Sanders is the author of Resistance and Matters of Scale.
Diversity in Secondary Fantasy
by B R Sanders
I’m a big believer in diverse books. We need them, and we need diverse creators. I believe this from the bottom of my heart. Some of the push back that I’ve gotten when I broach this topic is that I write secondary world fantasy--I write about elves in worlds that are not our own. So how can diversity be relevant to that? It’s all fictional anyway, and the people aren’t even real people, huh?
Well, I’ll show you how. Challenge accepted. The entirety of my novel Resistance is set in the City of Mages--just a single city. That’s it, one city. The two characters in the excerpt below, Shandolin (the lead character) and Shoket, are both elves, and both have lived in the City of Mages their entire lives.
Gradually, the skin of the people on the street moved from pale and freckled like Doe’s to gray and smooth like Shoket’s. As he veered off from the alleys, he walked with a thoughtless confidence. Shandolin realized he knew where they were going.
“You spent much time here?” she asked him.
“A bit, yeah. The Brotherhood raised me up, right, but it made sense to get me in good with the tinkers, seeing as I’m at least half, if I’m a drop. I went to this schoolhouse. Went here all day and then ran jobs at night with Rivvie ‘til I finished my education.”
“You think that bard was telling the truth?” Doe asked. “You think Moshel’s in the schoolhouse?”
“If I was as Semadran as he is, and as hunted as he is, that’s exactly where I’d go. You know Moshel this well, and you really don’t know shit about the tinkers, do you?”
“I really don’t,” Doe said. “He won’t tell me. None but him talk to me. Secretive bunch.”
“They are, yeah.” Shoket pointed to a spire peeping out from the corner of a decrepit stone apartment building. The spire was fitted to a domed roof made of wood polished so that it gleamed in the harsh sunlight. It was not a building the Semadrans had inherited from the City, but one they had built themselves.
“That’s the schoolhouse. Tinkers are used to living close together, isolated in one tiny neighborhood. They’re too poor to have much in the way of markets. They’re not religious enough to build temples. The schoolhouse is the heart of any Semadran neighborhood: the best built, the biggest, and the most protected. You’re in trouble? Find the schoolhouse. You’re lost? Find the schoolhouse. You’re hungry? Find the schoolhouse. You’re a mouthy shaper who’s got a history of pissing off the Qin but the neighborhood loves you anyway and you need a place to lie low? Find the schoolhouse. If he’s not in there, I’d bet even money he’s out of the City altogether.”
Ok, so what do we see here? Something that basically anyone who’s ever lived in a large city knows--that there are ethnic/racial pockets within a city. Shandolin may have lived in the City her entire life, but the City she knows is not necessarily the City Shoket knows because she is one kind of elf and he is another kind of elf.
It’s easy to write secondary worlds in fantasy without any granularity or depth. It’s easy to build cultures in broad brush strokes with no depth or shading. But often what is easy to write does not necessarily make good writing. In creating the City--and its denizens--I wanted something that felt real. I wanted something that felt lived in, that felt like it had a history and had a future.
Cities are peculiar, organic things with cultures and sub-cultures that sometimes mix and blend and sometimes don’t. Shandolin, who is mouthy and strident and arrogant and passionate, was a perfect vehicle to explore all those little cold and hot spots. She barrels in, politeness or not. Sometimes that causes trouble for her, sometimes it doesn’t, but always it means she learns something. Always, at least, she’s curious.
Even restricting the setting just to a single city, I was able to embed a lot of diversity in Resistance. Shandolin visits a number of different ethnocultural pockets like this one throughout the course of the book. She also travels up and down the class ladder.
But beyond just in-universe explorations of diversity, Resistance puts its diverse characters front-and-center. The book passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and also interrogates alternative genders. Pretty much every leading and secondary character of note who kicks ass is queer. Like super queer. Many of the characters, like Shoket, are intentionally coded as people of color. Resistance is not a tourism-tokenization type book; it is a book that empowers and uplifts diversity in fiction. It just does it with elves instead of humans.
Pronouns: they/them/their. B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K-12 public education data specialist.Stay in touch with B with their newsletter, at their blog, over on facebook or follow them on twitter @B_R_Sanders.