6 Books Featuring Killer Blade Fights

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Today we are joined by guest author Anna Kashina—whose latest book, Shadowblade, is out now from Angry Robot—as she discusses the skillful presentation of sword fighting in fantasy novels. 

My favorite genre—as a writer and as a reader—is historical adventure fantasy. I tend to pick medieval multicultural settings, with the level of technology preceding the invention of the firearms. As a writer, this gives me one very important tool: blades.

Top-level blademasters are recurring characters in my books, and central to my most recent novel, Shadowblade. For me this means doing lots of research about blade fighting techniques so that I can then pick the best weapons for all my characters, and populate the book with the coolest blade fights I can come up with.

Blade fighting is not just about weapons. There’s so much more that goes into being versatile and skilled with blades. One has to have superb reflexes, to be street-smart and stealthy, and to be a very quick thinker, among many other things. In my mind, this is also an irresistible set of qualities for a strong character.

I rarely go into all the technical details when describing blade fights. After all, it’s all about characters; the fights are only one tool that show off their interactions and their special qualities. Accordingly, my approach to describing blade fights usually goes one of two ways: the first is using the point of view of an expert who doesn’t see the need to focus on every move, but instead notes only a few that are especially well done. The second is from an amateur’s perspective, offering unbiased reactions without any technical knowledge, and thus relating directly to those readers who aren’t proficient with weapons themselves. (There is also a third way I’ve seen employed effectively, one that determinedly avoids describing any fights at all, only the results, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination.)

In Shadowblade, a young girl, Naia, in training to become a top-level blademaster, accepts a very high profile, near-suicidal assignment for the Empire. Writing this book, I had an opportunity to employ both of my favorite points of view to describe blade fights. Naia starts out an amateur and can only admire the skill of some of the top warriors in her Order. Later on, as a ranked professional, she shifts into the expert mode. Being able to use both approaches in application to the same characterwas very gratifying.

I feel very special when I find a book that resonates with my own way of thinking about blade fights in fiction—but I find they are rare indeed. Here is a very short list of books that I think handle the subject well.

The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks
Highly skilled fights are the absolute centerpiece of this book, the story of a young street boy who escapes his gang and trains to become one of the most skilled assassins in the world. He goes through deadly challenges and humiliation, dangers and betrayal, and comes through it all as one of the best of the best. When you read this book, you believe that this is how this kind of training actually works; without glorifying the assassins’ profession, it carefully conveys the skill required to become a master. It’s not for the faint hearted, and on the gory side compared to the books I usually read, but the fights are worth it.

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas
The main character, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien, starts off as a prisoner in the king’s salt mines. She is summoned by the Crown Prince to become his champion and face some of the worst in their kingdom to win the contest for her freedom. This book is a pure joy to read, and a great example of the very effective “expert” point of view: Celaena has finished her training and achieved her highly notorious reputation long before the start of the book. Every bit of her experience and skill shows—not just in the fights, but in every one of her interactions; she can keep people on their toes with just a glance. I highly recommend this book and the entire series it’s a part of.

Magic of Blood and Sea, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Assassins are creatures of shadows and blood magic. Dying by an assassin’s hand is the ultimate way to die, because no one could possibly expect you to escape them. With this introduction, we meet Naji, an attractive, mysterious, and complex blood magician, who moves through the shadows to unseeingly approach his victims. A curse binds him to a young pirate girl, and they are forced to travel together until they can find a way to break the spell. All we see of Naji’s blade work are the occasional glints of his steel—he moves too fast for the eye to follow. With all that, the way his fights are described is just so compelling that it is impossible to stop reading. This is a great example that when the details are left to the imagination, the resulting scene can be even more powerful.

