Somewhere along the way, I ended up writing military fantasy.
I didn’t intend to, really. Maybe way back, when I was first putting stories together, I had a notion. But really, I can’t recall ever thinking to call them “military fantasy.” But once others applied that label, and when I read their reviews and impressions… Let’s just say I’d forgive you for not believing me, because of course it’s military fantasy.
So here’s how the truth tapped me on the shoulder:
When M.C.A. Hogarth asked the question in her review of Sand of Bone, “Can I call this one ‘military fantasy’?” I thought to myself, “Yeah, maybe, I guess so.” After all, a few months ago, Marissa Lingen mentioned the novel included training sequences and questions of loyalty, and those things are common in military fantasy. And I do agree with Myke Cole’s essay on the diversity of military portrayals outside the expected ranks and rules.
Then Maggie was kind enough to interview me about Sand of Bone, and our first exchange was about what military influences impacted my writing. I hadn’t thought about it all that much before. And then, other reviewers and readers began discussing it as a military novel/plot/setting. And just to mess with myself, I went back to a couple reviews for Sword and Chant.* A reviewer said reading the novel was like, “reading something written by veteran returned from one of our desert wars.”
I was at once extremely gratified and flattered by my work being called military fantasy. Yet it also made me completely uncomfortable.
Y’see, I have never served in the military.
I grew up in a family that respected military service. My father served in the Navy, and was in the Naval Reserves most of my life. As I told Maggie in the interview, I grew up watching historical films and documentaries, reading military fiction and non-fiction, and debating the ethics making war and peace. We visited historic battlefields, military museums, and war memorials. From Arlington Cemetery to Pearl Harbor, my dad walked my sister and I through the stories of what ordinary people did, feared, and dreamed in uniform.
We didn’t get the sugar-coated, clean-cut, it’s-all-honorable version, either. My dad’s interest and awe of the military came from his uncle who’d served in the Black Watch during World War I. When Uncle William talked of the experience—and that was rare—he did not tell pretty and inspirational stories. No one in his stories survived because of grit and good will. Dad made sure we knew it.
These days, I spend much time with folks who have served or are serving, and families of the currently deployed. I hang out with friends at the American Legion. One of my current students was once a drill sergeant, another few are children of National Guard personnel currently deployed. My sister’s partner is retired Air Force. My late husband served in the Army years past, and the flag that draped his coffin sits in a case in our living room.** Currently, my son and I are the only members of the immediate family not living on a military base.
So when folks say I write military fantasy, I tense up a little. To me—a person who has never served, who has never seen combat, but is as well aware as an outsider can be of what such service means—it feels presumptuous to stake a claim in that territory.
But I can’t deny it’s what I’m striving to write, and striving to write well. Military fantasy is, after all, one of the genres I love to read. Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion, Mary Gentle’s History of Ash, Glen Cook’s The Black Company—these are a few of my favorite things! So while I sit here feeling awkward with the “military fantasy” label, I am also thrilled with it.
On the other hand, there will be folks who point to my choices of characterization and culture, and say I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about. After all, my men and women train and work together without sexism because… well, because men and women happen to coexist in the same world. And relationships aren’t forbidden for fear they’ll cause conflicts and jealousies; instead, the relationships are expected, and it’s the conflicts and jealousies that are addressed head-on. And there are no weird conversations about the “fairness” of a stronger soldier carrying more than a weaker soldier. Instead, the goal is to be “effective.”
But in the end, is Sand of Bone really “military fantasy”? It is about people who want to elicit change, and those people happen to be (mostly) trained soldiers. They choose between self-preservation and self-sacrifice. They struggle with their own sense of honor and purpose—some deciding if taking up an ethical cause is worth the risk of betrayal and defeat. They don’t want to lose their friends. They don’t want to be left behind. They determine how much abstract ideals are worth in terms of spilled blood.
So, yes. It is military fantasy.
Which brings us back to my awkward feelings. Really, it boils down to a hope I’m depicting my fighting folks well and believably, in a way those who have served will find satisfying and real. The truth of life-threatening encounters, the aftermath of pain and death and fear, the entwining of love and hate and trust and anger… these experiences deserve depth and detail, and the people who endure them deserve honest portrayals.
And since that’s what I’ve chosen to write, I hope to do well by the military fantasy designation.
*Sword and Chant is a very different kind of book. Half of readers love it. The other half tends to give up on it. I’m actually okay with that.
**Just to avoid later assumptions: my husband did not die in combat, nor while actively serving.