Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Demons on campus: The Royal Academy at Osyth

I might not be Patricia S. Bowne's biggest fan, but I am one of the first. We were both members of a writer's critique group in Milwaukee in the 1990s. She was working on stories set in at the Royal Academy of Arcane Arts and Sciences at Osyth, a university with both magic and bureaucracy.

She's been hanging around university science departments all her life - even longer, since her mother was pregnant with her while she was a grad student. Pat has a PhD. in zoology, which may explain the realistic ecology of magic in the stories, and she teaches at a small Midwest college. She has a shrewd eye for personalities, with their strengths, foibles, and secrets.

She's written a series of novels and short stories about Osyth, and I love them all.

Her inspiration? Graduate school.

I'm always drawing on that - not that any of my professors were attacked by demons! I went to such interesting grad schools, with things like whale skeletons buried in the volleyball pit, deep-sea sampling expeditions, students chasing down pronghorns in winter and sampling lakes during snowstorms, or running into bears on their sampling transects - how could I not miss all that when I went into teaching? There's a part in the first novel where Warren wishes he was a painter, just so he could record what the offices look like. I felt that way every day when I was in grad school. So I finally have recorded it, if in an altered form.

What's the Royal Academy at Osyth like?

It's like a large modern university, an R1 [advanced research institution] with medical school (sorcery) and engineering school (wizardry). The Demonology Department is about equivalent to the biology department at a real university; it's in the school of Natural Magic. The Royal Academy has two other schools, Social Magic (roughly equivalent to the social sciences) and Arcane Arts (the humanities and Fine Arts). I've toyed with adding a business program for non-magical students, since as a Royal Academy they have to accept any of the Royal family whether they're talented or not, but haven't written anything about it yet.

I wanted it to be a real university, with the kinds of issues that a real university has - for instance, insurance coverage, faculty meetings, program evaluations, all those things that seem to be imposed from some nebulous upper region (that's why the Dean doesn't have a name). Folks who write about universities of magic sometimes treat them as if faculty just do whatever interests them until they cry "voila!" and emerge with some new threat to humanity in their back pockets. But in real life, what government would allow that? All my faculty work under bureaucratic constraints. The most extreme example is Bill Navanax, who might be burned at the stake if he takes his work out of the lab.

I'm told that the most realistic part of Advice From Pigeons is the stress on a new faculty member. Rho really does need to get his research going and get a grant ASAP, and the culture clash he goes through on moving from Kasidora to the Royal Academy is real. A friend of mine who just read the book says it captures the new faculty experience, and I see the things I wrote about reflected in faculty blogs.

There are some areas I didn't observe when I was in grad school; for instance, I don't know what kinds of meetings profs at an R1 have to attend, so I draw that from what I've seen in liberal arts colleges. In the short story "Kindling," everybody wants to be on the Library Use Committee; I'm on that one myself and it is a plum, though not for the reason given in the story. Likewise I knew nothing about Development from grad school, so I hope the fundraising in Want's Master is accurate.

There's humor ...

I think academic life is that humorous. It's in-jokes, of course. I remember laughing at a grad school party about something regarding sewage bacteria, and thinking, "This is the life - to know people who get this joke." Grad school is full of clever people with a fund of specialized knowledge, some of which is just funny on its own and some of which becomes funny when you try to link it to real life; like a friend of mine who studied foraminifera, and identified truck hubcaps according to which foram shell they resembled. That sort of thing goes on all the time in grad school. The trick is to make it funny to people who aren't in the field.

… and there's danger.

People do do dangerous things in academic science. There's a documentary out there that shows one of my classmates scrambling up an observation tower just ahead of a polar bear. I had a couple office-mates who were standing atop a dead whale when it exploded. I think half the people I know from those years have been in swimming with sharks, worked with potentially lethal or explosive toxins, so forth.

But nothing like getting their hands torn off by demons. The daily invocation of a demon isn't realistic in any sense; especially, I can't imagine a whole department getting together every morning to do something that is really only relevant to four or five members' research. When Linus complains about giving an hour of his time to it every day, he has a legitimate gripe.

