About Ferren and the Angel by Richard Harland
Ferren and the Angel is YA fantasy, a retro-future dystopia where the armies of Earth battle against the armies of Heaven. It begins when an angel falls from the sky and crashes to the Earth …
The setting is the far future, a thousand years after human scientists started to explore life after death, discovered the reality Heaven and ended up waging war against the angels. Now the artificially created ‘Humen’ make up Earth’s military forces, while the original human beings have been reduced to a degraded existence living in fearful, isolated tribes.
While the Humen are preparing for their ultimate invasion of Heaven, the angel Miriael is shot down and falls to the Earth. Damaged and unable to fly, she prays for extinction.
A young tribesman, Ferren, finds her lying in the grass. She ought to be an enemy, since his people think of themselves as allies with the Humen, on the side of the Earth. But his curiosity and pity outweigh every rule of his upbringing.
He knows almost nothing about the world he’s grown up in. Now he’s going to learn about the Humen Camp and the horrific fate of those tribespeople selected by the Humen for so-called ‘military service. He will be driven into exile, discover the Morphs (or souls no longer allowed into Heaven), break into the Humen Camp, then return to his tribe to warn them of a tremendous battle about to be fought over their territory. Only with Miriael’s help can he build a shelter to protect them from the terrifying psychic and spiritual forces about to be unleashed.
His unique friendship with an angel will change the course of history …
The book draws on the Judeo-Christian-Islamic lore of angelology. But it’s not in any way a religious book, neither pushing a pro-religion message like C.S. Lewis, nor an anti-religion message like Philip Pullman. The closest books in mood and scope are The Farthest Shore, by Ursula le Guin, Sabriel and its sequels by Garth Nix, and – excluding the anti-religion message – Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Ferren and the Angel Exclusive Interview
Ferren and the Angel is a unique blend of YA fantasy and dystopia with an extraordinary premise. Could you share the personal spark or idea that led you to create this one-of-a-kind world and story?
This is an easy question to answer for this particular book! Ferren and the Angel had one single generative spark – it came out of a dream. Seriously! I dreamed I was under a blanket, then peeked out and saw uncanny, moving lights in the night sky and heard ominous, inexplicable sounds. Suddenly I knew – the way you can know things in dreams, as though someone had told me – that this was the great war going on between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth.
I was still watching when one of the lights came hurtling down out of the sky straight towards me.
That was the moment I woke up, but I was still in that drowsy, not fully conscious state when you come out of a dream too quickly. And I decided to myself, ‘That must have been an angel shot down and crashing to the Earth. And she must have landed very close by. Perhaps she’s dead or perhaps she’s injured.’
I thought some more about it as I came to full consciousness. One thing I thought was, ‘I’ve been given the start of a novel.’ And so I had! It took me decades to fill out the background behind that first scene, decades of research and story-planning, and many, many drafts and versions. But through every draft and version, one thing always stayed the same: the opening scene. With Ferren the protagonist taking my place, the first ten pages of Ferren and the Angel have never varied. They were just handed to me on a plate!
The story revolves around the themes of life after death, Heaven, and a war between Earth and angels. How did these thought-provoking themes shape your narrative and impact your connection to the story and its characters?
I decided from the start that the war between Heaven and Earth must have been going on for a very long time – which was the impression I’d had in the dream. I suppose I could have set the story in an alternative time line (like my steampunk novel, Worldshaker) or in a past-like otherworld. For some reason, though, those possibilities never occurred to me. Perhaps because, in my drowsy post-dream state, I’d thought of the war between Heaven and Earth as a change that had happened since the present of our own real world.
Hence a setting in the future … and to allow for all the developments needed to bring about a totally different retro-future, it had to be a very long way after our present time. A thousand years, in fact.
But, in the novel’s backstory, the changes begin with a science fiction postulate just a few years ahead of our own time,: what if scientists and doctors, who are already extending life in extraordinary ways and blurring the once-clearcut boundary with death – what if they stepped right over that boundary and brought back to life the brain of someone who’d truly died?
And what if that patient reported going up to Heaven and being among the angels? Imagine the sensational TV headlines!
Maybe I started thinking along those lines because of another dream, many years back, when I was strapped down with my head against the barrel of a gigantic cannon – don’t ask me why! – and when the cannon fired, total obliteration! There I was, spinning around in a great black void, and I thought to myself in the dream, ‘If I stay dreaming, I’ll find out what really happens after death, whether there’s a Heaven and angels … on the other hand, if there isn’t, I’ll never be able to wake up again, I’ll be stuck in this black emptiness forever.’ Alas, I chickened out, broke free of the dream and woke up.
