Tidy Little Labels

Greetings, Action Force.

Let’s talk about Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest today.  Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that subtle writing is a waste of time.  Not that it isn’t cool to do, but subtle can often be too subtle.  If an artist wants people to really appreciate his work, it’s okay to simply come out and say what it’s about.  This isn’t such a bad thing because if it helps the audience appreciate it more, then cool.  And if the audience doesn’t like it, it’s unlikely an explanation is going to change that.

So today I’m going to talk about the central themes of Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest.  If you would rather not read my thoughts on that, feel free to skip this post.  If you’d rather make up your own mind about what it is (or isn’t) about, it’s cool with me.  Just because I intend something doesn’t mean you have to take that intention at face value.  You can discard it.  I don’t mind at all.

For everybody else, let’s get to it.  FYI, this is going to be a “serious” discussion.  I know a lot of people like to think of me as a frivolous, cotton candy writer, but I think a hell of a lot about what I write.  Jokes are never my intention, and as absurd as my stories might be, they aren’t meant to be empty of content or brain candy, as is so often thrown about, even by well-meaning fans.

Epic Road Quest is, above all, a novel about identity.  Both the identity we impose on ourselves and the one the larger world tries to force upon us.  It uses the mythic quest as a backdrop because it seemed the perfect place to explore that idea.

In myths, heroes and villains are usually clear cut.  When Theseus enters the Minotaur’s maze, we know who we are supposed to be rooting for, and it isn’t the cannibal monster with the bull head.  When Hercules fights the hydra, we aren’t supposed to ponder whether the creature deserves it.  It’s a monster.  He’s the hero.  End of story.

But what if that line gets a little blurry?  This is a common enough theme in my stories that no one should be very surprised by it.  I love writing about weird creatures and making them the heroes of stories, so while it isn’t always the intent, it crops up quite a bit.  But this isn’t as weird as it once was.  Vampires and werewolves can be heroes.  Evil genius squids from Neptune can be protagonists.  And even writing a story exploring what a cosmic monster might think about destroying the world isn’t all that strange at this point.

Epic Road Quest is probably the first story I’ve written that focuses on questions of identity.  Mack Megaton (The Automatic Detective) might have wrestled with his own inner demons, but society itself saw him as redeemable.  Emperor Mollusk (Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain) is viewed by the rest of his universe as a villain, but he doesn’t have any internal dilemmas because of that.  But Helen Nicolaides (Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest) is a character built to explore the dichotomy of personal versus social identity.

Helen is a minotaur.  She is also a young woman on the verge of adulthood.  While she is fortunate enough to live in a world where her condition doesn’t lead to ostracism, it comes with conflicts, both internal and external.  Because Helen’s world is much like ours (with a magical history) she has the cultural baggage that comes with it.  She knows too that she is a monster, and that a part of the world will always view her as something scary or odd.  Helen lives her whole life knowing that when she walks into a room, people are going to notice.  She doesn’t have the luxury of anonymity, of just being a normal person.

She also knows that assumptions are going to be made about her simply because how how she looks, and that a lot of those assumptions are going to be unflattering.  The book opens with two of those assumptions when her boss assumes she is a virgin and when the hamburger god assumes she is a “beast made to torment and bedevil”.  While these are both bad guy characters, there is no doubting many others would make this assumption, and it’s a safe bet that at some point, a mother clutched her child closer while Helen walked by.

To add even more difficulty to Helen’s life, she is a woman.  Let’s face it.  A lot of the qualities that might make Helen attractive from a masculine perspective work against her as a woman.  She’s too tall.  She’s large.  She has superhuman strength.  She has a cow head.  Okay, so maybe the cow head wouldn’t be considered a positive for a guy either, but otherwise, she is hardly the model of femininity that gets thrown around a lot, even for “strong” female protagonists.

