Category Archives: The Quest of the Unaligned

Savvy Saturday – Guest Post by Alaric and Laeshana

Greetings all!

I’ve been pretty busy the last few weeks, editing my work-in-progress, traveling from coast to coast, and getting into the summer academic swing of things, so I decided to let Alaric, Laeshana, and Naruahn guest-post for me today. They’re answering two questions that readers have submitted recently to their tumblr page. (Do you have questions? Feel free to submit them!)

Question 1: Are there ever cases where a noble is born with magic that doesn’t match his parents? Like if Nahruahn had been Naeshan instead?

Savvy Saturday – A Night of Inspiration

I saw her at our end-of-the-semester party last night: she didn’t fit in.

Most of us were grad school students. There was a one-year-old baby, two twelve-year-old boys who poked and laughed and punched each other all night, and a spouse or two. And then there was her.

Short, quiet, dark of hair and skin, curled up on the bench with a library book, she looked like she knew that she was the odd one out. She was fourteen, and was the sister of one of the twelve-year-old boys. He had brought a friend. She had brought a book.

As she sat there turning pages, just beyond the fringe of the gathering, she reminded me of someone. Me. When I was younger, I always brought a book along to awkward social gatherings, or any event that could potentially be boring. I even brought books to “fun” things, just in case. (I can’t even count the number of homeschool “park days” where my exasperated-yet-amused mother had to tell me to put down my book and go play with my friends.) I’m experienced enough now that I can typically tell the difference between “DON’T DISTURB ME, I’M AT A GOOD PART” reading, and “I’m reading because otherwise I’ll be uncomfortable and awkward” reading.

I watched her for a few seconds – her reading was definitely in the latter category. She’d read a bit, then look up when she heard people laugh, or wander over to the drinking fountain, or sigh and shift positions. My heart went out to her.

I walked over.

“Is that an interesting book you’re reading?” I asked with my best attempt at a friendly smile. She nodded silently, looking slightly alarmed at being spoken to. I felt slightly alarmed at the alarm on her face – I’m not used to being the “scary adult” that I remember being intimidated by as a child. But I introduced myself nonetheless, and tried to look friendly as she stumbled over her words as she introduced herself in return. “I like to read too,” I said, giving her another smile. “And to write. Good stories are awesome, aren’t they? What’s that one about?”

She, however, had latched on to the first part of what I had said. “You write?” she asked. “Like, fiction?”

“Yeah. I’m a novelist.”

Her eyes grew huge in her dark face. “Really? Have you been published?”

I nodded. “One of my books has.”

Her look of wonder was like a child upon seeing Santa Claus leaving presents under the tree. It was a bit disconcerting. “Oh my gosh! What’s your book about?” she asked.

I gave her my spiel: The Quest of the Unaligned is a fantasy novel about a young man who grows up in a technologically advanced society, but is tricked into going on a quest through a magical kingdom. Of course, he doesn’t believe in magic, which makes things difficult, especially when he discovers that he’s the prince of the land.

As I talked, this girl literally began jumping up and down, her library book forgotten on the table beside her. “Really? Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! That’s amazing!”

I thought the same thing. I’ve never had someone react that way to my telling them that I’m a published novelist. Ever. It was unreal.

“Do you like to write?” I asked her, though it was pretty clear what the answer was from her giddiness. Of course she did, she told me – and more than that, she liked to write fantasy and science fiction.

“Were you ever…” she asked, then looked up at me hesitantly, “a bookworm?” She said it like she was afraid it might be a derogatory phrase.

“Oh, my whole life!” I assured her. “I still am.”

It was amazing how her face lit up, and after that, the words came fast and enthusiastic. At my prompting, she told me a little about her work-in-progress, and then asked me to tell her about getting my book published, and then we were summoned to the dinner line for burgers and bratwursts. When it was our turn, the grad student in charge of Fire and Meat asked us what we wanted. I turned to my new friend, who just looked at me helplessly. I turned back. “I’d love a burger,” I told the grill-master.

The girl perked up. “That’s what I’m going to have too!” she said, as if she’d been planning on it all along.

I nearly died from the adorableness.

