Thursday, December 13, 2018

Silk Betrayal: timeline

While I have no plans to do a massive George R. R. Martin style multi-book history of the Eghsal Valley and all its twists and turns, the book does include a broad timeline of the major events of the past 600 years. This is, to be clear, the timeline as generally accepted by the scholars of Eghsal Valley. Some scholars may quibble on the exact timing of various events, especially around the original arrival of their ancestors, but most agree that it looked something like this. Whether it is completely true or not...well, that’s the challenge of history, isn’t it?

If you own the book, you have access to this timeline already, but it’s at the end. So if you aren’t in the habit of looking at the end of the book first (especially likely if you own the ebook version), then you might not even realize it. So here is what most scholars of Eghsal Valley believe is the history of their land:
  • Year 0 
    • People journey from the Forgotten South. Details of why and how have been lost (or perhaps intentionally destroyed).
  • 0-300 
    • Many skirmishes with the mumblers who originally inhabited the valley.
  • 300 
    • First reliable records. Caste structure and system of 30 ruling princes already in place.
  • 340-375 
    • Major warfare with the mumblers.
  • early 400s 
    • Jarnur and Pashun founded (isolated fishermen had previously lived at the mouth of the river, but no actual settlement).
  • 450 
    • Shifting of volcanic activity leads to Eghsal City being abandoned. Romnai founded and declared the new capital.
  • 500-506 
    • Tensions between cities lead to Pashun and Jarnur both declaring independence from Romnai; army of untouchables becomes a threat to all cities and leads to them reuniting.
  • 575-590 
    • Mumbler Wars—nearly disastrous; won in large part because of Chaitan’s arcist magic.
  • 630 
    • Present day.
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Buy The Silk Betrayal in kindle, paperback, and hardcover.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Silk Betrayal main character: Jaritta

Jaritta is one of those characters writers will tell you about, one who takes over a story and demands recognition.

She is an outcast, an untouchable, who spends time at Chaitan’s house with Rashul and all the other dreamers who imagine a different world, one where the castes are no more—or at least have much less influence. At around thirty years old, she’s older than many of the dreamers. When she can’t be sitting around the Rashul’s group, she’s often on the streets, begging for money or helping other untouchables get whatever they need.

Having spent half her life on the streets, she knows the city well, and especially knows the secret routes that can let someone travel without being seen, often from roof to roof.

Wait, half her life? Jaritta was not born an outcast. In fact, she was born to one of the most powerful families in the Eghsal Valley, from within the princely jati (subcategory) of the highest caste. Her father was one of the Thirty Ruling Princes who oversee the governance of the entire valley. He was not a particularly noteworthy prince himself—not especially charismatic, neither loved nor hated by any faction—but being one of that group made him influential.

And so when his fifteen-year-old daughter was burned by lamp oil, one side of her face horribly scarred, the priests had to intervene. Fire, to the priests of the valley’s major religion, is sacred. So her injury and especially her scarring, are taken as proof of the gods’ rejection of her. And she is cast out.

Jaritta is the first character I created for the novel. As I often do for novels, while I was brainstorming plans for the overall storyline, I wrote a short story set within the world to begin to help myself shape the world in my head. So I told the story of fifteen-year-old Jaritta. That story is called “Untouched by Fire” and was eventually published in Guardbridge Books’ Myriad Lands anthology.

It was meant to be a one-off story and a one-time character—someone created for that story who wouldn’t have any specific connection to the novel. But she wouldn’t let go. As the story of The Silk Betrayal took shape, I kept coming back to her character, wanting to include her in the events of the story.

So she ended up there at Chaitan’s house, when Pavresh showed up. She’s older, has grown far beyond the pampered life she had as a child, but is still somewhat self-conscious about the scar that covers half her face. And it’s through her that the world of Chaitan’s house, and especially Pavresh, becomes enmeshed in the intrigues of the Thirty Ruling Princes, where her brother has now succeeded their late father.

And what Jaritta discovers over the course of the novel is that even as an outcast, she still wants to have her hands in shaping the future of her city and her people. A wish that may bring trouble to many, including herself...

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Silk Betrayal: India as inspiration (or cultural appropriation?)

