Sunday, December 30, 2018

Silk Betrayal: minor characters

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many characters in The Silk Betrayal. I’m not going to go through and introduce every one of them. But I’d like to highlight a few here and introduce them to you:

Rashul

Rashul is pure charisma. He’s the Beto O’Rourke* of Romnai. The young dreamer who inspires those around him to dream of a new and different society. For several years he’s been coming to Chaitan’s house and building a following as he dreams of changing the world, of leaving the caste system behind entirely and of what society might look like after that. And it isn’t only the well educated dreamers who are drawn to him. He counts people among all levels of society as friends and supporters. His ideas are dangerous to the ruling caste, of course. When the novel begins he is not powerful enough for the princes to be worried about his little following.

Not yet...

Indima

Indima is a silk weaver and dancer. Among the castes and jatis, the silk weavers are highly revered, the equals of the princes and priests. Silk cannot be harvested in this northern valley, so the silks that the highest classes value are ancient, brought here (according to tradition) from the Forgotten South centuries ago. Silk does not naturally last so long, but through jati secrets that some claim are a form of magic, the silk weavers preserve the silks for the other high caste jatis.

So Indima’s presence among Rashul’s followers at Chaitan’s house is as an outlier. Rashul’s dreams would take away her own status. What draws her there, though, is the dancing. Her own training is as a sacred dancer, performing the proscribed dances in the temples. At Chaitan’s house a different kind of dancing is performed. Combining songs unlike the temple music with Chaitan’s (and his acolytes’) arcist magic along with dance sequences that are free of the temples’ strict requirements, this new dancing draws Indima in. And it is through dancing that she meets her lower-caste lover, the fisherman (and dancer) Ekana.

Bhadrik

Unlike the other characters here, Bhadrik has no connection to Chaitan’s house. He is a soldier, one of the wolf jati soldiers, which means he lives most of the time far from the cities, patrolling the mountains to keep an eye on the valley’s original inhabitants, the pale-skinned mumblers. Like many of the soldiers, he belongs to the mystery religion, in which the participants challenge the fire itself and strive to be its master. Bhadrik is sure that he will be one of the few to not only equal the fire but to fully master it through the secret rites.

Bhadrik is trained with the sword (in particular the ceremonial sacred sword that is his right as a member of the wolf jati) and the sling, which is a useful weapon in the mountains where the errant winds drive arrows off target, making archery nearly useless. Certain of his own strength and his place within the jati, he is in no way prepared for the events to come.

*yes, this post was originally written right around the election when Beto was all people were talking about (all of these posts were planned out and drafted back in November); feel free to substitute any politician who captures a momentary, progressive-ish zeitgeist, regardless of specific real-world issues...

Friday, December 28, 2018

Silk Betrayal: religions

The Religions of Eghsal Valley


I’m part of several different online fantasy writing communities. One topic that comes up periodically in worldbuilding discussions is how to handle religion in our imaginary worlds. I’ve always answered that I’m not the least bit interested in any sort of divine reality behind the stories—keep the story focused on the human characters, not whatever gods/goddesses there might be behind the scenes. And leave that unresolved, behind a veil of uncertainty. What does interest me, though, and is part of making a believable world is what the characters within it believe and how that affects the actions they take.

If you look over all my writing, you’d see a wide range of religious ideas and a wide range of character interactions to those ideas (from largely ignoring them to them being a character’s driving force).

Among the people of Eghsal Valley there are three main religions, all three of which place fire as the central source of reality.

The most powerful of these is the pantheonic religion with its powerful, high-caste priests and its temples. This is the state religion, as much as there is one. While it views the fire of reality as central and all powerful, its primary focus is on the gods and goddesses who influence how the fire affects the world as humans know it. There are many deities, some particular to a geographical feature or location, but here are some of the main ones:

Gods

  • Tiespetre - son of fire, god of physical laws of the cosmos
  • Ryo -  step brother of Tiespetre, god of customs, social laws, marriage, healing
  • Perkwom - son of Tiespetre, thunderer, god of protection and just war; stubborn, strong
  • Tiessen - twin sons of Tiespietre so alike they share a name; one is god of horses, one of cattle; guides of sailors, farmers, wanderers, dancers, rescuers
  • Kwomnep - son of Tiespetre, god of water (not the sea) offending this god leads to flooding
  • Shemo and Humo - brothers, sons of Perkwom; Shemo is lord of death since he was sacrificed to save the world from the sea; Humo performed the rite, making him the first priest
  • Paxu -  son of Ryo, god of drinks (wine, mate, fire liquor) & music & wild spaces