As we neared the end of the line, my new friend shyly asked if she could sit next to me. (Of course she could.) She tagged along behind me, and I introduced her to my other grad-school friends. We had quite a nice dinner, and she didn’t open her library book once.

“Thank you so much,” she told me later, clutching her book in one hand and jumping up and down again. “This was amazing! I’m going to get your book from the library and read it! I can’t believe it. I never thought I’d meet a real author tonight!”

I gave her my email address and told her to let me know if she has questions about writing or publishing, and that I’d be happy to help. She looked like I’d given her a new puppy. At least I think she did – I had tears in my eyes by that point. She waved at me as she left with her father and brother, still bouncing and wide-eyed.

It was weird. I’m a first-year PhD student, not a celebrity. People haven’t heard of my book, and most just give me strange/tolerant looks when I say I’m a novelist. But every so often, it seems, being a fantasy novelist gives you the power to encourage someone in a unique way. To tell a teenager that being a bookworm is cool, that reading fantasy is awesome, that writing fantasy is even more awesome, and that you don’t have to be an English major to do it. To show that it’s possible to be a normal person and get a book published.

Perhaps even to be an inspiration, the way that other writers and my professors have been inspirations to me.


An Interview with Anna del C. Dye

It’s April Fool’s Day, but all jokes aside, I had a fun interview with the fantasy author Anna del C. Dye last week. Her questions covered things such as my first novel, what got me interested in writing in the first place, and how my family background affected my writing, as well as more specific questions about The Quest of the Unaligned.

You can check out the interview here!

Savvy Saturday – How to Retell a Story

Last week, I posted about the value of retelling or adapting classic stories. For this post, I want to give an example – with helpful step by step instructions! – of how one might take a classic story and rework it in a different context. Not only is it fun, it is also a useful writing exercise for any writer who is trying to develop their skill at creating worlds and characters.

The first step (step one a) is to lay out the main character and plot events of the story you’re going to tell or rework. Let’s take the Biblical story of Joseph as an example.

Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers

According to Genesis, Joseph was the 11th of 12 brothers, but the eldest of the two sons born to his father’s favorite wife. For this reason, Joseph was his father’s favorite. In addition, from the time he was young, Joseph had dreams that proved to come true. He was rash, impetuous, and arrogant, and told his brothers that according to his dreams, they would all bow to him. Eventually, his brothers grew so furious at him that they sold him to a passing group of slavers and told his father that he was killed by a wild animal. Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt to a high official, and through his skills (and blessing from God) became the overseer of his household. He was falsely accused by the official’s wife of improper conduct and spent the next number of years in prison. Finally, after hearing of his powers of interpreting dreams, Pharaoh sent for him to interpret a strange dream that boded ill for Egypt. Joseph, through God’s power, was able to interpret the dream and was made second in command of all Egypt. Through this position, he prepared Egypt for a coming famine. When the famine hit, everyone had to come to Egypt for food – including Joseph’s brothers. Joseph tested his brothers to see if they had changed, and when it turned out they had, he revealed himself to them and forgave them. In the end, Joseph’s entire family moved to Egypt, where they prospered for as long as Joseph was alive.

Step one b is to figure out which of these elements we want to keep for retelling the story. For simplicity’s sake, let’s keep the character of Joseph the same as in the original story. We’ll also make him a favored younger son, though we don’t have to keep all eleven of his brothers. The themes of filial jealousy, revenge, repentance, and ultimate forgiveness will be kept, as will Joseph’s sudden shock of being ripped away from his family, his humiliation and degradation, and his ultimate maturing during suffering, and his being put in a position of power due to the ability that got him in trouble as a boy. We’ll also keep his confrontation with his brothers and the happy ending.

Step two a is to decide the new setting for this story. Let’s do two of them for fun. One will be a fantasy, set in my magical kingdom of Cadaeren (where The Quest of the Unaligned takes place). The other will be set in a pseudo-historical fiction/generic “pirates” setting. Because pirates are awesome.

