Monday, October 1, 2012

Radiation, Polyamory, and Adventure: Katharine Eliska Kimbriel's "Nuala" Series

The mid-1980s were a time of change and exploration for women science fiction writers. Marketing departments kept trying to shoehorn these new voices into established molds, and the writers kept introducing new concerns, new ways of looking at story, world-building, relationships, and characters. One of these writers was Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, creator of the "Nuala" series.

Fire Sanctuary, the first published "Nuala" book, immediately drew me into a richly complex story. Despite the external military/political threat (the planet lies between two warring empires and gets caught in the cross-fire, imperiling the already fragile colony), this story transcended the action-adventures of its time. Kimbriel set up a colony of scientists, abandoned on a marginally habitable but gorgeous planet; one of the first things they did was to declare Nuala a political sanctuary. High natural radiation led to widespread impairment of fertility, so rather than imprisoning those fertile individuals (as in The Handmaid's Tale), Kimbriel gives us stable multiple-partner marriages and loving relationships, with the exception of the ruling family, who must go off-planet to seek the mates with whom to produce healthy children. The openness of communication about sexual and emotional relationships set the Nuala universe apart. Kimbriel portrays the relationships and principles with sensitivity and intelligence, rather than the glorification of "free love" so prevalent in male-oriented science fiction of that time.

In addition to this fascinating culture, Fire Sanctuary is about individuals, both Nualan natives and off-worlders, some caught up in internal political conflicts, some seeking refuge and healing, others wrestling with the restrictions once necessary for genetic purity. The space-wars military shoot'em-up catapults the Nualans and their precariously balanced society into crisis, and the solutions, like the planet itself, are anything but formulaic. Throughout the struggle, characters draw upon their insight, compassion, and intelligence, rather than brute force.

In Fires of Nuala, Kimbriel takes us to the distant past with an entirely new set of
characters. Nuala began as a scientific colony left to shift for itself against terrible dangers. The foremost of these is the constant mutagenic threat posed by the planet's radioactivity. Kimbriel posits that intelligent people would have found creative survival solutions, not only as a colony but as individuals, with the inevitable clashes in values. The agonizing truth is that what serves society as a whole may not ensure individual happiness. Hence, the enshrined necessity for the members of ruling families to seek mates off-world to ensure fertility and vigor all too often results in personal unhappiness.

As in Kimbriel's previous "Nuala" novel, the external drama, although present in the form of political intrigue, assassinations, schemes and deceptions, provides a backdrop to the real story. Despite the cover copy, this is not a space adventure, but a thoughtful and tender story of human relationships. Darame, like many others, is drawn to Nuala by the promise of riches; in her case, she's part of a team of con artists, and she's as savvy as she is exotically beautiful. She accidentally stumbles into the middle of an elaborate plot aimed at the ruling family of Atare. Sheel Atare is a healer, happy to remain outside the line of succession until events catapult him into the most dangerous position, the only legitimate claimant to the throne.

Dramatic lines of tension echo and enhance one another as the story progresses. Who's behind the coup (murder/political mystery)? What happened in "the Emerson disaster" to make Sheel, otherwise sensitive and open-hearted, so guarded in love (psychological mystery)? Where does Darame's heart--and her future--lie (love story)?

Hidden Fires is the third in the "Nuala" series, and I'm glad I read them one right aft
er the other, which allowed me to not only make connections between characters and events, but to appreciate the growth of the author's skill. If Fire Sanctuary was an initial exploration, building up the many layers of world and culture building, history and genealogies, characters and interstellar plots, Hidden Fires reflects both balance and focus. Like Fires of Nuala, this tale focuses on Darame and Sheel, and the many complications of their lives. Sheel has matured from the reluctant survivor of mass assassinations to a visionary leader; likewise, Darame has left behind her "free-trader" scam artist past...but it has not forgotten her. An off-worlder bent on vengeance teams up with an unstable, power-hungry heir apparent. As in the other two books, the action/adventure, while present, supports the real heart of the book, which are the complex, culturally-shaped relationships.

Deborah J. Ross: In what order should the Nuala books be read? 

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: It's hard to answer. The order of publication was: Fire Sanctuary, Fires of Nuala and Hidden Fires, although the historical time line is Fires of Nuala, Hidden Fires and Fire Sanctuary -- which is how I released the ebooks from Book View Cafe. I finally put up something on my web page listing the two orders, and reasons behind them.

