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Fun with Friends: Helen Lowe Talks with Ian Irvine

About the Series:
Fun with Friends is an SF Signal interview series in which I feature fellow SFF authors from Australia and New Zealand. The format is one interview per month, with no more than five questions per interview, focusing on “who the author is” and “what she/he does” in writing terms. This month’s guest is Ian Irvine.

Ian Irvine, a marine scientist who has developed some of Australia’s national guidelines for protection of the marine environment, has also written 29 novels. These include the bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence (The View from the Mirror, The Well of Echoes and Song of the Tears), a trilogy of eco-thrillers, and 12 books for younger readers. Ian’s latest fantasy novel is Rebellion, Book 2 of The Tainted Realm trilogy. He is currently editing Book 3, Justice. Ian’s website is

Helen: Ian, you are a scientist currently writing epic fantasy. Do you find the science informs the epic, for example with world building, or are the two parallel but separate realms?

Ian: The science definitely informs the epic in respect of world building. My first degree was in geology, and at university I studied all the sciences, so when I first came to world building decades ago I had a good understanding of the physical processes that create and shape worlds and lands, and the environments and ecosystems that modify them. These physical and biological environments inevitably shape the kinds of societies that can exist and grow and change there. For example, a society in a land where there is a scarcity of metal ores will develop very differently to one where ores are abundant and metal can be produced cheaply. Every scarce and every abundant resource will, to a degree, shape the human societies that develop there.

As a lapsed geologist, I love cataclysmic landscapes. In creating the environments of Central Hightspall, where most of the action takes place in The Tainted Realm, I was also inspired by the volcanic area around Lake Taupo in New Zealand, one of the most dangerously volcanic areas in the world, though of course the landscape or the environments aren’t based on that area.

In The Tainted Realm, the semi-mythical, subterranean Engine, which is thought to cause all the eruptions and other natural disasters with which Hightspall is plagued, was initially inspired by the Oklo natural reactor in Gabon – an area with such high uranium levels in the rocks that it actually formed a number of natural nuclear reactors two billion years ago. This idea was, of course, greatly modified as I wrote and, as readers will discover in the final book in this series, Justice, the origin of the Engine isn’t geological at all – or natural.

Helen: In terms of world building, the world of your The Tainted Realm series is threatened by an encroaching ice age. As a writer from Australia, which has a predominantly hot, dry continent, does that feel a little weird or does it simply add to the fun-or challenge-of creating the ‘fantastic’?

Ian: It’s true that most of Australia has a hot, dry climate, though most of the hot dry part – the interior and the west, is sparsely populated. Half the population lives along the east coast which generally has a moderate climate and can be very wet. For instance where I live, in the mountains halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, we had over a metre of rain (in fact 42 inches) in one month this year. Our landscape is generally as green as Ireland’s, or the North Island of NZ, and the natural vegetation of the area where I live is temperate rainforest, which is what feels normal to me – though not to most other Australians.

I use these kinds of locales in my writing from time to time – it’s always seemed to me that far too much fantasy was set in European or North American analogues and far too little in rainforests and other less usual environments: for instance, the weird underground cave-scapes I created at the tar pits of Snizort, in my Well of Echoes quartet. In Book 3 of The Tainted Realm, Justice, the last third of the book is set in an environment partly inspired by the place where I live, a fertile, rain-drenched plateau in the mountains.

Helen: A New Zealand author, Kate de Goldi, has said that every writer has a “bone” he or she tends to “gnaw away at through their writing.” So is there a particular “bone” (or bones) you are “gnawing” on with The Tainted Realm series-and how do you feel you have given it effect?

Ian: That’s an interesting question, Helen. I know quite a few writers who write in order to work through personal troubles, and others who do so to explore or give their own view on social or moral issues. I’m not one of them. I write because I like to tell stories.

Nonetheless, there are themes and issues that recur through my work, and they go back to my earliest writing more than twenty-five years ago. Perhaps the biggest of these is that I’ve always wanted to write fantasy where men and women aren’t frozen in medieval (or other Earthly) gender roles, as they are in most of the fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It’s fantasy, for God’s sake! A writer can write about any kind of society he or she wishes, or can imagine. Maybe that’s the problem.

In The Tainted Realm, Tali suffers many kinds of discrimination both from the enemy and from her own people – because she was a slave, one of the despised Pale; because she’s an outsider in a land where family and clan is everything; because she has a magical gift in a realm where gifted people are either feared or persecuted – but her gender is never an obstacle.

