Jacqueline Carey’s latest novel, Starless, is one of our must-read books of the summer. This fantasy standalone transports readers to a world where the stars have been banished from the sky and forced to live on Earth as gods. When one of the gods threatens to destroy the world, Princess Zariya and her protector Khai step in. Carey sat down with debut author Sam Hawke, City of Lies, to discuss the fearless women in her works, the strengths of her two main characters, and her advice for female authors everywhere.
(Psst: That’s not all! Click here to read Carey’s interview with Hawke where they discuss City of Lies, Hawke’s fantasy debut about poison, betrayal, and family.)
Sam Hawke: Jacqueline, #FearlessWomen seems like a natural fit for you, since you’ve been doing groundbreaking things with gender in fantasy for almost 20 years. Do you have a favorite female character that you’ve written?
Jacqueline Carey: Thank you, that’s very kind! It is always a Sophie’s Choice sort of question, but when put to it, I have to choose Phèdre from the Kushiel’s Legacy series—in part because that series marked my breakthrough into the world of publishing, and in part because I think, as a divinely touched masochistic courtesan-spy who’s also a genuine epic fantasy heroine, she’s unique unto herself. It’s not often, as an artist in any genre, that you have an idea and think, “Wow, I don’t believe anyone’s ever done this before.”
SH: Even in the intervening years, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone quite like her. Kushiel’s Dart came out in the early 2000s, and openness in dealing with issues around sexuality has been a trademark of your style since. Have you seen a shift in how a character like Phèdre, and the judgment-free sexuality in the Kushiel books more generally, is regarded in 2018 versus when it first came out?
JC: Oh, for sure! The ground has shifted a lot, and society as a whole is a great deal more understanding of the range of human sexual identity and expression.
SH: Speaking of human range, Starless features a cast of characters with varied skill sets. Khai is a warrior, but Zariya has a physical disability and her strength is in her intellect and kindness. Is that something you consciously think about, ensuring that strength and fearlessness aren’t just portrayed in a traditionally masculine fashion?
JC: Absolutely. One of the more popular quotes from the Kushiel’s Legacy series is, “That which yields is not always weak,” and that’s representative of an exploration of a non-traditional kind of strength. In Starless, I loved bringing to life Zariya’s intellectual curiosity and passionate desire for a life of adventure despite her very sheltered upbringing, as well as the added complication of a physical disability.
SH: One of the crucial aspects of character development in Starless is around identity, and, without being spoilery, Khai has to deal with a pretty big revelation during the course of the story. Was that a fundamental part of the story from its conception, or something you developed later?
JC: Always, from the beginning! The nature of Khai’s character and identity was a big part of the initial inspiration. The discussion is worth the mild spoiler—I was never trying to hide the fact that Khai was born biologically female from the reader, just from the character himself. He’s raised in a sect of desert warriors, totally believing himself to be a boy. The fact that he’s never going to be a “grown man” comes as an utter shock and betrayal to him.
SH: I have read that you were inspired by the Bacha Posh practice. Were you able to speak with anyone raised in that manner as part of your research?
JC: No; and honestly, I didn’t pursue it. That’s certainly something I would have done if I were writing work drawing on that tradition in a literal manner, but in building worlds and characters in a fantasy setting, there’s a bit of a balancing act between research and imagination. But for anyone curious about the Bacha Posh practice, in which families in Afghanistan without a male heir designate a female child to be raised as a boy—which is the inspiration behind Khai’s being raised bhazim, an honorary boy—I highly recommend The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg.
SH: Often writers do use a lot of real life inspirations for their worldbuilding, but I have a real weakness for great and entirely fictitious gods and magic which derive from the world itself. I really enjoyed this about Starless. How did you choose the different gods, and did you have a favorite one?
JC: Some of them are landscape-inspired—for example, Pahrkun the Scouring Wind is an expression of the desert setting I envisioned. Some of them are inspired by a concept, like Ilharis the Two-Faced, whose gifts can change your fate for better or for worse. As for favorites, just in terms of sheer visual depiction, I’m partial to Ishfahel the Gentle Rain, whose semblance shifts from that of an enormous tranquil goddess to a great mountain spring.
SH: Starless is a standalone but still feels like a big epic and still includes your signature intelligent and immersive worldbuilding. Was it a conscious decision planning the book to be a standalone, or did it just feel like a single novel as you began to tease out the initial ideas?
JC: This one was destined to be a single novel from the get-go. It’s funny, because I didn’t realize that there’s actually a considerable appetite out there for standalone epic fantasy. Not to disparage series in any way, that’s certainly the bedrock of my career, but it was nice to discover that there are readers eager for one great satisfying meal of a sweeping tale served up in a single volume.
SH: It can still be tough as a female writer in the SFF world to avoid having your books pigeonholed or dismissed as being less serious or worthy than your male colleagues’. Is there any advice you would give female SFF writers today—or advice you would go back and give yourself in your early days in the field—to deal with that perception?
JC: Yes, there’s certainly still a widespread perception in a large subset of male fans that there’s no good epic fantasy by female writers—except maybe Robin Hobb, who tricked them with a gender neutral author’s name. May that work for you, too, Sam!
I’d say be fierce, be, in fact, a fearless woman in promoting yourself and your work. Don’t be a jerk—that’s always good life advice—but don’t fall into the politeness trap. Stand your ground and be assertive and confident and proud.
For me, personally, the cover art of the original Kushiel series—while beloved, and deservedly so!—definitely targeted a female readership. This will always be an unknown, but I’d be curious to know how my readership would have evolved otherwise. Starless is the first time we’ve gone in a more abstract direction, and I think it was a good decision.
SH: And finally—what have you read in SFF lately that’s really moved you?
JC: In fact, it was revisiting a classic—Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. It was my choice for my long-standing book club the other month, because the world’s been an ugly place lately, and I wanted us to be reminded that there’s beauty in it. In some ways, it’s actually a more poignant read than I remembered, in that way that books sometimes seem to change as you move through different eras in your life. But the beauty and the lyricism endure.
SH: Great choice. I’m also drawn to optimistic works at the moment because of the broader state of the world. There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
Jacqueline Carey is the author of the New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, postmodern fables Santa Olivia and Saints Astray, and the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy series. Carey lives in western Michigan. You can visit her online at www.jacquelinecarey.com and on Twitter as @JCareyAuthor.