There’s nothing fantastical in True Fire. There’s no magic, no spells, no mythical beasts whose structure defies the laws of physics. There are no ghosts or vampires or malevolent spirits. No one flies, or survives fire, or comes back from the dead. As for God — or gods —whether He exists is a matter for debate on their world as it is ours. Everything is mundane, down to earth, or down to Werlavia, at least. If it wasn’t for the fact it occurs on another planet, the story could have been set in Europe five hundred years ago.
Why is this? When I first came up with the idea, the witches were indeed returned demons — strange creatures who solidified out of the ground and stalked around menacingly. This sat uneasy with my inner scientist and atheist. Why did I need a supernatural threat? Wasn’t that giving credence to the fact the supernatural exists no matter how much you shout, “It’s a metaphor!”? There’s nothing that gets my eyes rolling faster than when someone claims you need magic in your life, as if believing in religion or its feckless cousin, spirituality, automatically grants superiority. But a fantasy story needs fantastical elements. Doesn’t it?
While commentators can sometimes fail to see beyond dragons and wizards, fantasy deals with the same things as every other area of literature: people. Their needs, their desires, their interactions; who they love, who they hate; how they cope when chaos and disaster crash into their lives. The supernatural can be lurking in the background (A Song of Ice and Fire), ever present (Dungeons and Dragons), or remembered when it’s convenient (The Lord of the Rings). Strip this gilding from fantasy and what do you have? A medieval setting, when knights were bold and no one gets old. Still interesting? It is if you believe people are interesting. This still left me with a problem: I still had to find out what the witches were, where they got their power, and just whey they were hell-bent on vengeance.
The end of the medieval period in Europe brought the two Rs: the Renaissance and the Reformation. The former provided a massive leap in learning and discovery; the latter broke the grip of an overweening, dogmatic church. Here I had my themes: science and religion. Not warring — I wasn’t interested in writing a gospel either secular or theological — but lurching in tandem into the unknown. Science gives them the witches their strength but it’s religion that drives them. And Megan has to find a way to tackle both.
So why bother writing this story as a a fantasy? Creating your own world, your own civilisation, allows you to strip away the complications of real life and concentrate on what you’re interested in — metaphor, remember? — and it also avoids denigrating one section of our society at the expense of another. Plus world-building is fun, and one of the reasons we write is to enjoy ourselves (and to Create Art). This is where the fantasy lies in True Fire, but there’s nothing in Werlavia that couldn’t happen on Earth.
I should stress I’m not against the fantastical or disparaging those who write or read it. I’ve enjoyed much fantasy over the years in various media and aware it’s written by people much, much more talented than me. I just wanted to write my story on my terms, according to my beliefs. And make a few jokes along the way.