Flow through a mythological epic with today’s story.
Through the Well of Pirene
[Adventure] [Human] • 369,088 words
As a child, Daphne knew of a world where magic lived, where an immortal princess reigned over a beautiful kingdom, and longed to journey there beside Leit Motif, the filly she’d grown to love in the woods behind her home. But one day, when she needed her most, Leit Motif was gone, and she never came back to show her the way. As she grew, she put aside her childish dreams, and taught herself to believe the lie.
When forces beyond her knowing take her sister Amelia, though, she discovers that her childhood fancies were entirely too real, and is thrust into a journey that will take her back to that land she longed for, back to the childhood friend she’d abandoned, and to worlds she’d only dreamed of.
FROM THE CURATORS: Today’s feature shatters our length record for a featured story, doubling the size of the previous record-holder (and clocking in at 8/10ths the size of the entire Lord of the Rings series). But Through the Well of Pirene justified that wordcount. “It’s always got something interesting to do,” Present Perfect said in his nomination. “The slower parts allow for character revelations, lush imagery and world-building, or just doling out fascinating headcanons.”
And there was one element of that which quickly stood out as exemplary. “If there’s any one thing I think you folks will enjoy, it’s the world-building and the plethora of mythologies,” Present Perfect said to solid agreement. “The mythology here is remarkably Gaimanesque, and I say that as a compliment because the man writes some damn good faeries,” Horizon noted, while Soge praised its breadth: “I’m a sucker for fics that mix Equestrian lore with human history and myth, and this delivers that in spades, going well beyond its obvious Greek influences.”
But for the most part, that wasn’t we talked about in one of our group’s longest discussion threads — which often touched on the character work. “I love The Morgwyn so much,” Horizon said. “Trying to figure out his long game is keeping me remarkably engaged as the protagonists’ knowledge of the world around them deepens. Everything about the goblin castle Amelia was taken to is great. I can’t stand most of the (ex-)human characters, but it is very much to this story’s credit that, despite that, I’ve been so consistently engaged.” Present Perfect acknowledged that “the characters, especially the main ones, take some getting used to,” but noted that “they grow and change over the course of the book in natural, if frequently staggering, ways.” Horizon quickly agreed: “Amelia is the clear standout, and the story’s at its strongest when it examines her slow descent into villainy and the all-too-understandable motives that continue to drive her to fix things even when she’s crossed a line,” he said. “But the moral struggles of characters like Maille and Flash keep the story powerful when the focus shifts.” Those side characters were part of a greater richness, Soge noted: “It’s full of little details which show just how much the author cared about this world and its story, such as the differences in lingo between the Goblin factions.”
And while there was some curator ambivalence as the scope of the story expanded — “just about everything I liked was balanced by something I didn’t,” AugieDog said — the ultimate consensus was that it did the important things powerfully. “It was the fact that it delivered on its promise of epic that kept me looking forward to the reading,” Horizon said. “This also always wrote with an eye toward theme, and so in hindsight what I remember is the story’s big statements, which is exactly what I should be remembering.” AugieDog had similar praise: “I love how the scope here is intensely epic and intensely personal at the same time, and with the fate of the entire multiverse hinging on two sisters not getting along, well, you can’t get any more My Little Pony than that.” That added up to a story that met its high ambitions, Present Perfect said: “This is the best HiE I’ve ever read — though it’s certainly far more than that — and it comes by that status honestly.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Ether Echoes discusses executive meddling, puréed myths, and punishing children.
Give us the standard biography.
For most of my life, I’ve grown up and lived in various parts of California, aside from a brief foray to Idaho and a briefer one to North Carolina. I’ve been a professional writer and an IT technician, and my hope is to become a full-time writer, but we’ll just have to see if I can pick it up, and until then become at least a part-time writer. Pirene is my first novel, and it taught me that I can write a whole novel and have it be well-received.
More personally, I’m a humanist, and I like to read and play video and tabletop roleplaying games in my spare time when I’m not writing.
How did you come up with your handle?
I like the word Ether and Echoes fit along with it. The rough idea I had in mind was a space explorer, since I’m rather fond of space and science. In a way, Ether Echoes is kind of a way to refer to the process of thought and writing — I create “echoes” in the “ether” of imagination, because when you consume anyone’s work, you’re recreating it in your mind.
