Guns and Magic in Tropical Straits: Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Historical fiction author Angus Donald turns his skills to historical fantasy under the pen name Angus Macallan in Gates of Stone, a “debut” novel with a central setting evocative of 18th century Indonesia. Drawing on his studies of the region while living and working there, MacAllan uses the historical and geographical reality of the islands of Indonesia to inform the archipelago of his fictional world, Laut Besar.

The novel begins with the plight of Princess Katerina of the Ice-Bear Empire, who, on her 16th birthday, is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Her journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of Prince Arjun whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. The sword is a relic of mystical import that could unleash hell on earth, as the destinies of the princes and princess from different worlds will proved to be more intertwined—and far reaching—than either could’ve imagined.

Using Indonesia as a basis for a fantasy kingdom lends the novel an immediate sense of unique geography not found in the familiar, Western European-derived fantasy model, and the author’s experience of the real place and its history permeates the culture, societies, religion, and magic of Laut Besar. From rich courts, to deadly jungles, to inhospitable mountains, Macallan paints a fascinating world for readers to immerse themselves in. Some of the islands of the archipelago match Indonesian geography (Yawa being similar to Java, for example), but there is much invention here as well: the titular Gates of Stone certainly do not exist in Indonesia, although in reality and in fiction, control of the various straits has been contested for centuries.

There is a note of colonialism and colonial politics in the narrative. Its competing Great Powers —the moving forces that push and pull the characters—are inspired by, but not necessarily directly mapped on, the invading powers that shaped 18th and 19th century Indonesia. In this world, the Ice-bear Empire (clearly modeled on Russia) has a warm weather port that it lacked in our world, and it is from here that Princess Katerina launches her path into the Laut Besar. There also appears to be a resurgent version of a Chinese Empire far less insular than the one in our timeline, as well as a powerful Federation inspired by India. There are mentions of Niho and their knights, a possible analogue to Japan and its samurai. The Laut Besar is indeed a playground of Great Powers, with the smaller local ones pushed around by all and sundry.

The occasional “Extract from Ethnographic Travels” that preface many chapters do some of the heavy lifting in terms of worldbuilding. These short pieces clearly and cleverly point events that took place in this world prior to the start of the narrative, providing a guide to the places and cultures of the Laut Besar that the characters might well have consulted, had they a copy. It’s a handy way to sketch out the factors that helped contribute to the catastrophic events of the novel, filling in spots in the worldbuilding that might not otherwise be immediately discernible from the plot. It’s a useful arrow in the fantasy writer’s quiver, and Macallan wields it skillfully.

Though there is much to savor about the worldbuilding, the novel truly begins to shine as the characters come into their own. The book luxuriates in its page count a bit, and takes its time allowing the cast to develop the sort of depth that makes us truly appreciate the choices they are faced with and grasp the enormity of the decisions they make. Take Katerina, the princess of the Ice-Bear Empire, who kills her new husband in chapter one. It’s a bold choice, providing the early misimpression that she is going to be a primary antagonist of the series, rather than its primary point-of-view character. It is only as we follow her journey that we are able to put her act in the proper context. Indeed, all of the major characters encountered mid-conflict, enmeshed in their own struggles, and the novel works backward to flesh out who they are and provide strong reasons to care about their plights. The minor characters are similarly well drawn, with arcs and motivations of their own. The book rewards patience with getting to know its robust cast.

Of particular note is the very human face put on the antagonist, the sorcerer Mangku. In contrast to many fantasy antagonists, his plans and schemes are flawed, and we see him have to adapt on the fly as his plots don’t always turn out as he’d hoped. This fallibility grounds him in the world and as another character struggling to achieve his aims, rather than painting him as a nameless, seemingly implacable force that we all expect will eventually be defeated come the end of the series. His powers may be alien and strange, but he remains relatable, for all that his plans are reprehensible.

All of that said, the novel’s action beats are likely to draw the most accolades from readers. Setting the novel in a quasi-18th century setting means Gates of Stone fits nicely alongside the work of “flintlock fantasy” authors like Django Wexler, Brian McClellan, and Stina Leicht. While there are stunningly rendered feats of swordsmanship and hand-to-hand fighting to savor, it is the soldiers with cannons and muskets who provide the lever for the ambitions of those who control them, particularly Princess Katerina. The action-laden finale, which takes us to the titular Gates of Stone, is an stunningly well-conceived conflict, packed with successes, reverses, surprises, and pulse-pounding incident. I was reminded favorably of real-world depictions of the siege of Malta, and it is clear that the author has drawn deeply from historical accounts of battles to lend his own invented ones authenticity.

