An Interview with Mary Victoria, Author of “Oracle’s Fire”—& Giveaway
Completing a book is a big deal; completing three books and a series, is a very big deal. And Mary Victoria, with writing in her family and a background as a digital animator at WETA working on that movie—yes, I do mean The Lord of the Rings—brought the very best credentials to completing her epic, Chronicles of the Tree fantasy trilogy.
Nor has her debut series gone unrecognised. The first novel, Tymon’s Flight, was a finalist for two awards this year: the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel and the UK-based Gemmell Morningstar Award for for Best Fantasy debut. In addition, a recent review of Tymon’s Flight in the UK-based Fantasy Book Review concluded that:
“Tymon’s Flight is a fantastic read … This is the best novel I have read this year and it is very easy for me to recommend this story, not just to fantasy readers, but to readers of all genres.”
High praise, indeed. So I am sure you will understand why it is with such great pleasure that I welcome Mary back to ” … on Anything, Really” to discuss the third and concluding novel in the Chronicles of the Tree, Oracle’s Fire.
Helen: Mary, in August last year, when we first talked together (on Plains FM) you had just officially launched Tymon’s Flight, the first book in the Chronicles of the Tree series. Earlier this year, on February 16, we met again to talk about Samiha’s Song, here on the blog. And now you have just launched the third and final book, Oracle’s Fire—in what feels to me like the twinkling of an eye since that first interview! But how does it feel to you?
Mary: Helen, it feels the same to me. In fact, the past year is a blur! I wrote the final instalments of the series back to back, in twenty months, while at the same time launching the first two books. After what felt like a very short hiatus, it was time to concentrate on the release of the third. My head is still spinning! But I am pleased with the result. Basically, I wrote the books I wanted to write and am happy to see all three titles out there.
Helen: No spoilers, of course, but what can you tell readers about how this story builds on Samiha’s Song? What can they expect?
Mary: Readers can expect to have most of their outstanding questions about the series answered (while perhaps finding more to ask, but that’s the joy of a story.) The third instalment of any trilogy is all about closure. That said, I’ve never been one for pat solutions to problems, so don’t expect everything tied up with a neat bow!
In essence, Oracle’s Fire finishes plot threads started in books one and two, particularly in Samiha’s Song, though some points were naturally foreshadowed from the very beginning in Tymon’s Flight. Questions about Tymon and Samiha’s fate, about the nature of their world and the magic underlying it … all these issues are clarified. There should be a few surprising reveals, a few laughs, a few tears. But as I say, I’ve worked to keep a sense of openness in play. I don’t like endings that reek of artificial finality – if someone was to tell me, “Mary, I love this trilogy but I want another three books to explain more about the world of the Tree”, I would consider my job done.
Helen: Coming into the third book in the story you have quite a few plot threads and also characters—many in quite different locations—to manage. Was that a challenge?
Mary: Yes, because I only had a limited quantity of pages in which to portray the struggles of a diverse set of characters. I chose to do so by means of poetic, rather than absolute realism. That is, I chose efficiency over exhaustiveness, paring down the action to essentials. I had a ‘big’ story and one book to wrap it up in, so it seemed the way to go. But I enjoyed the challenge. For one, I think it made me a better writer: I had to decide what was important, then throw it out to concentrate on what was most important. (I’ve stolen that saying from my grandfather, by the way – he always used it as a life philosophy, but it applies even better to storytelling.)
I could have done it all differently, of course, and stretched the action out over another two or three books. But I like the richness and denseness that results from this method. The downside to stretching out action over multiple tomes is that it often feels ‘bloated’, with nothing really happening for chapters on end.
Helen: I think we’ve all read a few of those “bloated” books! In terms of the Tree trilogy, Tymon was the dominant character in the first book, and Samiha in the second. This book focuses more on Tymon again, but Jedda, the Grafter, Noni, and antagonists such as Wick also have considerable point-of-view time. But was there any character that emerged with a stronger than expected “voice” in this final book? Or a personal favourite character?
Mary: Jedda was one of my favourites. I enjoyed writing her as I identified strongly with her, emotionally. She likes to be thought of as a hardheaded pragmatist, but she’s a mystic underneath it all: she wants to love and be loved. I found Jedda’s progression fascinating. No other character in the series draws so wide an arc, from being wounded and selfish through to real heroism. That’s not an easy row to hoe.
Other characters developed over the course of the book in ways that surprised me, though I had a fair idea of what would happen to them at the outset. One was Bolas; another was Noni, whom you mention. These are secondary characters without much ‘face time’: their chapters had to be particularly pithy. They responded to the challenge by developing unique voices of their own.
Helen: Noni was definitely one of the characters that developed in a very positive way for me in Oracle’s Fire. I also enjoyed one of your new characters, Zero, rather a lot. But one of the story elements that strengthened as the series progressed is how science ‘as we know it’ underpins much of the fantasy world building: for example, the nature of Sap. Was it always your intention to blend the scientific and the fantastic in this way, or did the scientific element evolve through the storytelling?
Mary: I’m glad you liked Zero, I had fun with him, too! The element of ‘science fiction’ was intentional, though the specifics evolved in the telling, of course. One of the underlying themes of the series is the importance of the scientific method. The Argosians have turned their backs on science, or rather sought to put breaks on it, keeping some advances in technology while rejecting others. More importantly, they hate that method of open-mindedly examining the facts available and reaching conclusions based on logic (Galliano’s approach.) They require their science to fit preconceived notions of the truth, rather than allowing science to help form their truth.
