccines in the works, bringing the end of the pandemic in sight; but in 2022 I will have at least one, possibly two, new books out—only celestial events can come close to mirroring my emotion. So let me bookend this post with a photo I took three months ago. I was standing outside admiring the moon and Mars while a bunny hopped about on the lawn, and then a coyote trotted past and stared (then came back and stared again, probably wanting to know why I wouldn’t let its special little kitty friends out to play). I am still amazed that one can take photos like this with a tiny thing you keep in your pocket (iPhone 8).
Life is pretty fucking good.
1 Or, perhaps, liberals vs. conservatives.
2 ETA: I’m not a massive fan of the Campbellian monomyth—it boils down to old school crap about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and making it on your own merits. Sometimes there are variously designated Helpers and Tempters (I find the Woman as Temptress particularly irritating) but we all know they are clichés in clothes (or out of them). Real life doesn’t work that way. We all need help and support and real connection with real people. We’re all born with different privileges and disadvantages; for some of us it’s easier than for others. But basically, there’s no such thing as Making It On Your Own. And as Tolkien well understood, we often can’t go home again. So, yeah, not a fan.