There's been a meme floating around some of my friends' blogs (well, it was floating around a couple months ago. It's probably sunk to the silty bottom of the blogosphere by now) called "Ten Things About Me as a Writer." I was halfway considering posting the thing here, just to have something to post. But then I stumbled over question #6 and fell flat on my smug writer's face.
It's a question about theme, as in, which one keeps cropping up in your work?
In a moment of cold, sweaty horror, I thought: Themes? Am I supposed to know what they are? Before I finish? How can I find them? What if there's more than one?
And what if there aren't any at all?
Well, eventually all the firecrackers of panic quit popping off, and in the silence I found the answer.
I do (thank goodness) have themes in my novel. But they are not what I thought they were, or rather, what I had begun the novel vaguely thinking they might be.
Back then, I assumed sacrificing everything for love was going to be a theme, but it isn't. The idea of sacrifice is there, but love is not the motivating factor. I also thought the story was going to be about overcoming prejudice, but it's not about that either, although the issues of prejudice and bigotry do crop up here and there.
No, when I started mining for themes, I discovered three major veins running through the strata of the story, sometimes bold and distinct, sometimes elusive, surfacing only in fitful gleams, but still traceable from start to finish -- or at least, as near to the finish as the story goes at this point. I also discovered that each theme is expressed as two contrasting concepts. I've always gravitated toward conflict in writing (well, pretty much stuffing as much in as the story will hold); I guess it shouldn't surprise me that even the themes embody conflict.
I thought I would discuss them in three separate posts. Here's the first and, I think, the main one.
Duty vs Desire.
The question of when duty (to law, family, culture, vows, or oneself) trumps desire (for love, sex, power, fame, or recognition), or vice versa, is one that plays out in numerous ways among the various plot threads. This theme is first introduced in an explicit way on the first page of the story:
On the day Riordan turned twenty-five, he awoke with the distinct feeling he had little time to lose. He had always considered himself an obedient son, but before the birds could launch their first sleepy twitters, he mounted his white mare and ghosted out of the Hawk clan's covey of dwellings. He journeyed downward, through forest and vale and a chill, misty darkness until he reached the great burial mound at the northern border. There he planned to defy both his father and the prophets his father so shamefully served.
He galloped the mare up to the mound's rounded crest, which normally offered sweeping views of the river and the Wall. Today a heavy mist webbed the land in a cocoon of secrecy, hiding the burgeoning dawn and guarding him from all eyes.
Which suited him admirably. He wanted no witnesses. The song of calling, besides being outlawed, was also a highly private affair.
After turning Shae loose to graze, he crouched in the tall grass and ripped out enough stalks to clear a small circle. In the patch of raw, black earth he laid a bed of stones and heaped on it thin curls of birch bark, followed by an array of sticks he had gleaned along the way: oak, for strength and longevity; willow, for resilience; dry pine, for the hot fire of passion. He arranged the wood precisely, without haste, though he'd be missed before long. The clans would arrive in strength today to witness the joining of the Hawk's son with the Raven's daughter. It was his duty to stand at his father's side and greet them, his duty to offer his bride the marriage knife, to shed her blood in the marriage bed.
But a man also owed allegiance to laws far more ancient and binding than a father's command, or—he firmly quashed visions of Moriana's troubling beauty—his own wayward desires. This was his final chance to call a wife in the oldest way, the sacred way—and forbidden since the Shirin had decreed it so. It was not the place of mystics and prophets to make such laws, but lately they gathered more authority to themselves than they ought, until they ruled even the King-Chief.
Riordan throws everything over for the sake of duty, but it's duty wrapped around another desire: the hunger to take charge of his own life, to break out of the cage his father, his culture, and history have put him in. The rebellion starts small but has huge consequences, one of which is that what was begun out of allegiance to an old tradition becomes itself an overwhelming desire, and in the end he will (I believe) once more have to make a choice between the two.
This same theme plays out elsewhere in the story in well, but particularly in the struggles of Yakoba, one of the main antagonists, who breaks a sacred oath to slake a desire, and in so doing unravels the fabric of everything he had convinced himself was right and true.
He led her to the throne of her power and displayed it for her. Fire was predominant, but she had something else that he had not detected in his previous, brief explorations. He glimpsed a shimmer of something crystalline, and with a small shock recognized it as one of the same gifts he carried within himself.
It was a uniquely Tsuroi power and how it had come to be mixed into her Cuhlnari bloodline was an intriguing question.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I see it! A white flame, but hard inside, like a diamond—it's beautiful!"
It was indeed and her innocent joy in it made him suddenly and inexplicably regret the necessity of taking it from her—and the inevitable price she would pay.
Remorse was an emotion so alien and so unnerving that he withdrew his hand, sharply, as though something had scalded it. He ruthlessly examined the offending sentiment and realized it had arisen from the fact that he genuinely liked her. She was something more than mere woman-flesh primed to be a vessel for his seed and a vehicle for his pleasure. She was intelligent, honest, amusing, courageous—and highly gifted. She would make a fit mate for any prince of the tribes.
Even an outcast prince.