Who’s your favorite pony?
I like most of them, and I’m going to buck tradition and say that I like Twilight, Rarity, Rainbow, and Sweetie the most, and you can’t make me choose between them. Twilight and Rarity speak to me as the dual intellectual gifts of learning and creativity, while Sweetie is just the most precious thing. Rainbow is awesome, tomboyish, and kicks ass, so really what’s not to like?
There’s also a special place in my heart for Celestia and Luna, who are just wonderful.
What’s your favorite episode?
That’s a tricky question, because there’s a lot of them that I like for different reasons. If there was one that I would say could be my favorite out of any of them, I’d probably have to say Sleepless in Ponyville. It’s possibly the best Luna episode I can name, and it’s got wonderful, touching moments.
What do you get from the show?
So, this may surprise some people, but I don’t get nearly as much from the show as what I create out of it.
To unpack that a bit for you, I think the show has a problem, a handicap that prevents it from being as good as it clearly could be, and from what I’ve read, that’s almost certainly down to executive meddling. I think there was enormous potential for it as a legitimate fantasy series with a rich mythology and complex continuity — think of Steven Universe, Adventure Time, or Avatar and how they take entertainment for children and elevate it to an incredible degree. MLP is smarter than it used to be, sure, and there’s definitely stuff for adults to sink their teeth into, but for whatever reason it’s been hamstrung and forced to maintain the status quo with rare exceptions. I feel like we’ve been had, and I hope one day MLP can be reclaimed for an older audience in some form so that executives don’t grind it into dust like they did here.
Pirene let me adapt and create a rich, textured mythology from the hints and starts. That’s what I got out of the show.
Also, I like horses and they’re cute <3
What do you want from life?
My ideals are to be both comfortable and happy. Since life is a pain and entropy is ever approaching, both of those are ideals that I constantly have to work towards.
Form a less philosophical bent, I’d like to take my writing full-time, as I mentioned before. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling line of work for me personally. I’d like to get more involved with progressive causes, particularly around LGBT concerns, other social issues, and more equitable laws. I’m a futurist, and I expect the world will change radically and irrevocably within my lifetime, and believe that we need to be prepared for it.
Why do you write?
I grew up devouring fiction, and pretty much from elementary school I’ve tried to write it in turn. My early efforts were pretty crappy, but it’s like any skill, and now that I’m actually good at it, I think I can take it to the world, and I think, if nothing else, Pirene proved to me that I have that capacity.
The act of telling stories in written format is deeply fulfilling and fascinating to me. I like taking ideas that exist and reworking them, reprocessing them to suit a different vision. The most remarkable and gratifying part of writing, though, is the messages I get from fans telling me that my work brought them to tears or that it changed their lives. Every time I worry that I’ll never be any good as an author in the wider world of original fiction, I remember those people.
What advice do you have for authors out there?
Study not only fiction (which you should read a lot of, to see what’s out there and what to avoid), but science, politics, economics, psychology, and mythology. If you have a firm grasp on science, you understand how the world works much better, and the causes of things. If you have a firm grasp on politics, economics, and psychology, you understand how people work, whether individuals or groups. If you’re deeply read in mythology, you’re going to have access to a rich body of stories and ideas that you can pillage to your heart’s content.
Probably the best advice I can ever give, though, is that when you’re reading someone else’s work or watching a movie, ask yourself, “How could I write this, only better?” It’s how I started.
Through the Well of Pirene contains mythologies from numerous traditions, both real life and My Little Pony. What can you tell us about your influences?
Oh gods, where do I begin?
Just to list off the ones on the top of my head, the clearest influences are Greek, Norse, Judeo-Christian, and Western esoterism (otherwise known as occultism, itself informed by all of those mythologies). By no means are those my only influences — you’ll find subtle or blatant references to Hindu, Japanese, Egyptian, and many other mythologies in the text. There’s even a hint of Atlantis myth woven into the prelapsarian aspects of it.
