Stolen Songbird has to be one of my favourite books, pretty much ever. That’s why I’m utterly thrilled to host author Danielle L. Jensen, talking about identity, as part of her massively amazing blog tour. With Stolen Songbird still a wee ways off, I’m hoping a refresher of the epic review I wrote, and a little time with Danielle will make you zip over to your local store or clickity-click to your favourite online bookstore and pre-order this baby. Trust me: Stolen Songbird will take your breath away. Never mind the fact that Danielle is just fabulous herself~
A Question of Identity
I’m currently in the throes of drafting the second book of The Malediction Trilogy; and for the purposes of maintaining continuity, I recently took the time to reread Stolen Songbird after a long hiatus away from it*. I was struck by how deeply the novel was influenced by the topics I was studying in University at the time I was drafting the novel. My primary focus in my English degree was 17th century literature, the lion’s share of which was obviously dedicated to Shakespeare. I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone this, but in the early days of drafting Stolen Songbird, Tristan’s character was inspired by Prince Hal from Henry IV, Part I; so when Leo asked me to write a post about identity, I knew that it would be Tristan whom I wanted to talk about.
In Shakespeare’s play, Prince Hal first appears on scene in a disreputable tavern where he is drinking, joking, and whoring with his lowbrow friends. While he certainly comes off as clever, he does not seem to possess any of the characteristics desirable in a future king. However, at the end of the scene, he addresses the audience in a monologue and informs them that his behaviour is all an act. That he is pretending to be horrible so that when he finally shows his true character to the world, it will seem all the more brilliant by comparison**. This idea really stuck with me, so much so that I had parts of the monologue included in Stolen Songbird’s prologue where Tristan is having a conversation with his aunt. The prologue didn’t make it into the book, but here’s a snippet of it:
“You’ll need to make your move soon, Tristan,” my aunt said, as though sensing my thoughts. “If you wait any longer, he’ll start to expect it. Never underestimate the value of surprise.”
My eyes flickered up, and I felt a flash of concern that we’d been overheard. I watched Mother’s reflection in a mirror on the far wall, her eyes staring vacantly at the gold coin in her hands. I’d given it to her earlier to keep her quiet while Aunt and I played. She wasn’t listening – she rarely did – but the last thing I needed was her innocently parroting our words back to my father.
“Or underestimate the honour of a forthright attack,” I said softly.
My aunt grimaced. “What is honour? A word. And the dead neither feel nor hear it.”
“Do not quote dead poets at me,” I retorted, but her point was a valid one. “I’ll proceed when it is prudent to do so.”
“My fear,” she said, blowing on her steaming tea, “is that when the time comes, you will have ceased to be the correct man for the task.”
A frown creased my brow. Moments ago, she’d called me a boy, now a man. It would not be a mere slip of the tongue. With my aunt, every word counted.
“You’ve played this role for a very long time, Tristan,” she said. “But how long must an actor play a character in fiction before he becomes the character in truth? In both his heart and in those of his people.”
I shrugged. “I’ll so offend to make offence a skill / Redeeming time when men think least I will.” I could quote the dead just as well as she.
“You’re nearly seventeen – the time for your redemption has come.”
“No,” I said, rising to his feet and crossing the room. “Not yet.” My light drifted over to illuminate the painting in front of me, but I stared blindly, not seeing. Not yet, but soon, and the very thought of the actions I’d take brought fear to my heart. And sadness: whether I succeeded or failed, I would lose a great deal. I wasn’t ready, not nearly ready enough.
Tristan’s aunt is concerned that he’s been pretending to be certain person for so long that he’s actually starting to become that person, and she isn’t wrong. Tristan’s enemy, the Duke d’Angoulême, tells Cécile much the same thing when he says, “the boy has been playing something he is not for so long that sometimes I wonder if he remembers who he really is.” Tristan knows he doesn’t want to be anything like his father, he knows he needs to pretend to be a certain way to keep the revolution a secret, and he knows the sort of King he wants to be in the future. But he really doesn’t know who he is right now.
Tristan’s friends have important roles to play in the story, but they are also integral to his maintaining and developing a sense of self. Those of you who have read the book know that his friends strongly represent certain characteristics. Marc is the kind one with the strong moral conscience. Vincent and Victoria are light-hearted and comic. Anaïs is intelligent, pragmatic, and a little bit ruthless. As his creator, I’ve made Tristan a bit of all of these things, but I deliberately left a void for one particular characteristic: passion.
Cécile is obviously the individual who fills that void. In many ways she is weaker than Tristan (because she’s human), but emotionally, she is much stronger than he is. She knows herself and is nearly always true to herself, and she very much lives in the moment. She quickly forces Tristan to stop pretending, and it is very much because of her that he tries to figure out who he is. Not because he has to, but because he wants to:
She lived in the present, always running off in the heat of the moment and saying exactly what she thought, rarely considering how the things she said or the decisions she made would affect the future. I was the exact opposite. Almost every action I took or decision I made was designed to affect circumstances months, years, even decades down the road. I’d always thought it was the prudent way to live, but now I feared I would wake up one day an old man, with my past wasted and no future left to live. Loving her had changed me, pulled me into the present and made me want to give myself to her as wholly and completely as I could.
By the end of the Stolen Songbird, Tristan is really starting to come into his own, and he develops even further in the sequel. I can’t wait for everyone to read it.
*Yes, sometimes I forget what happened in my own book.
** I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Henry IV, Act I, scene ii