May 2023

L.R. Lam knows what fantasy romance needs: dragon shifters

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The start of a new series, Dragonfall is an enemies-to-lovers romance between a sexy dragon and a clever thief.
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Centuries ago, the humans of Lumet banished dragons. But in a ritual gone wrong, shape-shifting thief Arcady accidentally lets the last male dragon back into the world. Trapped in human form while on this side of the Veil, Everen is intent on ripping apart the Veil between worlds so that his people can return, but the dragon finds himself forging a surprising bond with Arcady.

There is such a great balance between romance and fantasy in Dragonfall. How do you envision this evolving as you continue the trilogy?
From the beginning, it was always meant to be a pretty equal balance. I absolutely love “romantasy,” as it’s been coined. I decided to try my hand at it because I thought it would be really fun to essentially smuggle a paranormal shifter romance into a fantasy setting with a lot of history and lore and see if I could get away with it. I really love playing with romance tropes, too, so I sprinkled in enemies-to-lovers and made it so the characters are in forced proximity but can’t really physically touch, which resulted in a lot of slow burn. I’m not opposed to it shifting more one direction or the other as I go on; it’ll end up being whatever best serves the story, I expect.

“I’m not good with binaries in general—shades of gray are far more interesting.”

When talking about this book, you’ve mentioned writers like Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey, both of whom have created iconic dragons. Were there any fictional dragons that were particularly inspirational to you?
I have been wanting to write my own take on dragons for ages, but it took awhile to find my angle (which was apparently making them turn into quite hot not-quite-humanoids, giving them feathers like dinosaurs, and having them reproduce via parthenogenesis and be mostly female due to rising temperatures in a dying world). Dragons are, after all, the ultimate fantasy creature, but I always wanted to know more. In many stories and myths, dragons are the monsters to be slain, or creatures that were in some way fundamentally unknowable. I knew early on that I wanted to tell this story partly from a dragon’s point of view. What would a dragon society be like?

When I was younger, I was very into Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. As you mentioned, Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey have some of my favorite dragons. There are also, of course, the dragons in “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon.” Other big inspirations were Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale, which have dragons that turn into humans as well. More recently, I adored The Priory of the Orange Tree by the incredibly talented Samantha Shannon. I enjoyed Julie Kagawa’s Talon series as well. I’m also inspired by film, and one of my comfort movies is the Russian film I Am Dragon, which has gorgeous fairy-tale aesthetics and a dragon learning how to be human who seemingly never learns to wear a shirt.

Dragonfall by L.R. Lam jacket

What were you reading while you were writing Dragonfall, and in general, how do you approach reading while writing?
I see reading and writing as intrinsically linked and believe that part of my job is to read both the classics that came before and the work that’s coming out now. I feel like we’re in a new golden age of fantasy. While drafting Dragonfall, I reread some old favorites such as The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, some Mercedes Lackey and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (a big influence on me merrily using first-person direct address for Everen’s point of view). And I read new titles such as Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, The Unbroken by C.L. Clark, The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart and more. I also read history, science fiction and nonfiction and listened to audiobooks and podcasts about all sorts of things—writers should always just be magpies and pick up anything shiny, in my opinion.

One of the central plot points in Dragonfall is the Strikes, a disease that gives people black markings on their skin and interferes with their ability to use magic. What were your inspirations for this disease and for how your society responded to it?
I was inspired by the Black Death, which had several resurgences, and by how the radical reduction in population shifted medieval society. The peasant class changed, feudalism’s days were numbered and you had more people moving from the country to the cities, particularly London. I also really liked the idea of there being such a heavy cost to using too much magic. However, I wrote most of the book during the U.K.’s various COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, so that inevitably had an impact, intentionally or otherwise.

As a reader, rather than a writer, do you gravitate toward stories where who the “good guys” are depends on where you’re standing, or ones with a consistent villain? Why?
As a reader, I’ve always found unambiguously good or evil characters a little boring, I have to say. I’m not good with binaries in general—shades of gray are far more interesting. I love antagonists who believe they are the hero or who are doing things that aren’t necessarily evil. I also love a good corruption or redemption arc. Antagonists in stories can exist to remind you that, under the right circumstances, you could very well turn into a villain yourself. Or other people might make you a villain in their minds, even if it’s not necessarily rooted in your actions, because it’s an easier narrative to tell themselves. In the right light, a hero could make a terrible decision in the name of “the greater good.” The greater good doesn’t mean much to the people who suffer the actual negative consequences of that decision. It’s rarely as simple as the Chosen One versus the Dark Lord or good always triumphing over evil.

