Books

Evil Trees: Malicious Nature in Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood

 

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel

In high school English class, you’re taught to look for themes, for allegories and allusions, for subtext, for the message and meaning behind the green light at the end of the dock, until you reach the point where you want to shout, “It’s just green, okay?  He needed an adjective, and he liked the color green!  Who doesn’t like green?  It’s a perfectly nice color!  I like green!!!”  And then you skip off like Ophelia singing about death and flowers.

Or maybe not.  But the point is: I believe that there’s a moment in every reader’s life where you wonder if the writer really intended all the themes and messages buried in their work.

And I believe that there’s a moment in every writer’s life where you secretly think, “Huh.  Did not mean to imply that.  Ah well, it sounds good.  I like green.”

While I can’t speak for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s state of mind when he chose the color of his famous dock light, I can tell you that I never meant to imply that trees are evil.

My latest novel The Queen of Blood is the first book in The Queens of Renthia, a new epic fantasy series from Harper Voyager.  It’s set in a world filled with nature spirits… but these aren’t your sweet, frolicking, pastoral sprites.  These spirits want to kill all humans, and only certain women – queens – have the power to control them.

I had the idea while I was at a writing retreat in the Poconos, in a little cabin surrounded by tall, gorgeous trees.  In fact, I can identify the precise moment when the world of Renthia was born: I’d just arrived, and I was walking up to the cabin, marveling at the forest, reveling in the bird song, glorying in the realization that I was really here… and I tripped, fell on my face, and cut my lip.  Blood + trees = story.

I sat down in my cabin and immediately jotted down the core ideas that would become The Queens of Renthia .

Writing this book turned out to be a highly immersive experience.  I could picture the world so clearly that every day at my laptop felt like stepping through a portal.  I’d find myself eyeing the vines outside suspiciously and jumping every time a squirrel rustled a branch.  But really, I don’t think that nature is evil and out to destroy us.

(Except where my mom lives.  She has tornados, rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders, and very pointy mesquite trees.  We only visit in winter, when the rattlesnakes are hibernating.)

In general, though, I don’t think nature is pitted against us in an intentional way.

I do think that by pitting nature against humans, I was able to create a world where I could test my characters.  I believe that’s one of the greatest strengths of fantasy literature: since you aren’t limited by reality, you can craft situations that allow you to explore the extremes of human experience and endurance.

Fantasy literature is an ideal vehicle for pursuing both the boundaries of the imagination and depths of the human soul.

In the case of The Queen of Blood, one concept that I wanted to explore was what makes a hero.  The Queen of Blood centers on two main characters: Daleina, an idealistic young student, and Ven, a banished warrior.  They must join forces against a growing number of spirit attacks.

Neither of them is the perfect hero.  Ven looks great on paper (strong, well-trained, very noble), but the current queen banished him, and he’s in disgrace.  He’s supposed to fade into obscurity.  Daleina isn’t supposed to be a hero at all.  She’s an ordinary person with a mediocre amount of talent.  Her destiny is to become a hedgewitch in a small village, doling out charms to keep a few scattered families safe.  But she wants more.  She wants to right the wrongs in her land and protect all the families, all the villages, all the innocents.

Her true “magic” is her determination.  What I wanted to discover, through telling her story, is whether or not that’s enough.  Can you choose your own destiny?  Can you make yourself into a hero?  Can you move from powerless to powerful, through sheer strength of will?

At its core, this series is about power: who has it, who wants it, what you do with it, what it does to you, and whether it’s possible to ever have enough of it to keep the people you love safe.  And that is why I made my trees evil.