DK Mok is a fantasy and science fiction author whose novels include Hunt for Valamon and The Other Tree. DK’s short story ‘Morning Star’ (One Small Step, FableCroft Publishing) was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and a Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award. DK grew up in libraries, immersed in lost cities and fantastic worlds populated by quirky bandits and giant squid. She graduated from UNSW with a degree in Psychology, pursuing her interest in both social justice and scientist humour. DK lives in Sydney, Australia, and her favourite fossil deposit is the Burgess Shale. Find out more at www.dkmok.com or on Twitter @dk_mok.
by DK Mok
I grew up loving classic fantasy worlds, with their labyrinthine dungeons and fantastic beasts, their enchanted lands and perilous quests. I played Dungeons & Dragons with my friends, cursing the dice and scrubbing out hit-points. I racked up XPs in computer games like Might & Magic and Quest for Glory, with their pick-a-path narratives often influenced by the selected avatar’s class.
Fighter, mage, thief, cleric. Those were the typical choices.
The fighter’s journey was often the most straight-forward, and you could usually get by with a strategy of “hit it until it dies/breaks/bursts into gold pieces”. The mage’s journey often required more creative thinking, or a lot of Fireballs. The thief’s path usually involved both creativity and a dash of amorality. But the cleric was often an afterthought, or dispensed with altogether if the party had enough coin to fill their inventory with healing potions and protective amulets.
When I thought of fantasy heroes, I envisioned stoic warriors like Sturm from the Dragonlance Saga, or fierce shieldmaidens like Éowyn from The Lord of the Rings, or clever sorcerers like Polgara from The Belgariad. I didn’t think of bookish types brandishing bandages and bottles of antiseptic. At least, I didn’t used to.
As I grew older, I found myself pondering the role of the cleric and the healer in fantasy stories. Many of my real-world heroes were doctors and aid workers, people who ventured to dangerous regions, on desperate missions to save lives and solve biological mysteries.
I was awed by the courage of the doctors in Hong Kong who volunteered to work in the desperately understaffed SARS department, caring for infected patients during the deadly outbreak several years ago; or the health care workers in West Africa who continued to treat ebola patients despite having inadequate protective gear. I have great admiration for people like Doctor Catherine Hamlin, co-founder of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia which has treated over 40 000 women for devastating obstetric fistulas.
It’s true that passionate medical workers have their own stories, as demonstrated in the bracingly accurate film Contagion, but I wondered if perhaps there shouldn’t be more healers in fantasy adventures too—not just as allies or part of the aftermath, but as complicated heroes in their own right.
Over time, I found myself wanting to write an epic fantasy adventure featuring ruthless enemies and violent conflicts, but navigated through the eyes and heart of a creative, compassionate and stubborn healer. I’d certainly encountered cudgel-happy clerics in my time via gaming circles, but those weren’t the characters who intrigued me. I wanted to explore a character who not only shunned the sword, but also refused to dabble in a little poisoning, or the strategic use of gravity and piked fences. I wanted to create someone who would be an effective action hero, while remaining true to their compassionate ethics.
Many of my favourite fictional characters are those who rarely employ violent solutions. Characters like Rincewind from The Colour of Magic, whose special battle manoeuvre is Running Away. Or like MacGyver from the TV show of the same name, who delighted audiences with his improbable gadgets and pacifist principles; and the from Doctor Who, whose very name is a declaration of his values.
It was partly this desire to create more non-violent protagonists, more heroic healers, that led me to write the character of Seris in Hunt for Valamon. He is a cleric—one of only three serving the eccentric goddess Eliantora. Devoted to his patients and his foster family, Seris is compelled to leave behind his cheerfully book-infested temple when he’s drafted to a politically compromised mission to rescue the missing prince. Seris is a bookish type, whose pack contains bandages, bottles of antiseptic, and spare socks. And he is the hero of a sprawling fantasy adventure.
I still love epic battle scenes and breathtaking duels. I still shiver at the whistle of an arrow sailing true, or the swish of double-katana bladework. However, I increasingly celebrate characters who staunch blood rather than spill it. Who solve problems with only their wit and charm, guile and cunning, diplomacy and creativity, or plain bloody-minded persistence.
Not every battle must invoke blood, and I salute those who step onto the field armed with bandages rather than a blade.