Step two b is to determine how the main plot and character points will be different from the original story, given the setting we’ve chosen. In Cadaeren, Joseph can still be a herdsman’s son, as in the original story, but his dreams and unique powers should be based on the magic of this world. We’ll have him be an aesh. Instead of going to Egypt, the sophisticated land of pyramid-builders who looked down on their herdsmen neighbors, Joseph will go to Tonzimmel, the sophisticated city of technology users who look down on Cadaerians as being superstitious peasants. Instead of becoming right-hand man to Pharaoh, Joseph will end up on the Governing Board of Tonzimmel. Finally, instead of a famine driving Joseph’s brothers to Egypt, a mysterious illness will have struck Cadaeren, including its magical healers. The only place that will have medicine is Tonzimmel – and Joseph will be in charge of imports and exports.

In the pirate story, Joseph will be the youngest son of a wealthy fisherman. His father is a widower twice over, and loves Joseph best of his four sons, because he’s the only thing that reminds his father of his beloved second wife. In addition, when Joseph was baptized into the Catholic church as an infant, the priest informed his father that God had revealed that the boy was specially blessed for a special purpose. That blessing will be the source of his insight.

In this version, Joseph and his brothers will be out fishing when a pirate ship casts its sights on them. The brothers will bargain with the captain, offering him Joseph – and his God-given blessings and insights – in exchange for their lives. This captain will play the roles of both the slavers and Potipher, as he takes Joseph on board his crew. Instead of being thrown in prison after being falsely accused, Joseph will be forced to walk the plank, then be found by a different ship and made a galley slave of the most feared pirate on the seas. He will eventually become this captain’s first officer. As such, he will be in a position of power to argue for keeping and hoarding the foodstuffs that they capture rather than selling it: from his dreams, he knows that there’s a famine coming. He will be reunited with his brothers when his captain’s ship boards theirs, and they are forced to bargain with Joseph for their lives. In the end, faced with the famine that has hit the mainland, they and their father will move to the pirates’ private island, where they will be under Joseph’s protection and well cared for. The pirates turn to selling the food that they have kept stored for years, and become wealthy beyond their wildest imaginings, and the people of the land don’t die from starvation.

Step three is to then figure out what the plot of your story – in addition to the elements of the story you’re retelling – is actually going to be. This is where you can have fun playing with the different parts of your novel. For instance, the Cadaeren story might feature a ring of corrupt officials in Tonzimmel, the existence of which Joseph discovers over time and has to take down before he can be named to Tonzimmel’s Governing Board. Or the pirate story might be full of naval battles and treasure hunts, through which Joseph proves his courage, insight, and leadership skills to his captain. Whatever you choose, make sure the plot reflects who your characters are, and what the burning needs are that drive them. Cadaerian Joseph will be driven by an urge to uncover the truth, gain knowledge, and prove that he’s right – because he’s an aesh, and that’s what aeshes do. Pirate Joseph might at first be driven by an urge to gain enough wealth and prestige so that he can purchase a royal pardon and retire back to his home and elderly father, only to slowly accept a higher purpose of saving the lives of the pirates, their town, and everyone on the mainland who would otherwise die of starvation.

This is why retellings are such fun: with good writing and a touch of creativity, you can come up with a thousand different plots that will delight readers by both giving them what they expect, and then also tweaking their expectations to keep them turning the pages to find out what happens next.

What classic story would you love to read as a retelling? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

Savvy Saturday – Tropes, Themes, and More!

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook the other day – it’s pretty amusing, if you have time to watch it.

This video (subtly) brings up the issues of rip-offs, clichés, tropes, and themes. These four are what I’ll be talking about in today’s Savvy Saturday post, and they go in a sort of progression from bad to good. Rip-offs are probably just what you think they are. Someone likes someone else’s idea, writes their own version of it that’s really similar to the original, and tries to market it as their own unique work.

For instance, any time you’ve heard something called “A Lord of the Rings rip-off,” you can bet that it probably involves an everyman type of protagonist in a world full of magical creatures (likely including elves and dwarves), who has to join a quest to rid the world of some dark magical evil that threatens life as we know it, the life-force of which is bound to some object that the questers must hunt down and destroy.

Rip-offs, by their nature, are of lower quality than the original; it is also typically clear that a rip-off was trying to emulate the original work and didn’t do as good a job as the first author. For something to be a rip-off, then, it has to have enough specific elements in it that were also in the original book that it’s clear that the author of the rip-off book couldn’t have gotten them from another source.

