A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr is a strangely dark story. I saw it advertised as a “Epic Medieval Saga Fantasy” and that it was published by Bethany House, a Christian publisher, and I got curious. What does Christian medieval fantasy look like? So I signed up for the book tour and author interview and received an ecopy of it in exchange for doing a post about it.
I enjoyed reading it though parts of it are, as I mentioned, strangely dark. An young alcoholic man is found to possess a rare skill at reading lots, and drawn into political intrigue and adventure because of it. I felt myself a bit like a passenger on a run-away train trying to catch a glimpse of the surroundings enough to learn the customs and rules of the world the book is set in. Who are the Readers? Why does it seem like these characters all belong to some secret club of some sort? How imminent is this danger of the king dying?
In addition, I kept trying to figure out how the setting of the story related to our world, like a tourist trying to figure out if the village I’m in is on the map. You will see that probably from the questions I asked the author, trying to tease out where the story is set, what it might mean and how it relates to his understanding of every day life. What does it mean for fiction to be Christian?
Ask yourself that question “what does it mean for fiction to be Christian?” It can actually be an interesting chance to evaluate what you expect from religious backgrounds. Do you expect it to be like Chronicals of Narnia, laden with allegorical possibilities? Do you expect it to promote specific sexual morals? I couldn’t tell all that much about the author from the book. The book includes an alternative trinity (more about that in the questions) and a church, that I sense has got some problems and corruption in it (as makes sense given the medieval setting). Probably if I didn’t know it was a religious publishing company, I wouldn’t have identified it specifically as religious. The author makes clear in one of his answers to my questions that he considers the book a story and not a theological work. Yet part of the mythology within the story is left unexplained and I wouldn’t be surprised if the magic and mythology play a larger part in the next books, and thus make at least slightly clearer the author’s own theological beliefs.
Probably I would have been better off to simply relax, lean back and enjoy. Certainly I’ll be more likely to do that when his second and third book in the series come out. I don’t know if he’ll be doing a blog tour then or if I’ll have to break down and buy the books, because I’m definitely curious as to what happens in it!
So without further ado, I offer my questions and the author’s responses….
1) When I was reading through your book I had my eyes peeled for any sign of setting that it could place in the real world. I caught the brief mentions of someone being from Basque and Gascony yet my sense is the world it is set in is entirely fictitious, particularly after the books started to refer to time-periods of previous Readers. Could you comment on your setting? Does it relate to the real world at all?
PWC: When I first started “A Cast of Stones” under a different title, I had actually toyed with the idea of approaching it as an alternative history kind of work. For the setting, as far as technological capability, I’d chosen 14th century Europe. At the same time, I also wanted to build a mythos that was unique to my world, so I had to drop in the back story here and there. One of my favorite chapters in the book, because it ends with a really high creep factor is “Conger’s Tale.” So, I guess the answer to your question is that there are certain inspirations that come from the real world, but it’s definitely not what you would call historical fiction in any way.
2) I know your publishing company identifies as a Christian publisher. Would you be willing to share any stories about how your faith comes to play in the novel? I’m curious about both how your faith might play into the values incorporated in your novel, but also about how it shapes the fantasy framework. I noted the mythological framework of the story fits with the Trinity and the idea of a devil, but I also note you use different names for them than the ones I hear of normally. Why the choice not to use Deas, Eleison (mercy?), etc instead of God, Jesus and the Spirit?
PWC: That’s actually a really good question that relates to the previous one. In the beginning, I did use God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as my names, but my editors at Bethany House felt, rightly I think, that the book, with its European feel and those names was blurring the edge between fantasy and historical fiction. We could either bring the story closer to our world or move it farther away. Because it was fantasy we elected to move it farther away. That decision initiated a lot of emails back and forth as we searched for names that we hoped would resonate. We finally settled on Deas, Eleison, and Aurae.
There are certain elements that are central to my faith that I wove into the story in an allegorical way, such as sacrifice and redemption. Some of these are going to be obvious, while others may take a bit of digging. I think one of the fun things about the book is that it can be read more than once. The second time through, the reader will notice things they hadn’t picked up on the first time.
3) The whole idea of drawing lots is fascinating. I know the early church used them at least occasionally, but what it reminded me of also was Tarot card readings and ouija boards. So I’m curious as how you understand fortune telling. Is it something that is okay in fantasy but non-existent in real life, or is it something that some people are more skilled at letting something guide them to draw the right answers?
