I’ve been working off and on with the story that is now the Shard of Elan series for fifteen years, and it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I realized Shard & Shield is misnamed.
In the novel, a natural artifact is needed to power a shielding spell to protect a land ravaged by magical raids. This arcane shield blocks an interdimensional magical race from entering the human world. The shield is key to the humans’ safety. (This is a problem when it’s then broken, but that’s how stories go.)
But this titular shield is far from the only shield in the story. I realized that most of the character interaction (and hence plot) hinges on the many, many shields they have each erected.
Shields are for protection, and that’s generally a good thing. When inhuman magical monsters attack to take the food you need to survive, defending yourself is the right action.
Sometimes shields are a result of trauma. Someone who has experienced abuse or betrayal will be cautious about exposing himself for further abuse. This is a natural defense, but it can also make emotional healing more difficult.
But sometimes we protect what we don’t need to protect, or what shouldn’t be protected, such as social status or a more flattering view of oneself. It can be hard to tell at a glance such a shield’s true purpose or effect—is a barrier to the immoral a protection for the vulnerable moral, or a refusal of redemption?—or even hard to identify shields so common and so assumed that they become invisible, given the same immutable rule as gravity, and thus often even more impenetrable than a visible wall.
Barriers are the opposite of bonds, and in a fractured society with many invisible shields, there are as many fissures to exploit. Someone who cannot work with a group finds it easier to work against that group. Someone who is excluded is an easy target for abuse or exploitation. It becomes more difficult to see the motivations, needs, and fears of others—or to obscure them in the name of defending one’s own needs or wants.
In this way, shields become offensive weapons. They’re like the AT Fields of Evangelion, which are considered purely defensive until they are used to take down satellites and tanks.
(Evangelion spoiler: the AT stands for “absolute terror” and is literally a manifestation of the distrust and fear of connection which separates souls. AT Fields are then used for destruction in the name of protecting humanity. Nearly twenty-five years later, it’s still possibly one of the most concise illustrations of today’s politics.)
It’s been said there aren’t traditional villains in Shard & Shield, despite it being an epic fantasy. The war is terrible, but the reader is sympathetic to both sides. People do terrible things, but they are often motivated by what seems to them good reason. I would say there are definitely villains! but they are not necessarily characters. The evils in the story are not people, but the concepts people choose and then wield against one another, creating conflict which spreads and generates greater conflict. Even the most-hated character is acting in self-defense, with awful effects on those around him.
I feel this is a more realistic depiction of conflict. Not that evil doesn’t exist; it certainly does, and we can observe that. But as Good Omens (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett) succinctly and snarkily puts it:
“…most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”
Evil doesn’t have to work as hard when we already prefer to fracture ourselves with distrust or resource-guarding, making fear-aggression and neighbor-exclusion our default behaviors.
And when a situation truly is evil, our exclusionary barriers and defenses may actually make it easier for that evil to gain a foothold. As playwright Steven Dietz noted in the classic tale of an incarnate evil, Dracula:
Most of the characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula spend the better part of the book trying desperately—with the absolute best of intentions—to keep secrets from one another. Their reasons have to do with safety, honor, respectability, and science. But every secret buys the vampire more time. Every evasion increases the impossibility of anyone assembling the totality of the facts, the cumulative force of the information. Secrecy breeds invasion. Darkness begets darkness.
In Shard & Shield, every advancement, every achievement happens when a character is bold enough to break through an established barrier, to push past a social or personal hurdle to do something that should not, by traditional wisdom, have been done. Of course, pushing past barriers and inhibitions can also trigger awful events, because sometimes those barriers and inhibitions are shields to protect from real consequences. Discernment is important. But without the willingness to try, and to take risks in opening to others, nothing good would happen, either.
Whew—even as an author I’d never thought of my story this way, much less written it all out like this, and I hope it does not sound ridiculously pretentious now! But I believe fantasy allows us to explore reality more realistically, if you will, by letting us view real issues from a different and safely distant angle. Thinking about the shields we all carry, and which are necessary and which are harmful, might help us in real life, both when we are called to answer the question of, “Who is my neighbor?” or when we are tempted to shield against help or friendship or other good things in the name of defense.
Shard & Shield is available now. Lorehaven magazine says:
“Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s Shard & Shield pursues classic fantasy visions of magic, alien creatures, and troublesome royalty. Its alien Ryuven are well-crafted, and similar enough to humans for empathy and dissimilar enough to be interesting. . . . Shard & Shield will intrigue readers with its world-building and complex relationships.”