DJR: I was confused when I saw the quote from Roger Zelazny on cover of Fire Sanctuary, which made me wonder if it was the second book.

KEK: Yes, the publisher had the Zelazny blurb for Fire Sanctuary and then misplaced it so they didn't use it. Then Warner confused people as to which was published first (compounded by the Campbell nomination for a book that didn't exist yet?) I am sometimes amazed that anyone found the books at all.

DJR: The books have such a detailed time-keeping system, both local and interplanetary.

KEK: The dates used in the chapter headings are from two different systems --- the Axis Republic, and Nuala's calendar. Nuala's time line is continuous, so they use their own dating on their own planet. But the Republic is actually the second republic, although they have changed the dating. Fires of Nuala and Hidden Fires do take place several thousand years earlier than Fire Sanctuary.
I tried to tidy up the time lines in the genealogies so they don’t give away things in each actual ebook.  Originally I expected the extra matter to be in the back, and of course the copyeditor stuck the stuff in the front.  Now, it’s all in the back, but with a table of contents!

DJR: I love the way you refer to characters historically, like seeing old friends through the lens of their effects on their society.

KEK: Sheel Atare is referred to once in FS -- as the owner of the first iris color combination called the Sheel Split -- and as the ruler who united the planet. When I tried to figure out what the next Nuala book would be, I remembered that one line, and thought that Deveah being unstable had nothing to do with his eyes, if Sheel Atare united a planet. Then I found out Sheel was a healer -- and that his way of uniting things, and why, was a very different story.

DJR: What were the challenges in bringing out the Nuala books in electronic form so many years after their initial print publication?

KEK: I had to duplicate most of Warner's editing -- and their copyediting style changed from book to book. Also, I had to  resist the temptation of rewriting the book in my current style. A friend keeps reminding me that it is a good book and not to "mess" with it.

DJR: Will there be another Nuala book?

KEK: I don't know. I have some ideas for one, about Rex Dielaan's war (which ironically is launched, I think, by Yang clan) and its aftermath. Lots happens to Avis, and to Mailan -- I know Darame gets pregnant again right away, which slows her response to the war and requires the surfacing of crafty Darame of old. I see sorrow, joy and triumph on several levels for a lot of people. But that's all the hints my unconscious will give me.
Right now I’m working out the back-story for a character out of Yang who will impact a future Darame book in a big way.  As Sharon Lee and Steve Miller like to say, knowing where a character comes from makes it easier to figure out why they are where they are, and what they may do next. 

I didn’t think I’d get to write another Nuala book.  I thought I had moved on from Nuala.  Now, I may surprise myself!

DJR: What else is in the works?

KEK: An editor is interested in a third Allie book, but wants to see the complete manuscript. That's on the list, and coming along. Publishing has changed enough that I may self-publish all three Alfreda novels, in both paper and eBook.  New York contracts just aren’t attractive right now for mid-list writers. I also have some ideas about writing contemporary fantasy I'd like to explore. I think they're contemporary fantasy -- Sarah [Zettel] thinks one of them would make a great romance. I'm not sure I can give 51% of a plot to the romance, though -- that I think that way. Maybe I can write a fantasy that guys will also like, with a growing romantic subplot about the characters across a series? The world could use a Great Romance slipped in under the radar!)

One book deals with modern shamans in the northern woods and Great Lakes, and one is shape-shifters in Austin, Texas (which leads to dragons and sentient cats -- my favorites!) They could both be series, if people enjoy them. And then there's the huge fantasy world-building thing I've worked on and off on for Way Too Long. The next time I dive into that, I'm going to map where I want to go and finish it! If no one wants to buy it, I'll self-publish and see what happens. At one point, editors kept telling me it was "Too Dark" to buy. Right. Looking at some of the stuff now, I think I was ahead of my time.


  1. Now I see why you asked me "which first" book I was reading! :-) Since I've started FIRES OF NUALA, I think I'll continue with that one.

  2. Looking forward to whatever you're willing to publish ^^ - but thank you for those tasty musings about the Nuala people.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful review and interview. The descriptions and discussion prompted me to buy Fires of Nuala. Looking forward to it!