PWC: I originally came at the story idea from a Bible verse that said “God is in the lot.” My imagination kind of ran wild with it. My intention wasn’t to use lots as fortune telling, but simply to reveal what was. In the world I built, there was no connection between lots and being a spiritist. In that sense, I regarded the ability to cast lots as something individuals were born with, an innate talent such as one might have for music or the sword. The larger reason behind it was that I wanted to show a church that was a bit off-track in how it approached things. So in that sense, my fantasy world parallels the real world. Where our church approached things mechanistically with indulgences and the like, so my fantasy church did something similar with lots. However, in the end, “A Cast of Stones” is just a story, not a theological work. The Bible seems to have some pretty definite things to say about divination and they’re not favorable.
4) What gave you the idea to have the main character begin the story as a drunkard?
PWC: I needed somebody flawed and the time period lent itself to this. In fantasy, the hero is always struggling against his circumstances and identity and this seemed a realistic way to have that play out that hadn’t been done before.
5) I had to smile when it got to the part of the story about the merchant using the Reader in order to gain the advantage in bargaining. You describe that as cheating, and I thought that funny, because my understanding is that the famous economist Adam Smith based his understanding of the market as taking place within settings where people do have perfect information of one another. Why would having perfect information about what merchants are willing to pay be cheating? Surely that’s the goal of capitalism, isn’t it, to price things according to how much people want them?
PWC: My experience tells me that in bargaining the goal of each party is to maximize their profits. In a large system, we assume that the market will eventually find the correct price for a commodity. However, in a personal exchange, I think those rules tend to break down, kind of like similar to the way conventional physics breaks down at the quantum level. The merchant’s use of Errol was regarded as cheating, and punishable by death, because he would have an advantage that was not available to any other merchant. Over time his ability would compound until he controlled everything. This theme actually comes up again in the second book.
On one hand I can accept the idea that the plot requires people with this special power to be restricted to working for the church. On the other hand, I still think the excuse that merchants using the power would have an advantage is incredibly weak. In a personal exchange, businesses still try to read and guess how much other people are willing to pay, and whether a person is just a little bit more intuitive, whether they can cast lots, or whether they use Internet cookies to track a person and analyze their buying habits, prices are being targeted to people and having an advantage is what people try to do in markets. I can understand fears of people with certain abilities or advantages becoming to wealthy or too powerful, but then I think the way to deal with that would be to have limits on wealth and power, not on one specific way of acquiring power. It would actually make more sense to me if people with the lot-reading ability were restricted to working in the church because of a religious or spiritual taboo than it does to somehow say it is unfair. I’ll have to see how the second book handles the issue.
6) I’m interested in your take on gender roles. Your story takes place in a predominantly male world, though you have a couple of interesting female characters, particularly Rokha whom you somehow manage to portray as both a strong-willed fighter and an incredibly submissive daughter. I know there are some Christian circles, particularly those identifying as quiverfull, where obedience is still the rule for daughters. So in your mind, is the daughter’s obedience just a part of the fantasy medieval setting or is it something young women should be practicing?
PWC: Rokha may be my favorite character. I think in the second book people will see that there’s more going on in the relationship with her father than we first suspect. Adora’s role also becomes more pronounced. As for obedience, I wasn’t trying to make a statement so much as trying to build a character. I’m uniquely unqualified to tell someone how to raise their daughter since Mary and I had all sons. I can say that I tried to raise them to be obedient, but within that I tried to teach them that their ultimate obedience was to God, not to me. I’m not infallible, so if I’m wrong, they need to do what God is telling them to do, not me. I think I would have taught my daughters the same.
7) When you were writing the story did you envision your audience as being predominantly male or female or both?
PWC: Both. My alpha reader is my sister, Ramona. She was one of the inspirations for the strength of Rokha. I also knew I wanted to have a very strong element of romance, probably because I’m an incurable romantic myself. I think most guys who read fantasy probably are as well.
8) When are your next books scheduled to be released?
PWC: “The Hero’s Lot” will be released in July of 2013 and the final book will come out in February of 2014.
9) Do you a question in your own life you wish you could cast lots for?
PWC: I think that’s probably a temptation that’s better left alone. Why ruin a good surprise or anguish over a bad one? I think God has me one a “need to know” basis and most of the time I don’t need to know.
A nice evasive answer to a question asked jokingly, but it leaves me wondering, is power and knowledge the same thing? That answer in some ways reminds me of Dumbledore’s answer to what he sees when he looks in the magic mirror that shows people with what they most desire. He claims to want a pair of warm socks, when later there’s inference that he shuns power because the temptation might be too much for him.
There’s a blog tour giveaway that everyone is welcome to enter.