Traveling the World to Build One: How Beth Cato Shaped the Alternate History of the Blood of Earth Trilogy

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Today we turn the blog over to author Beth Cato, who tells us about the “hard work” (wink wink) that went into building the world of her acclaimed (and recently concluded) Blood of Earth trilogy.

Alternate history is about the ripples.

Throw a stone in a pond. Watch what happens. Count every ripple and measure its exact volume. Calculate how long it will take each ripple to reach landmarks like a rock, a leaf, and the shore, and go bonkers in the process. Or… realize your limits, and focus on the ripples that matter.

When I started writing my Blood of Earth trilogy beginning with Breath of Earth, I quickly realized how maddening the entire research process could be. I’m a perfectionist with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If left to my own devices, I could and would attempt to count every ripple from the moment my stone plunked into the water: the early end of the American Civil War due to the alliance of Union forces and Japan.

The action of my series needed to focus on 1906, where I rewrote the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire with geomancy and incredible creatures. Against that backdrop, America and Japan are allied as the Unified Pacific and trying to dominate mainland Asia. This brings up complicated ripples with historical, political, and cultural repercussions, with endless potential to muck it up. Writing alternate history with a dose of magic is not an excuse for lazy research and writing. A factual basis means everything.

A pep talk from my literary agent helped me accept that there could be no such thing as a flawless alternate history. To put it bluntly, I had to research to the best of my ability and in the end acknowledge that my own ignorance might be on display.

This weighed on my mind as I began outlining the finale of my trilogy, Roar of Sky. The first third of the novel would be set in Hawaii, the Big Island in particular. I hit the research books, as I always do, and found a wealth of old travelogues to draw on. (Two of the most useful that are still in print are Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands, and Six Months in the Sandwich Islands by Isabella Lucy Bird).

However, I had another problem: I had visited the settings of my previous Blood of Earth novels. I had not traveled to Hawaii. I needed to do justice to a place and people that had been treated with horrid injustice through this period.

Therefore, I had to take a research trip to the Hawaiian Islands.

Yes, this was quite possibly the best tax write-off ever, yet also undeniably a work trip. I packed collapsible hiking sticks, not a swimsuit.

I learned a lot about everyday life on sugarcane plantations at Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu on Oahu, where 90-year-old Charlie–with the help of his little dog Tomo–gave us a two-hour tour as he ‘talked story.’ On the short flight from Honolulu to Kona, I followed our route on the flight magazine map and took constant pictures because I knew my airship Palmetto Bug would fly the same path. I sought out Japanese bakeries (Neko Pan from BRUG Bakery in Honolulu shown here), as sweet rolls like an-pan and jamu-pan are of incredible importance in my books and aren’t things I can find around Phoenix, Arizona.

However, the most important portion of the trip involved a stay in the appropriately-named town of Volcano at the boundary of Volcanoes National Park. My geomancer heroine Ingrid needed to trek into Kilauea to the burbling lava lake of Halema’uma’u, long-regarded as the home of Madame Pele, goddess of volcanoes.

A century ago, safety standards for visitors were a bit, well, lax. Tourists trekked across uneven, sharp dried lava in the dead of night to frolic on the shores of a massive, bubbling, spitting lava lake. They cooked sausages over hot lava and singed postcards to mail as souvenirs.

I toted a camera, not sausages.

The modern trail began in the same place as back then, at Volcano House, a famous inn on the rim that’s still open for business. On that bright, sunny afternoon, Halema’uma’u’s plume stood out from over a mile away.

Tourists back in the day, like my characters, did the first part of the journey on horseback; these days, it’s a foot trail. A zigzagging path down the steep cliff caused me and my husband to tread with care across uneven steps, slick mud, gnarled roots, and around thorny vines. Tourists over the years have pounded the trail into moss-furred holloways.

I came to collect sensory details to make my book feel real, and was surprised by what I encountered. Despite the presence of nearby sulfur-steaming cliffs, rain forest characteristics such as the scent of fresh greenery and moisture and constant bird calls and chirps dominated my senses.

Volcanic activity this summer dramatically changed the geography of the area. The lava lake not only drained out through vents in the Puna district to the east, but the caldera collapsed. A 1,500-foot pit marks where Halema’uma’u once was. Volcanoes National Park only recently reopened to a limited degree, but last I checked, this trail is still closed. A picture on the park’s Facebook page a few months ago showed a boulder like this completely blocking the trail.

At the bottom of the cliff, the forest abruptly ended. A cold black sea of old lava stretched beyond. A century ago, the trail horses stopped here in a corral made of stacked lava rock. I glanced back at the cliff to attempt to capture the scale of the bowl we stood in.

Then I looked ahead, to Halema’uma’u a mile away. So close, yet so far. Signs warned us not to hike farther due to toxic fumes.

