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  • Karen Frost

Themes in "The Darkness Rising"

One of the things I love about fantasy as a genre is that it offers the opportunity to embed lots of themes. The overall plot can be as seemingly simple as a good mage fighting a bad mage, but within that there's the opportunity for the writer to subtly insert commentary on half a dozen issues, offering ideas that are woven almost seamlessly into the narrative. In "Conspiracy of the Dark," the themes I focused on were identity, war, bias, morality, and grief/loss. Here are the major themes that I tried to put into "The Darkness Rising":

-- Class: There is a tendency in all forms of storytelling to focus on the "haves" in society. Everyone knows Disney stories are 95% about princesses and prices, but what is that but a reflection of the focus of the tales that have been passed down through generations? The first known epic poem, Gilgamesh, is about the King of Sumeria. Theseus was the prince of Athens. From King Arthur and his knights we eventually make our way to the likes of Jay Gatsby and Holden Caulfield, the American elite class. In movies (although not TV), too, we tend follow the point of view of the ultra rich or at least the upper middle class. By the tales we tell, we inadvertently convey to society that the only people who matter, the only ones whose tales are worth telling, are the rich. Although modern literature has made a point of trying to move away from these privileged points of view and provide a more inclusive, representational form of storytelling, now the setting for the stories told are often at the intersection of the haves and the have nots (maids in the homes of the upper class, for example).

When I wrote Aeryn to be the protagonist of the "Destiny and Darkness" series, I wanted to get away from that type of storytelling. Aeryn's story is not a story of privilege. She's not a princess, or a noble, or anyone even remotely from the upper class. She's illiterate and comes from a village of hunters and trappers at the corner of the kingdom farthest away from the capital, the kingdom's cultural center. Nor did I want Aeryn's story to intersect with the lives of those privileged upper classes and through that back door, tell the story of the rich. Aeryn was meant to represent the people about whom epic tales are normally not told, a commoner who did uncommon things.

Since I'm very interested in socioeconomic/class relations in general, I used the book as an opportunity to say a few other things about class, as well. For example, we see the blinding nature of privilege. Lyse, who comes from the lesser nobility, forgets that not everyone can read and therefore makes the assumption that if Aeryn sends her family a letter, they will be able to read it. Lyse has never experienced hardship or poverty, and therefore is less able to understand the experiences of people who come from those backgrounds. And, of course, I made a very unsubtle reference to the privileging of wealth in society. The city guard is uninterested in investigating missing poor people. The guard members assume these members of the lower class have absconded to escape debts or been murdered while engaging in questionable activities. But they will investigate a missing noble because they assume that neither of these two factors are at play. They're much more willing to believe foul play was involved.

-- Morality: As in "Conspiracy," morality comes into play here. To Aeryn, it's deeply immoral to kidnap someone and lie to them to cover up that act. However, given she is not the first person to whom this has happened, clearly there are other enablers (the King's Regiment, etc.) in the kingdom comfortable enough with it not to raise a protest. In the course of the book, Aeryn must establish the parameters of her own morality. For example, if the kingdom that kidnapped her is under threat, does she have a moral obligation to the kingdom's citizens to help defend it because she has war magic, or does the immorality of the government of that kingdom absolve her of that obligation? At the end of the book, we find the morally ambiguous Gamiel again. Is it immoral to kill a prisoner, or is it justice? As a writer, "morality" is an interesting subject because it's not absolute. It's an ambiguous, sliding scale unique to the eye of the beholder. In book three, we'll see the idea of "morality" interchanged to some extent with the word "duty."

-- Decisions and their Consequences: One of my favorite themes in this book is the idea of decisions and their consequences. Several of the characters face major inflection points. Stop the Dark Magic or join the Dark Mages. Fight to save the kingdom or stay at home/flee. Return to the land of the living or stay dead. As readers, we place value judgements on those decisions. We project our own sense of morality onto them and judge what decisions were "right" or "wrong." In "The Darkness Rising," I tried to show that each character had a reason why they made the decisions they did. In their own minds, there was a weighing of pros and cons and a logical decisionmaking process. What the reader implicitly sees as "wrong," the character sees as a decision between two choices. By making that decision, they implicitly accepted the consequences. Put another way, if you choose to side with the bad guys, you accept the consequences when the good guys show up.

-- Teamwork vs. the Individual: One of the problems with Western myths/legends is that they set up the "superempowered individual" as the ideal. Perseus. Achilles. Odysseus. Superman. Batman. Time and again, we see in our storytelling a lone protagonist singlehandedly vanquishing all foes. It may be fun to watch on a screen, but for teenagers, this is an unrealistic archetype. First of all, our protagonists shouldn't be totally flawless, because no one is. Being flawed isn't the same as being weak. In Aeryn's case, she can't shield. And while she's a moderately powerful war mage--definitely stronger than Faegan--she's nowhere close to being a Great Mage. The intention was that Aeryn shouldn't be some invincible, all-powerful diamond in the rough with the power to save worlds. She's a teenage girl trying to do her best under less than ideal circumstances. This doesn't make her a weak character, it makes her more relatable.

Second of all, I wanted to have Aeryn rely on teamwork than go at things alone. This is an important message for teenagers. It's okay to need help. One person is unlikely to be able to overcome all odds and save the day, but a team of people working together toward the same goal might be able to. Strength in numbers. This is what J.K. Rowling was getting at with Harry, Ron and Hermione, too, by the way. Harry Potter might have been "the boy who lived," but without his friends, he wouldn't have made it past book one. So, too, Aeryn couldn't have solved the mystery of the kidnappings without the help of others, nor defeat the Dark mages without help.

-- Bravery: What is bravery and who's "brave"? This is a question that gets taken up more in book three than in "The Darkness Rising," but in this book we see that some people are naturally brave and don't hesitate to run toward danger (Cayleth and Pavo, to name just two) and some aren't. Although this theme doesn't necessarily appear until the end (although Aeryn wonders what sort of person runs into a burning building), it's something for readers to perhaps think about on their own. Aeryn and her friends go through the Gate to the castle knowing they might die, but they do it anyway. Many of us would like to believe that in today's environment of mass shootings, should shots ring out, we'd immediately tackle the shooter, but the truth is it's an incredibly tiny percent of the population that would do that. Does that make us less brave? Or does that mean our bravery manifests in different circumstances?

-- True love: I love the romantic ideal of "soulmates" (or as they're called for TV couples, One True Pair (OTP)). For many people, it's such an overdone trope that it's now passe, but as a romantic, I still love the idea of two people who are destined by some higher power/unseen force to be together. Yin and yang. Two peas in a pod. It was important for me to establish the soulmate idea for Aeryn and Lyse because, plainly put, why should heterosexual couples have a monopoly on literary soulmates? We often see "soulmates" in pop culture (Buffy and Angel, Bella and Edward, etc.), and I wanted the queer female community to feel that they were able to stake some claim to that particular trope, too, and not be excluded by it.

This post is already long so I won't delve further into themes, but other themes readers may find in this book were fanaticism as a destructive force, family: found vs. real, and war weariness.

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