It occurred me, as I have been working recently on my newest novel
project The Ghost King, that, for the first time in my writing career
I am writing something that mostly fits the generic specification known
as “fantasy.” My most notable previous foray into the genre, The
Shipwright and Other Stories, was set in a world I explicitly designed
to lack any system of magic. The most imaginatively fantastic of my
novels, Insomnium and Schrödinger’s City, are mostly science fiction.
Although they contain many elements that do not have explanations, neither do they
explicitly rule out our universe (or, rather, set of universes) entirely.
All my other novels—Voyage Embarkation,
Alterra, and The Other—fit pretty well within science fiction, albeit with
inflections of fantasy.
I’ve never been a fan of adhering to generic strictures in my writing. It
seems to me that the primary function of genre adherence is to prevent
readers from having to think too much, an effect I am decidedly
uninterested in. All of my novels, to varying degrees, blend science
fiction and fantasy. All of them, so far, have been science fiction
tinged with fantasy. For the first time, I am reversing that. The Ghost
King will be fantasy tinged with science fiction.
The Ghost King most definitely has a magic system. On a world called Ilssmé,
humans are able to channel an omnipresent energy called mahj into
kinetic force, heat, even the creation of material forms (although they
cannot generate new life this way; creating a rabbit, for example,
results only in a dead animal carcass). The cost of using mahj is
the degradation of both mental aptitude and emotional well being. If a
person uses mahj too vigorously, first their cognitive skills suffer
and they grow emotionally intense, then they become cognitively
impaired and emotionally unhinged, and eventually, they would lose all cognitive abilities and become a
vegetable. Most sufferers of mahjcraft addiction get pulled back by
friends and family before they get that far, but perhaps not all
exercises in mahjcraft will remain entirely voluntary for the novel’s
The reason I did not include a system of magic in The Shipwright and
Other Stories was because I wanted to maximize the creative potential of
minimal fantastic elements (in that case, the presence of three moons
instead of one), rather than piling up the fantastic elements into a
complex world. The reason that I have included magic in Ilssmé is that
mahj is the single fantastic element I am using for my central metaphor.
The Ghost King is perhaps my most ambitious novel project yet. With
Voyage and Insomnium, I let myself sprawl, exploring all the complexity
of those novels’ worlds—but at the cost of a sprawling word count, as
well. In Alterra, Schrödinger’s City, The Other, and Intersection
Thirteen, I practiced concision, keeping word count low and forcing
myself to show only what was necessary and no more for my tightly focused
theme. With The Ghost King, I’m trying something new. This novel will
be longer, but that is because it is structured as five stories, all
set on Ilssmé, about a century between each setting, and a frame
story interwoven between them, which will tie the whole thing together
thematically. Each individual story must be tight and focused and
contribute to the larger story as efficiently as possible.
Of course, any foray into the unknown contains risk and tends to push
outcomes toward the extremes. I will end up either with something quite
compelling, or with my biggest mess to date. Here’s to hoping I can hold
The Ghost King together.