Released: Paper & Feathers!
And why peaceful stories are important
So here we are! My newest novel, Paper & Feathers, was released this past November 3, which marks a major milestone in my writing journey. It's the first book in the Euphony of Seasons series, which is less of a series in the traditional sense and more of a literary universe. There are at least three sub-series so far. It also differs from most fantasy books that you'll read in that the style and structure are very unexpected. So much fantasy is, at its core, about the battle between good and evil, light and darkness, and all of the struggles and issues that happen along the way. Friendships are tested, heroes struggle and fail, and just as evil is about to triumph, the heroes find a way to win. This is very traditional, not to mention very Christian, and it makes up the bulk of fantasy plots not only because it's relatively easy for writers to plan and carry out, but also for readers to understand.
We've all read (and watched) the Lord of the Rings. We've all fought alongside the kids in Narnia against the White Witch. If you have kids, you've read about the rabbits fighting the raptors in The Green Ember and experienced the fall of Gnag the Nameless in the "obnoxiously epic" Wingfeather Saga. These struggles are what teache us morality and truth and goodness. All of it is absolutely fine and necessary. It speaks to the deep drive in each of us to overcome the darkness and find our way to the light.
But it's also not what you'll find in a Euphony of Seasons book. Worlds, nations, and villages in fantasy worlds are observed and focused on when there's something wrong. A great evil lurks, war looms, things are generally in upheaval. But what about the other 99% of history, the rest of the time when things aren't going badly? When nations are at peace, when good has already triumphed over evil, or just maybe, there wasn't any evil to triumph over in the first place? What would people’s daily lives be like, how would they farm, what would they eat, what would culture, art, literature be like? And most importantly, how to make a story interesting when it involves all of these things and not what people typically expect in the genre?
The concept of a plot and conflict that doesn't involve villains and battles isn't new, obviously, it's the basis of every piece of "general fiction" that you'll find nowadays, ranging from drama to romance. The stakes are low, the stories are just about people's lives and their problems and everyday things. And the common thread of all that literary fiction is that it's set in our world, in a familiar place and time. As soon as you start including fantasy or sci-fi elements of any kind, out come the baddies and up go the stakes. The magical realism genre has attempted to offset this, adding fantastical elements to "normal" stories. And that works great, I've read several such books that succeed at this. But what if things were flipped the other way around? What if you had a story set in a fantasy world that revolved around everyday problems? Like I said earlier, here we are.
The key to pulling this kind of story off is to keep the stakes as low as possible. People read fantasy nowadays for the thrill, the excitement, the flashy magic and the amazing creatures and the overall wow factor. That requires a lot of work on the part of the author to keep the momentum going, and that's usually done by consistently raising the stakes. The conflict starts off in the hero's village, then the larger town nearby, soon you're flying all over the world with a ragtag band of lovable misfits trying to stop the Ancient Dark God(dess) from being awakened and passing wroth on the whole world. Things get worse and worse, and while there may be some peace and respite in between the struggles, the overall sentiment is definitely one of tension and danger.
There are some other notable exceptions to this trend of overall high-stakes, which can all be found in cultures and traditions outside of ours. Just a quick disclosure that while I used to watch anime with some regularity, I don't any longer and I don't recommend it. Every now and then there'll be something positive and family-friendly, usually a Studio Ghibli movie, but for the large majority it's a sphere to be ignored. I'm only referencing it here to prove a point, not encourage anyone to watch any of it. So keep that in mind.
Many anime series are what would be classified as "literary," just stories about everyday life, albeit usually exaggerated for comedy. Many are about epic fantasy struggles. Some attempt to combine the two, in the adventures of a normal, everyday teenager/college student who winds up encountering one or more eligible ladies of alien origins, and predictable hilarity ensues. The bulk of the plot for the rest of the series then becomes "slice-of-life," where the characters all try to come to terms with their respective mundane and otherworldly natures, and everyone seems to be just finding a way to get along when...
The story takes a dramatic and serious turn. An old foe shows up looking for revenge, the secret finally comes out and the fallout is worse than the heroes expected, etcetera, and things come to a head. The stakes are raised, oftentimes very sharply, up to and including preventing the end of the world. What happened? Why did the peace of the narrative have to be shattered so thoroughly? Oftentimes it's because the creators are trying to compress a much larger story into a smaller format, and they need to cover all of the major plot points, or are trying to include all the fan-favorite characters before having to wrap up the requisite 26 episodes.
Whatever the reason, the structure does serve to accomplish one very important thing: by the time the stakes are eventually raised, the audience/readers are so emotionally invested in the characters and their relationships that the drama of the action is much more impactful. You root for the triumph over the sudden villain since you know what's truly at stake, what they're actually fighting for. When they eventually win (or if they all die, anime can be pretty nihilistic), the emotional impact1 is that much greater.