Maybe, I’ve always had a metaphysical cast of mind! In terms of characters, I guess it comes out best in the experience of Miriael, the angel shot down who miraculously survives on the Earth. I was interested in how it would feel for her, a being of pure spirit who’s never experienced physical sensations before – in fact, she despises the physical world as low and corrupt and disgusting. How would it feel to experience for the very first time the sensation of grit and pebbles pressing against one’s back, the strange silky sensation of grass, even the raw, gasping sensation of air rushing into one’s throat?
Your protagonist, Ferren, forms a remarkable friendship with an angel, Miriael. Can you delve into the deeper significance of this relationship within the story and the evolution of these characters as a result?
I suppose it has all the clashes and collisions of a mismatched buddy story in a cop drama! Only in this case, it’s the ultimate mismatch – between a being of pure spirit and a fifteen-year-old boy who’s grown up in a very backward, very Earth-bound society. Ferren’s tribe are the very opposite of spiritual: beaten-down and degraded, leading a very physical kind of existence, mere food and survival.
To begin with, Ferren is terrified of the angel and her powers, while Miriael despises him as a low form of life. They’re also officially enemies since Ferren and his tribe think of themselves as allied to the ‘Humen’ on the side of the Earth. But Ferren has curiosity and courage, setting him apart from other members of his tribe, and eventually Miriael learns to appreciate his qualities as an individual and drops her cool superiority.
It’s a unique friendship because normally angels can’t survive in the terrestrial atmosphere without their protective auras. Miriael has not only lost her aura, she’s also been fed food and drink by Ferren when she was lying unconscious. No longer a being of pure spirit, she’s forced to expand her attitudes beyond the highly ethical but very rigid perspective of her training in Heaven. At the same time, she expands Ferren’s mind with a million facts he never knew about the world he lives in.
The book draws inspiration from angelology of different religious traditions, yet it remains distinct from a religious narrative. Could you talk about the creative process of weaving these elements into the story while maintaining its unique tone and message?
I loved researching all the old lore about angels and Heaven – and, since I began the research before the web and wikipedia, it was old-style scholarly research, digging out dusty tomes in obscure corners of university libraries. The only research I’ve ever truly enjoyed! There’s something about religious ‘mythology’ that moves me deeply and emotionally. (I was once told I would end up as a deathbed convert …)
So many traditional facts about angels and Heaven are still there in our social memory – but only in gleams and glimpses, while the original vast system has been left behind. Unearthing it again was like discovering a forgotten continent.
One advantage for a writer is that it’s not a single cut-and-dried system, but a ‘mythology’ that exists in a great many overlapping versions. There are some basic facts that remain the same across almost all versions (e.g. the role of Michael in defeating the rebel angels), some facts that feature across a majority of versions (e.g. the role of the Grigori or Watchers as a second, later set of fallen angels) and some facts that vary endlessly across different versions (e.g. the names of lesser angels assigned to the fallen or non-fallen categories).
For a writer, it’s great to have the freedom to pick and choose! Even trying to keep to the relative orthodoxy of a majority view, the choices are endless.)
Perhaps because I was always picking and choosing, I think I was saved from the great danger for any writer who’s done masses of research – the temptation to load it all into the novel until the story can barely trickle through. Every writer will say that 90% of your research ought to stay outside the novel; in the case of Ferren and the Angel – and the whole Ferren Trilogy – it would be more like 99%.
And even then, I properly researched only a small proportion of all the material I could have gathered if only I’d had a few lifetimes to do it!
Could you share a glimpse of your evolution as a writer, from your early cult novel, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, to Ferren and the Angel? How have your experiences and storytelling style evolved over the years?
I suspect my powers of imagination are no better or worse than I was born with! After all, I was preparing the world and story for Ferren and the Angel at the same time I was writing The Vicar of Morbing Vyle. And the Worldshaker world and story too! (If my dreams are any guide, I’ve actually gone downhill from the wildly, weirdly vivid stories I used to dream …now my dreams are full of mundane trivia like doing the shopping or walking the dog!)
But I’m a much better craftsman and storyteller. At the time of The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, I was just so thankful to actually finish a whole novel after 25 years of writer’s block. Since then, I’ve learned to overcome all the snags that used to frustrate the flow of my stories – foresee them and avoid them or more often find potential benefits in them.
In one respect, though, I haven’t changed. I’ve always wanted to open up new possibilities in fantasy – after all, the possibilities are endless, why stay with existing formulae? I did something new (with gothic horror) in The Vicar, and I think I’m still doing something new in the Ferren Trilogy. Best part of being a writer: every book, world, story is a fresh challenge. I guess my most important change since I escaped writer’s block is that I’m now confident of meeting it!