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
I am aware that this choice is surprising; I greatly admire Terry Pratchett’s work, but Night Watch, while being one of my favorites of his books, is not really about assassins or blade fights. Yet, I think of it as featuring one of the best ways to describe fights: through not showing them at all. One passing character in this book is Lord Vetinari—the criminal who will later become the most effective ruler of Ankh Morpork. In Night Watch he is a young assassin who trails the main character—later to be Captain Vimes—and provides him with unseen help out of the toughest situations. Through glimpses of Vetinari, we learn some scarce secrets of the trade, such as that assassins’ favorite color is not black, but dark blue, because that is the color that blends the best with the darkness. We see Vetinari mostly as a silent shadow glimpsed over the rooftops, disappearing too fast for the eye to trace; no one has ever seen Vetinari with a weapon in hand, a seemingly reassuring thought that instead seems ominous and alarming. Other Terry Pratchett Discworld books occasionally show assassins as well, but this one stands out as the most memorable.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Here I mention an entire series rather than just one book, because to me it is really just one continuous, very long novel. (Incidentally, I am one of the nearly extinct dinosaurs who never watched a single episode of the Games of Thrones TV series, so everything I say here relies directly from the books.) There are many sword fights in A Game of Thrones, most of them gory and realistic. Real, non-choreographed sword fights are rarely as long and spectacular as they appear in movies. They usually end very quickly, and with lethal disfiguring injuries. There are many of those in this series, but only one swordsman stands out for me because of his pure skill: Jaime Lannister. (Curiously enough, he becomes truly interesting as a character only after he loses his hand, and hence his superb sword skill.) To me, the power comes in the way he thinks of the sword fights, especially when he misses being able to do it the way he used to. It made me think of lightness, and fluidity, and technique, and the fun behind it for someone like him. It’s testament to the author’s superb ability for character development that Jaime, who starts off as a despicable villain, can turn around and become the most likable characters, despite my full awareness that he cannot possibly end up well (no spoilers). His sword skill is an integral part of him, even after he loses the ability.

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her Majat Code series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Shadowblade is available now.

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8 Novels That Reexamine Literature from the Margins, by Katharine Duckett

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Today we are joined by the author Katharine Duckett, who discusses novels that reimagine landmark works of literature from the prospective of the marginalized voices at their margins. Her debut novella, Miranda in Milan—a revisionary continuation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—is out March 26, 2019.

Across literature, men’s voices predominate. It can still be hard for women and nonbinary authors to secure adequate shelf space for their stories, and the imbalance only worsens as you look back through the centuries of the written word. Characters sharing these identities are often reduced to deferential background players or stereotypical harpies, never given full inner lives of their own.

In my new book Miranda in Milan, I strive to expand the interiority of a Shakespearean heroine whose motivations and emotions are completely eclipsed by those of her father, and drew inspiration from the rich history of adaptations of classic works that center marginalized voices.

Here are more compelling literary works that reimagine the experiences of women who were silenced, sidelined, or slandered in their original appearances in the canon.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salemby Maryse Condé
Tituba was a real historical figure and one who is given a featured role in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but we learn little of her history or her reasons for testifying in the Salem witch trials. Condé’s deeply detailed novel, originally written in French, complicates and lends depth to Tituba’s trajectory, imagining her as a biracial woman whose religious and cultural identity is grounded in West African tradition. While the historical record indicates that Tituba was likely a Native woman from South America, Angela Y. Davis notes in her foreword to the English translation that Condé’s sharp, smart take on Tituba is just as valid as any other narrative, as historians have largely ignored this influential figure. “Should a Native American Tituba be recreated, in scholarly or fictional terms, this would be true to the spirit of Condé’s Tituba…Tituba’s revenge consists in reminding us all that the doors to our suppressed cultural histories are still ajar.”

Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin: Le Guin’s novel brings to life Lavinia, the second and last wife of Aeneas, in a lyrical and lucid take on the world of The Aeneid. While her presence in Virgil’s epic is a crucial one—her marriage to Aeneas is prophecy, and a key part of the future founding of Rome—Lavinia never speaks a word, and we have no insight into how she views her husband or the bloody battle he wages for her hand. Le Guin employs the metatextual device of granting Lavinia visions of Virgil, who recently completed his epic poem and now lies ailing on a traveling ship, regretting that he didn’t give this insightful and intelligent young woman a greater role in his great work.