Clichés are elements that get included in so many stories that they’re no longer new or interesting. We’re most used to clichés being figures of speech (e.g. “it was a dark and stormy night,” “she was good as gold,” “when hell freezes over”), but they can also be settings, situations, or characters. Fairy tales that include two older sons who are bad and a third son who is good are invoking this classic cliché. Meeting an old woman who turns out to be a witch/sorceress/fairy is a similar fairy tale cliché. (Double points if she’s met by a well and asks the hero to draw water for her!) Similarly, black hair or attire is a clichéd mark of a villain, while blond hair and simple peasant attire is a clichéd mark of The Chosen One. (For any of you who are interested, countering this cliché is one reason why Alaric’s hair and security chief uniform in The Quest of the Unaligned are both black.)


Disney movies take the idea of a character-situation-setting cliché to an extreme: probably half of their heroes and villains end up fighting on a perilously high location (likely in the rain), the hero saves the villain’s life, and the villain ends up falling to his death. (See Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc.)

From this example, you can see that stories can have clichés in them and still be fun to read. The problem with clichés is that you as a reader know what’s going to happen already in the story, so it will be less able to keep your interest. Clichéd stories have a tendency to fall into the realm of “mindless fluff” and entertainment, and therefore less of a tendency to be remembered more than five minutes after the reader puts the book down.

Tropes are the ideas that the video above is using to amusing effect. A short definition is that tropes are a typology of the ways in which plots, settings, and characters can play out. For instance, if you’ve already read The Quest of the Unaligned, or if you don’t mind spoilers, you can check out, which lists all of the tropes readers have found (thus far) in the novel. The idea that George Lucas and J.K. Rowling have “the same protagonist” in their books is because they both use a number of classic tropes about “The Chosen One.” This is a particular kind of hero who has particular kinds of adventures due to his particular background. However, the descriptions of the trope are broad enough that authors can interpret tropes in creative and entertaining ways, such that the reader base can’t determine exactly what will come next.

Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker

Finally, themes are broad, general messages that can be drawn out of stories to make a statement about the world at large. “Good triumphs over evil” is one theme that is found in many stories. “The transforming power of love” is another, as is “Freedom is more important than peace.” (Here’s looking at you, Hunger Games.) Themes might be purposefully included in a book by an author, or they might just work themselves into a story without the author’s knowledge, to be later found and teased out by eager English teachers.

In fact, themes are one of a book’s most powerful weapons for shaping readers’ opinions and the culture at large. When you read a story, psychologists say that you are “transported” with the story and are susceptible to being influenced by the morals and messages of that story. Even after the story is finished and the reader comes back to the real world, experiments have shown that people are more likely to agree with the ideas from the story than they were before they read it.

To summarize, stories have power. They have more power when they’re not rip-offs or clichéd, and they use their power via telling stories with tropes to express themes that they can use to change readers’ minds, and hopefully change the world.

Now you know my secret plan. Change readers’ minds, and change the world. In what way? Find the themes of my stories, and you’ll have a pretty good guess.

Thanksgiving Cadaeren Countdown

In case any of you missed a day of my Facebook Thanksgiving Cadaeren Countdown, or want to see what the characters from The Quest of the Unaligned are thankful for all in one place, here’s the entire list. Enjoy!

High Guardian Ruahklon:

“I am grateful for the breath of fresh air that is the next generation of Cadaeren’s leadership. Brave, enthusiastic, and eager to go where the winds of the future are blowing, Prince Alaric and those he touches – including my apprentice Naruahn! – will take good care of our beloved country after we have moved on. And for that I thank the Balance.”


“Every day I see new things to be thankful for. Today, crisp apples fresh from the trees. A good harvest. The smell of fall and the feeling of the earth preparing to rest.

“But more important than these are the people who are my life. My lovely wife and precious daughter. Our neighbors and friends. The wise leadership of Lord Deshamai, who keeps us safe and cares for us all. And the ability to give back to them in a way that brings health and wellbeing to our community. I am thankful for that.”

Lord Deshamai:

“For what am I thankful? The list is long, indeed, but it can be summed up in the single item: Cadaeren’s Maintained Tradition of Balance.

