Guest Blogging by Debra Doyle.
Things writers worry about, number I’ve-lost-track-by-now (because writers worry about everything, all the time): It’s no secret—at least, I certainly hope it’s no secret—that Jim Macdonald and I have a book coming out today: Lincoln’s Sword, from Eos.
This is a book—an alternate-historical fantasy novel—about the Civil War. The opportunities this presents for giving offense to somebody—or somebodies—are manifold, starting with the novel’s genre and going on from there.
Some people dislike alternate history on principle: they feel, so far as I’ve ever been able to follow their arguments, that making counterfactual assumptions about historical events and personages for the purpose of entertainment is disrespectful of something. (I’ve never been clear on whether it’s the dead, or historical truth, or what that’s supposedly being disrespected, but that’s probably because my sensibilities are insufficiently refined.)
Other people consider it unseemly to use fantasy as a vehicle for writing about certain subjects—the logic chain there apparently being that fantasy is inherently trivial, and that therefore to write fantasy about a subject is to trivialize it. It’s probably not necessary to point out that I don’t agree with this assumption, but it never hurts to say so for the record, either. So: I disagree.
Also, the Civil War is a subject about which a great many people feel very possessive. They do not like it when somebody gets it wrong, and “wrong” in this case can mean anything from “she screwed up the uniform flashes and buttons” to “she failed to speak kindly of X/unkindly of Y.”
Furthermore, the Civil War is a subject with an awful lot of there there. Concentrating on any one aspect of it, within the confines of a novel, is inevitably going to mean not dealing with any number of other aspects, and at that point you’re a fit victim for the “there is no mention of Z in this book” line of criticism. For which the only honest answer a writer can give is, “A book about Z would have been a different book, and the book that I wanted to write was this one.”
Why would we—why would any writer—want to open a can of worms like that?
Well, for one thing, those worms come from a rich soil. The Civil War comes as close as anything else does to being the Matter of America, in the way that the Arthurian mythos is the Matter of Britain and the legends of Charlemagne are the Matter of France. A topic like that can generate stories like a garden in summertime generates zucchini. And if not all of those stories are confined to sober historical realism … well, cooks in summertime do some strange things to zucchini, too. Good ideas, like good vegetables, shouldn’t go to waste.
The first seeds that would eventually become our
garden full of zucchini alternate-historical Civil War fantasies were planted in a short story about something else altogether. Maybe I’d better let Macdonald explain that part.
The secret origin of both our Civil War fantasies is here: In our short story, “Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen,” first published inBruce Coville’s Book of Monsters in 1993, and reprinted in New Skies, (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, ed.) in 2003. The important part was this paragraph:
Uncle Joshua wasn’t anyone’s blood uncle, but a wanderer who’d come by the Henchard farm one day two winters gone, traveling on foot from some place farther north. He wasn’t much of a farmer, but when he went off into the woods for a day or a week at a time with his long flintlock rifle, he always came back with meat. He brought in more than enough food to earn his keep, and in the evenings by the fireside he told marvelous stories of distant lands.
As it happened, those stories were American Civil War/King Arthur crossovers, but I couldn’t say so without giving away the surprise ending.
Back to Doyle:
So we knew that these stories existed, somewhere out there in the story-ether. Then, several years later, Macdonald had a dream:
JDM again: And in this dream I saw a sailing ship with bare spars racing against a steam locomotive on the land, and beating it. And from this I knew that I had the What If of What If the Union had a Pegasus-class patrol hydrofoil during the American Civil War? (But was still using muzzle-loading black-powder cannon, and all other tech was mid-nineteenth century.)
I started writing a novel based on that idea during Viable Paradise II (1997). And in the fullness of time, it becameLand of Mist and Snow, a 2007 release from Eos. (Link takes you to the first chapter.) This left us with another novel in the contract. The idea of the Civil War as America’s answer to King Arthur was still there, and (as noted) had preceded the idea of the magical ship. So that’s what we wrote. Or tried to write.
At first I thought that it was going to be about General Philip Sheridan, and the Quest of
the Sank Greal Liberty and Union:
General Philip Sheridan awoke. He was lying under his coat, his head on his saddle on the ground. NameOHorse stood nearby, hobbled, cropping the sweet new grass.
Sheridan rolled over, looking across the field to the distant trees, a low mist clinging to the grass. As in amaze he turned his gaze, he saw that he was utterly surrounded by a ring of mushrooms. They had not been there the night before, he was certain. He rose, and donned his coat, pulled his hat low over his eyes, then saddled and mounted.