In this future world where humans are isolated tribes and “Humen” dominate Earth’s military, the setting is rich and dystopian. Can you discuss the genesis of this intriguing world and the challenges your characters face within it?
What can I say? It grew and grew! Every idea led on to further ideas. I suppose the original dream set the direction: me as Ferren peeking out at the night sky watching the war, but with awe and fear, not involved in the fighting, not even exactly understanding the fighting.
So Ferren and his society aren’t themselves part of the armies of the Earth (except in a very special sense that emerges only late in the novel). Perhaps the fact of peeking out from under a blanket also suggested the idea of a deprived and minimalist state of existence … and led on to the idea of living among the ruins of present-day civilization.
I love it when one idea unfolds out of another! I think worldbuilding often starts when you come up with an invention needed to fill a space in the story, and then that invention flowers in ways you never anticipated and takes on a life of its own. Like the Forest of the Morphs, which came into being because Ferren advancing along the overbridge necessarily meets the squad of Humen marching in the opposite direction towards Miriael (whom they intend to take for dissection and analysis).
So he jumps off the overbridge in the rain – and I invented a dank, musty-smelling forest populated by invisible beings for him to discover before he can climb back and continue his journey. The invisible beings are sad, lonely creatures called Morphs – and as soon as I’d invented them, they fitted instantly into the history of this world. Of course! They had to be the souls of the dead, whom the angels no longer allow into Heaven because of the war!
That was just the start of a rollercoaster ride for the Morphs … after all, the souls of the dead deserve to be so much more important than incidental decoration in a single scene! In fact, I can see them becoming more and more important as the trilogy progresses, playing an absolutely crucial role by the end. In retrospect, their role seems as inevitable as if always planned from the start – yet it all grew from a small seed scattered quite by accident.
I suppose the Morphs grew out a particular challenge in Ferren’s story and turned into a much bigger story of their own. World and characters and story: my ideal would be that it’s impossible to tell which came first, they all involve one another.
Elena Betti, an Italian artist, crafted the captivating cover art for your book, capturing Miriael’s fall from the sky. Could you describe the collaborative process with the artist and how this visual representation aligns with the story’s themes? How did you and the book cover designer come to this design?
Yes, it’s a great image, isn’t it? The process began with three suggestions from me for possible scenes that might work on the cover. Gerry Huntman, as supervising editor, was centrally involved too. ‘Centrally,’ because, with a commercial publisher, the cover is in the last analysis publisher’s business – I’ve learned not to grow too attached to my own preferences! But in this case, the process was fully collaborative all the way through.
We had one hiccup at the start; it’s very difficult to describe images clearly, very easy to convey a false impression without realizing. Elena, being Italian, was never going to read the whole novel in English. But once we were all on the same wavelength, the cover creation went very smoothly indeed.
Of course it was always vital for Elena to feel inspired by her own imagination – which she was. The image of an angel falling was one of my suggestions, but it was when Elena created those wonderful wings that Gerry and I knew we were in safe hands. There were still a few small practical desiderata for advisers to pass on to artist – it’s not essential to have the cover details matching the text, but if it can be done, why not?
Basically, though, the final realisation was all Elena’s – my contribution was in suggesting a possible scene, Gerry’s was in commissioning her in the first place. He knew from her previous artwork that she was wonderful at creating special supernatural light effects, so important for this book. But he and I were both gobsmacked by the success of the final result!
Can you share a specific character or moment in Ferren and the Angel that resonated with you on a personal level, and why?
An answer jumped instantly into my head in response to this question – then I realized I couldn’t share it without giving away one very shocking revelation that occurs late in the book. So here are a couple of lesser, quieter examples …
When Ferren has to creep out through his tribe’s vegetable patches on his way to forbidden meetings with the injured angel, I was writing with the memory of creeping through vegetable patches when I was nine and ten years old. I grew up in England, where would-be gardeners could own a tiny plot of land for growing flowers, fruit-bushes and vegetables in a communal area of ‘allotments’.
Me and my best friend friend had our own secret routes for crawling along, belly flat to the ground, so that we could make our way between the allotments unseen by any gardener. Gooseberries, raspberries, redcurrant, peas – we picked off samples to taste. No fruit was ever so sweet!
There’s another strong personal association with Ferren’s experience in the period when he’s in exile from his tribe. He’s terrified of spending the night out in the open, under the uncanny lights and sounds in the sky, so he has to search for snug, safe places to sleep. One night it’s the narrow gap between two huge concrete blocks, another night it’s right up under the deck of the overbridge, strapping himself to a metal girder.