“For eight hundred years, our land has prospered because its nobles have maintained the practices taught to them by their fathers, and their fathers, and theirs. All that we have is given to us because our ancestors fulfilled their duties and taught the next generation to do the same, while recording their own successes and failures so that future generations could learn from them.

“My lands, my people, my responsibilities, my privileges, have all been passed down to me because of our traditions of Balance, as have been the ways in which I am expected to care for my lands and people, to carry out my responsibilities, and to use my privileges. Because of our traditions of Balance, I know that Cadaeren, my people, and my household will prosper for generations to come.”

King Kethel and Queen Tathilya:

Kethel: “Why, I’m thankful that I’m king! With the power of the Balance at my command, my life is never boring! Everyone else’s lives must be so…so…non-regal and powerless. Whereas I get to do new things every day! Yesterday, for instance, Tathilya and I popped over to Lord Deruahk’s new castle, just for fun. He was so surprised to see us, but who doesn’t like surprises? Enjoy life while you can. That’s this king’s motto.”

Tathilya: “Well, I’m thankful that I’m queen, of course, but also for the lovely people that are here at court to make our lives better. I just don’t know what I would do without my ladies in waiting, and my seamstresses, and that wonderful cook you hired last month, Kethel – have you tried his new raisin tart? It’s to die for – and the people who plan our balls, and the ones who come and sing and dance for us.

“Oh, and I’m thankful that Alaric’s finally found. It was so distressing for so many years when he was lost in that horrid city. Even if he did come back with strange unbecoming ideas and that aesh peasant bride of his, he’s still here and the other nobles can stop fretting about the future.”


“I’m thankful for the wind and the freshness and energy it gives you, especially when you’re out in a big open field and it just whips around you like it wants to play tag and it thinks you’re ‘it’. And I’m thankful that I’m still apprenticed to High Guardian Ruahklon and that he’s teaching me how to care for the Temple, even though it includes a lot of chores and I don’t like those.

“Oh – and I wasn’t even thinking about all the things that happened this past year that I’m thankful for! I’m really thankful that I met Prince Alaric and Princess Laeshana and that they like me and they let me come visit them in the City of Balance and that the prince made me a level one security chief, just like him, except that he’s level nine. And I’m even more thankful that he saved my life when I thought I was dead down there in those horrible caves. Wow. I have a lot to be thankful for!”


“It’s amazing to think back over this past year and realize how many profound changes have occurred in my life – changes for which I’ll be forever grateful. I am so thankful for Alaric, the most wonderful, princely man I know, and for the privilege of being his wife.

“I’m also still amazed at the gift he gave me, the knowledge and power for good that I’ve always dreamed of. I am so thankful to be in a position where I’ll be able to influence my country for good, to continue to learn and serve without restrictions or discrimination, and to explore the nature of magic itself and better understand the world in which we live. There are many other things I’m thankful for, of course, but those are the two big ones. Alaric, and Light.”


“Like Laeshana said, so much has changed in my life this past year that I’m grateful for, I don’t even know where to start. I’m a prince! With magical powers! A year ago my life’s ambitions were to someday be in charge of a sector of Tonzimmelian security. Now, I know that I’m going to be responsible for the security of an entire country someday. How many people get to say that? I’m just thankful for the opportunity to do something meaningful with my life.

“I’m also thankful for the people who have brought me to where I am today. My educators in Tonzimmel, who taught me how to be a security chief. Naruahn, who taught me how to be a prince. And most of all, Laeshana, who taught me how to be a whole person. To be honest, the thing I’m most thankful for in this past year is that she agreed to marry me. And I think that will remain the thing I’m most thankful for for the rest of my life.”

Savvy Saturday – Five Things of Thanks

Happy early Thanksgiving, readers! In honor of the season, I’m going to take this opportunity to be sappy and sentimental and list five things that I’m particularly thankful for as an author.

1: The opportunity to have written and published a book at all. I thank God for orchestrating events such that I was able to take that wonderful Independent Study class in college (the one in which I wrote an initial draft of The Quest of the Unaligned), and for helping me make connections with the right people to get the manuscript looked at by BorderStone Press. So many people never have the time or official motivation (i.e. college grades) to finish the stories in their heads, and those who do often can’t find a venue in which to publish them. I often still can’t believe that my book is actually in print, and actually selling copies in a real bookstore. Every time I realize it anew, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I am able to say that I’m a published author.

