Many people have had dreams of writing a novel. Still others have written novels based on dreams. But in the following email interview about his YA fantasy / sci-fi / steampunk mash-up novel Ferren And The Angel (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Richard Harland not only says both are true, but that there was also some divine inspiration as well.
To start, what is Ferren And The Angel about, and what kind of a world is it set in?
The setting is the far future, a thousand years from now, after human scientists began exploring life after death, revived the consciousness of a subject who’d died and learned that he’d been in Heaven living among angels. That leads to the biggest news sensation ever, an international competition to explore and lay claim to the First Altitude of Heaven and war between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth.
In Ferren’s time, after a thousand years of war, civilization on Earth has been destroyed, leaving only scattered ruins. The original human beings have been reduced to ignorance and degradation, living in fearful, isolated tribes. The new rulers of Earth are the artificially created Humen — Hypers, Doctors, and Plasmatics — who battle endlessly against the angels and plan an ultimate invasion to conquer Heaven.
The novel begins when junior warrior angel Miriael is shot down in a night-time skirmish and crashes to the Earth. Damaged and unable to fly, she waits for extinction.
But the young tribesman Ferren has seen her fall and goes to investigate. She ought to be his enemy, since his tribe think of themselves as allied, with the Humen on the side of the Earth. But Ferren’s curiosity and pity outweigh every rule of his upbringing. Trying to save her, he drops food and trickles water into her mouth while she lies unconscious in the grass. She survives, as no angel has ever survived in terrestrial conditions before — but she’s no longer a being of pure and perfect spirit.
The unique relationship between Ferren and Miriael will change the course of history. At first Ferren is fearful of her powers, while Miriael despises him as a low and disgusting life-form. But Miriael, for all her superior righteousness, is still better than the vicious, bullying Humen, and gradually the two of them form a strange kind of friendship.
But Ferren is then exiled by his tribe. He journeys to the Humen Camp in search of his sister and discovers what really happens to tribespeople taken by the Humen for “military service.” (No spoilers, but it’s shocking and horrific.)
He returns and rejoins Miriael as a stupendous battle looms between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth — right over his tribe’s settlement. Together, the two of them must build a shelter to protect themselves and the tribe from all the terrible psychic and spiritual forces unleashed in terra-celestial warfare.
Where did you get the idea for Ferren And The Angel? What inspired it?
This is an easy question to answer for this particular book. Ferren And The Angel had one single generative spark: It came from a dream. Seriously. I dreamed I was under a blanket, then peeked out and saw uncanny, moving lights in the night sky and heard ominous, inexplicable sounds. Suddenly I knew — the way you can know things in dreams, as though someone had told me — that this was the great war going on between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth.
I was still watching when one of the lights came hurtling down out of the sky straight towards me.
That was the moment I woke up, but I was still in that drowsy, not fully conscious state when you come out of a dream too quickly. And I decided to myself, “That must have been an angel shot down and crashing to the Earth. And she must have landed very close by. Perhaps she’s dead or perhaps she’s injured.”
I thought some more about it as I came to full consciousness. One thing I thought was, “I’ve been given the start of a novel.”And I had. It took me decades to fill out the background behind that first scene, decades of research and story-planning, and many, many drafts and versions. But through every draft and version, one thing always stayed the same: the opening scene. With Ferren the protagonist taking my place, the first ten pages of Ferren And The Angel have never varied. They were just handed to me on a plate.
Ferren And The Angel sounds like it’s an epic fantasy story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Well, it’s “epic” in the sense of vast scope, great wars, tremendous powers. It’s geography and history on an ultimate cosmic scale. But it’s not traditional epic fantasy. No knights or swords or armour — the beings in this story are much stranger than that. I’m drawing on the traditional lore of angelology for the Heavenly side; on the Humen side, I’m drawing more on horror sources. They’re everyone’s worst nightmares.
