It has recently been pointed out to me that I include a lot of religious themes in my fiction. Given that I set a whole series in the ruins of a Catholic nunnery, I suppose this is an undeniable fact. (Even though few of those characters were nuns, or even Catholic.) I am interested by the nature of religion and faith as a driving force for people, and it’s something I find very relevant in this world. People live and die by their faith in this world. Countries rise and fall. Vast swaths of history are completely relegated by tenets of faith and the extent to which people act on it.
I believe that faith and religion can be both a force for good and a force for evil in this world, and it’s a theme I find myself returning to again and again. Because most of my stories are set in contemporary America (and Europe) or historical Europe, the religion I primarily deal with is Christianity.
In the Secret Society Girl novels, Amy isn’t religious, but a lot of the things that happen to her and her friends are deeply informed by other characters’ strong religious beliefs. When the books came out, I received many emails from readers –especially readers of faith — thanking me for including the story of a religious girl, Jenny, who did not abandon her religion over the course of the story, despite her experiences. I was initially surprised by these letters, because I had not realized the extent to which young women of faith felt that characters like themselves were being marginalized in mainstream fiction. Too often, I was told, if the characters were shown as having religion, the religion was evil and the characters of faith were either shown as the bad guys (as in Dan Brown) or “grew” by shedding their faith. After this was pointed out to me, I started noticing it more and more in mainstream fiction.
In Rampant, Ascendant, and the other killer unicorniverse stories, religion took on a more central role as, historically, unicorn hunters were part of a particular order of Catholic nuns. It was an expedient and historically accurate way to form an unbroken line of well-funded, record-keeping, home-base-having chaste women throughout history, and the concept of a religious order of warriors is not an unfamiliar one to readers (hello, Knights Templar).
In Ascendant, especially, the needs of the modern unicorn hunters and the needs of the Catholic Church that ostensibly still sponsors them brush up against each other. I remember an early reader suggesting I turn the Catholic Church into an evil, controlling force in the hunters’ lives, which I wasn’t interested in doing. I could have made Father Guillermo, the hunters’ liaison with the church, a rigid, antagonistic character. But that seemed too easy, too stereotypical, especially in the Dan-Brown/Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-world of “evil, woman-hating priest.”
It seemed much more interesting to me, especially given that some of the hunters in the Cloisters identified as Catholic, to make Guillermo into a man who was trying to do the right thing by girls in a very awkward and excruciatingly dangerous situation, a man who was torn between what the church expected of him and what might be best for the girls and, you know, their mission.
In the historical short stories “Errant” and “The Hammer of Artemis”, the unicorn hunters are explicitly nuns, with religious beliefs inextricably tied to what they feel is their earthly duty as hunters (and Gitta of “Errant” even has her own crisis of faith). In the contemporary short story, “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn”, Wen is also a person of strong faith and religion, and has to learn to reconcile the two over the course of the story. I received almost as many emails about Wen as I did about Jenny. This time I was less surprised, because their conflicts are very similar, and I think, very relatable to many young women of faith. For Wen, a lot of her conflict arose from the fact that her religion encouraged a strong, personal relationship with God, and her personal relationship with God was at odds with what the people around her were telling her about what her faith “should” lead her to think. I enjoyed exploring that dynamic through a central character in that story.
The other short story of mine that deals very strongly with faith is “Burned Bright” in the FORETOLD anthology. The characters in that story are members of a doomsday cult, and are driven to terrible things by the tenets of their faith. Religion can also be a force of evil, and for these characters, it very much is.
In For Darkness Shows the Stars, the main character, Elliot, is also a person of faith. She lives in a post-apocalyptic future, and her religion is not Christianity. In the first chapter of the book, you find out that she has committed what her religion would consider the gravest of all sins: genetic engineering. Her sin, her heresy, and the reasons she made that choice are something she struggles with throughout the book. She also explores the nature of her faith, a faith she thought was absolute, and why members of her family feel free to live and die by certain tenets but utterly ignore others, yet condemn her for doing the same with different pillars of their faith. The story also touches why other members of her community would reject the faith outright, as she does not, and find their moral center another way.
In For Darkness Shows the Stars, Elliot’s faith causes her so much internal strife precisely because it is both a source of good and evil in her world. Her ancestor’s beliefs are what preserved them as the world fell to pieces, her ancestor’s beliefs are what led them to protect the segment of humanity brought low by the Reduction. But it’s these same beliefs that keep most Reduced and Posts enslaved, that leave people like Elliot’s father to believe in a natural superiority and make decisions without regard to who he might hurt. Elliot herself has to come to grips with the parts of her belief system that help her do good in the world and the parts she must jettison to grow.
This is not a short process. Readers of For Darkness will recall in one of the early letters, an essay Elliot wrote as a child questioning God’s role in the Reduction (and how her father beat her for it). years later, she’s still working out things in her mind. When I see the occasional reader state unequivocally that God “caused” the Reduction, as if this is some kind of Noah and the Ark story, I wonder how much of the book they had to skip to miss all the times when the characters argue and debate and even write essays about God’s role in the Reduction and the reasons the dominant religion might want to perpetuate that belief. Fortunately, the vast majority of readers got it.
And even though Elliot lives in a post-apocalyptic future with an unrecognizable religion, this struggle is a universal one. What does God want for us? What has my upbringing taught me that I must question? How can I reconcile the valuable parts of my belief system with the harmful ones, and will it require me abandoning everything or can I create a synthesis I can live with? In my personal life, I know people who have abandoned or changed religions after questioning certain tenets, and I know other people who have found ways to live with contradictions, and still others who have decided to cleave to the religion and reject their questions instead. These are big questions with difficult solutions, which is one of the reasons I’m drawn to it as a writer. It makes for fascinating and relatable characters and conflicts.
Of course, they aren’t the only conflicts. When I sat down to write Across A Star-Swept Sea, I was very conscious of the religious arguments that informed the extremely backward culture in For Darkness Shows the Stars. The people of that book are so steeped in a faith-based explanation for the way the world is, that even those who reject it have no alternative theory, and few resources or scientific know-how to formulate one. But the people in Star-Swept aren’t hampered like that (which might explain why they cured the Reduction). Still, I knew that readers coming to Star-Swept from For Darkness were on a “religious” setting, so it was important that I made clear very early on in the book that the characters in Star-Swept don’t think God or the gods or any supernatural entity had anything to do with the Reduction at all. They’re not a particularly religious bunch, which doesn’t mean they don’t have demons to face. They just aren’t the faith-based kind.
So there you have it. I write about characters, some religious, some struggling with their religion, some finding in it a place of strength or peace or grounding.