Goddesses

  • Kwona - horse goddess (wild); also the sea sometimes
  • Gouwind -  cow goddess (tame)
  • Aoso -   dawn; ambiguous--neither light nor dark; order
  • Saeldagtre -  Tiespetre's daughter, conducts sun through the sky
  • Deni -   river goddess (specific to the Eghsal River)
  • Little Fire -  hearth goddess--proves ownership; associated with the circle
  • Deghmedre - Tiespetre's wife; earth goddess
  • Koly -   goddess of death (itself, not the afterlife)
  • Torjid, Lokjid, Paljid - goddesses of mountains (each a specific peak, together of all peaks)
  • Brilith -   goddess of the sea
  • Teja, Kiela, Maela - goddesses of lava beds, chaos
Gauran - human hero who led the first settlers to Eghsal Valley (not a god, but the story of his interactions with the deities form a part of the religious stories)

The priests of this religion exert their influence over the whole valley, well beyond their numbers.

The second religion is the Enshi religion. It is looked down on by the priests and their followers as heretical, as it values the fire itself but has no use for any deities between the world and the fire. In the capital city of Romnai, where the priests are strong and the temple powerful, the Enshi religion is especially discriminated against. To the west, especially among the fishing families of Jarnur, it is much more accepted, and those of the two religions live at peace. The followers of the Enshi religion have no temples or priests but take a more mystical view of the fire. Using their cord-like belts and a series of ritualized movements, they attempt to be united with the fire.

The third religion is a mystery religion of the soldiers, especially the wolf jati soldiers who wander the valley far from the cities to keep the people safe. For them the fire is central, but not as something to be venerated. Instead, the fire is their rival. They challenge themselves, measure themselves against the fire in feats of strength. They worship those who triumph within their sacred rites. And when they succeed, they worship themselves.

The characters of The Silk Betrayal come from all of these religions. Some are deeply influenced by their beliefs in how to approach the fire of reality. Some are largely indifferent. But these three religions and the interactions among them form a significant part of the backdrop to the novel’s story.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Silk Betrayal character: Jasfer

The third principal character I'd like to introduce is Prince Jasfer Talai, one of the Thirty Princes who rule the valley. That makes him one of the thirty most powerful people in the entire known world...but that responsibility rests light on him—for now.

It’s worth pulling back a moment to explain how the rulers of Eghsal are chosen. Within the castes of Eghsal are smaller groupings, called jatis. One particular jati of the highest caste is the princely caste. It isn’t a huge jati, by any means (the other principal jatis of the highest caste are the priestly jati and the silk weavers, each of which is roughly similar in size), but still it numbers in the low thousands of adult members. They are the aristocracy, the noble families. In theory any adult from their ranks can be chosen to rule, depending on whatever whims of the current High Prince.

The High Prince himself (up until this point it has always been a male, though...that may change, perhaps even within the timeframe of this series), becomes the ruler by claiming the mantle in one particular room within the High Assembly and defending that claim (and room) for a full day-and-night. Coups are rarely successful without broad support from other princes. At that point, the High Prince chooses 29 others to help rule.

While the High Prince could choose from those thousands of adults, traditionally the ruling title is largely a family title, the positions inherited within a much smaller circle of families.

And this is how Jasfer was raised to the position of a ruling prince—his father died, at a relatively young age, and he was named to take his father’s role. His father likewise was a relatively forgettable prince, ruling a seat that had periodically been a part of his family for many generations. What made him stand out was his daughter Jaritta, burned and banished from the princely jati.

Jasfer has no doubt that the shame his parents felt for their daughter/his sister was part of what led to their early deaths. And now he is a ruler too, but feels more free to help his sister when he can—still in secret, but without the same kind of shame and distrust his father had to endure. He passes what money and food he dares to her, helps her find a place to live when he can.