Gates of Stone is a strong, focused turn into fantasy by an experienced novelist seeking to ply the waters of a new genre. The strong foundations he lays in this series-starter hold much promise for additional stories in a fully realized world.

Gates of Stone is available now.

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10 Novels Inspired by China and Southeast Asian Culture

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

According to the traditional Chinese calendar, today marks the start of the Year of the Pig and the celebration of Lunar New Year in China and other countries in Southeast Asia (including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand)—and, indeed, around the world. To celebrate the new year, here are 10 new and recent sci-fi and fantasy books that draw from or are set in the cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (aka The Three-Body trilogy), by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
The 2015 release of the English version of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem became a publishing sensation. A huge hit in Liu’s native China, where it has inspired everything from cosplay to theme parks, it became the first translated novel to win the Hugo Award and the flashpoint that ignited a small boom in Chinese sci-fi in the West. It couldn’t have happened to a better book: though it incorporates the tropes of the so-called Golden Age English-language sci-fi novels Liu grew up loving, The Three-Body Problem and its sequels approach the genre from a distinctly Chinese angle, centering the action in Chinese characters; the opening of the first novel is even set during the Cultural Revolution, a time when academics like the protagonists were persecuted for promoting science. As a whole, the trilogy explores a first contact scenario between humans and aliens on a vast scale, but the lens through which it is viewed is distinctly Chinese. The Redemption of Time, a continuation of the series penned by a fan and later sanction by the author will be released in the U.S. later this year.

The Dandelion Dynasty, by Ken Liu
Ken Liu is a prolific short story writer, and many of his speculative tales—including those in his marvelous collection The Paper Menagerie— draw from his Chinese heritage, but with his series the Dandelion Dynasty, he’s doing something truly different within the confines of epic fantasy. Though unabashedly epic in scope—an account of the rise and fall of empires in a world filled with magic, monsters, and inventive technology—The Grace of Kings and its sequel The Wall of Storms don’t fit the Western fantasy mold. The novels incorporate a fair amount of both history and folklore about the fall of the Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han way, way back in Chinese history, and enhance them with a silkpunk aesthetic, but the way the narrative unfurls, favoring the sweep of history over the intimate and the personal, sets them apart from so many A Game of Thrones readalikes. Chinese history—with its sweep of millennia and dynastic machinations—is perfectly suited to epic fantasy, a genre which has heretofore largely cribbed from medieval and renaissance Europe (with notable and important exceptions, of course). Liu tells something like a national origin story, with all of the attendant tall tales, mythologizing, and invocation of the gods such an enterprise incurs.

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang 
In a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, the Nikan Empire defeated the Federation of Mugen in the Second Poppy War, and the two countries have since coexisted in a fragile state of peace. Orphaned peasant girl Rin lives a life of misery in Nikan, but when she sits for the Keju, the empire-wide examination designed to find talented youth and assign them to serve where they will be most useful, she scores in the highest percentile and is shocked to be assigned to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite. At Sinegard, Rin is bullied for her dark skin and low social status—but with the help of an insane teacher, she also discovers she is a shaman, able to wield powers long thought lost to the world. As she grows into her power and communicates with living gods, Rin sees clearly that a third Poppy War is coming—and she may be the only one who can stop it. Kuang is Chinese-American, and the book’s worldbuilding is informed by her study of twentieth century Chinese history (particularly the horrific Rape of Nanking), but this is no mere academic exercise—the characters are flawed and true, and the choices they face are impossibly compelling. The story continues later this year in The Dragon Republic.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
King’s scarily good debut does what sci-fi does best, extrapolating a plausible future from real-world reality. In a future China where the one-child policy has led to a population with 40 million more men than women, middle aged Wei-guo struggles through a life in which he is considered unnecessary. He maintains his optimism and conviction that as long as he continues to improve he will be rewarded with love, and finally saves a dowry that enables him to join an “advanced family” as a third husband—the lowest rank—to the lovely May-ling. The family is imperfect, harboring an “illegal spouse,” but Wei-guo finds kinship and friendship in this unusual arrangement. But the rulers of the nation know they are sitting on a powder keg, and have become more intrusive and authoritarian than ever. Someone is always listening, and Wei-guo knows no matter how happy he is, he will always be an “excess male,” and thus disposable. If this sounds like grim dystopia to you, never fear: though the circumstances Wei-guo faces are often harsh, the novel is ultimately affirming—heartwarming, romantic, and even sweet.

