Here’s a shameful secret: Back when I started my Unfinished Song fantasy, I wasn’t trying to be fresh, original or non-Western. In fact, I wanted to write a “classic” fantasy. I knew I wanted actual pixies and faeries in it. I wanted it to be both epic and a fairytale—an epic faerie tale. I knew I wanted the magic to be based on dancing and color, and that the ability to dance the whole rainbow would be almost extinct in their world. Other than that, I just planned to include all the tropes of the genre. The setting was cliché because I didn’t feel like investing the time in world-building for a mere “practice” story. My original heroine, Dindi, was a peasant girl; my original hero, Kavio, was a prince.
What knocked sense into me? I don’t know. A fairy whispered in my ear that I needed to change the setting. It needed to be set in a time I had never seen a fantasy set before: with Neolithic rather than medieval technology. The Neolithic Era was a particular time period in human history, but it also refers to a stage of civilization, and I use it in the later sense. Neolithic, or “new stone age” technology means that the people primarily use flint and obsidian tipped arrows and spears.
While I don’t know how this idea came to me, I do remember how it energized me. The whole story excited me again. The early time period worked for three reasons:
One, the main storyline was inspired by a Polynesian myth, so this was a tip of the hat to that non- European setting.
Two, it fit my fancy that the events of The Unfinished Song were the “original” and “primordial” events which are the secret roots of all our fairy tales.
Three, every culture around the world has gone through a stage of Neolithic level technology.
Every place on earth has immense, mysterious monuments made from dragging big stones around. This meant that I could easily mix and match my cultural inspiration. I could use Hopi agriculture, Celtic pig-farming and musical traditions, Zulu warfare, West African Initiation ceremonies, and so on. For the hero and heroine’s people, I drew strongly on Hopi and Zuni cultures.
As a history nerd (I do have my masters in the subject!), the excuse to research obscure and exotic Neolithic cultures ignited my enthusiasm for the story, and has kept me excited about the series ever since. The biggest problem with the standard fantasy pseudo-medieval-pseudo-European setting is not that it is medieval or that it is European or even that it has been done before. It is because the writer doesn’t take the time to study real history (or “real” mythology) as a model, but simply bases their own world on worlds in other fantasy books. The result has much the same problem as cloning a clone, or xeroxing a xerox. The quality fades the more derivative your product is. We shouldn’t shortchange ourselves by re-treading the same worn paths, but should be brave enough to follow history back along rarely explored by-ways for inspiration.
A DETERMINED GIRL...
Dindi can't do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she dreams of becoming a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers whose secret magics are revealed only to those who pass a mysterious Test during the Initiation ceremony. The problem? No-one in Dindi's clan has ever passed the Test. Her grandmother died trying. But Dindi has a plan.
AN EXILED WARRIOR...
Kavio is the most powerful warrior-dancer in Faearth, but when he is exiled from the tribehold for a crime he didn't commit, he decides to shed his old life. If roving cannibals and hexers don't kill him first, this is his chance to escape the shadow of his father's wars and his mother's curse. But when he rescues a young Initiate girl, he finds himself drawn into as deadly a plot as any he left behind. He must decide whether to walk away or fight for her... assuming she would even accept the help of an exile.
Tara Maya has lived in Africa, Europe and Asia. She's pounded sorghum with mortar and pestle in a little clay village where the jungle meets the desert, meditated in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas and sailed the Volga river to a secret city that was once the heart of the Soviet space program. This first-hand experience, as well as research into the strange and piquant histories of lost civilizations, inspires her writing. Her terrible housekeeping, however, is entirely the fault of pixies.
Pauline Baird Jones
Perilously romantic fiction for armchair adventurers
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