“The Court Magician” feels like a rediscovered fable. Although close attention reveals this story’s layers, on the surface it reads like a straightforward fantasy narrative that culminates in a distinct moral lesson. What was the initial inspiration behind this story? Were there any explicit sources or other works that you intended to draw from or play against?
I wasn’t playing with any specific works. I wanted a title that was more fable-like than contemporary story, especially since the title of the piece refers not just to the boy at the center of the story, but to other people who have filled the same role and made different choices. I wanted the characters to mostly be nameless, the town and the ruler and the country to all be nameless. I started writing this in January 2017, and the political origins are probably pretty obvious.
The story tells readers that, in magic, “the trick is not enough,” but that “the illusion is in what is said and what isn’t said, the patter, the posture, the distractions.” “The Court Magician” operates much the same way—it presents a seemingly simple story, but under that guise, it is introducing and exploring deeper themes. Do you see similarities between writing and stage magic, such as both forms’ reliance on the audience to suspend disbelief, but to also still be curious enough to try to work out what’s really going on? Did the concepts of magic and misdirection influence the story’s structure or the choice to use unembellished prose?
I’m fascinated by stage magic. There’s definitely a similarity between stage magic and fiction, not just in the reliance on the audience to suspend disbelief, but also in the power of misdirection. Writers choose what readers see, and when they see it. What’s background or set, what detail will be important to the story? We control the timing of what is revealed when, and if we do it right, we reward the careful reader. Style is just one of the tools.
One theme that seems nestled within the story is a very timely examination of the cost of complicity. Here, the Regent decides which problems he wants to “disappear,” and although the court magician has no decision-making role and takes no direct physical action, his uttering of a single word enables all these problems to “go away.” The reader is never privy to that magic word, which could be as esoteric “Abracadabra” or as simple as “Okay.” Although the magician never sees the direct aftermath and never feels physical pain, after every instance of acquiescence he loses a piece of himself (often literally), his comfort, or something that he loves, until he is mangled and isolated. What is it about this theme that interests you, and what made this story the right venue to explore that?
The cost of complicity—and the willingness to be complicit—were the germs of the story. I started writing this last January, when it became obvious that the guy in the White House was going to surround himself with the worst humans possible, and people were saying, “Oh, at least ___ will humanize him.” “___ will mitigate his tendencies,” all of which was wishful thinking. And then a few months later, people were asking “Was ___ bad to begin with, or was it the job that made him bad?” And I’m not sure it matters, given what they’re doing. Does it matter if you were evil or just ambitious if the result is the same? Does it matter if you signed on with a corrupt regime to be the voice of reason if you end up doing unreasonable things? Are you redeemable? Do you deserve redemption if your remorse is based on a personal connection (“As a father of daughters . . .”) as opposed to an actual rejection of the system? Does it matter if one person resigns in personal protest if the system is still in place? I’m leaving blanks in some of those sentences because they apply to so many people. The beauty of SFF is in the way we can make these things literal.
We’re also always told that there has to be a cost to magic, so I enjoyed making the cost of magic so literal.
When readers first meet the boy who will become the court magician, what sets him apart from everyone else isn’t his lineage or innate talent, but rather his drive to understand how things work. As he ascends the ranks of the market magicians and then under the palace magicians’ tutelage, his accomplishments are like symptoms of this hunger. He turns at the end, however, when he thinks back to all the problems he has made disappear and all that he has lost, to asking “Why?” rather than “How?” Even the platitude that his “body bears the cost of peace” is no longer enough. What do you see as the relationship between power and understanding? Is the magician’s hunger for knowledge dangerous within itself, or only because he was used as a tool for the Regent?
I don’t think hunger for knowledge is dangerous; I think hunger for anything is dangerous when it allows you to be manipulated. And of course, what matters more than knowledge is what you do with it once you’ve acquired it.
In the end, our protagonist abandons his position as court magician and refuses to participate in recruiting or training the next generation of court magicians (although it appears unlikely that his mere absence will have any lasting effect). Instead, our protagonist goes off into the unknown, seemingly still looking for the answer to the trick. Even if he finds the answer, is there hope for him? What about for the rest of that society?
I’m going to leave those questions unanswered, though I’ll say that the narrator is still narrating.
Finally, what can readers anticipate seeing from you next? In addition to concrete projects and releases, are there any new and nebulous ideas that you’re just starting to explore?
I’ve got a novelette in the Twelve Tomorrows project from MIT Press, out in May, and a story in the Catalysts, Explorers & Secret Keepers: Women of Science Fiction anthology, which just came out. I’ve got some other big projects I’m excited to announce, too, but I can’t quite talk about them yet.
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