Jacqueline Carey is one of my favorite writers.
Not only is she incredibly nice but she writes absolutely beautiful prose, capable of creating characters that are complex and moving. And her world-building is top-notch, one of the best in the business. She has only gotten better since her bestselling debut, Kushiel’s Dart, and lately she has been writing some stand alone novels, perfect for new readers.
Which brings us to this interview today. One of those novels is Starless, a wonderful example of an author trying new things while retaining the strengths that made her one of our best epic fantasy writers. Publishers Weekly gave the novel a Starred Review, saying “Carey handles themes of duty, love, and identity with tenderness and fortitude, never pigeonholing her protagonists, and the tapestry of her characters elevates this novel above its peers.”
Read on to learn more about Carey’s new book and what she’s working on next!
Unbound Worlds: Starless is in fine bookstores now. Tell Unbound Worlds readers about the book and what drove you to write it?
Jacqueline Carey: If I had to pick one word to describe Starless, it would be “exuberant.” It’s a standalone epic fantasy — yes, a whole entire story in one single volume! — that evokes many classic tropes of the genre, while at the same time, putting a spin on them. There’s a peerless warrior and a fiercely intelligent princess with the weight of conjoined destiny riding on their shoulders, there’s a prophesy, there’s a dark god rising and there’s a ragtag group of heroes — but there are also elements like a society with a two-faced deity whose culture holds not saying what you mean as a form of reverence; a giant, prescient octopus; or my personal favorites, the sea-wyrms.
I was inspired by some New Weird authors like China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer, but mostly, this is just about joyous storytelling. Except for the crying bits (and there are a couple of crying bits).
UW: Khai is a wonderful character, destined to keep safe Zariya at any cost. When it comes to both, what characteristics make them who they are and how their dynamic works throughout the story?
JC: I think they’re such a great yin and yang pairing. Khai is ferociously physically competent, loyal, honor-bound and very, very good at killing things; Zariya is physically disabled, but has a ferocious intellectual curiosity, and an hard-won ability to navigate deadly court intrigue. Together, I think they make quite a formidable pair!
UW: Identity plays a huge role in Starless. It is mentioned in virtually every review. How important was it for you to look closer at this subject?
JC: Okay, mild spoiler alert! One of the foremost issues is something I intended to conceal from the character, but not necessarily the reader, which is that while Khai is raised in an all-male sect of desert warrior-priests and believes himself to be a boy; he was born biologically female. Flummoxed by the fact that fate chose a girl baby for this destiny, the Brotherhood of Pahrkun made the choice designate him as male when he was an infant. It shatters Khai’s world when he discovers he’s not who he thought he was, and won’t become “a grown man.”
This creative choice was actually inspired by a surprising source — there’s a fantastic book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, about the practice of families in Afghanistan without a son designating a daughter to be an honorary boy. Of course, I tried to be mindful of the ways in which we’re coming to a deeper and more complex understanding of gender in contemporary society, but I also tried to maintain a balanced approach with my worldbuilding and the unexpectedly conservative source of inspiration.
And then there are my amphibious Elehuddin, who can switch genders out of will or necessity, providing an example for non-binary land-dwelling characters like Khai. (There are pronouns, too; though since their language is entirely composed of clicks and whistles, I don’t expect those to catch on.)
UW: Was it difficult introducing exiled gods into a world populated by mortals?
JC: No, it was a lot of fun! I’ve written so many works in which the gods are at a remove, it was a refreshing change to have gods inhabiting the earth — especially since a lot of these gods are pretty funky, taking the form of towering sandstorms, columns of fire, walking willow trees, living statues and the like.
UW: I heard you are returning to the world of Kushiel. How is that going, what are you doing exactly, and why now?
JC: One of the funny things about this choice is that “Would you ever consider a retelling of the original Kushiel trilogy from Joscelin’s point of view?” is one of the more common questions I’ve gotten over the years, and I’ve always said, “No, because that story’s been very thoroughly told.” And when I wrote Starless, with the whole first third being a warrior-priest training situation, I thought, “A-ha, now it’s obvious I’ll never do a retelling from Joscelin’s POV, for that would feel redundant!”
Then I got a request from The Pixel Project, an organization I’ve worked with before that’s dedicated to raising awareness about violence against women, for something special for a fundraiser. Miranda and Caliban, my take on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” had just come out, and I had the idea of pairing a signed copy with an original Elizabethan sonnet. I polled my readers, and a sonnet written to Phèdre from Joscelin was the popular choice. So I wrote it. And while I’ve written many hundreds of pages featuring him, this was the first time I’d put myself squarely inside Joscelin’s head and given voice to his interior thoughts.
Fourteen lines, that’s all it took; and then I began thinking about how Joscelin’s journey actually diverges from Phèdre’s for quite a bit of time, and I realized… “Oh, crap! I DO want to tell his story!”
So I am.
Starless by Jacqueline Carey is in fine bookstores now!