As for his appearance, like his sister, there is little doubt he comes from the highest caste. He has the deep brown skin and fine, strong features of the valley’s rulers. He wears the silks of his caste and accepts his role within the caste system as simply the way things are meant to be. What happened to his sister was unfair, and he mistrusts the priests ever since, but it’s not a cause for doubt about the system as a whole.

When the novel begins he is still learning what it means to be a ruling prince, working hard to read a room and notice the unspoken things that come into play in all the intrigues and counter plans of the various factions among the princes. Events among the princes will quickly thrust him into much greater responsibility...and danger.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Not a Prologue

When I began writing seriously, I was a prologue skeptic. Too many fantasy novels I’d read or browsed in the bookstore/library had unnecessary prologues, often prologues with a poorly written poem-cum-prophecy or with a dump of worldbuilding information that wasn’t necessary for enjoying the story. I wanted no part of such nonsense. So I wrote The Silk Betrayal, as with everything else I’ve written, without a prologue.

When Guardbridge Books decided to publish the novel, we had a back and forth about one key part of the more recent history of the valley, mostly relating to Chaitan’s discovery of arcist magic during the Mumbler Wars. I had inserted the background into the story (late in chapter 1) but it still had something of an infodump feel to it. To fix that, one idea I suggested was a prologue, not a dry history of what happened exactly, but a letter from the time period to set the stage.

The novel ends with a letter as well, so I liked the idea of opening and closing with letters, but we ultimately decided to leave the prologue off and weave the most important parts of the background information in with the rest of the narrative in an even more interspersed way.

We both agreed, though, that the letter was worth having out there in some way for readers to discover. So here it is, a letter written from one priest to his superiors roughly thirty-five years before Pavresh makes his way from his father’s mine to Romnai to learn arcist magic:
***

Prologue

A Letter to the Council of High Priests

On the new Arcist Magic and its effect in the recent wars


Most excellent sirs,

I have completed my full study of the emerging magic of arcistry, as commanded. Please accept this letter as a full, though preliminary, account.

First, it is essential to recall the circumstances under which the magic emerged. The Mumbler Wars, the most recent outbreak of conflict with the natives of this valley, were well into their second decade. And were not going well.

Mumbler hordes had pushed our soldiers nearly to the Eghsal River across wide sections of the valley, and here in Romnai, they were nearly to the city itself. We spoke seriously about moving the holy temple to another city, and the ruling princes debated designating Jarnur as the capital instead.

Fear ran high.

Into this mix Chaitan, a young officer of the soldier jatis, approached his superiors with a novel idea. He had stumbled across a way to play on the emotions of the fighters. He could inspire our soldiers through what can only be called magic, and he could demoralize the enemy in the same way.

His superiors were, as you might imagine, skeptical.

In the battles that followed, Chaitan used his magic for his own unit, even as the army commanders ignored his claims. His unit performed admirably. When a large force of mumblers approached the city from the east, he led a daring foray through the lava fields and struck the mumblers from the side.

His actions likely saved the city.

After that battle, the army promoted Chaitan and encouraged him to teach the magic to others. Within two months, the pale-faced mumblers were scattered, back to their isolated villages high in the mountains.

Since the spread of his magic, some have argued that he discovered the magic in a lost manuscript from the Forgotten South. Some that the mumblers practice a version of it, and he stole it from them. Some that a naga whispered it to him in a dream. He has remained coy on this question, though from my studies I believe he uncovered it on his own, revealed only by the gods.

In the five years since that time, the mumblers have never united nor shown the least evidence of aggression, beyond their usual violent ways. It is easy to forget how close we came to the biggest disaster in the six hundred years since we settled this land.

This is the necessary backdrop to understand the spread of arcist magic since then. Exactly how the magic works and what is involved were outside of my role, though I will set down that it draws on the stories we hear from birth in some way, makes those underlying patterns into emotions that compel people to act. Characters like the Good Ruler, the Fool, the Usurper, the Maiden, the Weaver, the Crone show up in his magic. Events as well. The Passing of the King, the Great Flood, the Brother Murder, the Raging Fire. Nearly anyone can perform the magic, at least at a simple level, and this is a source of its growth.

