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Priests can get their noses out of joint, and old women still have their pride. I’d been a priest of Micah for 68 of my 82 years and a woman for all 82 of them; when my congregation began drifting away to the flashy new temple down the street, something snapped. If my parish wanted a new priest, I wasn’t going to stay and hang on by my nails.

So begins Marian Allen’s newly released novel, Eel’s Reverence, and so begins the great karmic irony of the book: The speaker and central character –82-year-old priestess of Micah “Aunt Libby”—abandons her temple and sets off on a “Final Wandering.” The “wandering” seems to be motivated primarily by self-pity; when a former parishioner offers her a ride and food she is irritated that he has spoiled the “effect” of her leaving, rather than grateful for his generosity.

In short order her “wandering” leads her to The Eel—a coastal region populated by mermayds, reaver priests, mercenaries, and a cowed and fearful citizenry.  When the Aunt Libby is exiled and the innkeeper who gives her shelter burned out she finds herself faced with the very situation that prompted her to abandon her shrinking congregation in the first place—in spades.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I won’t tell you how it turns out. Be warned, though: don’t take anything for granted. Nothing is quite what it seems.

I started Eel’s Reverence expecting a good read; Marian Allen knows her way around a keyboard and a red pencil. She has numerous books and short stories to her credit and hangs out from time to time over at the Blood-Red Pencil, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a great writer or editor.

What I hadn’t expected was a book that raises so many questions about issues: One of the central conflicts in the book is driven by the uneasy relationship between private spirituality and established religion. Another issue explored is the advantages—and disadvantages—of citizenship. The mermayd population of The Eel is resistant to the citizenship—and taxation, and curbs on behavior—being offered by the reaver priests. Their resistance raises an interesting question about how we outside of The Eel deal with alien populations. How do we balance the right to one’s culture with the need for a certain level of assimilation to the national culture?

Perhaps the most interesting conflict, though, is the one played out in Aunt Libby’s character. She leaves her temple because her parishioners are increasingly choosing the spiritual short cut—the financial salvation the reaver priests offer, rather than the personal soul-searching the “true” priests offer. Faced with the same situation—though magnified—in The Eel, she comes to see that there is a place for both. While some crave personal spirituality, there are also those for whom the simplicity of a finanacial transaction is sufficient—and people are best served by having both options available to them.

Writing a fantasy that feels real is a delicate balancing act, one that Allen manages with deft humor, all-too-believable characters, and the occasional fantastical reference that reminds us that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Take, for instance, the reproductive cycle of mermayds. Like seahorses, the females lay eggs—but the males gestate them in a belly pouch. Like some amphibians, they are capable of switching gender at need. And yet they are physically like mermaids—half human, half fish. The fantasy is real, and believable, because it is rooted in similar structures in the “real” world.

Perhaps that’s the key to Eel’s Reverence both as a darned good read, and as a book that provokes questions about our own world—the fantasy is fantastical enough to be fun, and real enough to be believable.  If you’d like to read more about Marian Allen, her books, and Eel’s Reverence visit her online here. If you’d like to order Eel’s Reverence, click here.

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Marian Allen has been busy on tour with her recently-released e-book, Eel’s Reverence. She managed to squeeze in a few minutes to talk about the Eel,  Aunt Libby, and the forces that shaped them–and their world. She’ll be checking in today, so if you have questions of your own ask them in the “comments” section. I’ll be posting my review of Eel’s Reverence tomorrow, and talking a bit more about it in the coming days. If you’d like to know more about the books check back here, or visit Marian at her online home here.

Can you remember where you first got the germ of the idea for Eel’s Reverence?

I read Matthew Arnold’s poem, “The Forsaken Merman”, in which a merman whose human wife has deserted him goes into her village and sees that she’s made a “normal” life and will never come back. The merman on land was the germ of the book.

What inspired you to plant and water that germ, so to speak?

I had two or three random scenes floating around in my head. A couple of them were of this merman in a desert city with a human friend. Another, disconnected, was of a priest surrounded by wolves, with a background in my mind of true priests and antagonistic ones. For some reason, it suddenly occurred to me that the scenes were all part of one book.

Tell me about the mermayds.

