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  • Nikky Lee

Creating the rarkyn: the story behind THE RARKYN'S FAMILIAR

Silhouette of a rarkyn

When I started writing The Rarkyn’s Familiar, I knew I wanted to write a world with its own monsters, fantastic beings and fantasy races. Not the traditional elves, dwarfs, drow and the like—I didn’t want to copy or borrow—I wanted something fresh that was my own. Afterall, Tolkien created hobbits, why couldn’t I do something similar?

I’ve always loved the talking animal and animal companion tropes in fantasy. They are what made me fall in love with Narnia as a child and why I read and re-read Tamora Pierce’s series as a tween. They were what led me to Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice in my late teens where I promptly devoured the rest of the trilogy instead of studying for my uni exams (I still passed, mostly).

When I began this story, the Lord Of The Rings movie franchise was still relatively recent, and I was seeing a lot of rehashing of the traditional Tolkienist creatures—elves, dragons, dwarves. I decided I’d had enough of that—I wanted to read about fantastical races authors had invented, like the Lyrinx from Ian Irvines’ Well of Echoes and, much later, the Raksura from Martha Well’s Books of the Raksura.

So, when it came time to build my own fantasy race, I knew I wanted it to be vastly different. While elves and dwarves were fun to read, they still felt too human. They shared too many similarities, too much common ground. It was easy for them to become allies. No, I wanted a challenge, like an orc or a demon—something that had a bit of a bad rep. Something that humans would fear.

At the time, I was massively into Japanese manga, which opened the doorway for exploring beyond the classical mythologies I had grown up with. And there I noticed a common theme: bird-human hybrids. There are the tengus of Japan, Garuda of Hindu mythology, harpies from ancient Greece, the Sirin, Alkonost and Gamayun from Slavic mythology, Horace and Thoth from Egyptian mythology, and the Ekek from Philippine folklore, to name a few. I thought, why not build on that?

A painting of a dark feathered Sirin on the left and a light feathered Alkonost on the right.
Viktor Vasnetsov's "Birds of Joy and Sorrow" (1896) depicting a Sirin (left) and Alkonost (right).

Hello rarkyn. An eight-foot-tall bipedal humanoid-bird hybrid. Wings, tail, feathers, talons—all the fun. Their most notably power: the ability to shift between the material world and the Otherworld (a secondary plane enveloping the material world) at will.

Now you might ask ‘why not just use a dragon?’ My answer: while dragons are cool and tick the fear-inducing box, they have something of an invincibility about them. Whereas when I created the rarkyn, I wanted to take the monster-ness of a dragon and bundle it into something that was more vulnerable. A creature that—while fierce—wasn’t top of the food chain. To help that along, I made human magic their kryptonite, capable of trapping or harming them when they come into contact with it. By making the rarkyn vulnerable, I could then explore relatable fears within their characters, particularly when it came to their survival. Moreover, I could use their vulnerability to build empathy towards them to show readers that there is more to these monsters than meets the eye.

To really twist the vulnerability screw in, I also had rarkyn possess magical blood and body parts capable of granting certain powers to whoever consumed them. I did this for two reasons. The first was inspired by real-world poaching that sees elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers and the like hunted and killed for their various body parts—and part of this was me exploring how deeply uncomfortable this makes me. To kill not for food but for a trophy. The second reason was from a story point of view; I wanted rarkyns to have a pretty poor experience of humanity. The humans they usually encounter are those who hunt them; who would kill them and their kin for the sake of their own greed and lust for power. In their minds, that makes humans their enemy—the monsters to be feared. Which gave me a really fascinating dynamic to explore: two races—two people—who each believe the other is the monster.

When it came to the culture of the rarkyn I spent a lot of time thinking about how this race would survive in the Otherworld—a place filled will dangerous creatures that would eat a rarkyn if they got the chance. How would a pack of rarkyn deal with that? How would they navigate through this place? This led me to think about ways they might communicate while flying as a group. They couldn’t very well shout at each other; that seemed completely impractical. So, I came up with a telepathic-empathic ability to allow these people to stay connected while in flight. As a survival mechanism, it made sense. It would allow them to operate as a cohesive unit rather than as individual members of a group; it would help spread their awareness of their surroundings, and help them coordinate offensively or defensively.

I didn't want to take it full hivemind, but I wanted something close. I wanted these creatures to still be individuals able to share thoughts and feel what other members of their pack feel—be it joy, pain, grief, truth or a lie.

This led me to think about the implications of such an ability. What would a society be like if its members could feel each other's pain, could detect when someone else was lying or telling the truth, or sense the emotion behind the words being said? The conclusion I came to was that this race would likely avoid violence unless backed into a corner. Which is what makes the situation of the rarkyn more tragic: while they're fierce, they're frequently misunderstood.

As the Illredian Empire highlights my concerns about the state of our world powers, the story and concept of the rarkyn was driven by our growing us and them mentality that places the 'them' into the ‘to be demonised’ box rather than being open to dialogue and understanding. I wanted readers to reflect on what makes a monster a monster; to walk a while in a couple of monster's shoes—rarkyn, human and otherwise; to look beyond appearance and hearsay to see the person underneath.

As for whether I was successful or not, I'll leave that for you to decide.

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

The Rarkyn's Familiar advertising banner - Available from 19 April 2022

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