As I mentioned earlier, I am familiar with mythologies from many different cultures, and in Pirene I don’t so much put them in a blender and hit “puree” as I do tie them together at the common points and let them grow together naturally like cuttings of a tree (like Yggdrasil, if you catch my drift). A lot of works that use multiple mythologies use them as almost like a salad or a melting pot, throwing them together without a good eye towards harmony, and if I could get paid good money to keep writing Pirene, you’d see even more of that going on.
Mythologies from around the world have a lot of commonalities, and a lot of Pirene came down to asking myself: “If all this was real as I propose here, what happened?” The human Earth in Pirene is full of unintelligent animals, one sapient species, and no magic, and I had to reconcile that existence with a world where the opposite is true, and multiple species live together and chat about how adorable they are.
All of this really starts with the Golden Bridle myth, and I could go on for a long time about the terrible original format of the novel, but pretty much the entire plot spread out of the Biblical comment that Man be granted Dominion over the animals — and in a world where sapience is not limited to mankind, that’s a horrifying thing. The Golden Bridle, though originally a Greek idea (and in the novel, it’s used against a Greek figure initially), becomes then an agent of Dominion, of oppression that reduces people to beasts. This gave me the root of how and why Equestria exists, and the rest sort of bizarrely fell into place.
Oh, and I love the movie Labyrinth, so that had a bit of influence too! It’s also the first thing I ever tried to write fanfiction of as a little girl, so I guess I’ve come full circle. The goblins partially came out of there, but mostly they came out of a large body of myths about faeries and other liminal beings that sort of fit into the spaces of the world, thus the Ways and Mag Mell and everything wonderful about that.
MLP mythology fits in with the aspect of Harmony, and I realized right away that Harmony is related to Order, and the battle between Order and Chaos is probably one of the most important in mythologies all across the world. Harmony is why so many races could live together in Equestria, why it was so comparatively peaceful and kind, and the implication here is that because a group of cruel humans broke that compact, they and their world fell away from grace and lost their magic — the events of Pirene (and the works that were to follow) were partially about humans reclaiming that place in the sun from their (in many cases undeserved, sins of the father and all) Fall.
What were the challenges associated with writing a character who eventually becomes the villain of the story?
So many challenges. I knew from the start that she would never be universally liked, but I stand by what I did and everything regarding that arc.
Originally, the character of Amelia was an innocent, a child with very little in the way of reasoning capacity. She is forced to grow up by her experiences, and at the end willingly surrenders the Bridle and kills Nessus, taking his place and cementing how much she’d changed.
That was preserved, but one key thing was changed, and I honestly think it made the novel: Amelia changed from an innocent who did bad things because she didn’t know any better, to a reluctant, bitter protagonist who transitions as a result of her own choices. I based her largely on my own experiences as a troubled, difficult child who was too far ahead of her peers — at the same age as Amelia, I was reading books meant for people 20 years my senior, thinking seriously about science and the problems facing the world, and struggling to deal with bullying and a lack of people to relate to.
There’s a lot of challenges inherent in turning someone like that to darkness, and it required a lot of delicate plotting, because if certain things happened it would have halted her rise or deflected her from her course or given her the emotional strength to stop herself early. It’s challenging to inflict pain on a child and have her inflict it in turn, to drive her into a bitter corner, weeping and broken, until she’s willing to do anything to make it stop — and even when she does take the reins, literally and figuratively, what does she attempt to do except make things better, even if it’s in a twisted way?
Ultimately, the greatest challenge was that I wanted Amelia to be seen as tragic. She’s someone who lost her childhood and will never get it back, someone who never intended to be a terrible person, but who was made terrible by circumstances. I think I succeeded, but she’s a deeply divisive character, and I know for a fact that a lot of people stopped reading Pirene as a result. There’s tons of people who think that she should have been punished more, and many conversations were had between me and fans about the role of justice, punishment, retribution, rehabilitation, and responsibility. I wrote a short story about an Equestrian who wanted to kill her, and their conversation is, in a way, a symbolic airing of the audience’s feelings for violating many of their (and my) favorite characters.
Change is a strong theme throughout the novel. Did changes in your own life impact your writing?
