In the world of our fantasy crime trilogy, The Tales of Fenest, stories are everything. Tale-telling is at the heart of religion, entertainment, education, law and order, news-reporting and politics. Even bookmakers thrive on the work of storytellers. So far so fantasy, right? Well, we’d argue that a world where everything is understood through narrative is actually reflective of our own.
Fairly early on in the planning process for The Tales of Fenest series we made the decision to have democratic voting our fantasy world. This was driven by our own personal politics: Kath is an ardent republican (with a small ‘r’) and convinced Dave that it would be an interesting challenge to explore what happens in a fantasy narrative when warring monarchies are removed. If such a setting is missing kings and queens and their dynastic struggles that often drive plots, what fills the power vacuum? What does it mean to have democracy in a second world fantasy?
One big issue with this plan was that we suspected politics and the democratic voting process aren’t exactly high on most readers’ list of must-haves for their new favourite book. An element of political intrigue is often welcome in fantasy, of course, and examples such as Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor and Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy show just how successful that can be – albeit still within the comfort zone of a monarchy.
But real, honest-to-goodness voting, with the preceding campaigning and then the casting of ballots… well, that’s a trickier sell for many readers. You just have to look at the statistics for voter turnouts to have a general idea why.
So, our initial conversations around the Tales of Fenest kept circling this issue. Round and round we went, when walking on our local beach or cooking together – Dave chops, Kath supervises – trying to figure out how to make voting exciting, exciting, exciting! We went to some pretty weird and dark places, constructing fantasy worlds in which politicians are put to death for losing an election, or breaking a promise, etc. Fine as throwaway responses to another set of depressing headlines, but not really the basis of a whole political system. At least, not one that might function in any believable sense.
We can’t honestly remember which one of us made the (now obvious) leap of logic: readers like stories, that’s why they’re reading in the first place, so why not create a system in which people vote for stories? It took a little getting used to as an idea, but the concept did take root. Why? It’s the same reason that we often see a dawning understanding pass across people’s faces when we describe the books, and they say, “Well, that’s just like our politics, isn’t it? It’s all just stories.”
Perhaps you’re thinking, that’s a bit of a simplistic view of a hugely complex system. And we’d agree, which is one of the reasons we felt it worked as a basis for fiction – taking a complex human experience and distilling it into a more manageable and, hopefully, entertaining form is not a bad starting point. We’d have been more worried if it was the other way around, that we were trying to make politics more complicated!
That’s all well and good in the abstract, but to give an example, cast your minds back to 2015 and the UK general election (international readers may have to Google this, but it’s worth it). It was Labour vs. Conservative, Miliband vs. Cameron, an election with plenty of talking points, one of which was Ed Miliband’s – now infamous – eating of a bacon sandwich. A ludicrous news “story” that sparked much internet meme-ery, as well as discussion in the traditional media, but for many it became symbolic of a wider narrative that was being constructed at the time. In fact, for us this was the first election in which the word narrative featured heavily. Or at least, the first time we noticed it so much. We despaired as the narrative of Labour’s campaign became one of voting for a man who makes eating a sandwich look difficult, or a man standing in front of his party’s manifesto carved into a twelve foot tall rock that quickly became known as a ‘headstone’ (#EdStone). Somewhere in that story there were policies, ideas, maybe even a few facts and figures. But you had to go digging for them. And boy was it hard not to get distracted by the stories along the way.
So, maybe it’s not so hard to see how we came to the Perlish story in The Stitcher and the Mute, through which a beleaguered incumbent realm hopes to dazzle and distract with stories inside stories inside yet more stories. Or the Caskers’ narrative warning of the coming of Black Jefferey. Or the Torn’s floods of lava.
In The Tales of Fenest the election stories are often vessels for broader truths. Some of those truths can be entertaining, but others are difficult to tackle head-on, or hard for the voters of Fenest to accept. The same can be found in real world politics. And even though it may not feel like it, when you’re voting in places like London, Washington, New Delhi, or Brasilia, you’re just as likely to be voting for story-bound truths as the average Fenestiran. But only in a fantasy world like ours can the choice be so black and white.