The key question you tasked me with was to explore the magic’s place within the beliefs of the church. Is it a proper pursuit for our priests? For those who worship the pantheon of true gods in our churches?

The magic’s origin among the soldiers makes it worthy of suspicion. The mystery religion of the wolf jati is widespread within the army. However, I have found no indication that Chaitan himself participates in that heretical cult, and no connection between the magic’s use and the practices of the cult.

And what of the heretics who follow the Enshi way? Some within their practices are already claiming the magic as their own, proof that their worship is greater than ours. This is a specious claim. Nothing in Chaitan’s explanation of the magic connects it with any tenet or practice of the splinter faith.

Does it fit with our dogma, though?

Change is frightening. Both within the church and without. I have no doubt that some will feel it runs counter to our teachings, contrary to the sacred fire that births all of this world and even the gods. Every change engenders such a reaction. Even the new furnaces some people are placing in their factories inspire these claims from some within the church, as well as the rails beginning to go up the length of the Eghsal River. Are those signs of a straying from our beliefs in the holy fire?

I would argue no. And what's more, I think it best to see this magic as we do those furnaces. A tool. Arcist magic, much like furnace—or steam—power can be used for and by the church, as well as by its enemies. But alone it is neither for nor against the gods.

Within our teachings, arcist magic must surely fall under the guiding of the god Ryo. As long as we insist it remains subject to him, there is no danger in its use or spread. A childhood steeped in the stories of our gods will also ensure that the arcist powers continue to affect all people along the lines of our beliefs.

And what of the officer Chaitan himself? He is no longer a soldier, except by jati. He will bear some watching in the years ahead. While I believe he is harmless himself as he travels around to perfect his mastery of the magic, he has already begun to attract some more radical elements. His followers whisper of wild claims about the magic, claims that undermine our caste system. If he continues in this way, he should be brought in and made to stay in the city where he can be watched. One way or another.

Until then, the church would be wise to encourage gifted priests to learn the magic. The day may come when we need to lean on its power to resist the enemies of the church.

Submitted with all due humility,


Brother Manyak

Friday, December 21, 2018

Silk Betrayal: cover art

Another break from my long-windedness today to simply admire the cover art of the novel. We went through a variety of suggestions for the cover. Usually I’m a fan of a more landscape-focused cover, and we went through a few possibilities in that vein, but I loved the brooding mystery of this work, by Kit Foster. That might well be Jaritta, but it isn’t necessarily any specific character from the novel. It’s rather the mood the image as a whole evokes that fits so perfectly.

The only change I requested from the original mock-up was in the knife. Originally it was a rather bland looking, straight dagger. That didn’t seem to fit, so I suggested a jambiya, a curved dagger that is common to many cultures across a wide stretch of Asia.

So...admire away:


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Silk Betrayal: Marankiya’s epic

Tolkien once gave a now-famous talk about how his impulse to create languages had always been a sort of secret vice for him—and he suspected for a small but passionate number of others. I’ve always admired Tolkien’s language creation, but I am also well aware that I am not the language expert that Tolkien is. Any attempt I might make at language creation (beyond a few words here and there) would struggle to find the right balance between strictly logical rules (that end up feeling artificial) and naturalistic irregularities (that taken too far end up leaving the language feeling too random).

Of course, I start typing that up and get pulled into exploring the Language Construction Kit, start dreaming about how I should create a language or twelve of my own someday, and get distracted from writing up this post...

I do, however, have my own secret vice. Perhaps there is a small but passionate number of people who share that with me (or who don’t but will admire me for it? please admire me…). When I’m creating a world for my stories, one thing I like to do is imagine what kind of stories they tell within that world and especially what kind of poetry they create. I won’t often create entire poems within that world, but I like to sprinkle snippets of poetry—a line here, a few lines there—into the stories and play around with how it influences the story as a whole.

So in The Silk Betrayal, I took that farther than perhaps in any other story. One of the people who spend time at Chaitan’s house, hovering around the charismatic Rashul, is a poet. Iksheen is an angry young man who is especially drawn to the more defiant/violent revolution kind of rhetoric that sometimes forms a part of Rashul’s ideas. Through him we catch glimpses of some of the poets who are revered in Eghsal Valley.