This has felt like a big question hanging over the setting of The Silk Betrayal since the beginning. How does a (mostly) European-descended person from the US end up writing India-influenced fantasy? Have I visited the country? Am I an expert on its history?

No. I don’t claim that level of expertise.

It isn’t a question to brush off, though. The problem of cultural appropriation is real, and requires a nuanced exploration. So how did I end up writing a fantasy novel inspired by India’s history and culture? Was it appropriative? I’ll tell the story, and leave it to others to judge, but I will say up front that it was done with respect and a wish to be conscientious about how I approached it.

To begin with, I want to reference an idea Ursula LeGuin insisted on in an essay that was used as the introduction to a re-issue of The Left Hand of Darkness. She said the idea that SF writers are writing about the future is mistaken. All they can tell you about is themselves, the world they see and are a part of. The same (I’m sure she’d have agreed, though it wasn’t the focus of that essay) with fantasy. Fantasy writers are not telling you about the past—real of imaginary, of their own culture or any other—they are writing about themselves and the world around them.

So with that in mind, when I began dreaming up the story of The Silk Betrayal (now some 11 or 12 years ago), first of all, I knew that I didn’t want to just go back into that dried-out well that’s pseudo-medieval Europe (McEurope, as some writers have referred to it—I wish I could recall where I first saw that phrase used and credit the writer), the idea of that era as filtered through countless games and stories until it loses much of its power to surprise, amaze, and horrify us. I didn’t initially plan to draw on any specific culture, but of course that very idea—no specific culture—often ends up sending writers back to the assumptions they’ve absorbed through other cultural touchstones. So I wanted to be open to drawing from other historic societies. I had an idea for a volcanically warmed valley, completely isolated from any wider world, but beyond that...nothing.

And then, for whatever reason (and I’ll leave it to my biographers some day to explore why thinking about my own life and the world around me led to that...), I found myself drawn to the idea of a caste-bound society. Of telling the story of a group of people within such a society who are dreaming of a different social order.

So then what? I could have grafted a caste system onto the standard pseudo-medieval world, but that didn’t feel right. I could have just grabbed the first images and assumptions that came to mind when I thought of a strict caste system, but that would have no doubt been full of stereotypes and unconscious insults. Instead I began a fairly long exploration of the history of the various peoples of India. Talking to people, reading books, researching both online and in libraries. I did my best to put aside my own assumptions about the castes and how they affect those who grow up in them.

I studied Hinduism and how it’s been practiced at different times and in different regions. I looked at the broad sweep of history in the subcontinent and also looked in more depth at particular groups and how those big themes played out. I studied the Parsis and their religion and how it set them apart their neighbors. I looked into various discussions about the pre-writing history of the region, about the arrival of the Indo-European-speaking people from the north and the effects that might have had, about the early Dravidian speakers in the south.

Most of all I tried to absorb all this without preconceptions and without judging, not trying to force it into ideas I already had but letting each part speak for itself.

In the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (which I highly recommend—the website as well), the writers identify three broad attitudes when you approach another culture’s traditions for inspiration. A writer might come in as a conqueror, a colonizer, blindly grabbing here and there for whatever strikes their fancy. That’s...wrong. Don’t do that. Somewhat better is the tourist who comes with a more open mind and a sense of appreciation for what they see in this other culture. Somewhat better, but it still tends to view the other culture through cultural blinders, as exotic and exciting...and distinctly other, which ends up less than respectful.

Much better is to write of other cultures besides your own as a guest, as someone who is aware of their own lack of knowledge, aware that they are there because someone of that culture has invited them in, and humble in accepting that culture as an inspiration for their writing.

I had not yet read that book when I was immersing myself in the history and societies of India, so I wasn’t aware of that three-fold distinction. (It was shortly after writing the initial draft that I must have discovered the book through the recommendations of other writers.) But it’s a good framework from which to view the question of cultural appropriation. Even without knowing the specific suggestions within Writing the Other, I entered into my preparations for writing the novel as a guest, humbly inspired by a rich tradition of which I was only starting to learn. If at any time in the process I made a mistake, the fault is my own and not my sources, and for that I apologize. I will always strive to improve my own approaches and my understanding of other ideas and people.

