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Today’s guest is fantasy author A.K. Larkwood! The Unspoken Name, her fantastic debut novel released earlier this year, primarily follows an orc woman serving the extraordinarily powerful (and power-hungry) mage who saved her from being sacrificed to a god. It has a wonderful narrative voice that captivated me immediately, world-hopping, a lovely f/f romance, and a highly entertaining dynamic between the main protagonist and one of the mage’s other servants—who often have to work together but hate having to work together!

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood Book Cover

So, why did you decide to write a non-human protagonist? Why do you love monsters so much?

I’ve been asked these questions pretty often since The Unspoken Name was published. I have a range of flippant answers, including “hey, I just love weird stuff”. And that’s basically true — I’ve always had a bit of a fixation with whatever is monstrous, villainous, bizarre.

But I wanted to think about it more seriously. For me, the whole point of fantasy is to look at our reality from another angle. I’m interested in the idea that there could be a way of experiencing the world that is far from “human”, that it might be possible to make a fantasy world which moves beyond the idea of humanity as normative.

A lot of classic speculative literature contains humanity within a very specific closed field and whatever lies outside that margin is monstrous by definition — gross, ugly, villainous, abnormal. Queer people, people of colour, disabled and mentally ill people have been treated especially badly by the genre, because so much of what we are interested in in fantasy and science fiction is strangeness.

A few years ago I read a lot of short stories by Clark Ashton Smith. There is a lot to enjoy — vividly weird imagery and concepts — and a lot of the dreary background sexism and racism you’d expect from the era. What interested me was how many of the stories, including probably his best, ‘The City of the Singing Flame’, follow the same pattern: Rational Man (of course white, probably straight) discovers an irrational space, a pocket of bizarrity and horror hidden behind the normal world. He is repelled by it, but also seduced. He loses himself there for a while, then tries to leave, to reassert normality. But whatever he does, strangeness continues to call to him. It has entered into his soul.

In story after story you see this fascination with what is other than normative, manifesting as horror and repulsion — peering over the walls just to reinforce them. Openness to the strange, to outside influences, is shown to be corrosive to the self.

I am interested in the kind of science fiction and fantasy which offers an alternative approach, where charting and transgressing the boundaries of normality is a kind of liberation.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation explores a very similar narrative arc — the protagonist is a scientist who enters a Weird Place, and loses herself there — but with a delightful subversion of established values — what is humanity? What is inside and what is out? It’s a horror novel but the protagonist’s alienation and dissolution of self are also sources of profound joy and serenity.

To take another example, Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist is a very early fantasy novel, dealing with a town on the borders of Fairyland. The townspeople struggle desperately to prevent the incursion of subversive fairy influences into their tidy, orderly society, but ultimately there’s nothing they can do, and the book culminates with a joyous merging of the two worlds:

First of all came the sounds of wild sweet music, then the tramp of a myriad feet, and then, like hosts of leaves blown on the wind, the invading army came pouring into the town. The accounts of what took place read more like legends than history. It would seem that the trees broke into leaf and the masts of all the ships in the bay into blossom; that day and night the cocks crowed without ceasing; that violets and anemones sprang up through the snow in the streets, and that mothers embraced their dead sons, and maids their sweethearts drowned at sea.

When my wife and I got married a few years ago, this was one of our wedding readings. I like the idea that opening up to strangeness and accepting it into yourself might let you overcome death itself.

The genre continues to move on from the tiresome prejudices of the early 20th century. Our understanding of what it is to be human continues to expand, as it should — as a queer woman I’m glad to be considered a human being. And of course we continue to need books in which marginalised people are normal, in which our concerns are treated as universal. There is an embracing warmth in seeing your experience treated as central to what it is to be human.

But I’m still interested in those margins. I’m interested in what it feels like to inhabit strangeness, in what lies outside our understanding.

You may now read my book and wish my protagonist was more alien. Her culture, the Oshaaru, is one among many and not especially marginalised. Csorwe’s outsider status is down to her personal history more than her cultural background. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write a fantasy world where humans were not the baseline, because I’m bored of seeing baseline humanity meaning a very specific thing.

Also, tusks are cool.

A. K. Larkwood Photo
Photo Credit: Vicki Bailey, VHB Photography
A.K. LARKWOOD studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge, and now lives in Oxford with her wife and a cat. The Unspoken Name is her debut. You can find her online at www.aklarkwood.com and on Twitter as @AKLarkwood.