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  1. BOOK REVIEW: A Gift From Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside by Marjorie Price Kate Forsyth 15-Dec-2017
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  3. BOOK REVIEW: Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout Kate Forsyth 09-Dec-2017

WORK IN PROGRESS

A fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults set in the late 18 th century, moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution, and inspired by the true story of a quest for a blood-red rose.

The novel will draw upon ‘The Blue Rose,’ a fairy tale set in China about a quest for an impossible rose.

The Power of Three – Fantasy Fiction and the Ubiquitous Trilogy

I spent my Easter this year as a guest at Swancon, Australia's longest running and liveliest celebration of all things fan-tastic (multi-layered pun intended). One of the most popular panels at Swancon was titled 'How to Create the Chunky Fantasy Trilogy'. Naturally, being the writer of extremely chunky fantasy books, I was asked to speak on the subject. This being despite the fact that six of my seven fantasy novels are in fact a sextet, a pleasurably sensual way of saying a series of six, and the other is a stand-alone.

The fact is, there is something about fantasy fiction and trilogies that seem to fit together in people's minds, rather like swords and sorcerers. Tolkien is to blame, of course. Or rather, his publishers Allen & Unwin, who had to exert considerable pressure on the cranky old professor to persuade him that his manuscript – which took more than twelve years to write – was simply too long and unwieldy to publish as a single volume.

Ever since The Lord of the Rings was famously published in tripartite form in 1954-55, there has been this association between the fantasy genre and trilogies. It is, in the main, erroneous.

Trilogies have been around since the time of ancient Greece, when a set of three connected tragedies were performed as a group at the festival of Dionysus in Athens. Only one such tragic triad has actually survived – Aeschylus' Oresteia plays - but the trilogy has been a favourite narrative structure for dramatists, librettists, poets and novelists ever since. There is something about the number three – it stands for the pattern of life: the past, the present, the future; birth, life, death; the Triple Goddess; the Holy Trinity; problem, crisis, resolution ...

And there is no doubt that fantasy trilogies proliferated in the wake of the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings. There is Terry Brooks' Shannara sequences; there is the strange and wholly original Titus Groan trilogy by Mervyn Peake; there is Stephen R Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever; and there is Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry, to name just a few.

These are all the novels I read as a teenager, and so it is probably not surprising that when I realised I wanted to write fantasy, I decided rather cheekily that it had to be in the form of a trilogy. I subsequently signed a three book deal with Random House Australia on the back of the synopses of three novels and the unfinished manuscript of the first in the series, Dragonclaw. By the time I finished Dragonclaw's first draft, it had already become clear to me that I would need more than three books to tell the story I had envisioned. Eventually the proposed trilogy became a series of six books, all closely linked and all but one ending on the sort of cliffhanger that would, hopefully, send my dear reader dashing out to the nearest bookshop to demand the next book in the series.

Cliffhanger endings are, nowadays, peculiar to fantasy fiction. Although many authors have written books in series, each book in the series tends to end with a strong sense of resolution to any crises or conundrums raised in the text. In other words, they have closure.

In the past ten years or so, we have seen a series of spectacularly successful fantasy series that wind on for book after book. In the case of some authors, such as the indefatigable Robert Jordan, it seems as if these series will never end, that the battles and challenges and romances will never reach a moment of apotheosis, that we will never be able to close the last book with that unmistakable sigh of satisfaction.

These are not series like Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, which are all individual, stand-alone novels that happen to be set in the same world. These are linked chains of books which properly should be called one book, for it is only when they are fitted together and read as a cohesive whole that the total vision of the writer can be judged, and the entire story understood.

All of the best known, top-selling fantasy authors of the day write these long, interconnected series – writers like David Eddings, Tad Williams, Katharine Kerr, Robin Hobb, and George Martin. In Australia, the bestselling authors Sara Douglass and Cecilia Dart-Thornton both write epic fantasy series, not to mention little ole me (very little in comparison to the aforementioned.) In fact, I have heard Sara Douglass say that she will never write a stand-alone novel again – although the sales of her individual novels would make most Australian writers green about the gills, they are paltry in comparison to the sales of her series.

