Books Within Books: In Halting Praise of Ancillary Texts in Fantasy, by Josiah Bancroft

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Author photo by Kim Bricker.

One of our favorite new fantasy series of 2018 (and many years before that, to be honest), is Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel, a deeply original adventure-cum-exploration of the titular fictional edifice. And one of the defining features of the series shows up on the first page of Senlin Ascends, before the story proper even begins: an epigraph drawn from the fictional Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel. Throughout the three books of the series to date, Bancroft has used epigraphs pulled from a raft of nonexistent books to enrich the world he’s building—to grand, often humorous effect.

To celebrate the release of The Hod King, he joins us today to talk about the merits of epigraphs—why he loves them, and why it is ok if you don’t.

Do you ever skim the elven hymns? Do your eyes cross when your encounter italicized druidic diary entries that seem to exist only to stall the pace of an otherwise rollicking fantasy adventure? If so, you’re not alone! The truth is, writers know that, on average, readers want the cheesy pizza pie of plot and dialogue, not the dry crust of textual marginalia. Prophetic poems, scribal ephemera, and epigraphic adages all invite readers to scowl, skip ahead, or close the book. We know.

Then why do so many fantasy authors do it?

Partly, I think it’s because the siren song of ancillary texts is too strong for most fantasy writers to resist. Yes, yes, we get that you don’t really want to read a stanza of dwarven free verse or plod through a rogue’s internal monologue communicated via footnote. We just can’t help ourselves! We love the sprawling worlds inside our heads so much that we decide to include the sort of minutia that very few people enjoy. And even so, we indulge in fantastical glossaries, demonic brochures, and wizardly theses, all in the pursuit of originality and verisimilitude. I’m quite sure it is only a matter of time until a fantasy author adapts a gym membership contract to their speculative universe.

Of course, there’s a little more to this creative quirk than a lack of self-control. Writers are by nature (and sometimes profession) steeped in many forms of the written word, much of which resides outside the speculative genre. My own creative history includes comic books, poetry, experimental prose, classic adventure novels, the modernist literary canon, antiquity, cult films, absurdist texts, and popsicle-stick puns. We are products of our influences, and so it is natural that we writers conceive of our imaginary worlds through the same lens that we understand and experience reality. We build the new with olden stone!

And, all facetiousness aside, most writers have reasons for penning these inconvenient, unlikable, and tangential texts. They might not be universally compelling reasons, but we don’t set out to torment our readers with doggerel and asides. But sometimes, inspiration arrives in unlikely forms.

Originally, Senlin Ascends was meant to be a collection of prose poems and lyrical fragments fashioned in the vein of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The fragments would explore the Tower of Babel of another universe from the perspective of a travel guide writer. The book was going to be experimental, brief, and undoubtedly dreadful. It didn’t take me long to recognize two essential truths. One: I am not Calvino. Two: What I really wanted to write was an adventure novel, and that would require pesky things like characters, plot, and a coherent world.

But I still liked the idea of writing a fantastical guidebook. And I thought it could be useful narratively, acting as a lens into the world of the Tower. I imagined a multiple-volume guide book called The Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, which was a sort of homage to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rather than wedging large chunks from the guide into the narrative, I landed on the idea of including short epigraphs at the start of each chapter. And thus, the epigraphs were born. Quickly, I realized the potential of the idea, and expanded the sources of the epigraphs to include instructive manuals, diaries, newspapers, letters, and poems, all authored in the world of the Tower. This imaginary collection of sources would ultimately give the series its name— the Books of Babel.

I knew early on that I didn’t want the epigraphs to be ornamental or tonal. I wanted them to do some real narrative work; I wanted them to be entertaining and worth reading. The epigraphs are written in a variety of styles and voices to suit their subject and genre, but they all share a few things in common. They either reflect upon the revelations of the last chapter, or they set the scene for the next. They often provide context to the history, institutions, and citizenry of the Tower. Whatever the purpose of the epigraph, the message is usually indirect, metaphorical, or ironic.

In fact, one of the defining qualities of the epigraphs is that they often supply bad information, or well-meaning but lethal advice. Sometimes the epigraphs represent a repulsive philosophy, or they make a fallacious argument that sounds good on the surface, but upon reflection is actually banal or dangerous. The epigraphs (and the books they represent) have to be read critically to be of any use.

