Emily Tesh, World Fantasy Award Winner for her Greenhollow Duology, sat down with Grimdark Magazine and discussed her newest novel, Some Desperate Glory. The story follows Kyr, one of her generation’s best warriors, and the choices she is forced to make. It is “a thrillingly told queer space opera about the wreckage of war, the family you find, and who you must become when every choice is stripped from you.”
Emily was kind enough to answer questions about this novel, her writing, and much more.
[GdM] What is Some Desperate Glory about?
Some Desperate Glory is a story about a young woman who discovers everything she believes in is a lie. It’s about propaganda, radicalisation, deprogramming, and transformation. It imagines a world where humanity went to war against the alien threat and lost. Our protagonist, Valkyr, has grown up as part of the last resistance – or so she thinks. She has trained since childhood to avenge the murder of the Earth; but the people in power on Gaea Station, where she grew up, have other uses for her.
[GdM] What was the impetus of Some Desperate Glory, and how did it develop over time? Did you write it in the last few politically tumultuous years?
SDG is, among other things, a book about a culture so completely unable to accept that they have no right to rule the universe that they cut themselves off from the wider galaxy in order to become ever more inward-looking and obsessed with what they believe is a noble and glorious past. I am English. Frankly, I worried I was getting too close to clanging Brexit allegory, but so far not many people seem to have noticed. And then it’s a story about the ways in which authoritarian populism allows for a certain kind of man—and it is almost always a man—to claim power and use it for his own selfish satisfaction, through a combination of personal charisma and the valorisation of violence. This too is something you can see happening all around the world at the moment, if you follow the news. And it’s a story about how incredibly easy it is to manipulate and lie, to take advantage of very natural human desires—the hunger to belong somewhere, to do good in the world, and to be loved and respected—and use them to radicalize and then exploit people for your own goals. If you want to see this one happening in real time, look on the Internet.
The world worries me. I have read in recent years some beautiful utopian visions of what the future could be, and instead of comforting me, they made me more worried. It is possible to take progress for granted. 1920s Berlin was, for early 20th century Europe, a pretty good place to be a queer person. It’s been said often that dystopian fiction is about the present, not the future. SDG is a book that extrapolates—I hope logically, and without undue alarmism—from things that are already happening.
[GdM] Who is Kyr?
Kyr is the worst protagonist I could think of. She thinks she’s a leader, when in fact she’s a bully. She thinks she’s a hero, when in fact she’s a terrorist. She is desperate to be good, and she causes devastation wherever she goes. I didn’t want to write a story without hope in it. Kyr is capable of change, and she does change. But her journey is not an easy one.
[GdM] Who was the most challenging character to write?
It depends on what you mean by challenge! On a technical level, I cursed every scene where Kyr is with her squadron on Gaea Station, but that’s only because blocking group scenes is hard work in prose fiction – things that would take a single establishing shot in a TV show take two pages of writing to explain, and then you have to cut it all out again because it spoils the pace of the scene.
On the level of putting thought into it, the biggest challenge was the alien character, Yiso. They are a complex person with their own story which Kyr does not really understand or appreciate until the last third of the book. I did not want them to come across as simply a human being in an alien costume; they needed to be alien in their mannerisms, motivations, choices. But not completely alien, because Kyr’s slow realisation of Yiso’s undeniable personhood is key to her journey. In many ways their life story parallels Kyr’s, and insofar as there is a romance at all in this story, it lies in the unspoken, undefined relationship that develops between Kyr and Yiso.
On top of that, I was very aware of the trope—the trap—of the alien as nonbinary character. The culture Kyr grows up in is horrifically transphobic, and Yiso is the only member of the core cast of the story who is outside the gender binary. I did not want that choice to feel thoughtless or ill-considered to nonbinary readers.
[GdM] How did you approach writing an alien culture? Did you draw on any inspirations?
Honestly, I think alien culture hardly appears in this book. Although the idea of an alien threat is constantly present, there are very few non-human characters, and we never visit a non-human world. Ultimately the story is about human relationships and human power. I am a story-first writer, and so the two substantial alien characters—Yiso and their progenitor Leru—were developed largely in terms of their role in the story: what would be most effective, and most interesting, in challenging Kyr’s understanding of the universe?
[GdM] Silver in the Wood is based on the Green Man’s mythos. Kyr’s name, as well as Cleo, call back to famous characters in history. Do you enjoy reading myths and find them to be a source of inspiration?