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin
In this narrative that runs parallel to the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Reilly is a dutiful servant in the household of the kind and mild Henry Jekyll. She develops an unusually close relationship with the master of the house, and as his behavior becomes more erratic and inexplicable (a development that coincides with the sudden appearance of his unsavory assistant, Edward Hyde), Mary reflects on her own father’s dualistic nature, his transformations driven by drink and his treatment of Mary almost as reprehensible as some of the acts in London that she begins to get wind of, dark crimes that may involve Edward Hyde himself.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
A classic of this genre, Rhys’ feminist and anti-colonial response to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre gives us the full story of the “madwoman in the attic.” Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress born in Jamaica whose early life is marked by tragedy, and whose fortunes worsen when she is married off to Mr Rochester (unnamed in the book) as her mind begins to break down. Born in Dominica, Rhys brings firsthand knowledge of the ravages of the colonial system to bear in her text, and highlights the oppression of women and people of color under the white supremacist patriarchy of the mid-1800s.

Indigo, by Marina Warner
Another Tempest-based story, Warner’s novel gives us the voice of a character who is never able to speak in the book at all. Warner modernizes the story of Sycorax, the witch on the enchanted island who dies before the story of The Tempest ever starts, and envisions her as an indigo maker living in the Caribbean whose techniques are eventually appropriated by the British. The novel spans centuries, moving from the colonial to the post-colonial era and radically rethinking the characters of Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel.

The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
Grendel’s mother is a shadowy and oft-debated figure in Beowulf, with translations of her role in the poem vacillating between demon, lady, and warrior. Headley firmly chooses “warrior,” transporting the characters of the epic to the privileged sphere of the suburbs and transforming the story into a struggle that deals largely with class and privilege. Grendel’s mother becomes a fierce defender of her unusual son, whose nature makes him an outcast from society, and battles the Beowulf character (recast as a cop and former soldier) for her child’s very right to exist.

Circe, by Madeleine Miller
Circe is an antagonist of The Odyssey, a predatory woman who transforms Odysseus’s crew into swine when they have the misfortune of visiting her island and turns a romantic rival into a monster with the use of poison. But Miller gives us a more nuanced view of the daughter of Helios, making her into both a believable woman and a being whose concerns and views on the nature of her story extend beyond the mortal world. Miller, who also gave Achilles and Patroclus a love story in her first book, The Song of Achilles, infuses Circe with mythological allusions and inventive twists on the old gods and demigods of Greece.

The Cassandra, by Sharma Shields
This recently published novel transports the saga of Cassandra, disbelieved prophetess of Troy, to a World War II setting. Mildred Groves is a young woman with the ability to see the future, a gift that becomes complicated when she goes to work at the Hanford Research Center (an actual nuclear production complex, now decommissioned) early on in the war’s unfolding. Hanford exists to aid the war effort by manufacturing the processed plutonium that will eventually end up in the first atomic bombs, and only Mildred can see what will become of humanity if the project succeeds. Plagued by nightmares, Mildred becomes desperate to change the future, taking actions she hopes can alter the course of time.

All of these stories lend a new perspective to old tales, and I’d love to see more intersectional engagements with classic stories as well. As long as we keep reviving and retelling these narratives, it’s important to challenge their assumptions and deconstruct their norms, and every new adaptation is a starting point for fresh reimaginings. Let me know about some of your other favorite takes on literary women in the comments!

Originally from East Tennessee, Katharine Duckett has lived in Massachusetts, Turkey, and Kazakhstan, and currently resides in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of Hampshire College and Viable Paradise, and in addition to writing and working in publishing, she taught English with the Peace Corps after college and is a lifelong performer who has collaborated with Daniel Flores Dance in New York City to create multimedia theater pieces based on her fiction. Miranda in Milan is available March 26.

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Crafting a Fantasy Saga in Just Two Books, by Rati Mehrotra

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Rati Mehrotra is the author of Asiana fantasy duology—yes, duology; while the trilogy is unquestionably the norm in sci-fi and fantasy publishing these days, the two-books-and-done series is an increasingly popular way for storytellers to capitalize on their worldbuilding without succumbing to the dreaded “series fatigue.”

Today, Rati joins us to talk about what goes into crafting a truly satisfying, fantastical duology.

One book? Two books? Three, or more? How many books you plan to write depends on the overall story you want to tell, and the world you have built around it. Conversely, the number of books strongly shapes the structure of your narrative.

Sometimes, the answer is fairly obvious. Many popular children’s series, for instance, follow the pattern of a book for every progressive school term—the most famous of these being, of course, Harry Potter, where each of the seven books corresponds to a year at Hogwarts.