2: A computer upon which to type. As an avid re-writer, I am grateful for the ability to change words, move around sentences, backspace, insert words, and most especially, hit the undo button. (I do wish life came with Ctrl-Z!) While I will occasionally jot down ideas on paper, I have never been able to write entire paragraphs, much less scenes, by hand. First, my brain goes too quickly for my hand to be able to keep up, and I get irritated and the words stop flowing. Second, the first thing my brain spits out on paper is rarely, if ever, the right thing for it to spit out. Whenever I try to write on paper, I find myself going through more eraser than pencil lead. All around, computers and keyboards are an amazing invention that I continue to be thankful for every day.

3: A laptop computer. In addition to being thankful for being able to type my posts and stories, I am exceedingly glad that I’m not tied at a desk as I do it. I’ve gotten large chunks of my work done in airports and airplanes, on buses, outside on the porch, inside on the couch, and many other places besides. Having a laptop computer that I can carry around has increased my productivity by an incredible amount, which has resulted in more words on pages, as well as better words on pages. And I think we can all be thankful about that last bit!

4: Good editors, proofreaders, and writing friends. From my co-idea-tosser who explained to me how elemental magic should work, to the wonderful friends in college who told me which characters in my books were annoying and should be rewritten (most of them, at one point or another), what scenes I should expand or take out (for instance, the flood in Brightvale was a later addition), and what grammatical mistakes and typos I’d made (far too many!), I am grateful to all the people who put their time and effort into making The Quest of the Unaligned and my other works of fiction so much better than they would have been otherwise.

5: YOU! That is, everyone who reads my blog, my books, and interacts with me through social media. Thank you for making it so much fun to be an author – I love writing things that make you smile, that make you gasp, that make you cry (though hopefully not for too long!) and that stick in your mind for a while after you’ve read them. Thank you for your amazing Amazon reviews, your friendly Facebook comments, your encouragement in person and online, and your sticking with me on my writer-student-researcher journey over the past year. Thank you, in sum, for being such awesome readers. May you be blessed this season with peace and light, and may you have a very happy Thanksgiving!

Savvy Saturday – A Critical Moment

Something that has always amused or bothered me (depending upon what mood I’m in) is the idea central to literary criticism that a particular text can be interpreted in ways far beyond what the author intended. Author intent, in fact, is irrelevant. If a particular teacher wants to interpret Moby Dick from a feminist perspective, he or she can go ahead – and some already have.

“A feminist approach recognizes that Melville’s lack of female characters does not indicate gender bias, yet the presence of such strong maleness brings danger and imbalance…The feminine wins out ultimately over male competition, obsession, and vengeance in what has been considered a story dominated by men and maleness.” (p. 203, Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender, edited by Jerilyn Fisher, Ellen S. Silber).

Now for some reason, no one has yet put forward an interpretation of The Quest of the Unaligned that makes me squint my eyes and say, “Wait, what?” (Probably because the English teachers haven’t gotten their hands on it yet.) I did purposefully write in two interpretations of the novel: the simple adventure story/good versus evil one, and the sociological theory one. (If you’re not sure what these are, read the questions and author’s note in the back of the book.)

That’s not to say, however, that everyone’s interpretation has agreed with mine completely. I have had a few interesting readers tell me about takeaways from The Quest of the Unaligned that weren’t specifically written into the book. One Christian reader informed me that she saw Alaric’s journey out of Tonzimmel and through Cadaeren as being a metaphor for the Christian walk. Man starts in sin, darkness, and isolation, then is dragged into the Kingdom of Light and informed that he (or she) is a child of the king. One can wrestle with this knowledge, and the more one fights it, the harder one makes life for oneself, until one recognizes its truth. Only then, and in brotherhood with other believers, can one enter into the joy and light of being who you really are – a prince of the realm who lives in love.

Not quite what I had in mind when I was writing, I admit, but I’m sure you could write a freshman-level paper arguing this interpretation and support it reasonably well.

