Jessica Rydill is a British fantasy author who came to my attention via Kboards over the last few months. After talking with her and learning about her Shamanworld series, I was impressed with the amount of thought and depth that went into creating her alternate-Earth history, where an Ice Age has radically changed the socio-political developments of a parallel Europe circa the 1800s. A technologically advanced society uneasily rests besides medieval tribes, and magic-wielding shamans wander the land, while certain people live under the whims of the Goddesses.
Originally published by Orbit in the UK in 2001 and Penguin Putnam in the US, Children of the Shaman has since been revised and reformatted for release as an eBook by Rydill. Its follow-up, The Glass Mountain, was published by Orbit in the UK in 2002, and Jessica is currently readying it for re-release soon. The third novel, Malarat, is available now.
Here’s Jessica to discuss her work and its evolution:
Many thanks to Michael Hicks for inviting me to do a guest post on his blog. I write fantasy fiction, though my imaginary world started out as a post-apocalyptic version of the real one. But it didn’t stay that way.
I have written three books so far, starting with Children of the Shaman; the other two are The Glass Mountain* and Malarat. I am also working on a fourth book, called Winterbloom. They follow each other in sequence, and deal with the members of the same family: Annat Vasilyevich, her older brother Malchik, their father, Yuda, and their aunt, Yuste. Some of them are shamans; I discuss what that means below!
When I was working on the back-story to my first book, Children of the Shaman, I imagined it taking place after a nuclear holocaust, in which a small minority of humans had developed super powers. John Wyndham’s novel The Chrysalids influenced me, and also news reports claiming that the Russian secret service was experimenting with psychic forces. This formed the kernel of an idea.
I moved away from a future set in this world to create an imaginary one: Mir. The name comes from the Russian word for the Earth. I abandoned the post-nuclear scenario and chose to invent a mini-Ice Age, like the one that occurred in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.
The Ice Age on Mir, which lasts from the end of their 15th century to the start of the 19th, is known as the Great Cold. It has several consequences for their history (and geography!). Parts of Europe – Yevropa – get stuck in the Middle Ages. The countries based on China and India become technologically advanced. There isn’t really a British Empire, and the New World (both North and South America) develops differently.
When the Great Cold ends in the early 1800s, a series of mass migrations begins. Large populations leave Northern Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia, and head south. By the time of the story, which is set in the 1850s, many have settled along the shores of the Mediterranean (or Middle Sea).
My stories are set in Lefranu, which is based on France. The north has been cut off from the south during the Great Cold. This means that the northern half of Lefranu is still medieval. They have lost contact with the outside world, and continued to live as they did in the Middle Ages. They are not even aware that things have changed.
In the south, a city-state called Masalyar (Marseille) stands on the shores of the Middle Sea. It’s very cosmopolitan, and there are large numbers of migrants from Sklava (Russia) and Morea (Africa). Most of these immigrants work on the railway – the city has acquired steam-powered technology. When they start to build a railway north, they discover the interior that has been cut off from the outside world for centuries. And they start meeting the original inhabitants, the Franj. Some are friendly and some are hostile; that’s the setting for my stories.
Michael asked me about the religion (or spirituality) in the stories. The main characters are ‘shamans’ which means that they possess psychic powers. They use a form of telepathy that they call ‘sprechen’ to communicate with each other; they heal wounds and cure some illnesses; and they can travel into other dimensions – spirit worlds, underworlds, and other planes. Some of them also use their powers to fight.
There is a mystical side to the shamans. They can and do have spirit animals, though the ones who live in cities don’t know what they are. They have a definite afterlife. When ordinary humans, the Teshvet, die, nobody knows what happens to them. But dead shamans continue traveling through the underworld after death; occasionally they return.
Lefranu has two principal established religions, Doxa and Ya-udi. Doxa is based on Christianity; it’s a blend of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but the Virgin Mary’s counterpart, Megalmayar, is a God. Though the religion is matriarchal, the hierarchy is staffed by men.
The Wanderers or Ya-udi are like the Jews. They were cursed by Megalmayar to wander the earth, in exile from their homeland, Zyon. So they live in a kind of diaspora and are persecuted by the Doxoi to varying degrees. Their God is called the One, and they don’t refer to him by name. Like Judaism, it is a patriarchal religion; the words and the letters of their sacred language, Ebreu, are important (and magical).
And then there are the Goddesses. The other deities, like the One or Megalmayar, are unseen; they don’t appear in person. But the characters meet the Goddesses (or one Goddess with two aspects). This creates a problem for them. Some of them are Doxoi and some are Wanderers, but there is no doubt that the Goddesses are real. And not only are they real, but they draw the main characters into their myth. They don’t ask permission; they mug the characters and leave them to deal with the consequences.
The idea of the Goddesses was inspired by the myth that Mary Magdalen sailed to France in a boat without sails, accompanied by two sisters of the Virgin called Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe, and their servant Sara. The number of women all named Mary immediately suggested a Goddess cult. This seems to be a popular idea, and there are books that suggest that the Virgin Mary was a Temple Virgin, or that Mary Magdalen was a hierodule (or holy prostitute): cf. Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess by Lynn Picknett.
I was interested in the idea of syncretisation, in which one religion is used to hide another, as with religions such as Santeria or Vodou. It seems possible that the story of so many Marys landing in France might have been invented when the country converted to Christianity, and Christian saints replaced local goddesses. It’s an interesting thought!
In my story, the Goddesses (or aspects of one Goddess) are known as Artemyas and Nyssa. She is dual – she has a dark and a light side; but it’s important to note that dark isn’t purely evil and light isn’t purely good. She (or they) are ambivalent. I can’t say much more without a spoiler alert! But writers often treat of goddess religions as if they are wholly benign. In this case, they do have negative aspects.
This tells you a lot about the back story – or background – to my novels. I’m not sure whether they are High Fantasy ‘defined either by its setting in an imaginary world or by the epic stature of its characters, themes and plot’ to quote Wikipedia, or Low Fantasy ‘nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.’ (Brian Stableford (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-8108-6829-8)
I think probably the latter, because Wikipedia goes on to say: ‘Low fantasy stories are set either in the real world or a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories which take place in a completely fictional fantasy world setting with its own set of rules and physical laws.’
But it’s hard to be sure!
*[The Glass Mountain hasn’t been published yet; it was part of my back-list and had to be scanned and revised.]
Jessica Rydill writes fantasy and collects Asian Ball Jointed Dolls. This makes her living room an unnerving place to visit. Many of the dolls are based on characters from her books. The bad guys stay locked in the cabinet.
Jessica wishes she could write like Russell Hoban. In the mean time, she has got a cross-over going on between medieval fantasy with warlords, and steampunk adventure with lightning-wielding shamans.
Plus Golems, Dybbuks, Kabbalistic demons, and other nasty surprises from Jewish folklore.
Learn more about Jessica Rydill’s Shamansland books at http://www.shamansland.com/index.html