I still needed to experience a prolonged hike across black lava so that I could describe my characters’ experiences. Nearby Kilauea Iki provided what I needed with a 3-hour hike that involved more switchbacks down a steep cliff and a long walk across the pit crater’s length. Iki only erupted in 1959 and has only been cool enough to walk across for a few decades–and parts of it are still steaming.

This last picture, taken from the cliff of Kilauea Iki, shows the plume of Halema’uma’u rising from the crater next door.

My trip to Hawaii provided me with not only the information that I needed to write my book, but also granted me a strange and unexpected emotional bond with my characters. I’ve been living in my novels’ world since 2013. I read over 70 sources for research, most of those full books. I don’t even know how many hours I spent writing and rewriting and rewriting again. The potential to err in this series has frequently terrified me–and yet I’ve also loved the process and the places it’s allowed me to venture in my imagination and on my own two feet.

This research expedition let me walk where my characters walked. To breathe in the scents, taste the pastries, and experience the cold night winds as they would. My characters felt all the more real to me because of that.

I twisted history in various new knots and twined in magic for good measure, but I did what I could to keep my characters and settings true to their time. I’ve thrown the stone and studied the ripples as best I can. The Blood of Earth trilogy stands complete.

All three books of the Blood of Earth trilogy are available now.

The post Traveling the World to Build One: How Beth Cato Shaped the Alternate History of the Blood of Earth Trilogy appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: A Revolution on Mars, Life on the Moon, and a Visual History of D&D

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Red Rising (B&N Exclusive Edition), by Pierce Brown
Return to the first volume of Brown’s revolutionary space opera trilogy with this special edition reissue of his bestselling debut. The Red Rising series has taken on the status of new genre classic, telling the story of a color-coded solar empire modeled on ancient Roman swagger and built on ruthless genetic manipulation. In this series-opener, Darrow, a laboring Red on Mars, grows weary of people treated like a tool to be used and thrown away by the ruthless, ruling Golds. Pulled into a vast conspiracy, he undergoes painful surgeries in order to pass as one of the aristocratic elites, and takes place in a deadly sort of gladiatorial games; winning them will position him to increase his status and take down the system from the inside. This exclusive B&N edition features an alternate cover and full-color endpapers, as well as a new preface by the author.

The Dream Gatherer, by Kristen Britain
Twenty years and five sequels ago, Kristen Britain launched a beloved epic fantasy series with The Green Rider, following the titular central heroes in a sort of postal service/spy network. The series draws on her own history as a former ranger with the National Parks service and her current life in the desert—as someone who has spent her life out in nature, her descriptions of her fantasy world feel rich and vibrant. The central heroes of the story, the Green Riders themselves, are a sort of combination of postal workers and spies. To celebrate the two-decade milestone (and ease the wait for the next full-length volume), Britain offers up the titular novella—featuring series faves the Berry Sisters—and two additional short stories, each featuring illustrations she created herself. It’s a must for fans.

Restless Lightning, by Richard Baker
The sequel to Valiant Dust and the second volume in the Breaker of Empires military sci-fi series. set in a 32nd century in which technologically advanced superpowers dominate older, backwards empires. Sikander North is a prince of Kashmir, vassal to the Commonwealth of Aquila, an interstellar power. He’s avoided a court martial for his actions defending the empire in the previous book, but is reassigned to a remote outpost of little import. Naturally, of course, that puts him on the front lines of a brewing alien revolt, and putting a stop to it will require him to break all the rules and defy orders once again. This is military science fiction adventure in the classic mold.

Cold Iron, by Miles Cameron
Under a variety of pen names, Cameron has written extensively in historical fiction and epic fantasy, including, most recently, the expansive Traitor Son Cycle. He credits the remarkable levels of verisimilitude he’s able to bring to these stories to his military service, his training as a historian, and his enthusiasm for historical reenactments, which force him to learn how to recreate the past and give him insight into how people interacted, dressed, and lived in ancient times. His new series, Masters & Mages, kicks off with Cold Iron, telling the story of a talented young mage named Arnathur, who finds himself compelled to train under a legendary sword master after revealing his surprising skill with a blade and begins questioning that path even as he’s drawn into the intrigue surrounding a growing revolt. Cameron brings an intimate knowledge of history and warfare to a remarkably complex, real-feeling work of epic fantasy.

Roar of Sky, by Beth Cato
With the Breath of Earth series, set in an alternate San Francisco that’s part of a Japan-USA super empire known as the United Pacific, and taking place before, during, and after the great earthquake of 1906, Cato has created a genre unto itself—one combining elements of historical fiction, alternate history, steampunk, and urban fantasy. In this concluding volume, a weakened but defiant geomancer named Ingrid Carmichael (whose father was discovered to have magically caused the earthquake in the first place) flees to Hawaii to seek out her roots and evade the insane grasp of Ambassador Blum, who wants to use her power to further her own nefarious ends. Cato’s historically grounded worldbuilding and fierce protagonist have made this series a highlight of the past three years; we’re sorry to see this series reach its ending—but what a climactic ending it is.

