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  • Nikky Lee

A crumbling empire: the story behind THE RARKYN'S FAMILIAR

Map of the Illredian Empire from The Rarkyn's Familiar

When the first true chapters* of The Rarkyn’s Familiar made their way onto paper in 2009 as part of a university assignment, little did I know how much time I would be spending in the world of the Illredian Empire.

*When I say “true” here, I mean something semi recognisable to the book’s final story. I’d been playing around with the core idea for a good while longer.

In the years leading up to those chapters, I’d undergone a slow realisation of just how ugly the world could be. The US invasion of Iraq dominated news headlines across all my teenage years. Closer to home, footage of the xenophobia-fuelled riots in Cronulla, New South Wales stay with me to this day. I vividly remember the first-curling outrage at the announcement that all refugees who tried to enter Australia by boat would be put in detention. In my final year of high school, I remember listening to the personal account of a woman who was part of the Stolen Generation—taken from her family and sent to live in the orphanages at New Norcia (Content Warning: a news story of sexual abuse) where she and her sister treated horrifically.

In those crucial, most impressionable years of my youth, my childhood belief in a country and society that gave everyone “a fair go” was stripped away. Xenophobia and distrust of the other found their way onto the page in the form of my fantasy world’s laws concerning magic. Inspired by Robin Hobb’s treatment of the Witted in her Farseer series (the Witted were people with telepathic bonds to animals who were viewed as criminals and outcasts), the Illredian Empire is only a nice place if you use the “right” magic—and only if you follow the stringent laws that outline its use. Break the rules, even accidentally, and you’re in trouble. An outlaw. Vermin. Something less than.

When it came to writing the backdrop of The Rarkyn’s Familiar, I wanted to show a world power slowly slipping from its heyday. The idea of an empire crumbling drew me in, where politics and systems are more concerned about gaining and keeping power than operating for the good of its people. Initially, inspired by the fall of the Roman Republic and the famous quote from John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men...”, little did I know when I began writing this story in 2006 how much more relevant this theme would become ten years later.

In the in-between years of starting The Rarkyn’s Familiar and finishing it, I also discovered grimdark fantasy. Morally questionable characters, people in power who abused that power, gritty, violent worlds where it was less good versus evil but instead shades of grey. It was the counterpart of the high, Tolkienist, good versus evil fantasy I’d grown up reading—and it was exactly what I’d been looking for without really knowing it. I distinctly remember watching the movie of Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia and being dismayed that war was being portrayed as something heroic; that its violence was boiled down into an "us" versus "them"/good versus evil polarisation and being glorified.

War is not heroic. War is a brutal, bloody affair. It is PTSD and hypervigilance long after the front line has receded. Grimdark captures a lot of this. It reveals flaws in systems and people. Perhaps one of the biggest influences in this genre was the manga Berserk by the late Kentaro Miura where we follow the story of Guts, a cursed mercenary who is hunted by otherworldly monsters every night. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’s also slated as an enemy of the Church, which does their best to try and capture him for a portion of the series.

A panel from the Beserk manga featuring Guts the mercenary.

*NB: Berserk is very graphic (and sexually explicit). Not recommended for readers under 18.

Despite my poo-pooing the way some fantasy handles war, it’s not to say there can’t be moments of heroism within it. Just as conflict shows some of the worst sides of humanity, it can also reveal some of the best, namely loyalty, companionship, selflessness in the midst of all that death and turmoil. That was something I wanted to explore when I wrote The Rarkyn’s Familiar.

So, while The Rarkyn’s Familiar is not grimdark, its setting does have a shades of grey thread to it as well as a thread of heroism, if a bit dark and twisted. I wanted to portray a world full of magic and wanderlust that readers could be swept away in, but at the same time, immerse readers in a world where the more you see, the more the undercurrent of its ugliness becomes apparent; the thorns under the roses if you will. Recently, I came across the term Nobledark, loosely defined as a mix of grimdark and epic fantasy, and I felt it hit the nail on the head for how to describe this story. The Illredian Empire is often a nasty place and the characters are not squeaky clean, but there are moments where characters reject the ugliness rather than contribute to it.

If I were to summarise the setting of The Rarkyn’s Familiar, I’d describe it as ‘wanderlust with thorns’. In it, I strove to write a world that was both beautiful and dangerous all at once. From there, I set about telling a story of a girl who refuses to let that world trample her—and a monster who is prepared to do just about anything to survive it.


The Rarkyn's Familiar releases on 19 April 2022! Order your copy here.

The Rarkyn's Familiar banner - available from 19 April 2022.

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