Jacqueline Carey’s Starless is both deeply traditional and delightfully innovative. The fantasy icon’s latest book, where gods walk the earth and soul mates exist, is told with grand ambition and mythic prose. But within her epic framework, complexity abounds—prophecy is dizzying and frustrating, a character with physical disabilities isn’t magically healed and nothing is as it seems. We talked to Carey about keeping twists under wraps, the power of found families and which of her fictional gods she would worship.
On your website, you mention that you had “mixed feelings” about other reviews revealing a very important part of who Khai is. What sorts of conversations did you have with yourself and your publisher about how to present this element to the reader?
Ah, you’ve posed this question in a nicely non-spoilery way, and answering it in kind is tricky! Honestly, I was planning to be upfront about it. As the book is written, the reader is intended to suspect the truth about Khai’s nature long before he does, and I think the inspiration behind that creative decision is a fascinating talking point. No doubt some readers will think it’s a very contemporary postmodern choice, while in fact its roots lie in a rather unexpected place. (Pssst! If you’re curious, Google the term bacha posh.)
However, when Khai does learn the truth, it’s a huge, impactful revelation, and it was my editor, Claire Eddy, who pointed out that we ran the risk of depriving the reader of sharing in the emotional impact of that seminal moment of our hero’s journey. So we chose not to include the reveal in the cover copy or PR material and let the chips fall where they may when it came to reviews.
You mention that Starless both works within and actively subverts many tropes of the fantasy genre—I heartily agree! Do you think the genre has become too reliant on these tropes?
In some ways, yes, absolutely. As someone who loves fantasy, I want to be inspired and exalted; I want to read books that make me wish I’d written them. Work that operates solely within the framework of existing tropes doesn’t do it. Yet at the same time, there’s a comfort food factor. Sometimes you want a good old-fashioned PB&J sandwich. Sometimes you want to curl up on the couch and read something that feels familiar and reassuring because it ticks all those boxes—and not in a twisty, subversive way.
I may only be saying that because I binge-watched “Iron Fist” last year when I was home alone with a miserable head cold. Not my proudest moment.
Something you do in Starless that I love is that you examine what it might be like to see the future. It might mean lying to your student or not revealing a companion’s true fate to ensure Brother Yarit’s “If this, then that,” equation plays out. Is writing about prophecy confining or liberating?
A couple of years ago, I had the chance to contribute to a Cards Against Humanity fantasy extension pack as part of Patrick Rothfuss’ Worldbuilders fundraising, and I was disappointed that one of my favorite suggestions, “Goddamn passive aggressive wizards,” wasn’t chosen for the final version. Inexplicably cryptic wizards, druids and seers of all ilk have annoyed me for ages. So I suppose one might consider Brother Yarit an explicitly cryptic seer! I tried to convey in a visceral manner what it might be like to see all those crossroads and possibilities, to sense the mental dexterity it would take to surf those waves, as well as the weight of that responsibility.
On the whole, I’d say it’s more confining than liberating to write about prophecy, as each choice does narrow one’s possibilities. But I’ve never minded working within strictures.
I can tell you had fun creating some of the gods in Starless. If you were an acolyte of any of them, which would you choose?
Probably one of those who only gets a passing reference, like Johina the Mirthful. Or possibly Aardo the Intoxicated!
The idea of family gets several different definitions over the course of the narrative. Did writing about Khai and his companions’ quest inform how you think about families?
In contemporary society, one thinks about the families into which we’re born, the families into which we marry or otherwise bind our lives, our work families, the families of choice that we create for ourselves. Writing this did make me think about the way a shared destiny—and a very extreme experience—forges unlikely familial bonds.
Let’s talk a bit about Zariya. How did you decide that you wanted to give her a physical handicap? Did any of your choices for her in the story change as a result?
Sometimes character decisions are conscious; other times, not so much. This time, it was the latter. Zariya’s physical disability was simply a part of her backstory and who she was. But I will say that I’m so, so very grateful to have read several of author Nicola Griffith’s discussions of what she calls “crip lit” during the writing of Starless. Griffith has an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis—I have friends and family members with MS, and while it sucks across the board, some forms are definitely more debilitating than others—and in recent years has been writing candidly about the difficulties it engenders, as well as opening up a conversation about the depiction of characters with a wide range of disabilities.
Before reading on this topic from the perspective of a variety of people with first-hand experiences, I was thinking, oh, perhaps I will magically cure Zariya! And then she can walk, yay! And be better equipped to save the world! Reading these conversations made me realize, “Whoa, that’s a lousy trope and a cheap-out, and it’s offensive! Do not do it!”
I did equivocate a little bit, because for narrative purposes I needed to unblock Zariya’s chi, basically. But I didn’t make her fully able-bodied and having a character that’s unable to, say, traverse uneven terrain at speed when in a life-or-death situation created some interesting challenges. And I think how those challenges are met speaks to both Zariya’s inner strength and courage, as well as the idea of unlikely families.
What do Rhamanthus seeds taste like? Would you take one, given the chance?
Rock-hard pomegranate seeds. And I want to say no, but I imagine that’s something one never knows for sure until the option is presented.
When you reflect on the time you spent writing, what passages or sequences do you remember most vividly?
In Starless, it’s a toss-up. Khai learning that he’s bhazim, and that word echoing over and over in his head. Zariya’s ordeal inside the Green Mother’s hut on Papa-ka-hondras . . . eeek! The Hieronymous Boschian nightmare of the risen dead at the end of the world.
There are probably readers out there with whom Khai’s personal conflict will resonate more than others. Do you have any advice or thoughts about coming to peace with yourself, whatever doubt you might be feeling inside?
Just be kind to yourself; be gentle and patient. Understanding your own identity is a lifelong process, and it’s one that’s in a constant state of evolution. Who you are today doesn’t have to be dictated by who you were yesterday, nor does it have to determine who you are tomorrow.
In the final passage, Khai and Zariya are on their way back to the Fortress of the Winds. What do you think Brother Yarit would tell them when they arrive?
“Nice work, kid. Did you bring me any oranges?”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Starless.
Author photo by Kim Carey.