 “All art is political, even if it chooses to uphold the status quo.”

What appealed to you about creating a signed lingua franca like Trade?
I always wondered why sign language isn’t taught by default in schools. It would make society a lot more accessible for deaf people, and it would have so many other useful applications. In a world where there was a more standardized sign language dialect, you could at least communicate basic things across language divides. Inevitably, things would be lost in translation or nuance would be lost, but you’d have an easier starting point. So I imagined that Trade arose as a result of needing to haggle at markets, though it can also be used for things as innocuous as telling your friend what drink to order from the other side of a crowded tavern or as important as clarifying your gender.

Your magic system is one where language can directly alter the world, and that idea harmonizes beautifully with the nuanced ways you handled gender and status. Is that a connection you see as well? What was important or meaningful to you about exploring the power of language?
I had a reader message me asking if I was a linguist because of the choices I made in Dragonfall, which delighted me. I’m not, but I made a lot of deliberate decisions about how language functions in Lochian society, so this is a nice excuse to geek out about it a little. Humans recite spells, which are really mangled words of the dragons’ language, Celenian. (This greatly offends Everen the dragon.) I worked with a linguist, my friend Seumas MacDonald, who created Celenian as a working language, and we’ll keep developing it over the series. Language can be such a tool of power, as Babel by R.F. Kuang demonstrates so beautifully. Humans already stole dragons’ magic and their world. Stealing their language to wield that magic without even remembering what their ancestors did is salt in the wound.

In Loc, it’s considered rude to assume a stranger’s gender, no matter how they present. A percentage of society can shape-shift, and healing magic can change a fair amount about the body, so biology isn’t seen as something immutable and unchanging, and gender roles are likewise fluid. You therefore default to “they” until that person quickly flashes their gender in Trade, often not even breaking the conversation. It’s a sign of trust and familiarity, like when you switch from the formal to informal “you” in languages like French and Spanish.

Status is also important. If you really respect someone or they’re higher class than you, you capitalize They and there’s a certain inflection to spoken speech. So nobility, clergy, rich merchants or guilders, or those who teach at the university might all be referred to with that honorific. You see it playing out in characters’ attitudes as well: One of the characters, priest assassin Sorin, uses They for most people she meets because she sees everyone as higher status than her, whereas Arcady, a genderfluid thief who despises a lot of the nobility and rages against society’s unfairness, largely refuses to use that honorific for the rich.

Read our review of ‘Dragonfall’ by L.R. Lam.

If you had a choice of dropping into this world, would you choose to be a human or a dragon?
Oh, dead easy. No contest. Why be human when you could be a dragon? And fly?

How do you balance aspiration and escapism with social critique in your work?
When I’m teaching, I ask new writers to consider this, too. I sigh a bit when people complain about “politics in their fantasy” as if it’s something new. All art is political, even if it chooses to uphold the status quo. In epic fantasy, there’s often a strong pro-monarchy angle, for example, and gender roles can be regressive in the name of “historical accuracy” despite these medieval-inspired worlds having things like potatoes and, you know, magical creatures. Those are political decisions, technically. That said, you don’t want to have a diatribe, either. It can be a difficult balance, and no writer will get it right for every reader. Fantasy can defamiliarize elements of our world or society, but it does it at more of a distance than contemporary fiction. The mirror is distorted.

For Dragonfall, I tried to focus on story and character first. As I mentioned, in Loc there’s no judgment in regard to sexuality or gender, whereas another country, Jask, is patriarchal. I suppose it is still subversive to imagine a world that tolerant, even in fantasy. I wrote Dragonfall as an escape when I was stuck inside most of the time. We’re seeing rising threats to transgender and reproductive rights, and the rhetoric and vitriol is honestly quite frightening, both in my original home of the U.S. and my current home in the U.K. This book is launching when queer books are increasingly getting banned. Even saying this in this interview makes me a little anxious. Are people going to say I’m banging on about politics instead of just focusing on the book? But I can’t exactly separate them out.

I obviously hope readers enjoy meeting these characters and falling into the world of the Lumet, but perhaps the book will make them think, too.

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By L.R. Lam
ISBN 9780756418410

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