It’s time to talk about The Fatal Child. And to do that I need to start by looking at The Cup of the World and The Widow and the King as well.
Readers often comment that the fantasy element in these stories is limited. That is true. There are no wizards, no armies of goblins or trolls, no dragons (well, there is a dragon, but he is one of a small number of spirits who stay in the background and don’t often appear). The action takes place in a small medieval kingdom that happens to be somewhere else, among humans whose attitudes, technology and religion are approximately those of Europe in the 14th or 15th centuries. There is very little magic. This is quite deliberate.
One of the lessons I learned at my father’s knee is how hard it is for the story-teller to keep magic “real”. The more you have of it, the harder you have to work to create rules for it that readers can understand and accept. If you get it wrong they’ll be wondering why the hero can’t solve all his problems with a well-aimed zap in chapter six. Another lesson is that extraordinary things cease to be extraordinary if they are exposed too often. Take monsters. A monster that has no name, is kept in the shadows, is never seen clearly (think of Alien, or the ghost stories of MR James) is far more scary than one that emerges fully into the light, slobbering and festooned in the guts of its victims. Why? Because the first sort is amplified by the audience’s imagination. The second seems to assume - pardon me - that the audience has none.
And now we’ve got to it. It’s that word “imagination”. It’s not magic that makes a fantasy. It’s what the audience is asked to see in their minds: the landscapes, the colours, the buildings (I think JK Rowling had far more fun building Hogwarts than she did deciding what should come spouting from Harry’s wand). In fantasy the imagination of artist and audience is allowed to roam beyond the world we know. If you are up for that, then you start your journey with a sense of excitement that you won’t get elsewhere. And this freedom to create should support the narrative. The landscapes of the Cup series - the lake, the castles, the warm woods and the cold mountains - are essential to the vision of that beautiful and troubled little world.
Fantasy allows a further freedom to the author, which sometimes we use well and sometimes we use badly. This is that it is possible to deal with questions of good and evil more openly than in a conventional setting. There is usually an Evil One who has to be confronted. So much the worse, you may say, and you may be right. It is misleading to externalise evil and suggest that you can solve it by hitting it on the head with a battleaxe. But often the central characters in fantasies recognise a likeness in themselves to the thing that they confront. They see their own capacity for evil, and must avert it or endure the consequences of what they have done. The malign forces in The Cup of the World series are not the sort that send out armies to conquer everybody. They work through the way the characters behave, the way that love turns to blindness and suffering to revenge. The people in these books are like us, only set in another place. The otherness of that place enhances their story.
That is why these books are fantasies.