The importance of critical reflection is, to my mind, one of the central themes of the series. Thomas Senlin—the “hero” of the story—falls victim to his inability to read both texts and people successfully. He is duped by guides, charmed by charlatans, and undermined by venerable institutions again and again. Gradually, he learns to distrust appearance and his first impressions, to examine his impulses, to interrogate his biases and assumptions. The infuriating truth he eventually discovers is that good advice and valuable insight sometimes comes from flawed and unlikely sources. And conversely, sometimes good books give poor counsel. It’s not enough just to read with incredulity or faith. We must be rigorous in our analysis.

But this makes the epigraphs sound more serious than they generally are. Many of them are silly or obviously foolish. In the second book, Arm of the Sphinx, several of the epigraphs come from a work called The Unlikable Alphabet, which is an Edward Gorey-styled moral and manners guide for children. In The Hod King, some of my favorite epigraphs come from a source entitled, 101 Reasons to Attend My Party. I didn’t want the epigraphs to feel instructive or, god help me, significant.

A few readers have asked if the epigraphs represent finished works. The answer is quite definitely, No. While I have composed far more than I’ve used, I have not written a travel guide to the Tower. At least, not yet. But even in their incomplete state, these imaginary books have served as invaluable aids in building the world of the Tower. So far, I’ve resisted the urge to plunge down the rabbit hole of completism. If I ever do, I’m quite sure I’ll never escape.

But as enamored as I am with my epigraphs, they are by no means required reading to enjoy the story. I’ve heard from some readers that they skip epigraphs as a matter of course, finding them either tedious or disruptive. And who am I to judge? As a young reader, I skimmed most descriptive and expository paragraphs, preferring to glean the story from the dialogue. Admittedly, the habit worked well enough for the Hardy Boys’ The Secret of the Island Treasure but less well for Treasure Island.

The Hod King is available now, but you’ll want to start reading The Books of Babel with Senlin Ascends.

Author photo by Kim Bricker.

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Three Real Historical Dynastic Struggles Ripe for Fantasy Adaptation

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Tasha Suri knows from adapting history into fantasy: her debut novel Empire of Sand—one of our favorite books of 2018—is inspired by the real world history of Mughal India. Today, she joins us to talk about three real histrical conflicts from non-Western history that are ripe for fantasy adaptation.

Chock full of rightful heirs, lost princes, scheming nobility, heated sibling rivalries, murders and battles and epic last stands galore, dynastic wars are the stuff epic fantasy is made of. If you’ve ever read a tale that touches on the struggle for power between royal siblings, cousins or branches of a family, you’ve read an echo of real-word history twisted inside a fantastical skin.

George R. R. Martin has talked about the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by the real-life historical Wars of the Roses, in which the York and Lancaster families vied for the throne of England. Although there are still depths to plumb in European history—honestly, there is no shortage of war and suffering to work with—non-western history is rich with untapped inspiration for epic fantasy.

There are endless examples of real-life, non-western dynastic struggles that have everything a good novel needs: bad parenting, bitter siblings, sons who should have ruled (but didn’t), maybe-possibly-murders, definitely-actually-murders, ferocious mothers, and copious lashings of inevitable tragedy. In royal dynasties without primogeniture—the tradition wherein the firstborn son inherits the right to rule—the potential drama ramps up to eleven.

The sons of Suleiman the Magnificent

The Ottomans made a fine art of dynastic struggles. Sultans traditionally had their heirs with their slave-concubines rather than legal wives, one son to one concubine. Advised and supported by their mothers and tutors, granted provincial governorships to hone their political and military acumen, the sons of the sultan were all equally trained from birth for the battle that would ensue on their father’s death. Only one son—the best supported, the canniest, the most cut-throat– would prove himself the victor, strong enough to seize the sultanate. His brothers and nephews would all be put to death. Strangled, ideally, with a silk cord.

No one can say the Ottomans didn’t try and make their fratricide tidy.

