I remembered Nahadoth's lips on my throat and fought to suppress a shudder, only half succeeding. Death as a consequence of lying with a god wasn't something I had considered, but it did not surprise me. A mortal man's strength had its limits. He spent himself and slept. He could be a good lover, but even his best skills were only guesswork - for every caress that sent a woman's head into the clouds, he might try ten that brought her back to earth.
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It was very bad if the council had resorted to recruiting men. By tradition men were our last line of defence, their physical strength bent towards the single and most important task of protecting our homes and children. This meant the council had decided that our only defence was to defeat the enemy, period. Anything else meant the end of Darre.
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Suffering is part of life, ' she said. 'All the parts of life are jumbled up together; you can't separate out just the one thing.' She parred his hand again, kindly. 'I could let you kill me now, lovely man, and have peace and good dreams forever. But who knows what I get instead, if I stay? Maybe time to see a new grandchild. Maybe a good joke that sets me laughing for days. Maybe another handsome young fellow flirting with me.' She grinned toothlessly, then let loose another horrible, racking cough. Ehiru steadies her with shaking hands. 'I want every moment of my life, pretty man, the painful and the sweet alike. Until the very end. If these are all the memories I get for eternity, I want to take as many of them with me as I can.
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The younger man stepped away from the table and came toward me, his whole posture radiating menace. Every Darre woman is taught to deal with such behavior from men. It is an animal trick that they use, like dogs ruffling their fur and growling. Only rarely is there an actual threat behind it, and a woman's strength lies in discerning when the threat is real and when it is just hair and noise.
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He was dead again when I got home that day. His corpse was in the kitchen, near the counter, where it appeared he'd been chopping vegetables when the urge to stab himself through the wrist had struck. I slipped on the blood coming in, which annoyed me because that meant it was all over the kitchen floor.
And once upon a time I wondered: Is writing epic fantasy not somehow a betrayal? Did I not somehow do a disservice to my own reality by paying so much attention to the power fantasies of disenchanted white men? But. Epic fantasy is not merely what Tolkien made it. This genre is rooted in the epic - and the truth is that there are plenty of epics out there which feature people like me. Sundiata's badass mother. Dihya, warrior queen of the Amazighs. The Rain Queens. The Mino Warriors. Hatshepsut's reign. Everything Harriet Tubman ever did. And more, so much more, just within the African components of my heritage. I haven't even begun to explore the non-African stuff. So given all these myths, all these examinations of the possible... how can I not imagine more? How can I not envision an epic set somewhere other than medieval England, about someone other than an awkward white boy? How can I not use every building-block of my history and heritage and imagination when I make shit up? And how dare I disrespect that history, profane all my ancestors' suffering and struggles, by giving up the freedom to imagine that they've won for me.
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There is a strange emptiness to life without myths. I am African American - by which I mean, a descendant of slaves, rather than a descendant of immigrants who came here willingly and with lives more or less intact. My ancestors were the unwilling, unintact ones: children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language. Past a certain point, my family's history just... stops. As if there was nothing there. I could do what others have done, and attempt to reconstruct this lost past. I could research genealogy and genetics, search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche. I could also do what members of other cultures lacking myths have done: steal. A little BS about Atlantis here, some appropriation of other cultures' intellectual property there, and bam! Instant historically-justified superiority. Worked great for the Nazis, new and old. Even today, white people in my neck of the woods call themselves 'Caucasian', most of them little realizing that the term and its history are as constructed as anything sold in the fantasy section of a bookstore. These are proven strategies, but I have no interest in them. They'll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I'm going. To figure that out, I make shit up.
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So here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what's been taken from us or what poison we've internalized or how hard we've had to work to expel it - - we all get to dream.
J. R. R. Tolkien, the near-universally-hailed father of modern epic fantasy, crafted his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings to explore the forces of creation as he saw them: God and country, race and class, journeying to war and returning home. I've heard it said that he was trying to create some kind of original British mythology using the structure of other cultures' myths, and maybe that was true. I don't know. What I see, when I read his work, is a man trying desperately to dream. Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don't have enough myths of our own, we'll latch onto those of others - even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it's human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.
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So there was love, once. More than love. And now there is more than hate. Mortals have no words for what we gods feel. Gods have no words for such things. But love like that doesn't just disappear, does it? No matter how powerful the hate, there is always love left, underneath. Horrible, isn't it?
The Cloud Roads has wildly original worldbuilding, diverse and engaging characters, and a thrilling adventure plot. It's that rarest of fantasies: fresh and surprising, with a story that doesn't go where ten thousand others have gone before. I can't wait for my next chance to visit the Three Worlds!
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