My own fantasy novels tend to include vast landscapes and large casts of characters, and it would seem incredible (as in implausible) to me—as though something vital were inexplicably missing—if such an integral part of life as the search for love were left out.
In fact, I think that the subject of love must be an obsession of mine. Not just romantic love, but the deepest bonds of friendship, and the love between parents and children, brothers and sisters. Intact families used to be rare in fantasy. Many authors slaughtered the hero or heroine’s entire family, or clan, or village, in the epilogue or the opening chapter, just wiped them off the stage in one single brutal swipe, so that their characters could concentrate on having adventures without worrying about such questions as who was going to stay home and watch the baby. (The obvious answer is, of course, that when disaster strikes and adventures are unavoidable you have to take the baby with you, and that makes everything a good deal more complicated and challenging, as I found when writing the second Celydonn trilogy.)
These days, when authors may provide their protagonists with large families, it sometimes seems as though they do so just so that they might have the pleasure of killing them off, one or two at a time, over the course of several volumes. We may be entering an era where instead of starting out as orphans, the protagonists, over the course of several books, achieve orphandom, or have orphandom thrust upon them.
But the great enduring tales, the classical and medieval epics, and the fairy tales we all remember, usually center around families: the rivalries between brothers fighting over a crown, the evil stepmothers plotting to advance their own children at the expense of their stepchildren, the adulterous love triangles . . . what are these but family dramas? Some of these plots are staples of modern fantasy and are not unknown to science fiction (particularly in movies and on television), which is not surprising since those same old stories make up a family tree of which modern speculative fiction is but one branch, but they also turn up with great frequency in soap opera—though the kings have become tycoons and the kingdoms corporations. So many popular characters in soap opera marry so many times, there is never any shortage of step-families, either.
In romance novels, families have always been very present indeed. Even if one party is orphaned and/or an only child it is likely that the other is abundantly provided with relatives. And if the characters are short on nuclear family, then they usually have aunts and uncles and cousins to fill in: sometimes loving and supportive, sometimes very much the opposite. One familiar theme is how the still-resonating effects of old family traumas provide obstacles on a heroine or hero’s way to believing in and accepting true love. Historical romances, in particular, draw on blended families, arranged marriages, lost heirs (who don’t stay lost forever), elopements, tyrannical parents, scheming relatives, and feuds between and within families.
And in any tale of epic proportions—whatever the genre—it would be strange indeed if none of these elements were to occur. Epics and family dramas have always gone together, and the same kinds of plots that stirred our ancestors centuries ago continue to resonate for us. Which is not surprising, because these same elements, even when exaggerated, do reflect enduring truths about the human condition.
In times of crisis, when life becomes incredibly hard, that’s when family loyalties are tested, when already existing tensions can grow to huge proportions. A family facing enormous challenges or heartbreak can either grow closer or fall completely apart. Divorce often follows on a tragedy, yet other families just become stronger. When the decision has to be made about taking on the care of an elderly and ailing parent, this is one of those times when we discover who we can really rely on, as some people disappoint us and others rise to the occasion in the most unexpected and inspiring ways. When financial disaster strikes and we find ourselves without a roof over our heads, will our relatives provide us with temporary shelter? Again there may be surprises in those who are willing to sacrifice their own comforts to save a family member from living on the street . . . and those who could do so with the least convenience but find a thousand excuses not to offer.
In a novel, the challenges, the happy surprises, the disillusionments, may differ in magnitude from anything that we ourselves may ever experience, but they don’t differ in their essence or in the emotional costs.
I am happy to be able to say that in our first two books from Venus Ascending, Beneath the Skin by Carolyn Hill and The Beguiler by Suzanne Jackson, these family dynamics are much in evidence: the jealousies, tensions, and rivalries; the dirty family secrets; but also the loyalties and the love that give us the strength to survive, even when it almost seems like survival isn’t worth the effort.