June 19, 2018

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Here Be Dragons (and Giant Cyborg Spiders)

Novelist Deborah Wolf spins an engaging and offbeat high fantasy tale of ordinary characters—lots of them—in extraordinary times.

Deborah WolfThe modern fantasy genre includes both the sublime and the subversively ridiculous. Novelist Lloyd Alexander famously said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” Philosopher-writer Theodor Geisel also said, “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy [is] a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” In her upcoming fantasy novel, The Dragon’s Legacy, Alaska-raised author Deborah Wolf indulges in both. Set in a desert world—rather than the forests and mountains of a typical sword and sorcery tale—the book is filled with myth, magic, and the author’s wry humor. In her words, “I march to a different accordion.”

Titan Books will be releasing The Dragon’s Legacy—the first of a trilogy—in April. We spoke to Deborah at her dwelling in the northern wilds of Michigan.

Library Journal: Without giving away too much, can you tell us something about the book?

Deborah Wolf: Well, The Dragon’s Legacy is the first in an epic saga of ridiculous proportions. As a lover of epic fantasy, I had a lot of fun writing it, but it’s an ambitious project that a debut novelist should probably not attempt. I love stories with breadth and scope, and multiple points of view. I love the idea of giant world events as seen through the eyes of different characters whose lives are impacted by them.

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In-character depiction of the author by illustrator Cassandre Bolan.

LJ: You said it was of ‘ridiculous proportions.’ Do you mean Piers Anthony ridiculous—with the tongue-in-cheek titles and maps of Florida?

DW: No, I mean George R.R. Martin ridiculous. I have a ridiculous number of point-of-view characters. There are four empires and a couple of language systems. Flora and fauna abound. I grew up on a wildlife refuge, so I like creating ecosystems. I also like the interaction between people of different cultures. Cultural misunder­stand­ing is always rife with tension. It’s also occasion for humor throughout the book. For example, there are notable misunderstandings about unfamiliar cuisine.

LJ: It sounds like you’ve done a lot of ‘world building’ for the series. Can you give us a little more?

DW: The arc of the book is the idea that there’s a dragon—asleep—at the center of the world. If the dragon awakes, it will destroy everything. The king’s magic is to sing the dragon to sleep and keep the world safe. But the king has no heir, and both magic and the population in general are in decline. Along with this danger, there are powerful rivals who want to usurp this wealthy kingdom—and a lot of indigenous people caught in the middle.

LJ: Are there epic-scale heroes and villains?

DW: No. There’s a lot of gray area there. The folks you might think of as heroes can act villainous, while the villains can act heroic at times. I do like an ambiguous character.

LJ: Do you mainly prefer fantasy writing, and what are some of your muses in that genre?

Dragons LegacyDW: I love fantasy in all its iterations. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Stardust, or Piers Anthony, or grim, dark books by Jim Abercrombie—or George Martin of course. I like the traditional, epic variety, but I like urban fantasy as well. I’m a huge fan of Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, and anything with wonder and weirdness… and warlocks.

LJ: Why is that, do you suppose?

DW: With fantasy, you can say things in a pretend setting that you can’t say in a straight-up, real life novel without sounding preachy.

LJ: What’s an example?

DW: Well, there’s the refugee situation. In the book, the indigenous people are caught between warring empires. I like to show it from their point of view, so the reader can ‘step into their skin,’ and see that indigenous people are just people. But the clash of greater powers can have devastating and human consequences. I think a lot of problems in the world happen because we fear the ‘other’—the unknown and the strange. With fantasy, you can let go of that. With dragons, and a sentient sabre-tooth cat, and giant cyborg spiders, you can suspend your disbelief, and the deeper message can sneak up on you.

LJ: It sounds like you spent a lot of time on the back story—creating a consistent world for your story.

DW: I really do. There’s a map of my world, of course, but I also theorized the tectonic plates that created it. There are two moons in my world, so I did a ridiculous amount of research on what that would mean, and laid out the moon cycles—so I would know there they would be at any point in my character’s journey. I also have constellations, and language notes. If an animal shows up, I’ve probably written up a life cycle for it somewhere. I really love world building.

LJ: Do you play world-building games?

DW: I don’t have time for any of that now, but I’ve enjoyed it in the past—before I got this ridiculous job as a professional liar. (Laughs.)

LJ: Not everyone has such a love of detail that a fantasy world entails. How are you reaching out to more general readers?

DW: I try to appeal to a broad range of people. I’d like people who are not into fantasy to read my book. That would mean those interested in mythology or philosophy—certainly history or nature. There’s also a political and ecological spin. I envisioned a desert world, not the typical European, Medieval setting of many fantasies. I built this crazy sandbox, and I’d like everybody to come in and play with my toys.


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