The struggle between the sons of Suleiman the Magnificent was nowhere near as neat. Love shattered the tidy, bloody equality of Ottoman inheritance. Suleiman had four sons with one single slave-concubine, a woman named Hürrem, who later became his legal wife. While Suleiman’s eldest son, child of a concubine named Mahidevran, had a mother dedicated to his survival, his children by Hürrem grew up with a mother with divided loyalties… and with the knowledge that they would have to murder their full-blooded siblings if they wanted to survive.

The dynastic struggle between the men, their father and their mothers was vicious, personal and bloody, fuelled by paternal favoritism, sibling rivalry and a mother’s love. Suleiman had his eldest son Mustafa – beloved of the populace and janissaries, by all accounts the ideal heir—executed. Hürrem was widely blamed for engineering Mustafa’s fate, sacrificing the “rightful heir” to save her own children from death. Two of her own sons died, of heartbreak and smallpox respectively. In the end, only two potential heirs remained, both of them Hürrem’s children. One fled to Iran, but was eventually strangled on his father’s orders—alongside all five of his sons—leaving only Selim, kindly dubbed by the cold eyes of history with the moniker of “the drunkard” or “the sot,” standing.

The Slave Dynasty and the Forty

In the Delhi Sultanate, you didn’t have to be from a rarefied bloodline to become sultan. Sultan Iltutmish rose from slavery all the way to the throne. He was the third sultan of the slave dynasty—so-called because many of its rulers were manumitted slaves. But being sultan was a dangerous business, and although it came with many perks, a long lifespan wasn’t one of them. For the potential heirs of the sultanate, the elite nobility—sinisterly known as The Forty—were just as dangerous to their survival as family.

On his deathbed, Iltutmish named his daughter Raziya as his heir, claiming his sons weren’t fit the job. The nobility didn’t think much of being ruled by a woman, but they soon found themselves agreeing with Iltutmish’s assessment. Three of Iltutmish’s sons were crowned, found wanting, and executed in the span of a decade. Raziya briefly took the power her father had promised her, seizing it from her brother Firuz and proving herself a worthy ruler—but she continued to troublingly insist on being a woman in the general direction of the nobility, and was disposed of just like her siblings after a mere three year rule.

Presumably rather short on people willing to be sultan, the nobility handed Iltutmish’s grandson the title. Sultan Masud sensibly kept his nose out of politics and left the business of ruling to his noble advisor, ensuring at least one of the nobility gained what they’d wanted all along: total power without the inconvenient red bullseye of a title.

Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb

The Mughal rulers of north India were descendants of the Timurids, who believed that not only sons but all male descendants of Timur had a right to fight for the throne. Fortunately, by the time of Emperor Shah Jahan, the Mughals had tidied their inheritance laws up somewhat: only Shah Jahan’s sons could take his throne. Less fortunately, he had four who survived to adulthood, all of them hungry for power.

Every time a Mughal Emperor died, his sons inevitably flung themselves with great, chaotic, fumbling enthusiasm into civil war, throwing the empire into a state of teetering instability. Shah Jahan was singularly unlucky because sons made a play for the throne while he was still alive. Struck down by an illness they were sure would kill him, Shah Jahan survived—and lived the rest of his years in imprisonment.

The battle between two of his sons—the intellectual and cultured Dara Shikoh and the pious war veteran Aurangzeb—was the bitterest of sibling rivalries on the largest possible stage. Dara Shikoh was loved by his father and ill-suited to war; Aurangzeb was unloved and ignored, but a keen and ruthless strategist, who fuelled his ambitious drive for the throne with a deep well of pure loathing. When Aurangzeb captured Dara Shikoh, he paraded his brother through the streets in filth and chains before his execution. Dara Shikoh’s son suffered an even worse fate: imprisonment and a slow, shameful death by opium poisoning.

Aurangzeb was the victor, but like Sultan Selim, he is remembered with little fondness, as a villain and a despot. He was the last of the “Great Mughals”—after him came the slow, steady decline of the empire.

Victory, in these complex familial wars without the law of primogeniture to stem the flow of blood, is hard won. It is won by betrayal and bitterness, love and trickery. It is won by the strongest, but not always by the best, and it never tastes quite as sweet as hoped. These wars of succession are rich, vibrant fuel for the epic fantasies of the future. After all, I think we can all agree: royal fratricide is compelling, but royal fratricide with dragons is utter magic.