I’ve always had a fascination with transformation, not least because I’ve suffered lifelong dysphoria. Raw change, transforming a character from one species to another, is only the tip of the iceberg, and change is woven throughout the novel. As in any bildungsroman, the characters grow and change throughout the narrative; Daphne, Leit Motif, Amelia, and frankly a lot of other people all grow into adulthood, sometimes literally. Equestria changes, its innocence shattered as it’s exposed to a new world and new species and threats. The human Earth is changing, though it’s only the opening threads of it. Society changes as a result of what happens in the course of the novel. The goblins are all about change, about chaos and instability. The Morgwyn changes quite dramatically, and as unwillingly as everyone else. The CMC change. Change is baked into the start of the story, too, with the changes the Earth underwent to be split in two.
There’s been a little discussion about how the Major Arcana of Tarot fits into Pirene (for the Minor Arcana suits inform the goblin nations), and the short version is that they’re flexible and apply to different people — and different events — at different times. Daphne is the Star, the Morgwyn is the Devil, the confrontation between Leit Motif and Amelia is the World, the CMC are the Lovers (in that it refers to innocence), Amelia is the Fool, Celestia is the Empress, and so on — and the story as a whole is Death, which means the end of the old and the beginning of the new.
Change is something I deeply desire in my life, and well before Pirene I devoured every story I could get my hands on about transformation, and any story which featured the characters of the novel dramatically changing as people and becoming better, whether physically or metaphorically, was an instant classic in my mind.
If there was a tagline for Pirene, it would relate to change, and I think it would be something like this:
“You can never go home again.”
The Morgwyn has such an alien viewpoint compared to any other character in this story. What went into designing and writing for it?
I’ve always had this idea lingering in my head of a shadowy figure who waits at the beck and call of a little girl. It would enact terrible violence, protecting her, and she would come to regret its presence enormously.
The Morgwyn grew out of this original seed and into a variety of other things along the way. Its start in the story was when Amelia got lost, and it just kind of popped out of nowhere, and suddenly I understood that this was the hidden shadow behind all the other events that I needed to tie together, the missing piece that explained why Daphne and Leit Motif had failed to meet up again, and indeed why Daphne’s destiny was subverted to begin with. It protected Amelia by frightening, injuring, or even killing things offscreen (this is brought to Amelia’s attention directly in the Cup Palace, but it was happening without her awareness throughout the novel). When Daphne imagines it, it’s aware of that fact because there’s minimal difference between a memory of the Morgwyn and the Morgwyn itself, making it a weirdly nonlocal being.
What it grew into was a remnant shard of the mythological conflict of Order and Chaos I described earlier. Like Apophis in Egyptian myth, the Morgwyn is from the time before the Ordered universe, which is presented as something that confuses and frightens it even as it shapes and changes it (like Apophis), and seeks to return it to that state it understood best — again, like Apophis.
What Amelia ends up doing to it was probably one of my favorite things in the entire novel, and I’m glad I got to tell that story a little more.
In order to write for it, I had to get into the mindset of a remorseless, almost nonexistent being that views gravity and mathematics as an insult, but who is aware that their present shape and thoughts are still channeled through that medium, meaning it loathes itself as much as it does everything else, which is the only thing that lets me write for it at all!
That’s a lot to keep in mind, but it makes sense in context.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Well, aside from some signal boosting for the follow-up novel Three Nights in Manehattan and the hardcopy book of Through the Well of Pirene, I want to thank you and everyone else who’s read and loved this novel for your time and attention. I’m glad I could touch so many people, and it makes my life so much more worth living. Even though I’m not super into MLP, Pirene was a massive, big deal for me, and so it will always have a place in my heart.
While it’s an adventure novel first, I want people to take something from it, whether it’s exposure to a much richer history of myth, understanding of the self, or just an appreciation for good fiction that treats its characters and setting seriously.
For those of you who are thinking about reading it, do, and get back to me — I want to hear from you, even if you didn’t like it.
Finally, I’ll be going to BronyCon 2017, so if you want to meet me and you don’t live in the Bay Area, well, there’s your chance! I’ll be putting out some new short stories and releasing the hardcopy as print-on-demand in preparation, so this interview couldn’t have come at a better time, honestly!
Thank you, all of you.