Greg Keyes is one of those authors with an unpredictable bibliography—he’s written everything from space opera, to steampunk, to epic fantasy. His next novel, The Reign of the Departed, is something else again: a portal fantasy that jumps from our world to the fantasy kingdom of The High and Faraway as is follows a fractious relationship between a father and his daughter.
Today, we’re showing off the cover of the book, featuring art by Micah Epstein and design by Claudia Noble. Then, we talk with Greg about what inspired the book, and what kind of spin he’s put on the tropes of portal fantasy. You’ll find all of that below the official summary…
Errol Greyson hadn’t intended to commit suicide. Or so he told himself. But waking up after his “cry for help” in the body of a wood-and-metal construct magically animated by Aster—the strange girl from school—was not a result he could have imagined.
Aster’s wild explanations of a quest to find the water of health that would cure her father seemed as unreal as her description of Errol’s own half-dead existence, his consciousness stuck in an enchanted automaton while his real body was in a coma from which it might never wake. And of course, they would need to recruit a girl—a virgin, no less—who had been dead for thirty years, to lead them through something called the Pale, beyond which a bunch of magical kingdoms existed. Plus, the threat that Aster could turn him off like a light switch, sending him into a hellish oblivion, was a convincing incentive to cooperate.
It all seemed quite mad: either Aster was nuts or Errol was hallucinating. But if it meant a new chance at life, he reckoned it was worth playing along.
Here’s Greg to answer a few questions about the book, out in June from Night Shade:
You’ve been publishing for more than 20 years, with a lot of variety: Newton’s Cannon is an alt-history steampunk story; The Briar King is epic fantasy; you’ve also written media tie-in novels in the worlds of Star Wars, Babylon 5, and Elder Scrolls, as well as film novelizations. What appealed to you about making your next project a portal fantasy?
I like to try things that are different. I didn’t set out to write a portal fantasy, because until very recently, I hadn’t heard the term.
The High and Faraway is set in a continuum of Kingdoms or Reigns that range from quite fantastic and magical to barely magical at all. The story begins on the far end of that continuum, a place so unmagical (our world, basically) that it requires some arcane help to cross the border to the next realm—but it is more a border than a door.
The story grew out of reading countless fairy-and-folk tales from all around the world, as well as tales of gods and great heroes that exist at a different level, and I wanted to play with these tropes and the relationships between them. Particularly inspiring was a book I read on the relationship of Lithuanian Folktales to earlier, more mythic stories of those people, and my own work as an anthropologist with the tales and mythologies of the Native Americans of the Southeastern U.S.—Choctaw, Muskogee, and so forth.
Most of my work has been inspired by mythology and folktales, but here I wanted to play with that material in a different way, a way which in some sense takes those stories more at face value rather than trying to rationalize them. I also wanted to begin a story where I began—the Sowashee of Errol and Aster is essentially Meridian Mississippi and the rural areas surrounding it—the forests and fields where I spent my days as a youth.
Reign plays around with the traditions of plot-driven quest narratives. You have a diverse cast of protagonists “going down the road.” What did you find most directed the book’s writing, character or plot?
Both had their place, of course, but while I generally knew where my characters were going, I did not know from chapter to chapter what they were going to do, and that in turn often set me off course. The three point-of-view characters have very strong personalities, as does the more enigmatic character, Dusk. Whenever I felt I was pushing any of them to do something they wouldn’t to keep my plot going the way I wanted, I knew I had to back up and do something different.
Issues of agency are often at the core of quest narratives—a protagonist seeking power or the ability to affect change. One of Reign‘s protagonists is fairly ruthless in pursuit of her goals, often at others’ expense, and this coercive nature of magic and power is a theme you return to often. Was this intentional, or did these themes emerge naturally from the story?
In some of my books—The Waterborn, for instance—magic is achieved mostly by negotiation, by reciprocal relationships between humans and gods or spirits. People who live close to the land, especially in hunter-gatherer, herding, or early horticultural societies often view “magic” in this way. Their concepts of the supernatural reflects their social structure, which also tends be more cooperative than coercive.
But in city-building cultures, where kings, queens and emperors are imbued with divine importance that ordinary people don’t have, magic becomes coercive; you don’t ask lightning to fall from the sky, you command it. Magic bends spirits, elements, and people to the will of the magician—and this is the sort of magic we see the most of in the High and Faraway. The relationship of magic to power, and power to relationship and culture, I think, just arises from my point of view, rather than being themes I consciously set out to explore. My goal is primarily to tell a story, not write a thesis.
That said, I always knew that the character you reference was willing to use and coerce others to get what she wants, although her motives are more complicated than they first appear. It’s a part of what makes her tick. On one level, she’s the sort of person who thinks she knows what is best for everyone else, and so feels justified in her choices. But she is also very young, and not nearly as confident as she wants to appear to others.
The relationship between a father and daughter is another central element in the book. How have you own familial relationships informed or inspired this story?
I have a daughter, now nine years of age. When she was younger—three, I think—I had a dream of carrying her in my arms through strange and frightening landscapes. In the dream, I feared I was failing her somehow. That dream formed the nucleus of this book, and it’s why it [became] so important to me—because of that bond with my daughter, and the hopes and fears that go along with it. My relationship with her isn’t the one portrayed in the book (thank goodness); that is, in fact, what I hope our relationship will never become.
For well-read readers familiar with common tropes in portal fantasy, tell us something unexpected or unusual about your take on the subgenre.
I believe I cover some fresh territory in the folklore I draw on to imagine this world and its relationship to the “real” world. It was really a joy to write, because it made me feel like an explorer in uncharted territory. I hope the reader will feel the same.