A novel in one of these epic fantasies often break at a moment of high drama, so that the reader is left hungry and even frustrated. They usually involve world-building of incredible depth and complexity, political machinations that would leave Machiavelli bewildered, a cast of thousands, and a plot that unravels at a pace that leaves the reader breathless and exhilarated. I have never been able to understand the widely held misconception that fantasy is fairy-floss for the mind. It is fiction that, at its worst, challenges your memory and stimulates your imagination, and at its very best, stretches your mind to its very limits and beyond. And there is no doubt epic fantasy series involve a great commitment of time (few books published nowadays run to so many words) and a great commitment of money (buy one, you've gotta buy them all!) Which is, of course, why publishers love them.

Writing epic fantasy does have its challenges, however. There is a fine balance between awakening an urgent hunger for the next book in the series and exhausting the reader's patience. Given so much room, the pace of the novel can sag. Switching about between too many points of view can dissipate the connection between protagonist and reader. And, despite so many of the writers of the past century experimenting with metafictive narrative forms, many readers crave a sense of closure. They want the resolution of crises, the tying up of threads, the sense of ultimate order that is so often missing in the chaos of real life.

So what I tried to do is bring each book to a natural close, a fundamental resolution of part of the story, while still keeping my readers eager to read on and find out what happens next. Suspense is of course any writer's greatest tool. Arousing an intense curiosity in the reader's mind and then delaying the satisfaction of that curiosity is how writers encourage their reader to keep turning the pages. The shock of an unexpected development is another device I'm particularly fond of, especially right at the very end of the book.

Apart from the obvious advantages as a marketing tool, epic fantasy series allows a writer an unparalleled opportunity to delve into humanity's collective unconscious, to write a story with the resonance of myth, the power of metaphor, the transcendental power of the magical. Of all literary genres, fantasy is the one which can grapple with the great existential questions of life without a feeling of embarrassment. Robert Hughes has called irony the condom of our culture. The desire to be cool, detached and ironic has done more to stall our intellectual growth than any secret longing for escape, consolation and recovery.

What I found, when writing my Witches of Eileanan series, is that my desire to wrestle with the questions of fate and self-will, good and evil, demanded a vast landscape in which to roam. I wanted to show how the action of one person could have vast consequences, beyond what they possibly could have imagined. I wanted to show how history is made up of the myriad stories of people, all interweaving like the threads of a tapestry. I wanted my world to be vivid and alive, to feel and smell and taste real, all the better for enchanting you.

And, to be totally truthful, I fell so much in love with my characters that I wanted to tell their whole story. I wanted the people that strode about and fought and made love in my imagination to stride about and fight and love and hate and yearn in yours. So my trilogy became six books, and will probably become more in time, so real is the world of Eileanan in my imagination. And not just in mine. I receive hundreds of e-mails begging me for more, and the chat-room on my website is filled with people arguing over the finer nuances of character and plot and speculating on the ultimate fate of all those they hate to love, or love to hate. If Eileanan has become so real to so many people, I have to wonder about the worlds of Deverry or the Kingdoms of the Alorns and the Angaraks (if you don't recognise these worlds, you're out of step with the times, honey!)

The success of epic fantasy, with its focus on narrative drive, suspense and surprise, is actually more reminiscent of the writings of Dickens and Thackeray, who published their novels in the form of magazine serials and were adept at ending their work at an exclamation point of astonishment. The main difference, of course, is that the readers of Dickens only had to wait a few weeks while readers of epic fantasies have at least a year between novels. It's cruel, I know. I often have to apologise.

Perhaps this is why my latest novel, The Starthorn Tree, is a stand-alone novel. I have a limited cast of characters (six instead of sixty-ish); I have a tight focus, with very few changes in viewpoint, and a strong narrative drive. The architecture of the novel stands strongly on its own, and joyfully, I have closure. Not a single thread untied. The whole pattern and pace of the book changes as a result – instead of building towards a point of drama and suspense, I get to see (most of) my characters happily settled, their destinies fulfilled. However, I don't seem to be able to help myself. Within the framework of the novel, I have a prophecy that sows the seeds for a sequel or two. Yes, it looks like it's going to be a trilogy.