Monday, July 25, 2016

The Star-Crossed Han Alister

SPOILER WARNING: if you've not read Flamecaster, stop reading and put this aside until you have. Again: read Flamecaster  before you read this post. We’ll wait.
Don't say you were not warned. 

Ever since the release of the first novel in my Shattered Realms series, I've received feedback from loyal readers up in arms about something that happens early on to one of my own favorite characters--thief turned wizard consort Han sul'Alger. 
In Flamecaster, Han Alister is murdered while trying to save his son's life. 
         Readers who are new to the series took Han’s murder in stride. Bad things happen—that’s what creates conflict in story. 
         It’s my long-time readers who’ve cried foul. One loyal reader called it "gratuitous." Another predicted that his heart and soul would be crushed by my "brutal inky fist." Some thought it was an act of convenience, in order to make it easier for readers to move on, or a cheap emotional trick.
It didn't help that this happened in Chapter 2, before readers developed a relationship with Adrian, Lila, Jenna, and the others.
Even though, all along, the series has been presented as a stand-alone "spinoff" from the original, one that focuses on the next generation, some readers feel betrayed by the loss of a character they loved and planned to spend a lot more time with. 
In effect: You promised me a happy ending. No. Fair.
They are not appeased by the fact that Han and Raisa spent twenty-five mostly happy years together--years that did not make it onto the page, at least not yet. They are not moved by the argument that life goes on, and a happy ending is not a permanent condition of bliss, except in stories. But, in effect, that's what it seemed to be  until I wrote this next chapter. 
The worst part is that I knew what would happen, which is why it took me four years to get up the courage to write it. 
Some of you know that the first fiction I wrote set in the Seven Realms was an adult high fantasy series known as The Star-Marked Warder. Two of the main characters were teens--Adrian sul'Han and Jenna Bandelow. Adrian's parents, Han Alister and Queen Raisa ana'Marianna were adult characters in those stories. Han appeared only briefly, however, because one of the first things that happens is that he is murdered by assassins in the street, an event that has a profound effect on Adrian. 
At the time, this murder didn't take a huge emotional toll on me, because, after all, I did not know Han very well. It’s not murder and mayhem that puts us on the edge of our seats—it’s when characters we’ve come to know and love are at risk.
I’d written nearly 500,000 words set in that world when fate intervened in the form of a publication deal for The Warrior Heir, the contemporary YA fantasy that I was shopping at the time. I put my high fantasy stories aside, and wrote two more books in that series. 
I always intended to return to the Seven Realms, but found
I enjoyed writing for teens and wanted to continue to write for that audience. From experience with editors and readers, I knew that the stories I’d already written would required considerable revision.
It seemed easier at that point to start fresh. So I took the two adult characters, Han and Raisa, back to when they were teens, and wrote a prequel of sorts to the Star-Marked Warder. That became the Seven Realms series. 
In the process I grew to love Han and Raisa. Fiercely. The entire time I was writing about Han, I knew what would happen, in the same way that we know that our loved ones will die someday. I could live with it, as long as it was distant. But, now that I knew him, now that I’d heard his voice and shared his troubles and triumphs over four books, now that I’d experienced his dogged determination to find a path to happiness against all odds--I couldn't deal with carrying on with the story. 
So I didn’t. I wrote two more novels in my Heir Chronicles series and filled an entire folder with emails from Seven Realms readers asking for more.
What changed my mind is this: I loved the world I’d built and wanted to spend more time in it. I loved so many elements of the stories I’d written in those free times when I was not constantly working on deadline. While it needed extensive revision and reworking, I knew that the bones of a good story were there, complete with pirates and dragons and magemarked heroines.

At this point, the savvy reader might say, It’s your story—why don’t you change it? And I could. But Han’s murder has so much to do with what drives Ash and Alyssa through this series it seemed unfaithful to the story to make a change not to serve the story, but because I am a coward afraid of breaking my own heart—and the hearts of my readers.
         So I went forward, entrusting the story to Abby Ranger, an editor who’d worked on The Gray Wolf Throne and The Crimson Crown. Someone who would never allow me to take the easy way out.
I wanted to begin the story a year or two after the murder—so I would not have to witness it. Abby argued that readers deserved to be there, that these events that change lives need to be on stage, in scene, and not in the narrative. Something I’ve said myself in multiple writing workshops.       
A writer friend of mine tells me that I made a brave creative choice in what I did. If so, being brave sucks sometimes.
The truth is…sometimes the good die young. Sometimes the price of loving someone is the possibility of loss. Or, to paraphrase something Han Alister said as he lay dying in the street:
Tell her . . . tell her that having her . . . that being with her . . . that loving her . . . it was worth it.
It was worth it.

I hope that knowing Han, that spending time walking around in his skin through the pages of the Seven Realms – that it was worth the pain that follows. And I hope Han and Raisa’s children won’t let you down in their quest to make sense of a world that stole their father and sister from them.