And as he pricked over the lea he heard a sad voice come to him, a maiden lamenting, saying, “O! who is more sorrowful than I?”
And General Sheridan rode to where the sound was issuing, and there he saw a beautiful maiden lying on the ground, her clothing in disarray about her, and her hair pinned to the ground with seven iron spikes.
“Who art thou, and who hath used thee so cruelly?” mathelode bold Philip Sheridan.
“Alas,” quoth she, “It was a catiff General who used me so, and I am Liberty hight, who thou seekest.”
“Alas, then,” quod General Sheridan, “For thou art mistaken. I do not seek Liberty, but rather another. Yet I am loathe to see a maiden, widow or wife mistreated, and will rescue you if I can.”
And even as he spoke he looked about, and there he espied a General clad all in gray, sitting easily on a horse just beyond a stream.
“There,” quod the maiden, “Even there is the man who did use me thus.” And thus she made her woe.
“Say then,” quote bold General Sheridan, and turned his horse toward the strange General, “who art thou, and who dost thou serve?”
“I am Nathan Forrest hight,” quod the unco General, “and Braxton Bragg is my master. Here I stand and thou shalt not pass.”
“Then have at thee,” said General Sheridan, drawing his sword and spurring across the leven.
And even then did General Forrest draw and cantered forward until he stood on the near side of the ford, where sweet water flowed from a spring. And such a pass at arms few had ever seen than General Sheridan and the Grey General by the ford, for each turned as quick as thought, and the clashing of their swords was like unto the sillibance of serpents, or the wind in the pines, that thicks man’s blood with cold. But even as they fought, first on one side then the other of the stream, and stirred to mud the sweet waters, yet neither could touch the other. They fought together thus, and the sweat ran down their brows, as the sun rose and the mist vanished.
Then of a sudden, without a word, the Gray General did turn and vanish, as if he had been a sprite. Then did General Sheridan return to where he had left the maiden with her hair pinned to the ground, but no matter how he sought, he could not find trace of her.
“This is wonder strange,” then quoth the General, and with that he did decide to return to Washington to tell President Lincoln of the ferlie he had seen, for that President Lincoln was a man of great wisdom and know thereby what others could not see.
(Actual first draft of first chapter.)
That didn’t last too long, and General Sheridan never shows up in the book as submitted. Instead, the main character turned out to be Cole Younger, of the James/Younger gang of bank robbers. Funny how that all worked out. And this link takes you to the first chapter as submitted, and as you’ll find it when you go to your local bookstore and buy your own copy (for there’s a hard winter coming, and you’ll want to lay in eight to ten cords of this book).
Originally Doyle wanted to call the bookTo See Beyond the Union, and I wanted to call it No Star Obscured, but the publisher thought Lincoln’s Sword would be a better title, and so, of course, it is.
Back to Doyle.
As it happens, both of the titles that didn’t get used are references to Daniel Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne, the speech that ends with the words “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!” Which is, I still think, a good quote to stick onto a diptych of novels about the American Civil War.
I say “a diptych” rather than “a novel and its sequel” because Land of Mist and Snow and Lincoln’s Sword don’t actually take place in the same fictional universe—though there are similarities between the two books that go beyond the presence of sparkles in the cover art. (Sparkles are turning into the go-to signifier for “fantasy elements included here” in the same way that zeppelins stand for “alternate history.”) Exciting battles on sea and land. Guest turns by the fantastical alternate personae of respected—or notorious—historical figures. And sex magic. Macdonald says that I have to blog about the sex magic.
Which, honestly, I didn’t intend to have in the book when we started. But then we were writing the final action sequence of Land of Mist and Snow, in which it became both morally and tactically necessary to break a particular piece of extremely powerful magic, and by the time I’d finished writing that scene I realized that the book’s two main characters had just gone through a sacred marriage. (And believe me, writing a scene like that when both of your first-person narrators insist on maintaining a proper degree of circumspection and formality can be…challenging. You also end up researching a lot of details about Victorian underwear, most of which you don’t actually use.)
Then Lincoln’s Sword came along, and in this book it wasn’t a marriage, it was an initiation, the coming-together of two characters who’ve been playing a mystical game of hide-and-seek (rather like “The Two Magicians”, only different) for most of the book, with the goal being to learn and to impart crucial knowledge.
At least this time I already had the Victorian underwear pages bookmarked.
Lincoln’s Sword. In bookstores everywhere, and on your favorite electronic reading devices, right now.