A.M. Dellamonica can consider herself one of Canada’s bright new spots, especially in the fantasy genre. Her stories and novels thus far are widely admired, and Child of a Hidden Sea can only increase her fan base. I’ve reviewed it for a national publication, so no review is available yet to link to, but I think I can get away with saying its complimentary.
A.M. Dellamonica is the author of Indigo Springs, which won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, SciFiction and Strange Horizons, and in numerous anthologies; her 2005 alternate-history Joan of Arc story, “A Key to the Illuminated Heretic,”w was shortlisted for the Sideways Award and the Nebula Award. Dellamonica lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Describe your latest novel in a tweet.
Sailing ships and magic spells! A San Francisco videographer falls into a strange new world. Child of a Hidden Sea by @AlyxDellamonica
Now, as a movie pitch.
Girl meets planet. Girl loses planet. Girl goes home, fetches her brother and recharges her camera batteries, packs some aspirin, finds planet again, and embarks on a quest to discover its origins. Then: girl meets boy, monsters, volcano, pirates and her birth father, all in rapid succession. Everything would be perfect if only the pirates hadn’t sprayed… (Who? No spoilers! OMG!) all over the drapes.
Hmm, there may be a reason I don’t have a film deal yet.
Now, as an episode of The Simpsons.
The last human alive to have never seen an episode of The Simpsons is a fantasy writer from Toronto. Now it’s coming back to bite her on the ass. Can she catch up with Bart fast enough to earn a place on the NYT Bestseller list? D’oh!
I’m fascinated by literary world building. For the alternate reality of Stormwrack, how did you go about crafting it?
I started with the biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands and a worst-case scenario for climate-change induced ocean rise. That probably makes it sound pretty dry. The point was to have tall ships sailing enormous oceans, with numerous tiny island nations with incredibly diverse microclimates. Wait, no, that sounds dry too. Look, Peter Watts told me to bombard the earth with asteroids.
Did you start with a solid base of its own reality? How much of it changed as you walked through the plot?
The thing that changed most as I wrote the prequel stories and then the first novel, Child of A Hidden Sea, was my approach to magic. I had this very clear idea that seemed simple. Once I started exploring it, I realized there had to be a few changes.
The original thought was this: write an inscription using the unique materials available on your island, and you would create a working magic spell. Tear up the inscription—the physical artifact that allowed exceptions to the laws of physics—and the spell would be broken. That could mean, for example, that if you were pregnant and used magic to make it so that the conception had never happened, twenty years later someone could tear up the spell…and boom! You would be pregnant again! Or, possibly, you might just suddenly have a 20-year-old child.
I just kind of loved the awfulness of that idea: twenty years later, you’re suddenly nine months along, and you’re fifty.
One of the things I had to add into this system was the concept of load, the idea that a person or object could only take so much magical tweaking before their mind and body snapped under the strain.
Why did you decide to present Stormwrack through the eyes of an outsider (Sophie Hansa, a 21st century woman magically transported to its shores), rather than from wholly within its own reality?
The prequel stories are wholly from the point of view of Stormwrackers, but for this book, I wanted to give readers an opportunity to play tourist in a new land. There’s no better guide to a new world than someone from your own time and place.Blue Magic—which has a lot of death and loss in it—was what would be fun? I also knew that I am always drawn to portal fantasy. Bubble universes and alternate worlds end up in books I didn’t expect to have them at all. This time, I thought I would just surrender: start with the portal, and go from there.
Portal fantasies are usually about children: think Alice in Wonderland, or the Narnia kids. They’re lightly parented feral beings, and nobody even notices when they’re gone. So I asked myself: what happens when a grown-up, with a reasonably adult lifestyle and normal obligations, is the one who finds the new world?
What’s the process for figuring out what is and is not allowed when it comes to the mystical? One of my pet peeves of lesser fantasy novels is the Dungeons & Dragons approach, wherein it feels like the author writes herself into a corner and then rolls dice to see if a particular spell can be used. Oh, no, a hydra! I’m doomed! Hey, invisibility! Who knew? That sort of thing.