The thought was such an outrageous and diverting notion that he was lost for a moment in imagining its possibilities. They were very limited—he knew well enough that Valden of Illea would not sit by and permit his cousin, the current heir to a large and wealthy province, to be spirited away. Pursuit would be inevitable and he could not hope to out sail a war fleet.
Of more immediate importance, however, were the constraints laid on him by his duty. He could not marry—he had sworn an oath to make the rite his life's task and he was ever dutiful to his word. Unless…
He acted while reason still lagged, off-balance and bemused. "Turraya—look at me." He pulled his lu'tsah out of his shirt and slipped the cord over his head.
Her eyes flew open as she came back from her internal contemplations. He held out the cord with its blue stone dangling. "Here. Take this."
She made no move to touch it. "You're giving that to me?"
"For today only. It is—" He hesitated. His father had always said that truth-telling was a fine and subtle art—and about that one thing, at least, his father was right. "It is symbolic of a bond of trust between two people. A sharing between friends. If you were a woman of the tribes, you would have one of your own and could grant me that in exchange."
He looped it around her neck, though he already felt foolish offering it to her. Impulsiveness and sentimentality were as foreign to his nature as remorse. But it was done and he never did anything less than thoroughly. There were many other gifted women in the world, and with them he would gladly do what was required—but there was only one Elyse, and perhaps this transgression, this omission was not so great as to matter.
But matter it does, so greatly that it will change the course of his life and the lives of many others. And in the end, he will find he must sacrifice desire for duty, but he has more than one duty pulling at him. Which will he fulfill and at what cost?
The theme is also expressed in Moriana's sacrifice, choosing a horrifying duty in order to enact a desire for vengeance.
And Darric is a man torn between duty to his country and his prince, and the lure of a forbidden, and treasonous, liaison.
His thoughts prowled into perilous territory, and his heart beat swiftly as he recalled Rafe's words: Do what I raised you to do. Take what is yours.
And what exactly, Darric silently asked, is mine?
He watched his breath cloud the air, and surveyed the kingdoms on his mental playing board for the hundredth time: the Cuhlnari territory was a small wedge driven between Keldian-held Illea and the Great Horns—the Graystones, as Riordan had called the range. South of the mountains lay Hazaar, a land of glass and silk, spices and war hounds, and volatile politics. Westward over the sea, the Keldian empire sprawled like a well-fed lioness, temporarily sated but only a matter of time before she cast hungry eyes on Hazaar's riches.
And now Hazaar was busy with its own internal squabbles, its ports closed, all trade ceased. Whoever ruled the Cuhlnari would have access to the only land route, assuming there was one, to Hazaar. Whether that route would be used for trade or invasion remained to be seen, but the man who controlled it could name his own price and make his own rules. Valden knew this and considered it an easy matter to brush the Cuhlnari aside like dust before a broom and set up housekeeping on their land.
Darric knew it as well and contemplated the consequences born of a marriage between a Keldian yarl and the daughter of a Cuhlnari chieftain.
There were several, all of them treasonous. He was thankful that his musings were shielded from Valden.
"Planning an invasion?" Valden inquired softly.
Darric nearly bit his tongue as he jerked around. "What?"
The moonlight bleached the skin on Valden's face and cast deep shadows over his eyes, but Darric could feel them on him just the same.
The cultured voice continued, casual but with a honed edge: "You had this look on your face, just then, that reminded me of that mosaic in the Court of Nobles, of the seventh warrior sailing to conquer the Northern Heaven."
Darric forced a grin. "No invasion, but a campaign, to be sure. I was thinking about conquering a plate of roast venison and a chalice of fine wine, before retiring to a soft bed with the spoils of war."
Valden regarded him a moment, then said lightly, "No rewards at Teon, I'm afraid, at least of the beddable sort. But I'm sure you'll find something to your liking once we reach Krissea." He propped himself up on one elbow and his eyes gleamed briefly in the moonlight. "You must be feeling better than I thought, if you're thinking about women again."
He waved a hand at a nearby soldier, who hastened over with Valden's flask, newly refilled. The prince, with the gracious, self-deprecating air of a head cook offering selections for the evening's dining, said, "And speaking of which, you may choose either Raina of Norfall or the widow Ingria for your wife." He sipped from the flask and passed it to Darric. "Either one is suitable, though with Raina, you'll have to wait nearly a year until she comes of age. She's no beauty, but has the greater inheritance. What do you say?"
Darric took his time answering. Here it was at last, Valden's punishment of his renegade hound: distract him with a mate and chain him safely out of the way, far to the north where he could do no harm. Both women were heiresses to estates that bordered Darric's own—one on the west and the other to the south. To marry either one of them would expand his holdings—and his wealth—considerably. But then, to do what he already had been contemplating would expand them beyond anyone's expectations, particularly Valden's.
He drank liberally from the flask. The brandy, which was excellent, burned sweetly in his stomach and settled his ragged heartbeat. "I'll think on it."
"Don't think too long." Valden settled back in the cushions. "Choose one and get her pregnant. I need you married, with an heir on the way."
And too busy to make trouble for you.
Darric turned away to stare out onto a moon-washed landscape of pines and snowy hillsides, and thought of Moriana.