Canadian author Holly Phillips has been praised for her beautiful and evocative fantasy-fiction since 2002. In that time she has produced a phenomenal amount of short fiction that continues to blow away readers and reviewers alike. With the November 2008 release of her second full-length novel, The Engine's Child, Phillips has risen even higher in the fantasy world. The story encompasses an alien, rain-soaked civilization that clings to its past even as spiritual and technological advances threaten to bring about an unwanted future. Deeply emotional, with a depth of character that is hard to find these days, The Engine's Child is a genre-blending masterpiece. With this is mind, I sought out Phillips to learn more about her novel and her unique take on fantasy, sci-fi and steampunk.
The setting and the story evolved together. I wanted my characters to be under a lot of pressure, and so I confined them to this island where both the environment and the society are coming apart at the seams. But the elements that really stick in my mind are the images: rain, and mud, and the white towers shining in the bay. I suppose that while I wanted a setting that was more than just a backdrop to the events, I also wanted a setting that would really feel like another world to the reader.
Some have said that some elements of the novel have an underlying steampunk flavor. What is it about this genre that motivates you?
I suppose because it introduces questions about industry and labor and even the environment that are personally very interesting to me, and noticeably lacking in the more typical feudal-European-style fantasies. I think steampunk can open ways to explore some of the social issues we're living with now in an almost post-industrial world, in the same way that near-future science fiction can. So it's intellectually engaging, but it also opens fresh territory for the imagination. It's just a very fun place
What impressed me most about the novel was the use of characters that aren't of the usual Anglo-Saxon fantasy base. Why did you decide to go with near-eastern based characters?
The whole book is a bit of rebellion against the classic pseudo-European fantasy conventions. The world we live in is huge and wonderfully varied, incredibly rich in cultures and histories. Why isn't the genre? In theory, fantasy should be the the imaginative genre, yet we seem to be content
to reiterate the same Tolkienian settings and cultures. I don't despise them. But I don't want to limit myself to them, either.
In your book, the character Moth has a special ability that allowed her to call certain constructs into being by channeling a spiritual power. If you had a special power, what would it be?
I'd like to be able to magically transmit the wonderful adventures in my head into other people's minds. Oh no wait, I can already do that. I'm playing with an idea for a character who's so full of magic that she often accidentally transforms inanimate objects into living things -- the pen becomes a butterfly, the yable turns into a dog. I think that would be a huge amount of fun, and it might even help rescue a few endangered species too.
Is there anything you would pick from the world you have created in The Engine's Child as a way of life today?
I think, in my rebellious heart, I would like to diminish some of the inequities between the rich and the poor in our world, as Moth tried to do in hers. I'd also like to imbue that sense of the world as a living thing, with its own claims and rights and intentions, its own existence, that are no less compelling than those of human beings.