I have devoted more words to my dissatisfaction with conventional fantasy protagonists than is, perhaps, strictly healthy. Some of my gripes become less relevant over time, some do not. We still have a lot of protagonists accustomed to fucking up and letting God–the one out of the machine, specifically–sort it out.
It probably goes without saying that I wrote and designed Gratai Lin from pure, frothing hatred for most such perceived malarkey, originally. Over time her character mutated further into the version you’re about to read about. I think she’s a pretty good main character, personally, but the one thing I can say objectively is that there are very few protagonists like her. She might even be unique–but I’m a bit behind on reading with all this writing, so I’ll let you readers be the judge of that!
Anyway, here she is:
Yes, I did in fact just design the main villain of a hypothetical Disney’s Tomoe Gozen and make her the protagonist. Gratai was, from the very earliest material back in mid-2016, envisioned as an inversion of the archetypal fantasy sorceress: a beautiful, powerful, and ultimately treacherous character with her own agenda (the muscles developed more recently, but I consider them a one hundred-percent upgrade).
Such sorceresses have, in the past, been a fairly obvious reflection of male writers’ fragility when confronted by powerful women, and are generally juxtaposed as villains against a virtuous maiden of some sort who will be safe for the male protagonist to commit to in the long term. Gratai will indeed immolate her enemies and laugh about it. She’s also liable to cry if given a straight compliment because she undervalues her own abilities.
So, let’s get into a spoiler-free character profile of my first book’s titular necromancer.
The firstborn daughter of Matriarch Mou-chirin Lin–a woman often called the Ironbound Heart for her ruthless approach to warfare–Gratai Lin entered the world of Canno around midday in late winter of 1269 V.R. She learned three lessons from the day she could speak: how to kill, how to rule, and how little room these left for other pursuits. While many Cannoan societies would’ve placed Gratai outside the succession for her unnaturally strong mage-talent, among the North Ton this only solidified her place as Heir. The mutations it left her with–shock-white skin and scarlet eyes–became marks of pride for Mou-chirin, who already anticipated the unnerving effect her mutant daughter would have on House Lin’s enemies.
Magic study thus joined martial arts, political theory, and psychology in shaping Gratai for the throne she would one day claim. It also purged whatever time she might otherwise have found for seeking her own identity.
As Gratai’s own mother was, per North Ton custom, quite young at 15, much of Gratai’s childhood instruction came through Uru, then a promising twenty-something spy and espionage expert. Gratai’s grandmother, Mou-heilai, filled the gaps until she was slain in battle after refusing to join a tactical retreat. Gratai, just four years old, made the unenviable transition from Matriarch’s granddaughter to Matriarch’s heir.
Gratai soon developed a reputation for appearing standoffish or inattentive, often refusing to make eye contact and failing to interpret instructions when they were too vague. She complained about small discomforts far more than was seemly for a Ton warrior, especially a woman, often fretting over textures in her food, rough spots and loose threads in clothing, and the like. While she had no difficulty reading facial expressions, she frequently forgot to make any of her own, leading some around her to believe she lacked ordinary human emotions.
Gratai’s temper provided the main exception; young Gratai seemed to throw tantrums for no apparent reason, and it took long study by Uru to determine that there were always certain factors at play in the Heir’s frequent rages. Separating Gratai from either of her obsessions–martial arts, which earned Mou-chirin’s approval, and magic, which soon produced complications–proved the single quickest way to set off a wailing, screaming cacophony. Believing that more discipline would expunge this habit, Mou-chirin ordered Gratai’s instructors to be doubly as harsh on her as any of the other students. Strangely, this had just the opposite effect as the years ground forward.
Despite the restrictions upon her, Gratai developed an early affinity for necromancy. She showed an inhuman talent for it; in fact, Gratai raised her first human corpse at just ten years old. Mou-chirin disapproved, believing necromancy inherently less productive than direct battle magic. Gratai would not be parted easily from her obsession, however, and found ways to continue practicing it–often venturing deep into the Bogs at considerable peril to herself so she might practice necromancy uninterrupted.
The tone-setter for Gratai’s life came comparatively early when a crazed swordsman from the Cult of Ten sneaked into the family’s bastion at Tuha-Lin. After cutting down seven Banner Guards despite his own lack of armor, the Cultist doubled back to the throne room and promptly received a spearhead to the jaw–its wielder none other than young Gratai, who’d just turned thirteen. Two months later, her father Ryun was killed in battle when his segment of the line was overrun.
