Elizabeth Bear is the co-author, along with Sarah Monette, of the Iskryne series: a fantasy saga set in a frozen land where humanity is beset on all sides by trolls and other horrors. Standing between the people and annihilation are the wolfcarls: powerful individuals who are telepathically bonded with enormous, highly intelligent wolves. The third and most recent book in the series, An Apprentice to Elves, is available now.
In the following interview, Bear and I discuss Tolkien, mythology, Anne McCaffrey, and much more.
UNBOUND WORLDS: Elizabeth, it’s a pleasure to have an opportunity to talk with you. You and Sarah Monette wrote one of my favorite short stories, “Boojum”, which I’ve raved about for years. Stumbling upon the Iskryne series was a real treat. How did the two of you meet, and what is it that first got you working together?
Elizabeth Bear: We were introduced by a mutual friend on livejournal because we were both interested in Elizabethan Theatre. I was working on the book that eventually came to be called Ink and Steel, and she was writing her dissertation. We kind of stuck, and we started writing some collaborations to blow off steam from our allegedly real work.
UW: I read that you come from Norse – even Viking – stock. The Iskryne books are clearly influenced by Norse mythology. Were you exposed to any of that in your formative years or did that come later?
EB: No sign of Vikings in my pedigree as far as I know, except inasmuch that everybody of Northern European stock probably has a little Nordic sailor in them at this point. But my grandfather was an immigrant from Finland, of Swedish and Finnish stock.
He wasn’t part of the earlier waves of Scandinavian immigrants or their community, really, and he didn’t expose me to Norse mythology, exactly, but he certainly told me stories about being a little boy in Finland and he maintained a taste for the food throughout his life. So it was an interest in his background and roots that led me to the research.
UW: The supernatural and folkloric have been recurring elements in your fiction. How do you write about these kinds of things in a way that modern readers relate to it but remain true to its roots? For example, our modern ideas of elves are very different from the way they were represented in mythology and early European culture.
UW: In the same vein, what is it like to be a writer of heroic fantasy in a post-Tolkien world? I may be wrong, but it seems like with very few exceptions–some of the works of Poul Anderson, the wonderful but criminally obscure Margaret St. Clair–fantasy as a whole seems to have let his work define our ideas of elves, trolls, dwarves, and so many other things. Is it hard for a writer to stake out her own territory?
EB: Well, Tolkien is certainly the 900 pound gorilla in the genre, isn’t he? Anything that follows his work has to acknowledge it somehow, even if it’s just in avoiding the same tropes he used. And especially in using Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, which his work is quietly saturated in.
We managed that by going back to original stories about elves and dwarves, because Tolkien very much put his own spin on those things. So his dwarves are very plainly derived from the dweorg and his elves from the aelfs, but we tried to take the old stories in a different direction than he did.
UW: I’d also like to ask about the comparisons to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern novels. Is it flattering? Did you expect it?
EB: Well, we wrote the first section of A Companion to Wolves to almost exactly parallel McCaffrey’s novella “Weyr Search,” narratively and structurally speaking, so I don’t think we can complain! In some ways we very much had the agenda of showing how the feeling of such a narrative–which is basically a forced marriage story, though it comes out okay in the end–changes when you put a male protagonist in the place of a young woman, because of societal expectations of gender roles.
UW: One of the things that I appreciate about what you’ve both done with the Iskryne books is that you’ve taken something that some of us have fantasized about–having a giant wolf as a companion–and explored some of the nitty gritty about what that might mean in a practical sense. The wolves of your books are very much their own creatures. They’re not humans, they don’t form relationships like those of humans, and they don’t see the world and each other the same way we do. Is it hard putting yourselves in a wolf’s head? Did you do any kind of research on real-life wolves to get there?
EB: My mom is a dog breeder, and I spent most of my young life living with large packs of dogs and watching how they interact. Of course, the trellwolves in the Iskryne books are not, socially, entirely like modern Earth dogs or wolves–because their biology is quite different in some ways. But they do form extended family groups, packs, the way wolves and dogs to. And a lot of the tension in–especially–the first book comes from Isolfr learning to negotiate an entirely foreign society where he does not really speak the language.
A lot of companion animal fantasy is very wish-fulfillment, and the thing is, of course, that in real life we don’t get a perfect telepathic companion who always validates how wise and smart we are, and how misguided everyone else is. Real relationships are profoundly complicated, require an enormous amount of work, and the negotiating of incompatible desires.
So we were trying to show that, and show people learning to negotiate complicated relationship systems.
UW: There are certain things that are forbidden to women among the Iskryne, but Alfgyfa is determined to do things her own way. Do you have a little bit of Alfgyfa in you?
EB: Don’t we all?
UW: What’s next for you?
EB: I just handed The Stone in the Skull, a novel set in my Eternal Sky universe, in to Tor, and I’m working on a novel for Gollancz that’s a space opera entitled Ancestral Night.
More about An Apprentice to Elves:
Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear return with the third book in their Iskryne trilogy, An Apprentice to Elves. The trilogy began with A Companion to Wolves, and continued in The Tempering of Men. This novel picks up the story of Alfgyfa, a young woman who has been raised in the Wolfhall by her father Isolfr, who is the human leader of the queen-wolf Viridechtis’ pack, and was the protagonist of the first book.
The warrior culture of Iskryne forbids many things to women-and most especially it forbids them bonding to one of the giant telepathic trellwolves. But as her father was no ordinary boy, Alfgyfa is no ordinary girl. Her father has long planned to send his daughter to Tin, a matriarch among the elves who live nearby, to be both apprentice and ambassador, and now she is of age to go.