The Tensorate series, by JY Yang
Billed by Publishing as a silkpunk fantasy saga, the linked novellas of JY Yang’s Tensorate series take place in a secondary world incorporating a myriad of Asian cultural traditions (while the author is Singaporean, the books cannot be so narrowly classified). They are a masterclass in worldbuilding. The pan-Asian fantasy setting pieces together the familiar (mosques, congee, and guns are all touchstones of our reality, and yet…) with elements that are truly strange: nagas, velociraptors, megafauna, and much else dwelling alongside humanity; prophecy as a talent used to guide nations; a culture where children control nothing of their own destiny, yet can choose their own genders. Each novella follows a different protagonist and explores different aspects of the world; they stand largely along, but we’d recommend starting with The Black Tides of Heaven. The next entry in the series, The Ascent to Godhood, arrives in July.

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Marjorie Liu’s acclaimed graphic novel series is a phantasmagorical horror story-cum-bildungsroman following Maika Halfwolf, a teenage girl who shares a bond with a mythical monster in a world inspired by the cultures and history of Asia in the early 20th century. While this is distinctly a secondary world—blood magic, wolf children, and talking cats abound—it deals with issues intrinsic to the grimmest history of the region: racism, slavery, and cultural warfare inspired by Liu’s grandmother’s experiences during World War II (the writer is half-Chinese, and her grandmother escaped the Japanese occupation of China as a teenager). Thanks to Sana Takeda’s darkly gorgeous, stunningly detailed artwork and endearing (and fearsome) character designs, the series is easy to pick up (which is probably why it has won multiple Eisner Awards for young adult comics), but the themes the narrative grapples with are weighty indeed.

In the Vanisher’s Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard is of French and Vietnamese descent, and she weaves elements of her cultural heritage into pretty much everything she writes, including her epic space opera series set in the Xuya Universe, the future of an alternate history in which the Chinese came to the Americas before the Europeans, which resulted in Asian powers dominating the globe and, thus, the future of intergalactic space travel. de Bodard’s most recent work is in an entirely different vein—a queer retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story that draws heavily upon Vietnamese culture in which the beast is a dragon and the world is still reeling from the fallout of colonialism after friendly visitors from an alien race brought disease and destruction with them on their starships. As a reframing of a classic fairy tale, In the Vanisher’s Palace is subversive and bold; as a romance, it is tentative, touching, and sweet.

The True Queen, by Zen Cho
The long-awaited sequel to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown explores new angles of her Regency-Era-with-magic world. It’s set on the enchanted island of Janda Baik in the Malay Archipelago (including the modern-day Brunei, Singapore, East Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor), a place that has long been home to witches in Cho’s alternate history. Sisters Muna and Sakti wash up on the shores of the island with no recollection of how they got there—and indeed, they seem to be suffering under a curse that has stolen most of their memories. They hope to find help from the great magicians of England, but they are waylaid on their journey west, which takes them through the fae lands, where Sakti vanishes.  To save her sister, Muna must convince the British magicians that she is a gifted magic user herself, running up against cultural prejudices in the process—no doubt informed by the author’s own background as a Malaysian woman living in the U.K. If you enjoy the way Zen Cho weaves Asian cultural traditions into her fiction, her story collection Spirits Abroad is an absolute must—and we’ll also tout the lovely novelette she published here on this blog, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.”

Jade City, by Fonda Lee
The elevator pitch for YA author Fonda Lee’s first novel for adults is pretty catchy: it’s The Godfather meets Hong Kong martial arts films in a world inspired by the cultural traditions of China and other Asian communities. The titular Jade City is the capital of an island nation a generation or so past occupation by a foreign power. This occupation was repulsed by the Green Bone warriors, an ethnic minority who have the cultural lore and genetic predisposition to wield jade, a mineral resource that can confer superhuman powers on its wearers. Without adequate training or natural disposition, jade can drive a person to suicide. Two generations ago, Green Bone warriors were hungry freedom fighters with bonds forged in blood; now they are warring clans presided over by both cautious old men and hungry young upstarts. The Green Bone warriors are at war with themselves. Jade City is a sprawling story of crime families in conflict, set in a cosmopolitan city with a nevertheless deeply traditional culture. Sequel Jade War arrives later this year.

Gates of Stone, by Angus Macallan
The final entry on our recommended reading list is the only one that wouldn’t be considered an “own voices” work—though author Angus Macallan was born in China and lived, worked, and studied in Asia for much of his life, including a stint as a journalist in Hong Kong, he is not of Asian descent himself. His epic fantasy Gates of Stone draws from Indonesian culture as well as other Asian cultural traditions to tell the story of a princess who is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Princess Katerina’s journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of a prince whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. To this Western reader’s eye, this series-starter seems to engage with its Asian inspirations beyond using them as mere exotic window-dressing. Hopefully readers of all different cultural backgrounds will agree.

What Asian-inspired fantasy novels do you recommend for Lunar New Year reading?

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