This isn’t covered in too much detail in Child of a Hidden Sea, but inscriptions are developed in a process that is something like composing poetry or music. People experiment, and draft attempts, and fool around with both materials and words. Once they have a spell perfect, it’s set and others can reproduce it. But the reproduction has to precisely copy the original spell: everything has to be done just so, or it just doesn’t work.
The rare individuals who design inscriptions from scratch have to craft a perfect intention, something they really want. They set it to the correct words, and envision a ritual manner of writing it in the materials they’ve chosen. Like a perfect work of art, there is no imagining it any other way once it is complete.
I know this because I explored it in detail, recently, in a story called “Queen of the Flies.” That piece will be in the Exile anthology: QUILTBAG: START A REVOLUTION next year.
Beyond magic, you also go into great detail about Stormwrack’s unusual legal system, not something fantasy novels often explore. In fact, Sophie’s adventure at times resembles a detective novel. Did you discover any pitfalls in balancing the arcane with the legal? Why did you set yourself this twofold challenge?
Again, this was about having a lot of fun. You might say my guiding artistic principle for developing this series was If I’m having a good time, so will everybody else. And I like legal thrillers. The idea of a lawsuit-choked legal system whose out of court settlement option is duelling…whee! How could I not get into Fleet law once my writerbrain had come up with that?
The people of Stormwrack are basically language nerds, much as lawyers and writers are. I teach a lot of aspiring writers who are currently lawyers looking for a career change. What I’ve learned? Lawyers love language. They love to parse the double meanings of words and fiddle around with double entendres and dig into what a statement literally says, as opposed to what the speaker kinda meant.
This isn’t as far removed from the magical stuff as you might think. Stormwrack is a culture with many languages. The common tongue is Fleetspeak, but then there’s inscription, which has its own conventions, words and alphabet. Writing contracts and wrangling endlessly over the language of those contracts is a huge part of Fleet culture. Writing magical intentions whose language reshapes reality is the basis of the world’s magical system.
(There are two other alphabets, too, but telling you about that would definitely be putting horses before carts.)
Intentions are, essentially, contracts with some unknown universal force that allows people to ignore or bend the laws of nature.
As with the best of fantasy, the alternate world you’ve created serves as commentary on elements of our own, particularly some of the uglier aspects. Is genre writing more effective at bringing such subtext to readers? Why (or why not)?
I think fantasy and SF are very effective in their use of concrete metaphors to highlight aspects of our social system. Is mine a better approach than writing a more conventional novel that directly criticizes, for example, our flagrant waste of natural resources or our lawsuit-happy courts?
I’m not big on the idea that one thing is fundamentally better than the other. My book and that hypothetical mainstream novel would reach different audiences. It is an incredible privilege to live in a world that has room for both the cheesy [ED: You mean classic] Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” and books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. (Bet nobody’s ever compared that particular apple/orange set before!) The somewhat clunky exploration of racism in the former doesn’t in any way detract from the same exploration in the latter. Both, I would argue, are a force for good.
What an element of the fantastic can offer readers is a bit of distance from a political discussion. You can read about a wacky alien culture that’s kinda racist, and feel superior without necessarily having to dig into your own feelings about the same issues turning up on page one of your local newspaper. That choice to engage with the political content of a book can stay with the reader; how comfortable or uncomfortable you want to be lies within your control. It may be that with less metaphorical forms of literature, that Lalala I can’t hear you option (as noted scholars have dubbed it) isn’t as readily available.
What’s next for Sophie?
In January I turned in the second book of the Hidden Sea Tales. It’s called Daughter of No Nation, and it picks up Sophie’s story six months after she’s deported from the Fleet. She has been hoping to go back and preparing for the journey, and in the meantime trying to be a little more grown up. We’ll see how people think she makes out with that. Of course, all the friends and enemies she made on her first visit are ready and waiting. Even the dead ones.
Next up: The Subconscious Interview!