I read a lot. Obviously. All writers should read as much and as often as possible. I enjoy most books and then walk away, happy that such stories are in the world. Some books – the terrible ones that I read when I have no energy for brainwork – make me feel better about my own chances of success on the basis that, if this author can get work published then I can. A few make me despair over the abuse that people will subject innocent words and paper to. And then, very rarely, there are the diamond books. The lightbulbs that illuminate my mind, chain me down until the last page is turned and then send me running for the keyboard, knowing I can’t compete with them but wanting to try anyway.
I’ve just finished reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kaye. Mr. Knighton has covered this book in several blog posts and I’m not going to repeat his critical analysis here. Instead, I’m going to tell you why it was important to me, and what it means for my own work.
Religion and what it makes people do has always fascinated me. I studied Theology at A-Level, despite being an atheist. Throughout history religion has been behind many of the most momentous actions, leading people to extremes of cruelty and grace, creativity and bloodshed. It fuels our stories and mythologies, music, art, technological development and politics. And, to me, it makes no sense. To quote the wonderfully irreverent film Dogma,
To me it says that following these faiths based on mythological figures ensures the destruction of one’s inner being. Organized religion destroys who we are by inhibiting our actions, by inhibiting our decisions out of fear of some intangible parent figure who shakes a finger at us from thousands of years ago and says, “Do it… do it and I’ll fuckin’ spank you.”
At the same time, before anyone gets up in arms, I have always been quietly and respectfully jealous of those who do have faith. There is something in people that needs to believe and I’ve often felt that those who are able to meet that need, to place such trust in something utterly abstract, are happier for it. It’s a thing I wish I could do and yet don’t understand how it can be done. Hence my fascination.
Corpus is, to some poor extent, an exploration of this. It looks at what faith and religion do to people, the differences between the two, and where it can lead. To explore such themes in the real world is usually highly charged – to do so in a fantasy setting with a made-up religion allows people to be less emotional about it. In my opinion this is one of the strengths of the fantasy genre. The Lions of Al-Rassan is about the growing tension between the faiths of the Kindath, the Asharite and the Jaddite. Or, as Gavriel Kaye makes minimal attempt to disguise, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Unlike most fantasy stories, there’s absolutely no indication of whether the faiths are founded in fact. There are no Greek-myth-type gods moving behind the scenes, vindicating the belief of their followers. This is politics and fanaticism, pure and simple. It is human will, not divine, which moves the pieces and it’s wonderfully written.
In Corpus, the protagonist is a believer who is confronted with the fact that her faith is based on a number of lies. She has to work through the ramifications of that, both for her own understanding of herself and for the way society has developed as a result of those lies, and what it might mean if they were exposed. She has to choose, first between faith and religion, and then between faith and social responsibility. But I forgot something crucial, because it is something I lack. The understanding that faith drives people to move mountains, and other illogical things. I have written the trappings of religion – the temples, the music, the liturgy – but I haven’t written the heart. Thanks to Al-Rassan, I have some newly illuminated work to do.