Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated twice for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published FULL FATHOM FIVE, the third novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE) in July 2014. Max’s game CHOICE OF THE DEATHLESS was nominated for a 2013 XYZZY Award, and his short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine. LAST FIRST SNOW, the next Craft Sequence novel, will hit shelves in July 2015, and is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, and parenthood.
I wrote the dreaded Prequel.
I’m not sorry, but let’s not sugarcoat the situation, either: my fourth book, Last First Snow, is, chronologically, the earliest in the Craft Sequence. When it takes place, most of the characters around whom the other books revolve are children. Their mentors and enemies occupy center stage in this story: Elayne Kevarian, brutally efficient and dedicated Craftswoman; Temoc, devoted father and last paladin of (mostly) dead gods; the King in Red, a lich king turned utility executive; and sundry other wizards, academics, rebels, cops, revolutionaries, and insurance salesmen, on different sides of a burgeoning protest movement in the heart of the desert city Dresediel Lex.
On the one hand, this let me play with some of my favorite characters in the Sequence at a stage when they were less set in their ways—at a time when their worldviews seemed less complete to them. I get to crush, um, excuse me, I mean, develop, their younger selves into the world-shaking eidolons we meet later. On the other hand, prequels have a bit of a bad rap.
Star Wars takes the lion’s share of responsibility for that, which there ain’t nothing I can do to fix, but there also sound dramatic theory reasons to beware of prequels. Prequels limit the writer’s options. The reader already knows how the story ends. Or, she thinks she does.
But that’s where the potential lies. We already know the endings for tragedies and historical novels. (Though not always in the latter case; I have friends who have been diligently avoiding Thomas Cromwell’s Wikipedia page since they read Wolf Hall.) We write them anyway, because while the ending matters, the how of the ending matters more. Why did people make the choices they did, when they did? How was the house of cards built? How did it come crashing down?
Last First Snow tells the story of the Skittersill Rising, a rebellion against the Deathless Kings that forms the backdrop of Two Serpents Rise. By Two Serpents Rise, the Rising becomes a watchword for fanaticism, religious violence, and government oppression.
But the public story isn’t always the true one. Memories distort and spin. What seems a grim inevitability twenty years later, at the time, looked anything but. The layers of myth painted over the actual events of the Skittersill Rising tell a story the people who were there, then, would recognize as a distortion. The original protests of the Rising protected their homes, their jobs, their families; religion was involved involved but was not a central issue. Cultures clashed. Negotiations succeeded and failed. People tried, desperately, to hold their lives together.
True stories—the hard ones, the complicated ones—they’re trickier to tell. Even the people who lived them boil that complexity down to simple tales of good and evil, oppression and liberation, in memory. But the events themselves matter. If we’re brave enough, we can crack through the shell of history, and enter the mess of the moment: a father trying to protect his family and his newfound people. An uncertain ruler walking the line between despotism and development. People standing up for themselves. Disagreements, skullduggery, sacrifice, heartbreak, joy, and fire.
Done well (and I think I’ve done it well, but then of course I would), a prequel can show the flaws in memory and history; it can show how the world we’ve ended up with didn’t have to be, how things could have gone differently—and how they did go differently.
That matters. Our lives now will be history someday. And if we don’t sharpen our tools to protect those lives, they may vanish beneath the inevitable tide.