Tasha Suri was born in London to Punjabi parents. She studied English and Creative Writing at Warwick University, and is now a cat-owning librarian in London. A love of period Bollywood films, history, and mythology led her to write South Asian-influenced fantasy. Find her on Twitter @tashadrinkstea. Her debut novel, Empire of Sand, is available now.

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From City to Kingdom: S.A. Chakraborty on Building the Magical World of the Daevabad Trilogy

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

S.A. Chakraborty wowed us in 2016 with her debut novel The City of Brass, a deeply imagined Middle Eastern fantasy with a feisty, fascinating protagonist, an engaging magic system, and a rich lore. Below, she joins us to talk about expanding on that latter element in the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, which arrives on shelves in January.

Everyone says second books are hard, but one of the delights of writing a trilogy is watching the world you’ve created grow larger and deeper. In The City of Brass, I envisioned a world of djinn hidden just beneath the surface of our own; powerful, capricious beings who watch the rise and fall of human empires with the glee we might cheer the misdeeds of celebrities. When they get a little too interested in humanity—toying with them and using them as pawns in their own war against the marid, powerful water elementals—they’re promptly punished: divided into separate tribes, stripped of their most powerful magic, and banished across the world.

My story picks up centuries later, during which the djinn have created a new world, inspired by both magic and the human lands in which they have sheltered—and whose deadly manner of politics they have taken up. However, while The City of Brass mostly focuses on Daevabad, the capital of their world, The Kingdom of Copper opens up the world to the other magical lands that the six tribes inhabit.

I’m so excited now to share part of that world with everyone now: the tribal sigils, each routed in the history of the land and culture of each djinn tribe. These are markers they would proudly use to identify themselves. Some are fairly straight-forward: the Sahrayn use the sails of their famed sand-ships while the Daevas prefer the distinct fire altars of their sacred faith. Others were inspired by trade symbols: the Agnivanshi tiger is reminiscent of the seals of the Harappans and the crescent moon ringed by rondels was a popular pattern on the clothing of early Silk Road travelers. The Geziri antelope is a nod to the ancient rock art that still litters the landscape of much of the Arabian peninsula, and for the Ayaanle—a tribe concerned with justice both in the law and the marketplace—an antique scale, the color a nod to the rich headwaters of the Nile River.

Sprawling from the shores of the Maghreb across the vast depths of the Sahara Desert is QART SAHAR— a land of fables and adventure even to the djinn. An enterprising people not particularly enamored of being ruled by foreigners, the Sahrayn know the mysteries of their country better than any— the still lush rivers that flow in caves deep below the sand dunes and the ancient citadels of human civilizations lost to time and touched by forgotten magic. Skilled sailors, the Sahrayn travel upon ships of conjured smoke and sewn cord over sand and sea alike.

Nestled between the rushing headwaters of the Nile River and the salty coast of Bet il Tiamat lies TA NTRY, the fabled homeland of the mighty Ayaanle tribe. Rich in gold and salt— and far enough from Daevabad that its deadly politics are more game than risk, the Ayaanle are a people to envy. But behind their gleaming coral mansions and sophisticated salons lurks a history they’ve begun to forget . . . one that binds them in blood to their Geziri neighbors.

Surrounded by water and caught behind the thick band of humanity in the Fertile Crescent, the djinn of AM GEZIRA awoke from Suleiman’s curse to a far different world than their fire- blooded cousins. Retreating to the depths of the Empty Quarter, to the dying cities of the Nabateans and to the forbidding mountains of southern Arabia, the Geziri eventually learned to share the hardships of the land with their human neighbors, becoming fierce protectors of the shafit in the process. From this country of wandering poets and zulfiqar- wielding warriors came Zaydi al Qahtani, the rebel- turned- king who would seize Daevabad and Suleiman’s seal from the Nahid family in a war that remade the magical world.