When I decided to make them ambiguously gendered and non-mammalian, I couldn’t call them merMAIDS. But, since that was the look I wanted to conjure–humanoid from the waist up, fish-like from the waist down, long hair, slightly vain–the term, with alternate spelling, seemed appropriate. I used a same-but-different species because I thought it would be fun to work with; the developing story line turned it from just fun into a metaphor for defining people out of humanity.

To what degree were they inspired by real world cultural groups and species?

They were originally inspired by Matthew Arnold’s take on the fantasy creatures, but you’re right: I did research alternate sexual reproductive systems. I also thought about cultural cross-contact in which each side knows only as much about the other as is necessary to trade. In Eel’s Reverence, you see how this affects human attitudes. In “Line of Descent”, the short story I give away on Smashwords, I look at an early contact from the mermayd point of view.

Let’s talk religion. The coalition of reaver priests rule the Eel. They have private armies, levy taxes, and hold court. In fact, they have completely replaced secular rule. Why is that?

From the coalition priests’ point of view, it’s because they want all possible wealth and control. In terms of the narrative imperative, it forms a knot of conflicts opposed to my protagonist from the outset: true priest versus reavers, true believers versus apathetic followers versus militants, competing economic interests, violence from various quarters versus pacifism.

Were you thinking of historic examples when you created the Eel’s religious government?

Not specifically, but pre-Reformation Catholicism must come to mind. There were a GREAT many priests who followed the way of pacifism, inclusiveness and compassion, as well as the cynical indulgence sellers.

One of the central conflicts in Eel’s Reverence is between the “True” priests, who foster private spirituality, and the reaver priests, and in particular the coalition of reaver priests seeking to expand and secure their hold on power by driving out the true priests, and by extension, destroying private spiritual practice. Can you explain a little bit about how you came to devote so much of the book to that issue?

My main character is a priest who comes into the area when she leaves her parish because a fancy reaver temple is pulling her devotees away. So the conflict begins before the book’s action, and is the impetus that puts Aunt Libby where I want her for the story to begin. She doesn’t intend to be part of that conflict. Her intention is to avoid the conflict by leaving. When she lands in the middle of this more intense version, she still intends to pass through and wander on, feeling sorry for herself. I had intended for the story to be about Aunt Libby, Muriel and Loach’s adventures in Batumi, the desert city, but the stew of conflicts in Port Novo was so rich, I had to use it.

The birds and the bees get a bit of a makeover in Eel’s Reverence. The mermayds can shift gender at need, like those African frogs, and both mermayds and “humans” follow the pattern set by seahorses-the females produce the eggs, and the males nurture them in belly pouches. I found the way that seemed to affect the male characters’ relationships to children, and male/female roles in general, fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit about what prompted that?

I’m glad you noticed that! There are a lot of reasons human societies in general stereotype attitudes/duties by gender, and it pleases me to eliminate some of those reasons and see what happens. It’s my contention that, without societal stereotyping, males and females are equally nurturing or not, depending on their particular individual natures.

Where does Eel’s Reverence fit in with the other books you’ve written?

Eel’s Reverence was the first book I completed and the first book I sold. It and the next two books due out from Echelon Press, Force of Habit and Sideshow in the Center Ring, were epublished back in 1994, in the first Rocket eBook era. They did well at first, but languished when ebooks fell into eclipse. When the Kindle revitalized the industry, I requested my rights back and submitted them as reprints to Echelon, which is devoted to maximizing the new technologies with and for its writers. Not that I have a word to say against my previous publisher–Serendipity Systems was and is great, just not right for me. We parted on good terms.

Force of Habit (due out in November of 2010) and Sideshow in the Center Ring (due out in February of 2011) are very different, and each is very different from Eel’s Reverence. FOH is a crazy sf farce, an exploration of the writers’ mantra that each character in a book is the main character in his/her own story. I use multiple points of view and sometimes show the same scene from two or three of those points of view. Each person is convinced he or she knows exactly what’s going on, and they’re all so wrong, but it all works out in the end. SIDESHOW is sf set mostly on a planet on which slavery is legal, giving me a chance to explore some of the ways we give our lives over to other people, some of whom abuse that honor.

One thing all three books have in common is the willingness of some people to take responsibility for the wellbeing of others, even if there’s no obvious requirement or expectation that they do it. I find that amazing and absolutely admirable.

In addition to these three novels, I’ve put together collections of short stories available for Kindle and, on Smashwords, for a variety of formats.

Find out more about Marian Allen and her books here.

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