What’s It About?

It must be the most inevitable question in the world, if you’re an author. As soon as you’ve either written or published a book, as sure as night follows day someone will ask: ‘What’s it about?’

If what you’ve written is, for example, a love story or a crime thriller, a war yarn or a historical novel, a children’s book or something in the science fiction line, the answer must be comparatively easy. But what on earth are you supposed to say if you’ve written The North Beyond? How can you summarise 1400 pages in one snappy sentence?

Well, I don’t think you can. I found out very quickly that as soon as the words ‘very long’ and ‘fantasy’ are mentioned, the next question is inevitably: ‘Is it like The Lord of the Rings?’ (Answer: no, not at all – but an interesting point that could easily come up again later in this blog!) And in any case, I’ve always felt uneasy about using the term ‘fantasy’ to describe The North Beyond. I mean, no dungeons or dragons, no aliens, no werewolves or vampires, no dark lords, no spells… I wish there was another descriptive term to use. As one reader posted on Amazon, ‘A fantasy without wizards!’

However this reader’s review went on to add that the book ‘…contains all the ingredients of the genre: opposing ideals, good and evil, darkness and light, of course a quest and a whole lot more.’ This is true enough, although all these, except possibly the quest, can be found every day, all around us, in the present-day world. To me, as the author, there are really only two aspects of the book that move the story into the category of fantasy. One is the implied existence of a secondary dimension with beings to inhabit it; the other is the unspecified era in which the narrative unfolds. The important point however is that the characters of the story have to make up their own minds about the first aspect and the reader is left free to speculate about both.

The narrative itself covers some half-century of events in three imaginary countries and moves through peace, war, struggle, sorrow and mystery. It tells of love in many forms, of tragedy, the horror of battle, the comfort of family and friends; and it takes us on a desperate, vital quest. As my Amazon reviewer was kind enough to say: ‘This is a wonderful story…(and it) is also very thought-provoking.’

I’m particularly glad about that ‘thought-provoking’ comment because there are three main themes that run through The North Beyond and they are these. Why do we humans not learn from our mistakes? Why do we yearn for love, light, beauty and peace but continue to indulge in hate and destruction? Why do we pursue short-term, selfish gains in the full knowledge that the long-term consequences could be disastrous?

And there’s an underlying question too. Why do we seem to have an inborn need for a meaning in life beyond the mundane? It took me well over a thousand pages, but Shelley managed to express this in four short lines of poetry:

‘The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the realm of our sorrow.’

And at its heart The North Beyond is a paean to this earth: hailed by Arval ‘…as somehow a living thing, breathing and moving only slowly maybe, but full of a secret life and hidden wisdom of its own, gathered and garnered, age upon age.’ This earth: our home, so beautiful, so bountiful, and so sadly betrayed by its wilfully destructive children.