You mention the Sap – and what is the Sap, exactly? If the reader begins asking that question by the end of book three, we’re getting somewhere. That’s the second important theme in the books: the role of so-called magical or spiritual knowledge. The point is, in the world of the Tree at least, those two types of knowledge – scientific and spiritual – don’t need to be contradictory. By ‘spirit’ I also mean instinctive, emotional understanding, a way of leaping straight to the truth without passing through logical steps.
Helen: To what extent has the spiritual philosophy of Samiha’s testament and the Oracle’s teaching in the Chronicles of the Tree been influenced by your Baha’i background?
Mary: The influence is extensive. One of the key points of Baha’i thought is that truth is one, no matter where you find it. There are many paths to it… and the characters in my stories certainly follow many and divergent paths! I wanted to avoid cookie cutter notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and made a point of turning judgmental notions on their heads. That doesn’t mean the books lack a moral centre, however. Quite the contrary.
The main point underlying the ideas of both Samiha and the Oracle is that creation is continuous. There may be rhythms and lifecycles to it, worlds dying and worlds beginning, but the creative spark never goes away. In those circumstances, you don’t talk about ‘the saved’ and ‘the damned’. You talk about renewal, change, growth. That’s the real Judgment Day, if you like. Sometimes renewal is painful, but it doesn’t mean the world is ending! It means old habits are ending, old ideas are being shed to make way for something new and necessary.
Wow, that was a mouthful, wasn’t it. Don’t get me started on the philosophy…
Helen: OK, I won’t! But this does bring me to another important aspect of Oracle’s Fire. Like the series, it is epic in scope, dealing with world changing events in the Tree universe—but unlike many similar fantasies, war is not your story’s primary focus. Would you agree, in fact, that the war that occurs is peripheral to the central story? And do you feel that this is in any way a new trend in epic fantasy?
Mary: Yes, I consciously sidestepped the ‘great war’ scenario so common in epic fantasy – nothing is solved here by military might. War is an unavoidable part of the scenario, of course, because the Saint is bent on launching his Crusade, but the important action, the world-changing action, happens elsewhere. That’s something I feel very strongly about. If you’re going to draw a parallel with old tales, this story is Moses leading his people out of Egypt rather than King Arthur re-conquering Britain.
I don’t know if it’s a new trend in fantasy, however. Ursula Le Guin already followed that route in the ‘Earthsea’ books, achieving her ‘world changing circumstances’ by means of very personal, emotional quests. War is counterproductive to those sorts of stories, really.
Helen: Are there any other authors, besides Le Guin, whose writing you feel is complementary to the style of story you have explored in the Tree series?
Mary: Let’s see – probably slightly ‘older’ writers, like Peter Beagle, Naomi Mitchison, and Mary Renault. I’m not comparing styles here, but I’m certainly fascinated by similar story themes. Those were writers concerned, like Le Guin, with describing changing worlds and attitudes, the passing of the old and the arrival of the new… whether it’s a fantastic universe that loses its magic, or the final days of a mythical beast, or the death of one culture and the triumph of a another. What we lose and what we gain in that process. Ends and beginnings.
Helen: Your husband, Frank Victoria, has designed the covers for all three books and you have dedicated Oracle’s Fire to him. But were there challenges as well as rewards in working so closely together?
Mary: Strangely enough, none at all! I kept waiting for what people told me would be the inevitable frictions of working with one’s partner on a creative project … but actually, Frank was a dream to work with. He immediately knew what to do for each cover, and his ideas were spot on. Oh, except for that idea of putting Samiha in a chainmail bikini. (Just kidding…)
Helen: And finally, where to from here?
Mary: Another project! I’ve begun a new novel and I’m very excited about it, but won’t say more right now – I get a tad superstitious about spilling the beans on a story too early in the day. I will say however that it isn’t epic fantasy. I had the yen to try something completely different (to misquote Monty Python.)
Helen: Mary, I think all your readers will know to look forward to something intriguing and thought provoking even if it isn’t epic fantasy. I shall certainly look forward to talking with you about the new work here, at some stage in the future.
Mary: Thank you immensely Helen, I’d like to take you up on that offer. It’s been a real pleasure chatting to you about the Chronicles of the Tree!
Mary Victoria was born in 1973 in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Despite this she managed to live most of her life in other places, including Cyprus, Canada, Sierra Leone, France and the UK. She studied art and film and worked as an animator for 10 years before turning to full time writing. She now lives in Wellington with her husband and daughter. Her first book, Tymon’s Flight, was released by HarperVoyager in August 2010. The sequel, Samiha’s Song, was launched in February 2011—and the concluding novel, Oracle’s Fire, is newly out. In a year of exciting news for the Chronicles of the Tree, Tymon’s Flight won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Professional Artwork and was a finalist for Best Novel. Tymon’s Flight was also a finalist for not one but two Gemmell Awards: the Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Debut and the Ravenheart Award for Best Cover.
You can find out more about Mary and her writing here.
About the Giveaway:
Mary’s publisher, HarperVoyager (Australia), has very kindly donated a copy of Oracle’s Fire to be drawn as a giveaway from amongst Australian or New Zealand commenters on this interview. The giveaway will remain open until 12 midnight, Sunday 13 November, with the winner announced on the morning of Monday 14. Just leave a comment to go in the draw—and don’t forget to check in Monday to see if you’ve won. The draw will be made by Random Number Integer.