I have a degree in Classics and I have spent many years teaching Latin, Greek, and ancient history. SDG more than anything else I have written draws heavily on my academic background. Particularly in my thoughts was the ancient city-state of Sparta. If you have only come across Sparta via popular depictions, you might not realise what a strange society it was. For example, the movie 300—which tells the story of the Spartan last stand against the Persian invasion of Greece at Thermopylae—presents them on their own terms, as defenders of freedom, and does not mention that the attacking Persian Empire is actually a historical example of a fairly liberal and religiously tolerant style of despotism, while the defending Spartans were the elite aristocrats of a militarised imperial ethnostate which enslaved fellow Greeks and practised a primitive form of eugenics. In ancient Sparta, newborn children were inspected by state officials, and those considered sickly or weak were exposed in the wilderness to die.
One element of Spartan society which fascinated ancient commentators was the state education system—non-existent in other Greek states—which they called agoge, cattle-raising. This system took young Spartiate boys and put them through a punishing regime of physical and moral education, all ultimately aimed at producing perfect soldiers. In doing so, they sought to break down the loyalty to the oikos—home and family—and replace it with perfect loyalty to the polis, the city, which was to say your fellow citizen-soldiers and the rulers who commanded you all in battle. Adult Spartan men were expected to visit their wives in the middle of the night, sneaking in and out of the house like criminals.
Sparta needed these perfect soldiers because it was a state caught in a perpetual war. The city’s wealth and power rested on the incident early in her history when she enslaved the entire population of the neighbouring city of of Messene. The Spartiates could afford to be professional soldiers because they had an enslaved nation doing the hard labour of subsistence farming for them; and they needed to be soldiers, because the enslaved nation might rebel at any time (and often did—eventually successfully.) They called their slaves Helots – captives – and ritually declared war against them every year. All the Ancient Greek states were slave-holding societies, of course, but only in Sparta was slavery so explicitly racialised.
I borrowed many elements of this for SDG: the perpetual, inescapable war that demands perfect soldiers; the determination to diminish and weaken any human relationship that does not serve the requirements of the state; the obsession with physical strength, expressed through population politics; and above all the essential insecurity of a regime which is fundamentally shaped by fear of rebellion and a hunger for control. The nice thing about writing science fiction is that one can assume at least some of the characters know about Earth’s history too. The education system on Gaea Station is called the agoge. The station’s leaders know exactly what they are trying to do to the young people in their society.
[GdM] More than any book I have read in years, Some Desperate Glory constantly begs readers and challenges their beliefs about these characters. Is the binary of good and evil a real thing with these characters? Or are we all shades of gray? Was this the idea of the story from the start?
I do think there is no such thing as a good person. We are all products of chance and circumstance and environment. I find this comforting, personally: chances, circumstances, and environments can change, so perhaps people can change too. Perhaps they can become better. That is the hope I wanted to explore in Kyr’s story.
[GdM] While very different in story content, your novels, Some Desperate Glory, Silver in the Wood, and Drowned Country, have a similar overall feel to me as a reader. Look closer. The expression “still waters runs deep” comes to mind. Is the prevailing theme of characters having fathoms of depth something you gravitate towards as a writer?
I enjoy character work. I think it’s one of the few places where a novel has a real advantage over a film or TV show; you can do deep dives into individual perspectives and motivations in prose narrative that you really can’t do on a screen. This works in reverse too, of course: few writers can hope to achieve the emotional impact that a perfect confluence of audio and visual can create. Anyway, I always write for character, and I usually read for character too.
[GdM] Family dynamics, in its many forms, found or otherwise, come into play in the novel. What was it like writing the tension between the family members or the love? Did you have to step away from the computer and take a breather at any scene?
The protagonist witnesses the suicide of someone dear to her at a key moment in the book. The scene seemed to write itself. I set down the laptop and stared into the middle distance for a long time when it was done.
[GdM] What is next?
I am incapable of sticking to one subgenre. I love the broad sweep of speculative fiction and I want to play with all of it. So I went from tender fantasy romance to dark space opera and now I am going from dark space opera to something much lighter and funnier, back in the realm of fantasy, with wizards and demons and competent career-focused thirtysomethings making good choices. I just wrote a book about a teenager who is repeatedly failed by every single adult she trusted, and it made me want to write the opposite – a fantasy story where no one lets the teenagers anywhere near the burden or the agony of saving the world. Imagine: what if the grown-ups behaved like grown-ups?