There’s also the Green interpretation, which says that only when earth, air, fire, and water (i.e. nature as a whole) are in balance (i.e. being properly preserved and cared for by the governments of Earth) that our society can survive. Some Americans, like the residents of Tonzimmel, are too focused on technology and forget about the magic of Earth, and thus they forget their true nature. Other Americans only focus on one issue (e.g. recycling, pure water, or eating “green”) and forget that everything in life and nature is a balance. We have to live holistically and in recognition of how everything we do impacts Earth, and only then can we turn our world into a new paradise. (That one definitely wasn’t on my radar when I was writing Quest.)

I’m going to be speaking briefly to a Women’s Lit class next week about my book, and I’m sure that someone is going to ask me about its feminist ideology. Though I wasn’t specifically thinking about writing a feminist book, I suppose as good a case can be made for a feminist reading as for a Green reading or a Christian discipleship reading. How about this?


*DISCLAIMER: In case you weren’t reading the above, the following is NOT an author-approved reading of the text!


Though The Quest of the Unaligned is told from the point of view of a male protagonist, his journey is shaped by, and his future is ultimately determined by, the marginalized but inwardly strong and ultimately vindicated female character, Laeshana. Oppressed by society’s laws and stereotypes, Laeshana is a peasant who is kept from reaching for her dreams by a glass ceiling of birth and alignment. Her unique abilities make her initially a threat to Alaric the protagonist, who asserts his belief in gender equality but also takes advantage of Laeshana’s weaker position (both contractually and in terms of social status) and lets his own masculine role as a security chief guide his actions and decisions. He refuses to listen to Laeshana’s warnings in Dragon Canyon, decides she’s crazy rather than telling the truth in Brightflower, and views his own strengths as stronger and his weaknesses as less weak than hers after battling the fire spiders.

However, masculine strengths ultimately fail Alaric: he loses his sword (a symbol of masculinity) and is rendered impotent by a magical enemy until Laeshana saves him. Alaric is forced to recognize that Laeshana’s strengths of faith, love, and empathy with others are actually stronger than his own strengths, and that only by following her example (ultimately doing for Laeshana what she first did for him) can he find true happiness. Laeshana herself is ultimately recognized for her true worth, elevated to a position of high status, and finds the happy ending she seeks with the man she loves. While these things happen because of Alaric, they only happen because of the man she has made him to be: a man who recognizes his dependence upon the feminine, as embodied by Laeshana.

Heh heh. I’m sure that all of my English major friends are wincing right now, because I’ve never actually learned how to analyze text from a feminist viewpoint. That’s all right, though, because I just made it all up anyway. I hope it was entertaining, or at least cringe-worthy enough to encourage you to go and write your own (far better!) analyses of your books of choice. If you write one about The Quest of the Unaligned, let me know! If it’s better than the above criticism (and it probably will be), it might even be featured on the blog. Good luck!

Savvy Saturday – Fantastic Combat

Question: How do you write good combat in fantasy?

Whenever I’ve spoken with fantasy lovers, I’ve noticed that we have things in common. We all love stories of epic battles, of life or death struggles, of fierce and heroic combat between the protagonist and his or her mortal enemy. We remember and replay in our heads the moments where heroes and villains come face to face and confront each other with steel, with magic, and with wits. We cheer as Eowyn battles the Witch King of Angmar (Tolkien), we hold our breath as Prince Kelson duels with magic against the witch Charissa (Kurtz), and we turn pages so quickly that they could fan us on a summer’s day as we read the final battle of Hogwarts (Rowling).

But how as an author do you write a battle or a duel that grips readers and keeps them glued to the book, unable to hear or see anything but the world that the words on the page are creating for them? That depends on a few things:

  1. The realism of the scene,
  2. The clarity of the writing, and
  3. The personal investment that readers have with characters.

Whenever an author charges into battle (scenes), he or she needs above all else to know what he or she is talking about. If I were to write about a character wielding a great-sword in each hand, charging into battle on foot, and slashing through enemies’ plate armor and shields, I would immediately lose the respect of every reader who had ever studied medieval history or weapons in general. A great-sword, such as the Sword of Kings that Alaric is given at the beginning of The Quest of the Unaligned, is a two-handed weapon and quite heavy. Even so, it wouldn’t be able to slash through armor; swords of that type were primarily used for slashing at places unprotected by armor, or for stabbing through where armor pieces joined. (Fire-spiders, fortunately, don’t wear armor, and so were quite susceptible to Alaric’s attacks.)

