This page is about the premise and background of The Curious Tale. If you want to know about the actual contents of the Tale, try the Curious Tale main page.
A Curious Origin Story
The fantasy domain, especially popular fantasy, has stagnated since Tolkien's legendary romance. Perhaps that is the fate of any mass market: to be defined by its greatest glories but sustained by the slavish imitations of those triumphs.
When I was a young teenager my dad introduced me to the world of adult sci-fi and fantasy with The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny. It was a wonderful read, the first of many to come, and one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was precisely because it was my first. I wasn't especially familiar with the tropes yet. I wasn't aware of the formulas. To me, fantasy was a vast, unexplored new world. Even now I can't bring myself to call it a mere genre; such a name is far too small!
Nonetheless, by the time I was looking ahead to my senior year of high school, that vast new world had run out. The stories had become repetitive to me. Predictable. And, with my growing artistic abilities, I was beginning to realize that most of the books I had read weren't even particularly artful. They were more akin to pulp fiction, with little by way of inventiveness or inspiration. I wanted the formulas to go away and the tropes to change. I wanted something different, something more mature.
That's when I created The Curious Tale, in the summer of 1999, a few days before my seventeenth birthday.
I had always been a storyteller, and I had begun writing my first serious fiction as far back as elementary school. (Not that it was any good, of course, but I was quite passionate about it.) Now that I was coming on seventeen, my identity as a person and my powers as a writer had begun to coalesce. I was at that age—you know what I mean—when all the world was ahead of me and I just had to stand up and declare my intention. I was going to change civilization for the better. The injustices of our past would crumble before me and all other people of good conscience. Then everything would become like Gene Roddenberry had said it could, a golden age of peace and prosperity.
Needless to say, I had a story inside me. It had been building for years, unnoticed at first, and formless…restively gathering strength as I matured, yearning for a spark to light it.
That spark came on the Nintendo 64. That summer I played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and it blew me away. That was my first exposure to 3D gaming, and my first experience with a game of such size and scope. And the story! It gripped me. It burned me with its intensity. It remains to this day one of my favorite takes on the quintessential high fantasy coming-of-age epic. What the game lacked in specifics, I made up for with my imagination.
But it wasn't Link who appealed to me. Link's only goal was to overthrow evil and restore peace. Instead I began to wonder to myself, "What if Ganondorf hadn't been evil? What if there were somebody who wanted to rule the world to change it for the better, rather than to wallow in tormenting everybody?"
Fantasy villains are some of the most stagnant of tropes. The epic villains, you're not supposed to like them. And, true enough, I didn't like Ganondorf. But I liked what he could have been.
One night I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, writing a prologue to my own story. I polished it off, posted it onto a fantasy gaming web forum, and solicited some of the people there to participate in a role-playing game with me over the Internet. It was a freeform story, with no combat engine or other objective means of resolving conflicts. It was just me, as the narrator, shepherding events. Its name was After The Hero: A Curious Tale.
That RPG lasted over a year, seeing me through my final year of childhood, accompanying me in my escape into adulthood and my thousand-mile flight up the West Coast to go to college in Seattle, and anchoring me to my passions as I oriented myself in a new world. It came to a conclusion—having succeeded as few such collaborations do in actually reaching the end of the story—just as my freshman year classes began.
The arc of my life was set.
A Fantastic Departure
The Curious Tale is a departure from what we think of as traditional fantasy. I don't say this with hard feelings. I spent my most formative years reveling in traditional fantasy, and I had a wonderful time. I still have a soft spot for it—even the most formulaic stuff there is—when my mood is right. Nonetheless, when it comes to me writing my own stories, I tend to move on to other places.
That shines out in the name After The Hero. Most fantasy premises itself around a hero. Traditionally, the hero was a wise and handsome alpha male. More recently, the vagaries of popular taste transformed him into a teenager, not as wise as before and perhaps not as handsome either. Even more recently, the Byronic hero has become a fantasy favorite; this kind of hero is often physically strong yet burdened to the brink of feebleness by psychological distress.
In The Curious Tale there are no heroes at all, period. Nor are there villains. There are only people: people with their own points of view, people who drive events, and people who inevitably unite or clash with one another. Think of Hayao Miyazaki, whose films rarely have villains. I wasn't aware of his work when I began my own, but when I eventually did discover his films I loved them without hesitation, for they too told stories about people. In The Curious Tale I invite you to decide for yourself who you want to root for, and who you want to root against.
Another departure from traditional fantasy is my love of language. It's odd to say that this is a "departure," given that Tolkien was a linguist and philologist, and the proto-conlanger. But what came after him was a trend toward familiar language and smaller vocabularies—a trend obscured by many a writer's insistence upon a thin but incredibly gaudy veneer of artificial terminology.
When you see a phrase like "the Fellsbane Court of Ckl'DaG," a phrase that manages to forsake both originality and comprehensibility at the same time, you know you're reading fantasy, or maybe sci-fi, and you know you're reading an author who thinks of language as an afterthought. (I made that phrase up because I didn't want to shame anybody in particular, but every time I concocted a different word to illustrate my point, somebody else had already invented it. So, my apologies to any Fellsbaners out there.)
In contrast, my writing is geared toward language first. The amount of new vocabulary that lies ahead of you is immense. This includes not just nouns and descriptions but verbs too—new actions, or old ones never before described by name in the English language. Robert Jordan, whose work I am not otherwise terrifically enamored of, did hit upon the wonderful convention of avoiding the use of the word magic in its entirety, and instead referred to magic in his world as channeling. "To channel." It's so elegant.
And there are new turns of phrase, new idioms, new metaphors. In some respects, to read The Curious Tale is to step into a whole new language.
I've made every effort to make the language as accessible as possible. Whenever possible I use English words that you'll recognize or can easily look up, and I refrain from conlanging for the most part—instead I leave it for anyone who wants to undertake the challenge for themselves.
A final, crucial departure from traditional fantasy is that I employ a slower pacing overall, as well as a broader dynamic range of pacing, and rely less heavily on action and adventure in my storytelling. These stories stop and smell the flowers. Even in motion they like to meander—not for want of a plot, nor, I hope, for the incompetence of the author, but for the same reason that we don't always pick the straightest line when we go on a stroll.
Cardinal sin! One of the fundamental rules of writing, I am told, is to cut everything, and then cut some more, and finish it all off with some cuts. Deliver the leanest experience, they say. Don't waste the reader's valuable hours, they say.
I grant that such an approach makes a book more readable and, at least at the time, more stimulating. Ultimately, however, that approach sacrifices depth. A richer, slower story may be harder to read, and take more effort to digest, but I propose that this may turn out to be a good thing, and so I ask your consent to waste some of your hours with my wanderings, in the hope you will end up enjoying yourself.
Nevertheless, I caution, if you have a short attention span, The Curious Tale is probably not for you. I'm not trying to be subversive, pretentious, or exclusive. It's just the kind of story I like to tell. All my life I have enjoyed watching the scenery, and musing upon it.
Pacing is an extremely hard skill to master in the realm of storytelling, and I won't pretend that I've mastered it yet. Hopefully someday. But one thing I do know is that it's possible for a slower story to succeed. Slow pacing is not the same as bad pacing. I've tried very hard for the one and not the other.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!