The deeper dive into secondary-world poetics, though, comes from another character who spends his time at Chaitan’s house, Marankiya. Marankiya is an odd man out at the house, much older than the others and frequently drunk on fire liquor, while everyone else is drinking their maté-like tisane. He is famous in his own right—but more as a cautionary tale than someone to look up to. You’ll have to read the book to get the full details, but the short version is that he was a child prodigy within the pantheonic religion, hailed as the next great guru of the temple...but as he grew older, those promises fizzled out.

So now he’s a broken man among these youths, and something in Rashul’s claims inspires him. In his youth Marankiya memorized all the epics of the temple, all the words of wisdom of different eras of his people. Now he draws on that to create a new epic, but one that subverts the history of the valley, making the mythology of the past into something that strikes against the caste system.

But how do you create an entire epic poem that both plays to and undermines the received history of an imaginary people? Not only that, but the form itself is supposed to undermine certain specific aspects of the traditional epic form in ways that matter to the people of the story but would mean nothing to us. Even the suggestion, the attempt, smacks of arrogance.

At first I resisted writing it. Who was I to write such an ambitious thing? I can’t claim to be an epic poet of some imaginary land. The initial draft I shared with beta readers had only references to the poem, not any lines from the poem itself. That didn’t sit well. They wanted to read the poem.

Oh, fine. I looked at some early Indian epic poetry, reread epic poems (in translation, of course) from other cultures, and then simply sketched out the poem, created its overall shape and the story it told. And then I worked out a handful of stanzas, writing just enough from different portions of the epic poem to give the flavor of the whole.

And in those stanzas and the overall narrative around them, you get an idea of the heroic tale of Gauran, defeated in battle but helped by the gods to sail away from the Forgotten South, to make it through usually impassible seas, and land in this isolated northern valley where the volcanic activity will keep them warm and allow them to flourish.

Is the story true? Is it canon? In other words, am I saying that it is definitely what happened to bring their ancestors to Eghsal Valley? Not at all. I want readers to have the same uncertainty that the people within the story have. This is a part of what they’re told, a version of their history that likely has some truth and many inventions and fancies, and where one stops and the other begins...even I as the writer don’t yet know.

But here to end this post are some lines of my secret vice, Marankiya’s epic story of the hero Gauran and the gods:


The sunlight spoke of enemy shields, glinting among the banyans.

Dawn’s soldiers stirred, awaited their absent leader;

Gauran knelt at the water shrine of his ancestors.


A shape rose, slippery from the deep waters—

a naga, Gauran wondered, come to impart lost wisdom,

to share the secrets of military might that guarantee victory?


No naga but the lord of nagas, many-waved Kwomnep,

lifted Gauran to his feet with a sweet-water touch,

spoke wisdom, liquid words no human had ever heard.

***

The remnant, the dusk forgotten soldiers

stumbled into the surf, arms around shoulders for

none could walk alone, none save Gauran.


And Gauran’s wounds bled, turned the water its sunset shade,

but he held his face straight, held his arms out

to give himself to the sea, to drown his dreams in salt-water.


The many-waved one came, swept to shore by his weeping sister.

They cradled the dying man, nursed him with holy fire, placed him

in a boat made of flames, made of water, for they are the same.


The sun, remembering its chosen soldiers, shone on weary heads,

and ships appeared around them also, boats no sea could sink.


Thus they journeyed by the god’s hands into lands of summer sun.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Silk Betrayal: Dramatis Personae

The Silk Betrayal has a lot of characters, including seven who are our points of view for different chapters. I’ve highlighted some of those characters in posts this month. As you read the novel, you may find it useful to have a complete list of them, minor and major, in one place. The book itself includes this Dramatis Personae. But in case it’s easier to consult a page online than flipping around within the ebook or print book, here it is, the listing of major and minor characters and the places within the valley where they are encountered:


The Assembly of Princes and their attendants

  • Baram -  The High Prince
  • Jasfer - a young prince whose sister was cast out fifteen years ago
    • Yatim - a trained fighter
    • Kalvandi - Jasfer's steward
    • Taurav - footman
  • Apijet -   Jasfer’s mentor
  • Tarak - supporter of Dartak in the Assembly
    • Sindar -   his servant
  • Vedu - older member of the ruling 30
  • Samatrit -  Jasfer’s cousin
  • Dartak - an eloquent speaker
    • Abhish -   head footmen
    • Vipak - footman
    • Teert - head of servants
  • Dhalip - friend of Jasfer’s father
  • Arbul - friend of Jasfer’s father, patron of the railroad
  • Girmeet - former mentee of Apijet
  • Lakanrik - the oldest member of the ruling 30
    • Karket -   his grandson and likely heir
  • Shardash - member of the ruling 30
  • Bhainu - member of the ruling 30

Chaitan’s house

  • Chaitan - hero of the Mumbler Wars, founder of arcist magic, now infirm
  • Pavresh - a young wanderer who wants to learn magic from Chaitan
  • Rashul - charismatic leader of would-be rebels
  • Ekana - a fisherman and dancer
  • Indima - a silk weaver and dancer
  • Namrani - a quiet musician
  • Jaritta -   an outcast with a fire scar on her face
  • Iksheen -  a poet who deliberately obscures his caste
  • Rilef - also learning arcist magic
  • Purunrik - supporter of Rashul
  • Tanmai - supporter of Rashul, brother of Upeng
  • Upeng - supporter of Rashul, brother of Tanmai
  • Marankaya -  former theological prodigy, now disgraced
  • Tanjali - Chaitan’s attendant
  • Kapita - Chaitan’s attendant

Silk weavers

  • Jinsu - Indima's father
  • Ambal - father to two small children
  • Datri - Weaver girl, companion of Indima
  • Malya - weaver girl, friend of Indima in Romnai
  • Charu - weaver girl, friend of Indima in Romnai
  • Juki- weaver girl, friend of Indima in Romnai
  • Raksh - head servant to Indima's family
  • Shidi - servant woman to Indima's family
  • Phangun - servant to Datri's family

Soldiers of the wolf jati

  • Karuda - Commander of the mountain post
  • Bhadrik
  • Deraj
  • Hirsha
  • Surjit
  • Tugar


Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Ship of Silk on the Calmest Sea

a fable of the Forgotten South

The founding mythology of the Valley of Eghsal is that their ancestors came by sea hundreds of years earlier, sailing through usually impassible waters from a distant land known only as the Forgotten South. Before I’d begun writing or even planning The Silk Betrayal, I wrote a lyrical fairy-tale-esque story about a woman whose magical sewing drew the attention of her ruler. I labeled that story “A fable of the Forgotten South.”

When I began the planning stages of work on The Silk Betrayal a few months later, I decided to tie that story in with the novel. The idea wasn’t for the novel to rely on that story or even that within the novel that story was somehow literally true. Instead, it was meant to be one of the ahistorical stories that passed from generation to generation, an archetypal story that is common, with variations, throughout the valley.

The story revels in its almost-purple prose. It has a fairy-tale distance to the narration that would probably be off-putting in a longer story but works well to capture the ethereal-ness of the tale.

Around the time I began writing the novel, “The Ship of Silk on the Calmest Sea” was accepted for publication in Reflection’s Edge, an online zine that I would have a number of stories in over the next few years. Sadly, the magazine is no more, so the only way to read the story recently has been through the wayback machine archive of the page.

Until now.

Here is the tale, a fable of the Forgotten South, as it is retold time and again throughout the Eghsal Valley:
The Ship of Silk on the Calmest Sea
a Fable of the Forgotten South
by Daniel Ausema

The bars of the prison were invisible. They had been there so long that Tima no longer thought of them, seldom remembered that they were there, except in her dreams. She lived in a small village beside the Calmest Sea, and there she sewed together her marvelous, magical boats: solid workboats of burlap; leisure caravels of cambric; fustian feluccas that carried soldiers swiftly along the shorelines. And every few weeks those soldiers would appear, shattering the peace of the village, to carry off her work for the Suzerain and fulfill his royal demands.

Tima was an old woman now. Hard for her to believe, but lines bit deeply into her face, creases that no careful sewing or folding could undo. Her hair wisped about her head, short and white, no longer the strong threads that had once fallen down her back. Her fingertips were callused, immune to the countless needles she had poked into them over the years.