This phenomenon is a crucial component of the history of Euphony of Seasons. The very first story that was written on the odd little world of Laviere was a stock-standard epic hero's journey about a humble (dull) young man and his (pushy) childhood friend who witness the destruction of their village at the hands of a vengeful demon and must journey across the land to put a stop to his menace once and for all. It would've been fine, a good story, the magic system was pretty interesting, a complicated plot with a lot of side-characters and there you go. I never finished it, and I never will, but I definitely don't need to.
Before I even finished the book, I decided to take a few steps back. The characters living in this tiny village had lives and friends and families, but they only got featured very briefly before everything (literally) blew up. That didn’t seem right. I wanted to share more of the main characters' lives before the big action started, about a year before the crisis sounded good. I was looking to be able to provide a prequel after the main book was done, but I also realized that the Year Before Stories could actually be read before the main book and it would only enhance the narrative. Of course, since there was a year to cover, what better way to divide up the plot than by the seasons? (They weren't capitalized back then) Through planning out all of the various festivals and the flow of life in this world, I found myself enjoying the peaceful personal struggles a lot more than the epic battles of the primary book. And that was how it all began.
I realized that I could base the entire scope of the books I wrote around this "slice-of-life" concept. Ordinary, everyday struggles in a fantastical world. After finally ironing out all of the wrinkles in the worldbuilding, I ended up getting three and a half books basically completely written. Paper & Feathers, a romance about a fussy librarian and spiritual journey that he undertakes; Counterbalance, a tragic story with slightly higher stakes about a hunted hunter and her run-in with a runaway; and The Scarlet Cavaliers, a comedy about a troupe of traveling performers that has a surprising moral buried inside. The half-book? We'll get to that one much later. None of them are epic fantasy, however. All three are about very local conflict, friendships and relationships, major personal issues, and internal battles more than external. Only two of them even have a villain!
I was all set to get Paper & Feathers finished and published, when God had a different idea in mind. I was inspired to write Octave of Stars rather suddenly, taking a plot and characters that I had first conceived of a very long time ago, and to apply the Catholic tradition that hadn't been a part of my writing ecosystem up until then. You can read more about that in another post, if you want to.
During that year of writing and development, something big happened that changed the fantasy scene rather dramatically: Legends and Lattes was released and rose to popularity. While readers were enjoying a low-stakes fantasy adventure, I was out here fuming. "Someone got to it before I did! I should've released P&F first! Then I could be popular and revolutionary!" Of course that was just my expectations talking, there was no way I would've gotten that popular unless I was traditionally published also. Which won't happen, but that's yet another post. That's when the thing called "cozy fantasy" really started taking off. Lots of competitors jumped in, Something and Something Else (both with the same first letter, at least mine are different) started popping up, with tea shops and pastries and magic and all sorts of things. Readers WANTED to enjoy a peaceful, emotional tale without all the baggage of the usual adventure. They were getting tired of the incessant epicness and needed a break. Our lives are hectic enough, why add more tension through what we read?
So I still had a chance! While I was researching comparable titles, however, I came to some unpleasant realizations. All of these popular cozy tales are full of the liberal, modern ideals that have become so popular lately. Same-sex relationships, secular humanism, a lack of morality in general. How could I count myself among this number? How could I say that my works are perfect for fans of Legends and Lattes and A Psalm for the Wild Built and whatever else is popular at the time? I knew I couldn't. Which is why Euphony of Seasons is NOT "cozy fantasy." I don't want to be associated with that label any longer. (Which is why I haven’t linked to any of those books, you don’t need them)
The official term is rural fantasy, but most people won’t know what that means right away, so slice-of-life fantasy goes on the marketing copy. That fits more closely to the ideal that I'm trying to achieve, which is not about "the feels" and the emotions that are associated with the cozy genre, but rather the everyday, local, small-scale conflicts that occur in daily life. It hearkens back to those old stories where the time was taken to get invested in the characters before the conflicts began. To truly enjoy and invest in the characters before watching them go up against the evil that plagues the world. Or not, sometimes there’s no evil at all and just the disordered passions that exist within any of us. This is why the motto of ZMT Books is “Stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and stories about extraordinary people doing ordinary things.”
If all of this has made you interested in reading a different kind of book, where non-epic characters struggle through their lives in a world populated with truly diverse people, who have access to a very ordinary form of magic, and there are little spirit creatures dawdling around everywhere and no one seems to pay them any mind at all, then you're in luck because you can do it today. Paper & Feathers is available for DRM-free download to read on literally any kind of device, with full-color illustrations depending on your platform. But the black & white ones look pretty darn good too! There will also be hardcover version coming out very soon which will be in color. Exciting!
Thanks for reading this far! Let me know what you think with a reply or a comment. Check out what else is fresh this season at ZMT Books, and remember to have fun out there.
This impact is one of the reasons that the first few chapters of Octave of Stars is what many people consider to be "too slow." I had several very early readers criticize how I spent so much time talking about Ash & Cascadia's daily routine, and where was the hook, the action, the inciting incident? All of those things are there, but by getting invested in the characters first, it makes the struggle that much more impactful. You know what sort of a peace Ash is fighting for. And, for every criticism, I got a compliment that I was slowing down and taking it easy and not overwhelming the reader with nonstop action. So it works!