Trilogies have always been traditional and beloved in science fiction and fantasy. The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie, The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, and Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee are just a few recent, highly successful examples.

But we all know the classics too: The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, The Riddle-Master trilogy. Each book has its own beginning, middle, and end, but the trilogy arc is logical and satisfying. The first book kicks off a great story, setting expectations and ending on an exciting climax that makes you eager for more; the middle book builds on the first and deepens the conflicts, and the third book is the thrilling conclusion of the entire series arc.

Longer series like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Earthsea Cycle, The Inheritance Cycle, The Dark Tower, Discworld, and Wheel of Time are most often epic fantasies with a large cast of characters, multiple POVs, complex plots, intricate worldbuilding, as well an overarching metanarrative. Word counts can run to several hundred thousand, even millions. Sometimes, the events in one book follow the previous one; alternatively, as in The Culture series by Iain M. Banks, while the books are set in the same universe, events and characters are only loosely related. It can be argued here that the world itself is the most important character.

Duologies are a different beast altogether. While not the more “traditional” structure in SFF, they have become more and more popular in recent years. Wintersong and Shadowsong by S. Jae-Jones, Seraphina and Shadowscale by Rachel Hartman, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, and The Clockwork Dagger series by Beth Cato are all excellent examples of recent SFF / YA duologies.

But know the differences before deciding which structure works best for your story. The first book of a duology must have its own self-contained arc, but the second book should logically follow from the first. When there are only two books, it makes less sense to have them disconnected in terms of events and characters. The middle of your series arc thus falls somewhere at the end of the first book, or the beginning of the second. Or perhaps in that space of time that exists between the two. I feel almost as if the first book is a set-up for the second, while at the same time providing an excellent story on its own. The second book should be both deeper and wider than the first, and answer the overarching questions of the duology. It’s quite a lot to deliver.

The writing needs to be tight. The world, no matter how richly layered, must contain the story you wish to tell in two books. Oh the world can be bigger than that in your head, and it probably is. After all, you must know as many details of it as possible in order to write about it with any assurance. But the amount of page space you can devote to it is necessarily limited in a duology. Give enough to evoke it in the minds of your readers: a scent of jasmine, the howl of wind, a glimpse of snow-capped mountains, the crackle of a long-forgotten scroll, a riddle without an answer, a law that no longer makes sense, a door that refuses to open. Such little details give color, depth and texture to your world, and you can let the reader’s imagination fill the rest, because you certainly do not have the word count to wax overly poetic yourself.

This was a challenge I had with my Asiana duology, Markswoman and Mahimata. The world is complex—a postapocalyptic, alternate version of Asia that has been visited, long ago, by aliens. It has a (to me!) fascinating past—and most of it is in my head. Or my notes. So I had to make what was in the actual pages really count. One of the ways I brought the past into the present was by interspersing my narrative with little myths and pieces of Asiana’s history. Some readers will appreciate this, and others will think it slows the narrative down. It’s really up to the writer to decide how best to impart some of the secrets of the world, and how much.

Which brings me to JJ Abrams’ (in)famous “mystery box” approach to storytelling – the idea that mystery is the catalyst to imagination, and withholding information is key to creating suspense.

When taken to an extreme, this will result in frustration for readers and viewers alike. However, I look at it this way: writers have a box full of secrets about their world, layer upon layer of them. Which ones you decide to preserve, which ones you share, and in what order you share them, will shape the reading experience of your audience. Save the biggest revelation for the last – but only if it is earned. Make sure you have set up that ‘surprise’ hundreds of pages ago, so it does not feel like a cheat, but more like an “Aha” moment.

Lastly, whether you are a pantser or a plotter, anything longer than a single stand-alone novel does require advance planning. Being a pantser, I wrote Markswoman without an outline, but I had a synopsis ready for the sequel, so I knew where I was headed with Mahimata.

Oh, I do have one more bit of advice. We SFF writers love worldbuilding, don’t we? It’s so much fun! Well, enjoy building your world, but don’t forget, it’s the characters that inhabit the world and the story you tell about them that really matters. In other words, don’t forget the forest for the leaves. Good luck!

The complete Asiana duology is available now.

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

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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

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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.

The post From City to Kingdom: S.A. Chakraborty on Building the Magical World of the Daevabad Trilogy appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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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

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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