For me, that relates to the time when I went hitchhiking aroud France, Italy, and needed to discover a place to sleep every night. Sometimes I curled up under bridges, sometimes in unlocked outhouses or unlocked cars, most of all I slept in the corners of unfinished buildings on building sites. I wasn’t afraid of terrible battles in the sky, but I’ve always had a problem trying to fall asleep in the open. Like Ferren, I needed to feel snug!
As a writer who transitioned from academia to a successful writing career, in what ways have your academic experiences and expertise influenced the narratives and themes in your books?
A short answer for this one! So far as I can tell, there’s almost no crossover. As an academic, I had three books published on language theory and literary theory – very theoretical and very abstract. Whereas people have always said that my fantasy novels read like movies. I think I finally managed to engage a different half of my mindI can’t explain how the two halves go together!
What are the key takeaways or emotions you hope readers will experience while reading Ferren and the Angel? Is there a particular message or impression you wish to convey?
I’d hope that readers would be deeply stirred by the grandeur of the mythical themes, continuing from past tradition into Ferren’s present day. From Miriael’s experience, I’d hope they’d take the message never to look down on those different to oneself.
From the portrayal of the Humen and the original scientists and doctors who gave rise to them, I’d hope readers would take the message that respect and even a little reverence are better than using and exploiting everything for one’s purposes. (The Humen foot-soldiers or Hypers are particularly jeering and destructive).
From Ferren – in one of the novel’s later developments – I’d hope they might take the message that you can’t simply turn your back on your own people no matter what they’ve done to you. But overall, I’d hope that none of those messages is the least bit ‘messagey’ – you can draw those morals from the story if you want to, but I’m not preaching them.
Could you provide insights into any upcoming projects or themes you’re currently exploring in your writing?
My priority at the moment is to complete the Ferren Trilogy with Book 2, Ferren and the Doomsday Mission and Book 3, Ferren and the Invaders of Heaven. As the last title reveals, the trilogy builds up to a full-on invasion of Heaven by the Humen.
Of all the awards you’ve received, could you share which one holds a special place in your heart? Is there a particular award that you’re most proud of or consider the most significant in your career?
My favourite would have to be the Prix Tam Tam du Livre Jeunesse. It’s a French award voted on by young readers, but serious, judging readers, not at all a popularity contest. It usually goes to French authors rather than translated authors, though one of the Harry Potters won it a few years before Worldshaker. I ended up talking with some of the judges when my French publisher brought me to Paris for the big Montreuil Festival, and believe me, they were very sharp with their insights!
I apologize if this may be a bit unrelated, but I couldn’t help but notice that in one of your TikTok post, you mentioned the manga Chainsaw Man. As a fellow Chainsaw Man fan myself, I’m curious to ask, are you also a fan?
Or are you just familiar with the medium manga/anime in general? If so, could you share if and how your exposure to manga and anime has ever inspired or influenced your creative process?
Personally, I find Chainsaw Man intriguing due to its cinematic thematic inspirations and well-crafted female characters. For those unfamiliar with Chainsaw Man, it’s noteworthy that Chainsaw Man also have a lot of angelic themes and symbolism.
I have to tell the truth – I never even knew about Chainsaw Man before Comic Con! (Where have I been, you ask? Closed off like a hermit, just writing, writing, writing!) I saw Chainsaw Man wandering around, thought what a great costume – and later asked for a pic with him. Only I thought he looked a bit taller than before. Afterwards I realised that there were no less than four Chainsaw Men wandering around Comic Con, all in identical costumes! (Hand-made, I’m sure, but probably all following the same YouTube instructional video.)
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Richard was born in Yorkshire, England, then migrated to Australia at the age of twenty-one. He was always trying to write, but could never finish the stories he began. Instead he drifted around as a singer, songwriter and poet, then became a university tutor and finally a university lecturer.
But after twenty-five years of writer’s block, he finally finished a cult novel, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, and resigned his lectureship to follow his original dream.
Since then, he’s produced seventeen books of fantasy, SF and horror/supernatural, ranging from Children’s to Young Adult to Adult. His most successful books internationally have been his steampunk fantasies, Worldshaker and its sequels, published in the US (Simon & Schuster), UK, Australia, France and Germany. He has won 6 Aurealis Awards, the Australian Shadows Award, the A. Bertram Chandler Award and the French Prix Tam Tam du Livre Jeunesse.
He lives with partner Aileen near Wollongong, south of Sydney, between golden beaches and green escarpment. Walking Yogi the Labrador while listening to music is his favourite relaxation—when he’s not writing like a mad workaholic, catching up on those wasted twenty-five years …
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