Osyth took shape before Harry Potter, but the two worlds have been compared.

Hogwarts is from a whole different tradition; the biggest difference, though, would be that the Harry Potter books are about the students, while my books are about the profs. Hogwarts is a teaching establishment, and the Royal Academy is a research university. Students barely appear in my books, and when they do they are graduate students. Which I think is pretty accurate; in all my years of grad school, I can't remember ever hearing a prof talk about teaching undergraduates, even though they were all doing it.

At Hogwarts, disciplines seem to be divided methodologically. Transformation, or potion-making. At the Royal Academy, folks are divided by what they specialize in. Will Harding, for instance, would know any potions and transformations relevant to vampires. But that's because this is a higher level of education, and all these people are far past the skills-level classes Harry Potter is taking.

Hogwarts celebrates things like Christmas, if I remember correctly. There's no hint of any of that in Osyth. In fact, it's a pretty religion-free country at the time of these novels. A church does open there in A Lovesome Thing, and the building they use was a church in the far past. However, gods are real enough for the Academy to have hired a specialist in them. Basically, divine forces are real but most human religions cycle in and out of being bunk. There's a lot about religions in A Lovesome Thing, and a lot about gods in my most recent novella, "Those Who Favor Fire."

The in-jokes include naming demons after fish.

That started with Nezumia. In real life it's a macrourid (grenadier or rattail), one of the deep sea fishes I did my masters' on. Another researcher in the area told me that its name meant "black rat" in Japanese. Google now tells me that isn't true, but this was back before Google … Anyway, I thought "Black Rat" was a fine name for a demon from the netherworld. In fact, all these deep-sea fishes seemed as if they would make good models for demons from the netherworld; besides which they had been a royal pain to study, so there was an element of revenge.

Once I started using scientific names, I branched out from fish. I figure anyone deep enough into science to get the in-jokes will be deep enough into it to enjoy the rest of the books.

What you can read about Osyth (and buy here):

Advice From Pigeons, a novel. Hiram Rho starts work at the Academy, and within a month, he has acquired an affectionate demon with a plan to take over the department, the two senior demonologists have lost their souls and their health insurance, and Rho's problems have embroiled everyone from the mysterious Alchemy faculty to the pigeons on his window ledge.

A Lovesome Thing, a novel. It's spring break. Demonology faculty have scattered to the four winds except for Neil Torecki and Teddy Whin, who venture into the alchemists' study garden to rescue a lost colleague. They don't know that the garden opens into an ancient prison for dissident alchemists, or that the world's most dangerous possessing demon has taken refuge there, feeding on the prisoners while it plots to take over leadership of a major religion.

Want's Master and Other Stories From Osyth, a collection of four Osyth stories: "Want's Master," about a development officer who enchants donors; "Kindling," in which Linus takes over the world's most dangerous research museum; "Beginner's Luck," where Anders Regan gets embroiled in dryad rights and the theology of conference door prizes; and "Unite and Conquer," in which a grad student at the University of Kasadora takes revenge on her abusive advisor.

"Those Who Favor Fire," a story at Lorelei Signal. Winston Chiliming, a mysterious diviner, refuses to be categorized - even into male or female. The magazine has a voting system, so if you like the story you can indicate it by donating to the magazine and help support it.

Swept and Garnished, a novel coming out later this year. After barely surviving the semester at the Royal Academy, Hiram Rho heads home for the summer and his department chair, Warren Oldham, departs on a well-deserved vacation. While Rho tries to get his powers back, Warren's vacation takes an unexpected turn that leaves him battling a demon from inside it. Back in Osyth, Russell Cinea, the senior demonologist, is finally in charge - for a week full of demons, exorcists, and unexpected temptations.

• More Royal Academy novellas will be re-issued this year, and perhaps another collection.

— Sue Burke
Tags: osyth, writing

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