In Rebellion, she has to overcome her greatest fear, a return to slavery, in order to save her people from genocide. She must go back to Cython, the underground slave realm she only recently escaped from, in a desperate attempt to lead the slaves in rebellion. The problems she encounters have nothing to do with her being a woman trying to lead an uprising – they’re all about her being an escaped slave, no longer one of them. That’s why the slaves won’t listen to her. But they will listen to Radl, Tali’s childhood enemy among the slaves – if only Tali can find a way to win her aid.

Helen: Heroes vs antiheroes vs villains: do you have a preference in terms of selecting and developing your central characters? Why – or why not?

Ian: I prefer flawed heroes, as a rule, and generally speaking I like protagonists who aren’t natural heroes. For instance, Llian in The View from the Mirror quartet is a scholar of the Histories and a teller of the great tales; he’s clumsy and awkward, and is forced by circumstances to become a hero, much against his inclination. It’s the same with Karan from that series – she has a minor gift (she’s a sensitive) and great ancestors she knows little about. She doesn’t want to be a hero either; she just wants to go home to her run-down manor, but circumstances won’t let her.

Rix in The Tainted Realm is a more traditional flawed hero on the surface – he’s physically big and strong, a natural warrior, but he’s also a gifted artist whose paintings sometimes portray disturbing futures – and these divinations can come true.

Sometimes I use antiheroes – for example Nish in The Well of Echoes quartet, and also Irisis in that series. They start out as unpleasant and unlikeable characters, but are transformed during the story. Both end up as great and heroic figures, and readers like them all the more because they have transcended their darker sides. I haven’t written about anti-heroes who remain anti-heroes through the whole story, though in some respects Tali in The Tainted Realm could be said to be an anti-hero.

I love creating powerful, larger-than-life villains – the legendary Five Heroes in The Tainted Realm are prime examples, and in particular the exuberantly wicked Axil Grandys, but I don’t have them as central characters. Why not? I prefer to read stories where the heroes eventually prevail, sort of, and the villains eventually get what’s coming to them, sort of, and so that’s what I write.

Helen: Ian, to date you’ve written 28 novels, and I know Justice, the third novel in “The Tainted Realm” series is your immediate next project. But where to from there for you – do you have any projects forthcoming, or new ideas you are keen to explore?

Ian: I completed the draft of Justice last week and my editor is now working on the structural edit. I’ve still a few months of editing to go, but it’ll be done by June. Justice will be published in Australia this October, and in March 2014 in the US and UK, and will complete The Tainted Realm trilogy. It’s a standalone series though it does have a couple of links to the eleven books of my Three Worlds sequence.

While I’m waiting for the edit, I’m doing initial planning on a new trilogy, as yet unnamed. It’s a direct sequel to my first fantasy series, The View from the Mirror quartet, which was published fifteen years ago. The ending of the last book, The Way Between the Worlds, raises a teasing question about the fate of Karan and Llian’s gifted children when they grow up. Maigraith, a powerful, obsessive figure, wants to mate her own remarkable son to one of Karan’s daughters to create a new kind of human, and Karan won’t have a bar of it.

Way back in the year 2000 I promised I would write that story one day, and for the past twelve years my most frequently asked question has been, When are you going to write the sequel?

The day has come. I’m doing the initial planning now, and it’s a daunting challenge. The View from the Mirror was an international bestseller that’s still in print, and it’s a greatly loved series. Many of my readers have told me it was the first fantasy series they read as they were growing up, and that it occupies a special place in their hearts, so I have to tread carefully.

It’s hard to write a sequel that’s as good as the original, and few writers succeed at it. Also, my writing style has changed considerably since I first drafted the series over 20 years ago. The View from the Mirror is written in a more elevated high fantasy style than I write in these days. Should I try to match that style or not? Are Karan and Llian to be the main protagonists again, or not? And where do I begin?

So many decisions to make. It’s not going to be easy. But the more difficult the challenge, the more I enjoy the writing.

Helen: The new trilogy sounds like a very big project, but also exciting for both you and fans of the original series. Good luck with the writing – and thank you for the interview.

About the Interviewer:

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in her The Wall of Night series, was published in April 2012, and in June she won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally here on SF Signal. She is also a member of the newly formed BookSworn author group-and you can follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we

2 Comments on Fun with Friends: Helen Lowe Talks with Ian Irvine

  1. Thanks, Helen.

    I’d come across Ian’s books some years ago…and never realized he was a scientist by training. That IS something of a disconnect between him and his fiction.

  2. I was lucky enough to meet Ian in person at Worldcon in 2010: we shared a book signing spot in fact, but with my first novel just out, his queue was much longer than mine. 😉

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