Eco-fantasy: Duncan Harper, author of Witch of the Fall, talks about his world, Acadia, and the link between nature and magic
Elena E. Giorgi: I met fantasy author Duncan Harper, author of Witch of the Fall, over ten years ago, when I was still living in Valencia, Spain. Duncan was one of the writers in my first writers group, all English-speaking expats living in Spain. On our first meeting, Duncan brought a scene he'd been working on, where his main character was fencing against an enemy, and I was blown away by his writing. I remember thinking, "Why isn't this published yet?"Well, I'm thrilled to have 'published author' Duncan Harper as a guest on CHIMERAS today, to tell us about his first novel, Witch of the Fall, and his Acadia series.
EEG: Welcome, Duncan! Your Forests of Exile series is set in the world of Acadia: tell us a bit about the world and how you had the ideas to create it.
DH: For many years I have wanted to write a fantasy series. I wanted to do it well and I was always aware of how daunting a task this would be. For a long time I decided I just hadn’t had the life experience necessary to do a good job on such a project. But over the decades thoughts and notions of what I wanted to do came together in the world of Acadia.
It started from an idea of magic. I didn’t want it to be something unbelievable or only reserved for those of high birth or special training. I envisaged it as springing from a way of using the mind, something that can be learned, but that isn’t exclusively the preserve of wizened magicians in high towers. It had to have an internal logic and have its own limits and restrictions. And I wanted to put it in the hands of characters for whom it could be unexpected and challenging, even to the point of driving them mad.
I wanted it to be rooted in the natural world; an eco-fantasy or forest fantasy if you like, with echoes of Wicca, where the seasons and the elements play a part in the story, and I have tried to link this to the naturalness of the magic in Acadia. Some of the characters are at home far from civilization, and derive strength from the wilderness, but others are not and find it bleak and frightening, and I like to play with their fear of the unknown and what they discover when they overcome their trepidation. Indeed the concept of exile (self-imposed or otherwise) and what it does to a person’s mind and soul has always seemed very interesting to me.
EEG: That's very intriguing. What about the characters who inhabit Acadia?
DH: The protagonists took a long time to form in my head, and were the last to arrive, long after Acadia become very real to me and I had worked out the story for the three (or four) novels. Merla was the first and my favourite, dreamy and academic; then came Arlana, the wild child, the changeling; and then the Poor Knight Colm and the poacher Finn. I love them all and each has his or her strengths and weaknesses and internal demons. But perhaps the most important, at least early on, is Faye, the only one of the protagonists who is aware of what is going on and who has the knowledge to be able to influence events; and this puts a lot of responsibility on her shoulders.
EEG: How many books do you have planned for the Forests of Exile series? DH: There are likely to be four, matching the seasons of Acadia which in turn are linked to the waxing and waning of the rule of the Patriarchs in the human settlement and the rise of the Wight Lords in the forests that surround them. I’ve always found the seasons to be very evocative and I wanted to use them as one of the themes for each of the books. They also tie in with the importance given to the solstices in pagan and Wiccan mythology and the cycle of birth, life and death.
EEG: What are some of the main themes of the books?
DH: Death and aging is clearly one of them, in that the Patriarchs are a species of necromancer who, although they clearly age, somehow do not die. This, by the way, makes them excessively wrinkled and repellent, but gives them centuries of experience and cunning. And they survive by harnessing the Acadian magic, but twisting and deforming it, using it for evil ends. I wanted them to be a cabal of men with immense power who it would be almost impossible to defeat.
This is another important theme, how power corrupts, and how rulers so often quickly forget who they once were and become something completely different, very far removed from the ordinary people they govern. But corruption and a loss of legitimacy can also be a source of weakness.
Three of the five main characters are women and this was also a conscious decision in thematic terms. I wanted the Patriarchs to represent that oppressive kind of religion that denies opportunity to women and anyone who does not conform or believe. A lot of people forget that in the Middle Ages, religion was incredibly important to almost everyone. Although I’m the first to admit that the world’s religions have over the centuries often been a force for good, they have often also been sources of division and conflict, and continue to be so. And when those in power use religion to further their personal wealth and power this can be terribly dangerous for society and I wanted to reflect this in the novels.
Finally, going back to the theme of exile, but looking at it from the opposite perspective, there are the wights who one could say are the indigenous people of Acadia (although they are not people as such). Quite rightly, they resent the occupation of the land and the cutting down of the forests, and care nothing for the Patriarch’s religion, or the conflict between the Patriarchs and the Witches. But they are also quite malevolent, very predatory on the other races who are also native to the land. And they are night-dwellers, nocturnal, so they are very different from the race of men and have a completely different perspective.
EEG: You've travelled quite a lot and lived in different countries: how does this inspire your writing?
DH: I think there is a lot of Canada in Acadia, and indeed much of the idea for it was inspired by the sad stories of Arcady or Acadie, the French settlements in the Maritime Provinces that were effectively destroyed and their people largely exiled by the English in the 18th century. The stories of Vinland and of the early settlers in New England were also in the back of my mind. No doubt there’s quite a lot of Spain and Latin America in the mix too.
EEG: What are you currently working on?
DH: I have the second book, Witch of the North, mostly completed in draft form, at least the threads involving Faye and Colm trying to defend Stonehaven, and Merla in her quest for the Sanctuary. Arlana’s love affair with Alcuin and the forest ogres is in my head but a bit disorganized as yet. But I’m very keen to finish the novel in the next couple of months if I can, as I’m raring to go on the third book and conscious that if people become interested in my work they may want to read the whole series to its conclusion.
Aside from this, I have published and am working on several short stories, linked to the main thrust of the storyline of the Forests of Exile series, involving main and peripheral characters. Some of these I will be offering free on Amazon and on my website, as well as free excerpts, so that anyone who is interested in reading more can sample my writing.
EEG: That's the best way to get readers to fall in love with your world. Best of luck with your projects and thanks so much for coming over to CHIMERAS today.
To find out more about Duncan's book, visit his webpage. His first novel, With of the Fall is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK.