The route I took to finally writing a fantasy book was a long one with a lot of false starts and dead ends. And my influences were erratic ranging from Stephen King mini-series to R.A. Salvatore’s AD&D-based books to Dragon Ball Z to Star Trek. The Bard’s Tale: Castle of Deception by Mercedes Lackey and the late Josepha Sherman might have been one of my first major influences.
This book came out sometime in 1992. I was in 6th grade at the time, attending an Independent Baptist Christian School and Church. My English teacher was a fresh face at the small school, coming to teach there straight from college (I believe… I could research this to be sure, but there’s too many bad memories for me to bother.) Regardless of the details about the woman, she was very encouraging of my early writing. Part of a requirement for her class was to keep a journal. In this journal we could write whatever we wanted, so long as we hit the required numbers of pages/entries by the end of the grading period.
I had kind of already come to the conclusion I wanted to be a writer by 6th grade, so I dove into this journal writing project. I named my 3-subject Mead book, “It,” after Stephen King’s mini-series of the same name (which I rented on VHS as a kid and it scared the sh*t out of me), and began “writing” this epic plot about my friends and I developing superpowers and protecting the world/existence from eldritch horrors. I didn’t even know that word, eldritch, back then and hadn’t even heard of Lovecraft. But I knew King wrote scary stuff, so I modeled my bad guys off of how he did bad guys. They were unknowable powerful, unbound by reality, and utterly alien. In my stories, I had telekinesis, because I thought the girl in Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood was a total badass. She used her power to stand up to Jason Voorhees and won!
Still, I still have that little journal from that class and flip through it from time to time. There are actually some nightmarish ideas in some of those entries, even though they were beyond my ability to articulate them at the time.
Anyway, I was absorbed by own little fantasy world (too absorbed) and had just gotten into comic books. I was an avid reader, but outside of comic books, what I read usually fell somewhere on the list of whatever list of books were being recommended to children at the time. I never struggled to read those kinds of books growing up until I got to my first honors English class in high school and had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Even through my college and professional experiences, I’ve never encountered a dryer, more boring text that for some mind-boggling reason is considered a classic. But 6th grade English was my first real chance to expand my reading horizons. We were assigned to write a book report on just about any book we wanted, so long as the teacher approved it.
My mother took me to the nearby bookstore, Little Professor’s, to pick out a book. Normally, we would have just gone to the library, but she regularly brought me and my friends to the little bookstore that was next door to where a K&B had gone out of business. You have to understand, this was in a time before the big bookstores existed (where I lived?). We had no Books-a-Million, Borders, or Barnes and Noble back then. And certainly no Amazon. There were locally-owned stores and little chains. That was it.
While shopping for my book for my report, I knew I wanted something different than Where the Red Fern Grows by the late Wilson Rawls and other such books. The saleswoman was suggesting books to my mother while I examined the newer, fantasy books and tried to make some sense of the names. You’d think I’d have gone straight for a Stephen King book, but I knew, either implicitly or explicitly, that the school and church wouldn’t approve of my reading a Stephen King book. This was the same institution that would later host a public burning of all sinful things, including vinyl records, books, dirty magazines, etc. So, I was looking for a book that catered to this new interest in writing fantastic things I had developed, while at the same time could fly under the radar at the school.
I spotted a book that was on one of the aisle end caps, thought the cover was interesting, didn’t really understand some of the terms on the back, but convinced my mother it would be okay for me to write my book report on this book. She had concerns, however, that my teacher (the school and church) wouldn’t let me read this one for my report because of how one of the women on the cover was dressed. The book in question was, Castle of Deception. And here’s my copy of it:
And now, you can see the scantly-clad woman that my mother was so concerned would get my book rejected by the teacher. It took some back and forth between my mother and my teacher to get approval, but in the end I got it. I still remember taking the book to school for my report and getting dirty looks when people saw the cover. The kids back then were hard-wired to revel in exposing any perceived breach of Christian character, and I was half-concerned having the book would get me into trouble. The other half wanted the confrontation.
So, now that I went through all the trouble of getting to read the book I wanted, I actually had to read it. And wow, the first 30 or so pages were awfully boring. Again, this was back in like 1993. There was no Internet. What I knew of fantasy came from cheezy movies, Nintendo games, the occasional odd cartoon (Voltron, Transformers, TMNT, etc.), and X-Men comics. Hell, I hadn’t even (knowingly) watched anime, yet. I picked this book out almost entirely because the cover looked cooler than the other covers I could see on the shelves.
There were also no readers in my life, either. The adults I knew read the newspaper, magazines, and the Bible. That was it. I had never heard of the Lord of the Rings and didn’t know anyone at the time that had read it. That was likely because most of the people I knew belonged to the same community where such a work would have been considered Satanic.
So, from the title of the book, you will notice the word, “Bard,” but I didn’t know what a bard was. The briefest exposure I had to one was Edward from the first RPG video game I ever played, the American Final Fantasy II. So, I’m reading this book, as a kid, about this apprentice musician that’s struggling to master an instrument I’ve never seen or heard before, doesn’t really know how to fight, and can’t really do any cool magic stuff. Eventually, he meets up with some elves (whatever the hell those were…) and they set out on a quest. I remember thinking I went through all of that trouble just to pick a really boring book. Fortunately, the story picked up and I was elated.
I haven’t read the book since 1993. I can’t recall any of the details or character names and places. What stuck with me, other than the boring intro, was how the action rose to a climax and completed with the kind of spectacle I had never experienced before in a written work. By today’s standard, it would be a paint by numbers kind of climax. Like, oh really, the bard finally learns how to use bard magic at the end and saves the day, I didn’t see that coming.
Well, I didn’t see it coming. How could I have with my limited experience? And it was friggin’ awesome!
The books I had been reading never did this, could never do this. Most of them were mostly grounded in reality where people are what they are and are rarely able to unlock some hidden potential/gain some powerful insight/power and lay the smack down on a BBEG. I had only seen this done in the movies, not in stuff I had been reading (not even the X-Men comics if I’m being honest). And as I write and plot books today, I remember that feeling, hold onto it, and try to build my story in a way that the action and the drama build to something and that there’s a payoff. I often tell other writers that your only agenda should be the story and not to try to make your readers feel a particular emotion. And in a sense, I’m guilty of doing just that because I want my reader to feel something as the story progresses. The stakes should build, not just because the narrator or some character says so, but because the reader gradually cares more and more about what’s happening.
Castle of Deception made me care in a way I hadn’t really cared before when reading a book. It wasn’t like the memento mori-type of pathos usually inflicted on children readers with people and animals dying tragically over and over. I was excited by the story, not rendered sullen about it.
I completed the book and my report. I got an A on it, despite how relatively complex the plot and character arcs were compared to the other books my classmates were reading. Most YA books back in the day have one character arc, if that, for the insert-self juvenile protagonist. In my book, the supporting cast had their own arcs, too.
Looking back at this dusty little book with mediocre reviews on Amazon, I can’t help but to smirk. I had no idea who Mercedes Lackey was when I read this book. And only in the last couple of years did I take it off the shelf and notice the name. To be honest, I haven’t read much, if any, or her work beyond the Secret World series I listened to on Audible and enjoyed. I also didn’t know the book was based off of a computer game (my family would not purchase our first computer for a few more years). And to my chagrin, I didn’t know that one of the worst companies in America (certainly the most directly destructive toward digital art), EA, had a hand in producing this book. I’ve sworn off purchasing EA games since the Mass Effect 3 debacle. Real sore feeling there, but I’m willing to give the devil its due for just this book.
Despite how much I loved the book, I didn’t take to writing fantasy stories about elves, dwarves, swords, and wizard. Anytime I tried, I either stepped right into the usual traps that turn good fantastical ideas into boring garbage (the kind they didn’t teach in school) or the people I asked to read it were well outside their depth and genre. So, I kept adapting and revisiting the silly stories in my journal, eventually believing I could turn them into something considered literary and not commercial. But I did keep reading fantasy with the odd Star Trek or X-Men book among the lists and lists of approved YA literature.
I ordered the second book in the series off of Amazon, Fortress of Frost and Fire, a little while ago. This time it’s Mercedes Lackey and Ru Emerson collaborating on it. I’m paying far more in shipping than for the actual cost of the book and I’m not sure I’ll even read it. I just want it as a reminder that I went forward; that it took decades, but I made it to the next part.
Reminding myself of that will be good motivation to get down to some serious work on my next book, I hope.
And just to be clear, I actually like Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s really the only other book from that time that stuck with me, so it’s also the only one I can remember by title and author.