Gratai’s relationship with her mother became strained from that point forward. Gratai persisted in a life which increasingly felt like a performance; come sixteen years of age, she became bored of that performance.
Stealing the House’s ancestral spear, Skybleeder, Gratai escaped Tuha-Lin while her mother was away making a review of the Lins’ outlying provinces. Gratai fled north into Sarn, a mainly-desolate land often called The Poisoned Kingdom. Here she stayed briefly at the wilderness town called Pinebell before journeying further out across Canno. As both a powerful mage and highly-trained warrior, Gratai had no difficulty making a living for herself, but dogged pursuit by Lin agents forced her to relocate frequently.
She ranged through most of Canno’s livable continents, from a brief stint in southern Ceslon to a lengthy stay in Anseth before sneaking back to Taifen. Along the way, Gratai trained under several other necromancers and further refined her understanding of the wider world. She developed a brief obsession with Skybleeder’s mythos, collecting the Murit sculptor Sherija’s “Abstractions of the Ten as Shown to Me By Skybleeder”–ten sculptures made from gemstones such as opal, depicting ten different warriors Sherija claimed were related to the reaping spear. She briefly came into contact with it at some point in the year 109 V.R.
The sculptures now adorn Skybleeder’s vault at Gratai’s permanent residence in a cavern outside Pinebell. In the necromancer’s own estimation, the quest’s difficulty lay more in tracking them down than actually claiming them. One collector may have needed more coercion than the others, but Gratai refuses to talk about that episode.
Eventually, Gratai used the wealth acquired over her adventures to found The Hangman’s Bequest, a tavern whose name serves as a subtle admission to her necromancy. She’s since calmed somewhat, and through the interventions of her aunt Moriah, her relationship with her mother has mended in recent years–though it remains distant and uneasy. As of 1295 V.R., Gratai has more or less what she wants from life, and few intentions of changing her course.
At 26 Gratai remains an accomplished mage with an unusually large and varied collection of animated corpses–close to five hundred in total. Until she ran away from home, Gratai received instruction in both the armed and unarmed forms of Hei-cho’s Lashing Rain school–one of the “Spring Dawn” schools endorsed by Mou-chirin herself to prepare House Lin’s next generation for fighting cultures outside the Bogs, not just against other North Ton. She still practices these, though during her lazier weeks she only engages in one full session.
Gratai has learned–to some extent–to hide the social ineptitude she was born with, and become far better at controlling her temper. For whatever reason, the runaway heir has become more peculiar as the years continue on. She shows a tendency to make decisions on the spur of the moment or with precious little planning, and often indulges in whims–perhaps more understandably, Gratai is especially eager to do so if she’s just been told not to. A colorful speaker at the most tranquil times, Gratai is given to poetic tangents and imagery, especially when upset.
It’s difficult to say whether Gratai’s invocation caused her vivid language or it was the other way around; it’s a moot point in any case, since only an invoker can practice necromancy. Either way, in a style of magic defined by using mighty images and ideas to drive spells, Gratai always excelled at distilling the essence of a thing in such a way as to wield magic with it. She shows astonishing ability in pattern recognition, likely due to her need for structure and coherence, and this extends to her grasp of metaphor and analogy. There are very few spells for which Gratai can’t conceive of a sound invocation within seconds. It does sometimes lead her astray, however, as Gratai applies the same search for meaning and constant analysis to the people in her life.
Beyond her already-imposing physical stature, Gratai has augmented herself with physiomancy–an arcane school she learned almost by accident as an extent of her necromancy. Many capabilities, such as enhanced strength, speed, hardiness and endurance, are intuitive. At least according to herself, Gratai has the ability to chew copper with her teeth, a more-dubious talent which might have more uses if she couldn’t already use magic.
It’s not unfair to argue Gratai has spread her studies wider than strictly useful. She veers back and forth between everything from history and culture to herbalism and art. Despite her extraordinary talent, Gratai has thus stagnated as a mage and warrior in recent years. For her part, this offers no concern. Again, Gratai has the life she wants, and no intentions of leaving it.
Or at least, that’s what she’d been telling herself until she received a surprising letter from the south, and promptly threw herself into preparing her lonely cavern for a party–one, it seems, her mother will be attending…
(If you’ve enjoyed this visit with Gratai and you’re looking forward to her full debut then please leave a like. In the same spirit, share this post with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon! –I’d love to do my work for free, but the electrical company sure won’t!)