I’ve mentioned this briefly on here before, so here’s more about the main creative project I’ve been working on recently: a queer near-historical fantasy novel which will be going out on submission soon after a year of revising, a year and some more of drafting, and much of my life wishing someone would write a book like this, until I realised that I was going to have to. And I could.
The Month of the Tanist follows the rivalry of two genderqueer lesbian magicians in 1990s and 2000s London, struggling to keep control of a magic based on moving images, myth and stardom out of the hands of the British establishment – and each other.
Over two decades, as they discover how to master this rising magic and inspire others to work it, they’ll charge their identifications with archetypal male heroes through the ever-rising power of video and digital technology, the glamour of celebrity culture, and ancient magical laws of re-enactment. They’ll strive to remake traditions they were never supposed to belong to – or just break them apart – until one of them is offered an otherworldly alliance with a counterpart who could be her double, her lover, her adversary, or all three, and the other has every reason to want to bring her down.
As the technopagan Nineties and the shock-and-awe 2000s move into a decade of new identities and solidarities, and Britain’s bastions of wealth and imperial militarism are just as quick to keep up with the times, both women must overcome an age-old legend of duelling, doubling and replacement – the legend of the hero and the perfectly-matched heir or ‘tanist’ destined to confront him – in order to prevent a war across worlds that some of their closest allies would be all too keen to bring about.
Or, put another way: 1990s/2000s Strange/Norrell, with lesbians. Some of whom like wearing the same coats.
Two things drove me to write this novel rather than just keep imagining what form it could take: the characters whose stories I wanted to tell, when I’d almost never seen queer women and their lives at the centre of a narrative like this, and the world I wanted to create around them, where the intimacies of how we want to be seen and who we want to recognise us could be a literal as well as metaphorical magic.
When I started writing Tanist, I knew I wanted to turn the socially panoramic lens and epic sweep of historical fiction towards the culture and politics of the very recent past, which even for someone who grew up in the 1990s already feels like history.
Often, that sense of wonder comes from how fast our everyday technology has changed – and queer people, who find out so much about themselves through media that show us what we want to become before we can even name it, know particularly well that we take abilities and devices for granted today which, thirty years ago, would have felt magical.
But these have also been years when the monarchy, the military and the aristocracy – institutions of power that date back centuries and wrap themselves in tradition – have mastered turning popular culture and digital media to their own ideological ends… while they started offering queer white people, including queer white women, more space to identify with their projects of nationalism and militarism than most of us would have imagined either, thirty years ago.
The fusion of mythology, celebrity and nationhood around iconic broadcasts like the death of Diana or equally the beginning of the London Olympics isn’t too far away from some of the strategies these characters discover to amplify their own magic faster than other people’s: creating star personas or inspiring dangerous rituals of resemblance, binding ancient and modern myths to themselves and each other as performers by assembling iconic looks or manipulating light, in a city of paparazzi witches, gentrifying cabals, intergenerational found families and planeswalking magic-mirror engineers.
Of course, if the main thing anyone knows how to do with magic is cast illusions, that leaves magic in a similar position to any other creative art: in a class system like Britain’s, access to the knowledge and opportunities and networks that give people the most chance to master it isn’t going to be distributed equally, but an underground can still break through and change the boundaries of what people believe it’s possible to create… whether or not that challenges the oppressive structures around them at all.
One irresistible image I’ve carried over from my work, meanwhile, is the way academics often talk about the ‘enchantments‘ of ideologies like nationalism and militarism, which work by enticing people into complicity. Speculative fiction makes metaphors material – and, moreover, the landscapes of English mythical tradition are the very landscapes of modern British military power, like Stonehenge standing high among the Cold-War-turned-Afghan training ranges of Salisbury Plain. For most of these characters, the land is the other side’s wealth and inspiration, and a military learning to equip itself with English magic isn’t something to honour but something to oppose.
Any fantasy novel set in London is set in the capital of the empire that broke the world – and this is a book that challenges its London magicians to acknowledge that history.
The myth of rivalry I’ve organised the novel around comes from a name Robert Graves gave (or rather, over-familiarly borrowed from the history of Gaelic kingship) to the mythological trope of the hero whose companion and counterpart, the ‘tanist’, is destined to kill and replace him at the turn of the year. ‘T is the spear-month, the month of the tanist’ in the half-alphabet, half-calendar that Graves made up: the month where the successor has taken his rival’s place. Graves made the hero and his tanist rivals for the love of his own imaginary goddess, in the course of making overly merry with practically every cycle of myths he could get his hands on; anyone who enjoys queering up texts that were already full of sublimated queerness in the first place knows it gets even more interesting once you take out the third wheel.
Can we have a story where women’s desiring gazes can mean power not danger, and where one of the doubled pair doesn’t have to kill the other like they always do?
If we can, maybe we can have one where a glance or a touch can be as fateful as a duel, where the strongest alliances turn out to be forged through solidarity across diversity, where we can break out of the myths that have trapped us and reimagine the ones that showed us what we wanted to become?
I was overdue one. You might be as well.
But it’s up to two very flawed women to find a way for it not to play out the way the myths around them always said it had to do.