Grappling with the Past to Move into the Future

Several weeks ago, I mentioned I’d stopped work on Ace Grant Demonslayer. Given the tenuous situation in America at the time, and a solid dose of righteous unrest, I put the project on hold. I wrote that I am of the opinion the Black Lives indeed Matter and I had no intention of trivializing their fight.

The statement was meant as a full stop, no debate declaration. I’m not here to back down from that stance, just to offer a better explanation to my readers.

As an author, I never seek to inflame or capitalize on divisive and toxic politics (too many writers have chosen this as a way to master the broken social media algorithms and boost their profile…) Instead, I want to make people think, regardless where they stand politically. Consider other views and perspectives. Consider other possibilities. That’s the beating heart of speculative fiction.

When I set out to write Ace Grant, I wanted to create a wholly American mythology. It needed to reflect our history, not simply write another Western European transplant of faye courts and vikings. Magic existed here long before those cultures arrived. Our story then is one of a fusion of cultures amid a migration full of triumph and tragedy.

Complex, sure. But I knew one thing. The protagonists? They didn’t look like me…

This isn’t some “woke” social justice statement. This is simply a rational understanding of the bones of a good story. It’s impossible to take an honest, deep dive into American history and assume our Harry Potter would be an orphaned white kid living under the stairs.

Who are the heroes of any story? The scrappy fighters held down by an nearly indomitable force. The ones who rise up and take on the establishment meant to disempower them.

Orphaned kids? Tragic. What about an inhumane system that orphaned children for economic gain? Tore them from their mother’s arms to be sold like cattle? What about a culture struggling to survive in the face of a relentless invader, driving deeper and deeper into their ancestral lands? Which of those sides provides a worthy story?

“But slavery ended! Manifest destiny and the subjugation of natives was so long ago! Why write about that in a fantasy context? Why ruin my escapism?”

Because, well, that’s what I do.

Crimson Son includes a heavy dose of reality. As wacky as Spencer and Eric are, they include a darkness and honesty rarely seen in superhero fiction. Not an over-the-top parody like The Boys, but an honest dissection of America’s fascination with the idea of heroism and the conviction we’re always the “good guys” no matter the conflict.

So when it came to creating an American mythos, I couldn’t sweep the evils of our history under the rug if I were going to be true not just to the stark reality but to the nature of story itself.

Besides, slavery never “ended”. Of them all, that’s the biggest myth. We fought a nearly unresolved war over the practice, then slowly capitulated, letting those beliefs creep back into our institutions. From medicine to the penal system, from the workplace to our schools, the forced denial of the American Dream to an entire race continues in insidious ways to this very day.

I didn’t write Ace Grant to pretend to be at the fore of a crusade. I wrote it because I felt it was honest. Even fiction should strive for honesty. From the most wild parody to the most sober depiction of historical fantasy, there needs to be a recognizable truth under the fantastical veneer. Without it, readers can’t relate and no message is shared.

Reading is never an escape. Beliefs are reinforced, one way or another. You tread along the cracks of reality with a purpose. The most formulaic fiction offers truth in the distraction. The need to escape itself tells you a bold truth about your life.

With Ace though, I felt I’d wandered too close to the fault lines.

When George Floyd died, another black man lost to the inexorable grind of a history that refused to become the past, for a brief moment, we had our protagonist. More followed. Always their death a flashpoint. As COVID ravaged the coasts, death counts for black Americans soared. The worse the situation got, the more ill-prepared, I, the whitest of white people, felt to tell this particular story.

In the beginning, I approached the effort as one of any fiction author writing about a character and a background they have never lived. If I limited my stories to tales of middle-aged, hermitish white guys trying to become authors, I’d bore my readers to tears. But as the societal pain deepened and the old wounds tore further open, my certainty about the project faltered.

I’d planned for six books, all to be completed by the end of this year. Book four sits on my hard drive, half-written where it will likely stay.

As the plague of a pandemic and polarized politics threatens to tear apart this country, elections be damned, I’ve also come to believe what we need most right now is a message of hope. Ace offered a measure of hope but alongside a scathing and brutal critique. And I still firmly believe we must reckon with the evils of our past to move forward, but I don’t know if my fiction, my attempt, was up to the task.

With that, I chose to step away from the project. I didn’t do it lightly. We need to find a way to heal and move on, as a country, and that’s where I want to focus. Acknowledge the past, but not live inside of it. Dream of a better tomorrow.

My focus right now is grappling with what that tomorrow looks like. A future that will have everyone wishing to move forward and bring all humanity along for the ride. I hope to return to fiction soon with a more hopeful message. to my readers, however many may be left, I appreciate your patience.

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