The Silver Scar, by Betsy Dornbusch
The author of the Seven Eyes series returns with a satisfying standalone volume that takes place in a post-apocalyptic future America that looks a lot like the setting for an medieval epic fantasy, riven by religious divisions and competition for scarce resources. Trinidad is the child of Wiccans who martyred themselves for their beliefs; he has devoted his life to the Christian parish in what was once Boulder, Colorado. A powerful bishop arrives bearing a scar she claims was given to her by an angel, but Trinidad recognizes its true origin: a graveyard he learned of as a child, which has the power to heal. The only other person who knows about the graveyard is Trinidad’s childhood friend Castile, who has fallen in with terrorists; they kidnap Trinidad, believing he told the bishop about the graveyard. Reunited under the worst of circumstances, the one-time friends must brave a hostile journey and dangerous enemies as they journey to confront the bishop—and Trinidad does whatever he has can quell a brewing religious war.

The Son of Black Thursday, by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Sci-fi fans might best know Jodorowsky as the man who utterly failed to get a 14-hour film version of Dune into production, but his career encompasses much more than that legendary debacle. He’s also written for comics and penned novels, and now, publisher Restless Books is translating some of his fantasy-autobiographical books into English for the first time. The Son of Black Thursday tells the story of Jodorowsky’s family’s move from Ukraine to Chile, and his early life there—but adds into the mix a healthy dose of surrealism and the sort of sci-fi flourishes that have always characterized his work. It’s not so much a memoir as a science fiction version of Jodorowsky’s epic life.

Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan
Earlier this year, a whole new audience was introduced to Morgan’s work via the Netflix adaptation of hs debut, Altered Carbon, meaning the timing is perfect for this new story from the English writer. Thin Air is more of what Morgan does best: dark, gritty sci-fi noir. In the future, Mars has become a battleground for ruthless forces back on Earth, even as a native independence movement gains steam among the red planet’s permanent residents. Hakan Veil is a professional enforcer with body tech that makes him deadly, but he’s tired of being the heavy on Mars, and just wants to back to a planet with a breathable atmosphere. In classic noir tradition, he gets his chance via one last mission: protecting a visiting investigator for the Earth Oversight organization. The ensuing events threaten not just the balance of power on Mars, but the lives of Veil and his client; as Morgan’s regular readers will expect, things are going to get bloody fast.

Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee
Harvard-grad Lee has published three novels and several short stories, earning a reputation as one of the smartest young SFF writers out there. His first non-fiction work focuses on the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a period roughly between 1935 and 1950, when John W. Campbell and Astounding Science Fiction seemed to single-handedly define—and regularly redefine—the genre, with the able assistance of three of the era’s most important writers: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard (yes, that L. Ron Hubbard). In this history-cum-narrative, Lee examines what made Campbell and his writers so important, and doesn’t flinch away from these icons’ later wanderings into the fringe. The end result is a welcome analysis of one of the most significant periods in science fiction’s history, explored by a talented writer with a clear love for the genre.

Red Moon, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson leaves the waterlogged Big Apple of New York 2140 to explore humanity’s future off-planet in Red Moon, as a political conspiracy unfolds on Earth’s satellite in a novel that harkens back to his landmark Mars trilogy. In the near future, the moon has been colonized by both the United States and China. The uneasy peace between the two countries is threatened when American Fred Fredericks is somehow involved in the poisoning of Governor Chang of the Chinese colony. Fredericks finds himself fighting for his life as he and an illegally pregnant Chinese woman named Qi race to return to Earth. As always, Robinson employs careful research and exacting worldbuilding as he traces current events into an entirely plausible future—it’s a novel that considers, among many other things, what role blockchain might play in our lunar colonial future.

A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland
Rowland’s major debut (she self-published the novel In the End in 2012) is a story about stories. Chant, a member of an order of wandering storytellers, finds himself arrested on baffling charges of espionage in the realm of Nuryevet, a country run by five elected rulers. A Conspiracy of Truths has a bifurcated tone: half-comic in the exaggerated grandiloquence of Chant’s stories and self-regard, and maybe more than half-tragic in the events that inevitably unfold. Our narrator knows the power of stories, and his weaving of them from the depths of his incarceration ends up being the seismic event that shakes the very foundations of Nuryevet.

Dungeons & Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History (B&N Exclusive Edition), by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer
Experienced players of the world’s most popular tabletop game, don’t miss this one: this official history is a deep dive into the visual development of Dungeons & Dragons, with more than 700 pieces of artwork drawn from all five editions, plus various supplements and side modules; licensed magazines; advertising and merchandise; and a whole lot more. The publisher bills it as “the most comprehensive collection of D&D imagery ever assembled,” and we’re inclined to agree: this thing is a beast. And the exclusive B&N edition includes even more to love, like a variant cover and six fold-out pages featuring additional maps and illustrations.

What’s new on your shelves this week?

The post This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: A Revolution on Mars, Life on the Moon, and a Visual History of D&D appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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