Part of me would’ve loved to see Helen on the cover of the novel in the typical “strong female” dress and pose.  You know what I mean if you’ve glanced through the urban fantasy shelves.  The standard is of the heroine standing in some super sexy outfight, her hair whipping in the wind, her face with a come hither expression.  If her back is too you, she will probably have a tramp stamp of some sort (usually tribal), and her ass will be perfect and round.

Helen is not made for a cover like that, although she is certainly deserving of it.  She is meant to be attractive, and mention is made that her figure, while not a size zero, is curvaceous and appealing.  The fur, hooves, horns, and cow head might turn off a lot of guys, but then again, there are always furries, who I wasn’t aiming for while writing this book but I have no problem attracting (forgive the pun).

Helen doesn’t quite fit that kind of cover though, and not just because of the way she looks.  Helen isn’t a badass who slays demons as a hobby.  She is only a regular person who one day is chosen by an accident of fate to go on a quest.  This is the external part of expectations placed upon her, quite literally, by a larger universe.  Up to the beginning of the story, Helen has led a rather ordinary life.  It is only when she is thrust out into the larger world (quite unwillingly) that she must wrestle in even more confrontational ways with her nature versus her desires versus the desires placed upon her by the world.  It is at the heart of her conflict, and it is why, aside from watching her punch dragons and fight cyclopses, she is a character worthy of our time.

Helen is the most obvious, but nearly all the characters in this story are dealing with the exact same dilemmas.  Whether it’s Troy (“The Ideal”) or Nigel Skullgnasher and The Wild Hunt (“The Savage Horde”).  Heck, Franklin (“The Wannabe”) embodies this sometimes more than Helen.  And even Grog (The Reluctant Orc God”) is no stranger to questions of identity.

A lot of people will no doubt read Epic Road Quest as merely a clever comedy, and it is a funny book.  But a lot of that humor comes from the exploration of these struggles and paradoxes.  In a world where questing is something people actually do, what is the role of those who find themselves on quest?  How do we measure heroism?  And, most importantly, how do we view ourselves against a world that would much rather shove us into tidy little boxes?  The central arc of the story is about all the characters facing those labels and, ultimately, finding they are more than that.

So if you’re going to view Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest as anything beyond a funny little novel, view it as an exploration of identity and how you don’t have to be a monster just because you’re born with horns and hooves, and that the true value of “orcishness” isn’t found in the color of your skin or the point in your ears, but just how willingly you will jump in front of a dragon in search of glory.

Because that’s what Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is all about.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted August 26, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I had someone write a review recently where they said they couldn’t like my female protagonist because her feet are too big. Her feet are too big for the exact reason that like Helen I didn’t want her to be one of those typical heroines. I’ve had two different artists draw her and both times I had to tell them explicitly not to draw her too sexy; I guess we’re just ingrained with this idea that heroines are supposed to look like supermodels. It can be hard then to swim against that current. Given my sales I reckon I ought to have just gone with the flow.

  2. Craig
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Along those same lines I’ve always thought it would be interesting/amusing in James Bond-type film to see the female protagonist be played by a woman over forty, forty pounds overweight and not the least bit interested in the male lead because she’s already happily married. I like variety in my characters otherwise its all a cliche.

  3. Beau A
    Posted August 29, 2013 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Speaking of Helen being on the cover looking all powerful and sexy, part of me wonders, would she have breast or udders? I still need to read the book, because I’m pretty sure that question gets answered early on. At least it should.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted August 29, 2013 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      Since minotaurs are mythological and fictional creatures, it really could go either way. I went with breasts for a couple of reasons.

      The most obvious is because I didn’t want the romantic elements to get too weird.

      The story justification (if there really needs to be one) is that the original minotaur in mythology had the body of a man and the head of a bull. So Helen has mostly the body of a woman with the head of a cow and a few other secondary characteristics (fur, horns, hooves, etc).

      But ultimately, it was just a question of what worked best for the story I was trying to tell.

  4. VultureTX
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    congrats on getting Too Many Curses into mass market paperback. It really was hard to find there for a while.

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