I hope that when you read The Silk Betrayal that sense of being a guest in another culture comes through.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Silk Betrayal: The Map

A break from lots of long-winded words today, and instead a chance to admire the map of the Eghsal Valley. I had created a map myself for me to reference as I wrote the novel. Zach Bodenner took that map and created this much better version. It took a fair amount of back and forth as we debated how to do the railroad tracks, how ruined to make the Eghsal City ruins look, where precisely to place some of the mines and other smaller features that hadn’t been specifically fixed on my map. And of course how to indicate the extensive volcanic fields, geysers, mudpots, and the like.

I loved what Zach ended up creating for us. Nothing more to say here. Just admire this:

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The Silk Betrayal: Arcist magic

Fantasy writers are prone to babbling about their own unique approaches to magic. And far be it from me to break that tradition…

Kidding aside, arcist magic, I think, is one of the things that should stand out in this story. It is a magic of emotions, a magic of archetypes that can manipulate how people respond to whatever else is going on around them. So an arcist magician can take a theme or idea that shows up in many stories—the king betrayed, the lover scorned, the trickster winning by their wits—and draw on that idea, so that others feel it without really understanding why. They can mix various images and events that will resonate and layer them to achieve a particular effect.

Let me pull back and acknowledge some of the inspiration for this kind of magic. It’s probably obvious that Carl Jung’s ideas of archetypes and the collective unconscious are a source of this magic. And certainly my reading as a teenager of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Jungian analysis of her own works has had a tremendous influence on how I read and interpret fantasy in general. I don’t claim to be an expert on Jung or even consider myself Jungian in some abstract sense, but I remain fascinated about what those ideas can say about stories, art, being human…

A more direct influence, though, was a series of short stories written by Matthew Hughes that appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the stories of Guth Bandar, which I'd read a few years before I began working on this novel. These stories are set in the distant future when scientists have discovered that the collective unconscious is a real thing, something called the noƶsphere, which they can explore. Within are the Events, Situations, and Landscapes that people experience, becoming more defined as more people experience similar events. They’re very fun stories, which I highly recommend, and though I don't remember any direct, conscious connection between the stories and the earliest stages of writing the novel, re-reading the stories helped me refine and develop arcist magic.

Back to The Silk Betrayal and the Eghsal Valley, arcist magic was only discovered some forty years before the events of the novel, during the Mumbler Wars. At that time, the cities of Pavresh’s people were at war with the valley’s indigenous people, the pale-faced mumblers. It was only one of many times violence had broken out between the two groups, though it was an especially aggressive push by the mumblers.

As the mumbler fighters closed in on the capital city itself, one young army captain discovered that he could inspire his unit to fight better by using arcist magic. No one taught it to him, and he likely at first thought it was merely something strange only he could do. His unit saved the city, and for the rest of the war, the army put him in charge of increasingly larger portions of the fighting forces until the mumblers were finally defeated.

That hero, Chaitan, didn’t try to rise to lead the various factions of soldiers but instead walked away. He was famous, and he used his fame to go from city to city and even to the smaller camps, and talk to everyone he could, to learn their stories. He ignored caste distinctions, famously claiming that the castes didn’t exist within the magic, and met with people of all walks of life to try to place their stories within his growing understanding of arcist magic.

Only when he grew too sick to travel did he retire to Romnai, where Pavresh would eventually travel to meet him.

How does arcist magic work anyway? Well, that’s one of the questions that Pavresh tries to understand as the novel progresses. It depends in part on what stories a person grew up on, on what stories they’ve heard, on what they’ve experienced. And it has the potential to be incredibly powerful.

Just how powerful, no one yet knows.

Monday, December 03, 2018

The Silk Betrayal main character: Pavresh

Welcome (back) to our month-long dive into The Silk Betrayal. We’ll start out this unbirthday celebration with a look at one of the characters. The first character we meet in The Silk Betrayal is Pavresh. The novel is a multi-POV story, with many key characters and interesting side characters, but Pavresh’s arc is what gives the novel much of its overall storyline.

So who is Pavresh?