​Stretching from the Sea of Pearls across the plains of Persia and the mountains of gold- rich Bactria is mighty DAEVASTANA— and just past its Gozan River lies Daevabad, the hidden city of brass. The ancient seat of the Nahid Council— the famed family of healers who once ruled the magical world— Daevastana is a coveted land, its civilization drawn from the ancient cities of Ur and Susa and the nomadic horsemen of the Saka. A proud people, the Daevas claimed the original name of the djinn race as their own . . . a slight that the other tribes never forget.

East of Daevabad, twisting through the peaks of Karakorum Mountains and the vast sands of the Gobi is TUKHARISTAN. Trade is its lifeblood, and in the ruins of forgotten Silk Road kingdoms, the Tukharistanis make their homes. They travel unseen in caravans of smoke and silk along corridors marked by humans millennia ago, carrying with them things of myth: golden apples that cure any disease, jade keys that open worlds unseen, and perfumes that smell of paradise.

Extending from the brick bones of old Harappa through the rich plains of the Deccan and misty marshes of the Sundarbans lies AGNIVANSHA. Blessedly lush in every resource that could be dreamed—and separated from their far more volatile neighbors by wide rivers and soaring mountains— Agnivansha is a peaceful land famed for its artisans and jewels… and its savvy in staying out of Daevabad’s tumultuous politics.

Preorder The Kingdom of Copper, available January 22, 2019.

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Breach Author W.L. Goodwater on Why Cold War Fantasy Is Hot Right Now

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

W.L. Goodwater’s debut novel Breach, new this month, is a fascinating alt-history thriller that injects the tension of unpredictable magic into the unstable reality of the Cold War as we knew it. The result has been called The Magicians meets John Le Carré. Today, the author joins us to discuss why the Cold War and magic mix so well.

When we think about the Cold War, we’re flooded with evocative scenes: grainy footage of catastrophic nuclear tests in the Pacific; graffiti-coated concrete splitting Berlin in half; secretive men in trench coats and fedoras with microfilm hidden in their shoes; school children learning how to hide under their desks when the bomb sirens wail. These images aren’t just history: for many of us, or our parents, or grandparents, they are vivid memories. The Cold War is a unique, complex, fraught era, so it is no wonder fantasy writers have seen its potential for reimagining.

When crafting worlds of magic and monsters, writers often mine our collective memories for inspiration and grounding, but we’re usually after more than just making history sexier by adding wizards or dragons. Taking the past and tweaking it is like observing a work of art from a new angle or under different light; different elements are highlighted while new shadows add unexpected depth. By asking “what if?” we get to guide the reader to an infinitely better question: “why?”

What makes the Cold War such a perfect setting—in addition to the wealth of striking images like those described above—is its endless supply of something all great stories need: conflict.

The fantasies that came out of the horrors of WWI and WWII—like those of Tolkien and Lewis—reflect the starkness of the battle between good and evil. Darkness is overcome by the brave and the true. But now generations removed from D-Day, we demand stories with a grayer scale, and the Cold War is full of that unsettlingly ambiguity. The propaganda of the time certainly painted a picture of Us vs. Them, but we know now things were never so simple. The world of espionage is one of uncertainty, betrayal, and ever-shifting loyalty; after all, even the most moral spy is still a professional liar. Overhang that with the existential threat of Mutually Assured Destruction and you’ve got an explosive combination, even before you throw in elements of the supernatural.

Despite all this, there aren’t yet that many Cold War fantasy novels (highlights include the jointly-authored The Witch Who Came in from the Cold series, Ian Tregillis’s The Coldest War, and Michael J. Martinez’s MJ-12 series), especially when compared to those inspired by medieval northern Europe.

Maybe that’s partly due to spy thrillers providing their own form of magic; how else do we explain how James Bond dodges so many bullets without breaking a sweat? But we are certainly seeing a new interest in examining the conflicts of the Cold War through fantasy’s prism, and you only have to look at today’s headlines to see why. Spies may have traded fedoras and hidden film canisters for keyboards and phishing attacks, but their threat remains the same. The Soviet Union may have fallen, but Russia seems all too keen to reignite conflicts in the East and the West. It is clear that we’re living in the results of the Cold War, but it may be that we declared victory when there were still battles to be fought.

It’s no wonder our imaginations are turning to our recent past to see what can be said about our present.

Breach is available now from Ace

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

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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.

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