It’s relatively straightforward, if time-consuming, to research and accurately portray various types of historical combat. It’s far more difficult to realistically portray combat with magic. That is, it’s far more difficult to portray a viable world that allows combat with magic. If magic is a catch-all solution for any problem, then how would a mage combat magic that’s used against him? This is where careful world-building must come into play. As an author, I have to know what my magical characters can and can’t do with their powers before I can figure out what they will attempt to do, and what will actually happen.

For example, the character Naruahn in The Quest of the Unaligned is a ruahk, or air-mage. He can “pop” (teleport) to any location that he can see, or to which he has been, or which another ruahk can describe for him in sufficient detail. He also can generate winds of his own, which can slow or stop projectiles. This is a great advantage in combat, as he can appear and disappear at will. However, it also means that one might pop oneself into a trap. In addition, while air-magic is quite good at transportation, it’s not as good at direct attack. A ruahk can find himself in a great deal of trouble if he is placed in a confined location (such as a dueling circle) and another mage attacks with a more offense-based weapon (e.g. a wall of fire).

Next, writing must be clear. I’ll give you an example.

Roland the Great strode into the arena. His armor glistened, and his sword shone in the light of a thousand torches. All around the arena, spectators in the stands cheered his name. He saluted them, and then his emperor, then turned toward the gate in the far side of the arena. It rattled open. Less than a breath later, a tiger sprang through the opening. With a growl, he sprinted toward him, launched himself at his face, his ten claws each as sharp as his sword. He leaped backward, raising his sword to shield himself from the beast. He yowled as the blade bit deep into his paws; his blood dripped to the sand below.

Since “Roland the Great” and “the tiger” are both “him/he” in this scene, it quickly becomes difficult to tell who is performing which action to whom. Especially in battle scenes, where multiple characters may be swinging swords, blocking with shields, sidestepping, throwing bolts of lightning from their fingertips,  etc., it’s vital to specify who is who. In this example, changing the nouns just slightly yields…

With a growl, the beast sprinted toward him, launched itself at his face, the tiger’s ten claws each as sharp as his sword. Roland leaped backward, raising his sword to shield himself from his foe. The tiger yowled as the blade bit deep into his paws; feline blood dripped to the sand below.

Clarity is a big reason why an author needs beta readers. Something that makes perfect sense in my head is occasionally (all right, often) confusing for people who aren’t me.

The last crucial element in gripping readers during a battle scene is to make them have a high level of personal investment in the scene. This means, typically, that you have to be writing about people that they care about, when there is an element of uncertainty about how an event is going to unfold, and that the consequences are real. Readers may care that the left flank of the Good-Guy Army broke over the hill, as the tiny right flank fought the Evil Enemy from the valley, thus gripping the Evil Enemy between them with a pincer movement. But they probably won’t care for more than a few sentences, unless Our Hero happened to be on the front lines of the right flank, overwhelmed by the enemy, and hoping that the left flank will draw the enemy’s attention or else his small force won’t last another half hour.

Alternatively, if Our Hero is back in the castle for some reason, it would also be possible to focus in on Johnny No-Name, a common soldier in the ranks who the audience has never seen before, and experience through his almost-anonymous eyes the terror of combat, the loyalty that his commanding officers engender, the despicable evil that the Good-Guy Army faces as personified in a single soldier who Johnny battles, and either the thrill of victory and power as the life leaves the enemy’s eyes, or the revulsion and horror that Johnny experiences in killing, or perhaps even the shock and pain of Johnny’s own death.

This necessary personalization of combat is part of the reason that I have (thus far) tended to write duels rather than large-scale warfare. Alaric versus a dragon. Ruahkini versus Gaithim. Swords, magic, all of the above. Any option can – and has – made for good stories over the years, as long as it follows the three rules above. Simply put,

Realism + Clarity + Personal investment = Victory.