Revealing Karin Lowachee's The Mountain Crown

A Q&A with one of my favorite writers

Revealing Karin Lowachee's The Mountain Crown
Image: Solaris. Art: Sam Gretton

One of my favorite SF/F authors is Karin Lowachee. I first encountered her work through a friend who lend me her debut novel Warchild, way back in 2002. It was a space opera novel about a kid who was kidnapped by an alien civilization and trained as a warrior, and she followed it up with two additional novels, Burndive and Cagebird. (She's recently added to the world with a new novella, Under the Silence, and a collection, Omake.)

Years later, I connected with her online and became a fan of her short fiction: stories like "Nomad" (from John Joseph Adam's anthology Armored) and "A Good Home" in People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction. I was privileged to commission two excellent stories by her for my own anthology War Stories: New Military Science Fiction ("Enemy State") and "A Sun Will Always Sing" for The Verge's online anthology Better Worlds. Needless to say: when I see a new story from Karin, I'll stop what I'm doing and will pick it up.

So, I was thrilled to learn that she has a new book coming out later this year: The Mountain Crown, a novella about dragons. Here's the description:

War between the island states of Kattaka and Mazemoor has left no one unscathed. Meka's nomadic people, the Ba'Suon, were driven from their homeland by the Kattakans. Those who remained were forced to live under the Kattakans' yoke and to serve their greed for gold, alongside the dragons the Ba'Suon share an empathic connection with.
A decade later and under a fragile truce, Meka returns home from her exile for an ancient, necessary rite: culling a king dragon of the Crown Mountains to maintain balance in the wild country. But Meka's act of compassion toward an imprisoned dragon and Lilley, a Kattakan veteran of the war, soon draws the ire of the Kattakan authorities and leads to the unwelcome addition of Raka, a Ba'Suon traitor, to her journey.
The journey is filled with dangers within and without, and as conflict threatens to reignite, the survival of the Ba'Suon people, their dragons, and the land itself will depend on the choices - defiant or compliant - that Meka and her companions make.

Here's the full cover, designed by Solaris's Sam Gretton:

The Mountain Crown will come out on October 8th, 2024 from Solaris, and I took the opportunity to chat with Karin about this book and what to expect from it.

The Mountain Crown is your first new novella in a couple of years: how did you come to this particular world and story?   

I plotted out a novel a few years ago that is basically a Prohibition-era inspired fantasy, where “magic” is the commodity banned by the government and bootlegged by a rising criminal element in a post-war situation.

In digging into the past of the protagonist, The Mountain Crown was born, as it is both the history of Ishia – the archipelago where the novella takes place – and the history of the protagonist’s parents, which bears on why he is the way he is. I also realized that this format, along with the novel hopefully, allows me to show the “evolution” of my world’s magic and I became very interested in this concept in the same way science fiction concerns itself with the evolution of technology.

In talking it over with my agent, I decided to write the novellas first that depict the history of this world and the characters that live during a crucial part of its development.

You present a world where the state of Kattaka has driven out Méka and her people, the Ba’Suon. Some of your earlier books have looked at these sorts of colonial relationships, and I’m curious if you can tell me why you're drawn to this topic.

All my books deal with colonial relationships, even the science fiction. I’m drawn to it because it’s still going on, and certainly its impacts are still felt generations and centuries down the line. I come from a colonial country, twice over (the one I was born into and the one to which my family emigrated). My ancestry only a few generations back is deeply rooted in colonial history from various sides, as I have at least three different cultures in my blood.

If you live in North America, you are rooted in a colonial history that continues to have impact on the descendants of the original inhabitants of this continent. This is not something I take lightly or take for granted. History is a continuum and we are all participants. This “history” – which is still very vital today–cannot be talked about enough because it exposes so much about humanity both on a large scale and a small one, and people need to think about the effects.

I need to think about the effects. I write so I can dig into all the messy nuances and impacts of what it is to be human on an individual basis and a societal one. I might not go into story writing with specific agendas, but there is no denying certain topics that authors are all drawn to on a personal level.

Dragons and mountains and hordes of gold have long roots in fantasy: what are some of your influences here, and what ways do you think you’re diverging from them?

I don’t know that I’m influenced by anything directly (except our history of stripping the earth of its natural resources), as in “I read this book and now I want to write my version of dragons.” I’ve always loved dragons and I’ve always wanted to write about them as an adult. One of my first stories I ever wrote – I’m talking when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old – involved a family of dragons.

