Alex Marshall (also known as Jesse Bullington) is the author of the Crimson Empire epic fantasy trilogy, which sounds like your typical door-stopping, grimdark affair (bloody battles, brutal villains, a quest for vengeance), until you look a bit closer and see what is there (a middle-aged female protagonist, a wildly diverse cast) and what isn’t (across more than 2,000 pages, there is no gendered violence against women). With the entire trilogy now available in trade paperback, the author joins us today to discuss the importance of writing fantasy worlds that reflect the complexity of the real one.
We live in a world unfortunately rife with sexual violence, racial prejudice, and other institutional systems of oppression. The heavy inclusion of these elements in a fictional world is often considered an intrinsic quality of dark fantasy, the purported “realism” one of the defining characteristics of the subgenre. As a lifelong fan and writer I reject this assumption. Porting our real world ills over to a fantasy setting isn’t necessarily realistic at all, and too often comes across as exploitative instead of seriously engaging with difficult subjects.
Most troubling, this “realism” argument is often employed to defend the dearth of independent women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ characters in a fantasy setting, which falls especially flat when you consider the real world is in fact an incredibly diverse place. One of the goals I set for myself in writing the Crimson Empire trilogy (A Crown for Cold Silver; A Blade of Black Steel; A War in Crimson Embers) was to demonstrate that dark fantasy can be violent, intense, and compelling without relying on these tropes, thereby including readers of all backgrounds who normally feel ill-used by or outright excluded from the genre.
I made the conscious decision early on in the world-building process to create a setting rich with people of different ethnicities and from varied cultures. The cast of characters in my trilogy represents a broad sampling of humanity. I didn’t do this just to make some statement about representation, but because I think authenticity is essential to art, and the basic truth of existence is that people are diverse. Our fundamental differences—and our attempts to overcome them—aren’t just the stuff of high drama, they’re the stuff of life. I wanted the Star to be a sanctuary where virtually any reader from any background can find a space for themselves, no compromises or contortions required.
This was also why I decided there would be no institutional racism (at least, not against members of the human race), sexism, homophobia, or transphobia in the world of the Crimson Empire. There is no gendered or sexual violence. To me this was part and parcel of the issue of representation—too often when women and minorities see themselves represented in fantasy it is solely as victims experiencing the same horrors found in the real world, and I wanted to provide a reprieve from that trend. As a straight white guy it’s always been ridiculously easy for me to escape into fantasy, so creating a world that offered that same gateway for people of other backgrounds always felt important.
Upon hearing that I set these parameters for the series, some readers might have a kneejerk reaction about how artists shouldn’t impose rules and restrictions on themselves. But figuring out what shape an individual project is going to take isn’t the same thing as limiting oneself, and artists should put a lot of thought into their work. At no point in the writing process did I feel creatively hamstrung by my decisions. Quite the contrary: creating and conveying a realistic world that wasn’t weighed down by a lot of our societal baggage required far more imagination than if I had merely copied over our own real world problems.
This is not to say that social issues shouldn’t be directly addressed in a fantasy setting. At its best, speculative fiction allows us to examine real issues through otherworldly lenses, providing new and unique perspectives. My first three novels are all works of weird historical fiction that both overtly engage with social issues and attempt to provide better representation of marginalized people than is often found in portrayals of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Fiction set in the real world ought to at least acknowledge the pervasive systems of oppression that overshadow human existence, but when it came to creating a world from scratch, I jumped at the opportunity to try talking about these issues via their absence; showcasing them in relief.
(That said, there is an exception to my world’s egalitarian streak in the institutional racism that the demi-humans, known as wildborn, experience. Even in a trilogy where I expressly set out to talk about racism by not talking about racism, I still ended up overtly talking about racism. Given the state of the modern world, I guess it’s unavoidable.)
Some readers may wonder what makes the Crimson Empire trilogy a work of dark fantasy, when it doesn’t include these too-common trappings of the genre. To me what truly defines dark fantasy isn’t any specific plot element, window dressing of world building, or the inclusion of horrific elements (much as I dig this last), but the prevailing atmosphere and tone of the work. It’s a question of philosophy as much as it is of plot. In my opinion, dark fantasy sets itself apart from other speculative subgenres with moral ambiguity. Instead of heroes and villains playing out the ancient pageant of good vs. evil to obvious and inevitable result, dark fantasy aspires to take a more nuanced approach. Flawed characters struggle with their inner demons as much as any outer threats, violence has a genuine cost, and good does not always triumph in the end…if it even exists at all. The comfort we find in works of dark fantasy comes not from well-intentioned reassurances that everything will be okay, but from confronting the ugliness of reality head-on and knowing we’re not entirely alone in this uncertain existence.
Speaking of uncertainties, something I’ve been asked from time to time is whether I felt any trepidation writing about women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ characters. The answer is: of course—I never want to traffic in stereotypes or otherwise get things wrong. Yet even putting a great deal of thought and research into my writing, I’m still bound to screw up. Most people do. But the importance of trying to do the right thing far outweighs the risk of sometimes getting things wrong. Because representation matters so much, I’m going to keep writing the worlds I believe in, and keep listening to how I can do better.