He’s young, around twenty at the start of the novel, and trying to make his own way in the world. He grew up on site of a remote mine, isolated from most of the world. His father is the operator of the mine and relatively well to do (mid-caste), but because of that social standing and because of the strict caste system, Pavresh has little interaction with the low-caste miners, and even less with the untouchables, who are sent to work in the deepest, most dangerous parts of the mines.

At some point prior to the book, though, he managed to get to know one miner fairly well and learn the rudiments of a new form of magic, arcist magic. I’ll write more about arcist magic in a future post, but what matters most to him, what intrigues him is that it’s a magic of performance, more like music than some powerful thing done to change the fates of armies and nations. So it seems.

Having learned all he can in secret from that low-caste miner, he runs away from his father’s mine to seek out the man who discovered arcist magic, the now-infirm former soldier named Chaitan. He wants to learn everything about the magic, to earn a measure of fame even, if possible. As for the other serious matters facing the Eghsal Valley at large, he has never had any occasion to concern himself with those things. Not yet.

In appearance...well, I tend to be a minimalist with physical descriptions of characters. Certain key details might be mentioned and much left to the imaginations of readers. He is described as thin, and his skin is compared by different characters to copper, cinnamon, and rust. And like all the people of the valley’s dominant culture, he has dark hair.

The key feature of his appearance, though, is that he has an uncanny ability to blend in. Not in a camouflage kind of way, out in the wild, but among other people he always seems to belong. People overlook him, forget about his presence, assume he is supposed to be wherever he happens to be. Over the course of the story he learns to augment this natural ability through his magic and become next to invisible.

Like his family, Pavresh belongs to the Enshi religion, a minority religion that worships the fire but casts aside the gods of the valley’s dominant religion for a more mystical approach. Pavresh wears a sacred belt as part of his practice of his religion, a thin rope called a kusti that he wraps several times around his waist and ties with specific sacred knots. He performs specific rituals with that belt, specific movements that would look to our eyes like some cross between yoga, martial arts, and meditation. When he finds himself threatened, he uses the belt, which is a pretty poor whip-like weapon but a pretty good distraction if he can time the quick, cutting movements right.

I’ll talk more in another post about real-world inspirations, but I want to acknowledge here, with respect, the Parsi people and their traditions, which influenced this religion and the way Pavresh honors it.

The book opens with Pavresh nearing the capital city, Romnai, and encountering a field of devastation, where two trains—new contraptions of the impending industrial changes—have crashed. From that image of destruction and change, the book’s core storyline begins.

Come back for more on The Silk Betrayal soon!

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Buy The Silk Betrayal in kindle, paperback, and hardcover.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Silk Betrayal’s Unbirthday


Last December The Silk Betrayal was released in print form. It’s typical to have some sort of big release celebration...but I hesitated, wondering if I should wait until the ebook was released as well. By the time the ebook was released in April, life had thrown about a dozen wrenches my way and, well, I guess I need some dodgeball training to avoid them. And recovery time… So I didn’t end up doing anything special then, either.

I don’t know when to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the book’s release, so I’m just going to call all of December The Silk Betrayal’s unbirthday, in good Mad Hatter style, and turn the whole month into a celebration.

What will that mean?

I’ll have a bunch of new background on the novel—the characters, their world. The Silk Betrayal has many characters, both POV characters and side characters who play a big role in the story. So I’ll introduce some of them. The history of the world is rich and practically begs for at least a concise explanation and timeline. Arcist magic itself is unlike other magic systems you may have encountered. The various religions of the valley are important parts of the characters’ lives. The culture, inspired by the history of various distinct regions of India, leads to questions of being a conqueror, a tourist, or a guest when researching and learning from other cultures.

I’ll also post a now-deleted prologue, an in-world letter that sets up certain parts of the story nicely...but ended up weighing down the opening. We decided it was a worthwhile addition to the novel that would be better to post online.

And there will even be something new, a hint of what’s to come for the surviving characters of The Silk Betrayal and for the future of The Arcist Chronicles.

So stay tuned for a month full of the rich and evocative world of Eghsal Valley and the people who live there.

Please visit often and share the posts.

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Buy The Silk Betrayal in kindle, paperback, and hardcover.