Originally written as an experimental exploration of a young man’s life growing up under imperial rule, local author Jeremy TeGrotenhuis’s debut fantasy trilogy has expanded into a world-spanning adventure full of magic, religion, politics and philosophy. Acquired by U.K. publishing house Gollancz this month, the first installment, “The Hand of the Sun King,” is slated for release Aug. 5.
Wen Alder is close to taking the imperial examinations, the first step to becoming Hand of the Emperor and learning to wield the empire’s legitimate magic. It has been years since his grandmother showed him her forbidden witchcraft, before she abandoned him to join the resistance.
Alder’s path will take him from lowly student to empire sorcerer, force him to choose between his country and his family and lead him toward uncovering the truth: that an even greater war is being waged than that against the resistance, a war that is magical rather than mundane into which he might, willingly or not, find himself drawn.
A lifelong writer and history enthusiast, TeGrotenhuis’s imagination is constantly swimming with inspiration.
Some fantasy authors, he explained, waste a lot of time trying to create a secondary world with secondary cultures that are totally new and uninspired by the real world, and, despite their best efforts, they can’t help but subconsciously steal ideas from history.
Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay once said fantasy writing is looking at history and taking a quarter turn into the fantastic, TeGrotenhuis remembered, explaining his alternate approach.
TeGrotenhuis is fascinated by philosophy, ancient history and their mutual influence. The connections between his postmodern philosophy and history courses stuck with him and continue to inspire his writing.
“(The way) we conceive of identity and what our sense of self in a certain place at a certain time in community with other people is not inherent to us. It’s a product of a lot of forces acting on us that are beyond our control both historical and cultural,” he said.
And, as TeGrotenhuis was processing all of these forces, an idea began to form about a young man growing up in a conquered state, simultaneously working his way into the imperial government while trying not turn his back on his own culture.
“What it would be like to, to have this bifurcated childhood where you’re learning your own culture, but you’re also learning the imperial culture that you’re going to have to master in order to successfully live in this material world,” he said.
After focusing on Chinese culture and history for the majority of his undergraduate education at Whitworth University and living in Taiwan for a time after graduating in 2014, his well of inspiration was just begging to be drawn.
“I wanted to tell a story about an empire, but I didn’t want it to be the Roman Empire,” he said. “And I felt like I knew as much about China – especially the Ming Dynasty – as I did about Rome or Great Britain, so that was my starting point.”
TeGrotenhuis primarily writes fantasy fiction, so, of course, there had to be a little magic thrown in, as well. In this case, however, “thrown in” doesn’t do it justice.
In the series, religion and magic are totally integrated. Each imperial state has its own religion in addition to the imperial overarching religion just as each culture has its own way of accessing that system and using magic.
In other words, he favors complex or “hard magic” systems as opposed to ambiguous or “soft” systems like that in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“I’m more interested in creating something similar to how science is done, where we have some access to the reality, but we are constantly unpacking and discovering new things,” he said. “There are baked-in rules and limitations and a system behind what the characters are able to understand about it.”
When he isn’t writing about sorcerers and conquest, TeGrotenhuis teaches English at Innovation High School, a project-based Spokane charter school.
Writing informs and serves his teaching and vice versa, he explained – sometimes more literally than others. Last year, for example, he was able to teach one of his more recently published works as part of a unit on short stories.
It fit the theme perfectly, he said, remembering a joking conversation with a colleague about the morality of making his students read his work. In this case, they decided, it was.
“You don’t always understand that the things you’re reading were written by real people out there in the world somewhere, and it’s something that you could do,” he said. He was thrilled when several of his students were inspired to start writing their own stories.
To aspiring authors, TeGrotenhuis echoes Stephen King’s advice in “On Writing.”
“You have to be persistent; you have to not be satisfied with where you’re at. If I write something, and it’s not better than the last thing I wrote, I’m not happy with it.”
“The No. 1 thing is you just have to keep writing a lot. I think that’s kind of cliche. But … if you want to be a professional writer, you have to read a lot, and you have to write a lot. If you’re not reading a lot, and you’re not writing a lot, you’re not on the path. If what you’re writing is bad, keep doing it. Being bad is the first step toward being good.”
For information and a list of his recently published short stories, visit jeremyteg.com.
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