Hers was a strange magic, one none of the Suzerain's magicians could explain--or imitate, which was what had built her prison bars. She could take cloth, any cloth from the coarsest pressed felt to the finest woven satin, and somehow when she sewed them up into boats, they became strong, able to sail the sea. Even she did not know how she did it. Many years ago she had tried taking on apprentices, and her hope flared as the invisible bars seemed ready to break, but none could learn her magic, none could understand what she did. And the bars returned, and she sewed away the years, building ships outside her small house for the Suzerain and his court, for his servants and merchants.

And every boat she loved, for it was her art, her passion, her gift. And every boat she hated, for it was her cage, her prison, and she sewed her own fetters even as she sewed the keels and gunwales up tight.

She dreamed, though, and in her dreams she built a ship of silk, the finest work she could do, a masterpiece to sail the Calmest Sea.

And so, the long years spun by on the spindle of time and the bars of her prison seemed to close ever tighter. Knowing that her own spool of years was running out, she looked for spare minutes to work the precious silk. At first she would sit in her hearthroom, sewing pieces by candlelight late into the night. After a day of threads and needles and rough-but-sturdy boats or gossamer sloops out in the yard behind her house, her eyes were tired and her fingers sore, but she ignored the aches and lost herself in the creation of her masterpiece.

When a year of working late had passed, the pieces of Tima's ship could no longer fit inside her hearthroom. The lengths of cloth spread too far around the room until she feared the fire would jump from the hearth and burn her work away. She moved the silk to her workplace behind the house.

Villagers noticed then, as she sat in the courtyard with a small lamp to push away the darkness. Tima paid no attention to them, only worked later and later as the ship of silk neared completion.

The Suzerain, however, did pay attention to the villagers, listening to the rumors they told of Tima and her mighty work of silk.

Finally the ship of silk was complete. With the last twist of her magic, the airy craft billowed but would not break, and she knew the silk would withstand the salt waters of the Calmest Sea. Her heart soared, finally able to hope for escape from its prison. She pulled the light ship down toward the water, her old feet moving quickly.

There on the beach stood the Suzerain and his soldiers.

"Gifted Tima." He bowed his head slightly, though she had not knelt down before him as she ought. "You continue to amaze us. This," he gestured at the ship, "is a wondrous craft. When we heard of it, we knew that we must have more of these ships of silk."

Tima made no response. Since he had begun talking, her head had remained bowed, her eyes looking at the sand.

"We wish to commission three more of these immediately. You will be well paid, of course. You will be the richest person in your village."

"That I already am, Your Majesty."

The Suzerain laughed, as if it had been a joke. "Yes, you will be among the richest even in my entire kingdom."

He looked at Tima, then at the boat behind her. "Surely you were not planning to take this ship out alone?" When Tima did not answer, he continued. "We wouldn't hear of it. To sail alone at your age would be foolish, even on the Calmest Sea. We will send two of our own personal guards to help you sail and keep you safe."

"You are kind, Your Majesty." Tima's voice was flat and empty.

With the ship in the water and the soldiers stationed at bow and stern, Tima climbed stiffly into her masterpiece, refusing any offer of help. The Suzerain sat in the shade created by a linen awning to watch the ship of silk set sail. Like all Tima's creations, it soared easily over the waters, smooth as the silk it was made from.

Tima guided the ship far out into the sea where the waters became deep. Not a ripple disturbed the Calmest Sea where they paused. And there, Tima let go the threads that guided the ship. Her face was calm, her wrinkles seeming to smooth out, as she reached into the fabric of her clothes. The beating of her heart betrayed none of the excitement and fear she felt. She drew out from the cloth a long pair of sewing shears that glinted in the fierce sunlight.

Without a word, she plunged the shears downward. The silk parted easily and the blades entered the water below. Then something happened that had never occurred in the history of the sea.

On the Calmest Sea there rose a storm. Clouds descended, and the waves rose to tear apart the little ship. Tima and the soldiers disappeared into the water. If they cried out, their voices were lost in the storm.

Now some hold that she died there, and her magic left this world. But others tell the story that she was transformed into a young woman who lives on beneath the water, sailing in her underwater ship of silk, holding her shears high upon the prow. All agree, though, that in the salty waves she found her release from the prison of her art, from the cage of the Suzerain.

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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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 noösphere, 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.