So dragons have somehow been in my life for literally as long as I’ve had the urge to write. As I’m older now, the idea of them as creatures of nature – I suppose more of the Chinese interpretation of them, which is a part of my ancestry – rather than a purely destructive or evil force became more interesting to me. So for The Mountain Crown and the Ba’Suon specifically, I became interested in their relationship to nature and the cosmos.

The dragons – or suon, as they call them – play an integral part in their beliefs both on a spiritual level and a practical one (to which they see no separation), in that their relationship to them helps to balance the natural world. How the other cultures in this world depict the suon becomes a sort of interrogation, I suppose, of how “dragons” have been generally viewed in Western fantasy in the past: as creatures to be conquered or exploited. But that wasn’t a conscious intention on my part.

Do you have any favorite dragons from the larger fantasy canon? 

I remember reading Jane Yolen’s dragon series that began with Dragon’s Blood, but I couldn’t tell you anything about it beyond a vague recollection of the cover because I read it as a child. I remember loving it, though. I can’t really recall any others off the top of my head that was a major influence. I loved movies growing up that depicted dragons though.

It’s been 22 years since you published your debut novel Warchild (which you’ve recently reissued, along with its sequels). Looking back over that time, how have you changed as a writer, and what do you think you’ve done here in The Mountain Crown that you might not have been able to do back in 2002?

I’ve changed as a person since then. I think (or I hope) I’ve grown a little. I’m still growing as a person (I don’t mean aging, but growing on a personal level) and that is bound to impact your creativity and creative expression in some way because for me those aspects of a person are connected. I think how I approach writing as a craft has matured, as well as my interest in the motions of the world and the psychology of people.

I suppose the short answer is I don’t divorce my ability on a craft level from my growth as a person, so I think as I’ve grown as a person I’ve been able to hone my craft a little better on all levels. Maybe I’m a little more surgical in the revision process, a little more free in the conceptual and first draft process. I understand my reliance on the unconscious and celebrate it. One thing that hasn’t changed is I’m not hung up on rules and what other people say writers “should” be doing.

Specifically with The Mountain Crown, I wanted to write a woman who is grounded in her spirituality, who is contained, who is purposeful in her movements, who outsiders might consider stoic, who is capable without being flashy, who (Western) readers might consider passive as if it’s a fault (it isn’t). I wanted to write about her culture that seeks other avenues besides war, that is connected to nature on an atomic level in a conscious way. I wanted this story to unfold in its own way, with a character who wasn’t pushing to be pigeonholed as a specific type of personality. I think my focus on these aspects of both character and story are because I’ve become interested in narratives that explore people and ways of living that aren’t the commonly considered Western narratives of “active” protagonists and constant “action” to drive a plot.

I challenge readers to not only read POC writers because of a label, but to interact with all manner of storytelling that isn’t dictated by screenplay pacing and Western canon. There is more than one way to tell a story and that is something I’ve discovered in the past couple decades that I probably didn’t know consciously when I wrote my first novel. Also, the language is at a level that I wasn’t capable of 20 years ago because I was just younger and less skilled.

This is the first installment in a series, The Crowns of Ishia: what do you have planned for the future? 

Two more novellas in the series will round out this part of the history of Ishia and further explore the idea of the “evolution of magic” – but through the lens of specific characters.

The next novella is from Janan’s point-of-view, who we only read about in The Mountain Crown because he is separated from the characters in the first novella, but his presence is still vital in that story for a number of reasons. The second novella shows what happened to him and takes the reader to another part of Ishia.

The third novella will take readers to yet another part, back to the “beginning” in a way. But all the characters cross over in all of them. The trilogy as a whole also explores the impact of people on nature (which includes the “magic” in this world) and vice versa, and nature’s imperative to balance that connection in ways that my characters can’t foresee.

The Mountain Crown comes out in October: what do you hope your readers will take away from it? 

I hope they love the dragons. I hope they fall in love with the people. I hope there’s a sense of wonder and a sense of compassion and a sense of horror at what transpires. I hope it’s a fun read but I also hope it’s a thoughtful read. If I manage to accomplish all of that for readers, then I’d be happy. I’m happy with it anyway because it accomplishes all of that for me, the first reader. I’m deeply invested in the world and its people, and hopefully that comes through too.