I call the book fantasy because that’s the overall mood. But it has a science fiction backstory, as I described before. It also has steampunk elements in the Humen Camp, it has surrealist elements in the landscapes through which Ferren journeys — it even has a comic-satirical strand in the rituals of Ferren’s tribe worshipping a doll, alarm clock, cigarette lighter, and flyspray can that have come down to them from their “ancestors.”
It’s fantasy in a general sense, but it doesn’t belong in any established sub-genre of fantasy. It’s one of a kind, and I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it. In terms of labels, it’s all over the place, yet I promise it hangs together perfectly in this particular world and this particular story.
I also understand that Ferren And The Angel is a young adult novel. But is it a YA novel because it’s written for young adults or is it YA because there’s nothing in it that’s inappropriate for young adults, and that old adults can enjoy it, too?
I’m glad you asked this question. And you’re spot-on with your second suggestion: it’s YA only because there’s nothing in it inappropriate for young adults. Anyone can enjoy it.
In fact, it started life as an adult novel, even though Ferren is a fifteen-year-old boy. (Miriael, as an angel, is ageless.) I took it seriously, not writing down to a young readership — I’ve never done that anyway. Ultimately, I suppose I write for myself. But Ferren is a fifteen-year-old, as is the book’s third character, Zonda, and the experiences they go through belong to their age. So when I decided the sex scenes in my first version weren’t working, the easiest way to rethink the novel without them was to rethink it as YA. But there’s no other pulling of punches — e.g. over the horror elements, which are very graphic.
Ferren And The Angel is the first book in a series called The Ferren Trilogy. What was it about this story that made you realize it needed to be told in three parts as opposed to just one? Or, for that matter, two or five or nine?
I wrote Ferren And The Angel as a stand-alone novel. No point committing to a trilogy unless a publisher says, We want more. I always knew there could be more — and as Ferren’s world deepened and widened all the way through Book 1, I felt very, very strongly that there had to be more. The sheer size of the world demanded it. But I tried not to let myself think about it too much. It was only when I got the go-ahead that the trilogy took off in my mind.
Ferren And The Angel still has all the closure it had as a stand-alone, with a thunderous, rolling climax where everything comes together in a grand finale. That’s just me. I love thunderous, rolling climaxes. I couldn’t bear to end a book with a mere whimper and a promise of to-be-continued. So that meant I had to go back over Book 1 and sow all the seeds for a second book, and then a third.
I’m really pleased with the way it’s worked out, or will work out. I have three story arcs, fully satisfying and complete in themselves, yet also growing out of one another. And each story bigger and more inclusive than the one before. Ending up with the ultimate invasion of Heaven by Earth’s armies, which has been foreshadowed from the start. But there have been many surprise revelations and unexpected developments along the way. Just how it ought to be.
Upon hearing that Ferren And The Angel is the first book of a trilogy, some people will wait until all the books are out before reading any of them, and some will also decide to read them back-to-back. But do you think people should wait? Or even wait and binge?
I think it’s fine when the earlier books of a trilogy leave you wanting more — but not so fine if you’re left dissatisfied having to wait to read the continuation of the story. That second case is where I’d want to hold back reading, myself, until I could read the whole trilogy or series or whatever. But the Ferren books belong to the first case — you may want more, I very much hope you want more, but I’m sure you wouldn’t be left dissatisfied and waiting. Each book has a complete story arc and a full pay-off at the end.
Finally, if someone enjoys Ferren And The Angel, and it’s the first book of yours they’ve read, which of your other novels would you suggest people check out next?
Worldshaker would have to be my first suggestion. It’s steampunk with grotesques; a world of monstrously cruel characters on a gigantic land-cruising juggernaut. The main characters, Col and Riff, are as unlikely a pair as Ferren and Miriael — Col from the class of the Upper Decks exploiters and Riff from the class of exploited slaves Below. Like Ferren And The Angel, the book is marketed as YA mainly because of the age of the protagonists.