World Building (12): The Legend of Xharyush

In all the annals of Haranshar’s long history, one figure towers above all the others: Xharyush the Great. From the moment that he founded the dynasty that would rule, in one form or another, over the vast domains of Haranshar, he became the idol toward which every Shah has aspired.

The birth of Xharyush is shrouded in mystery and legend. The most commonly believed myth states that he was born to a great king but that his birth was tainted by a prophecy that foretold that he would see his world brought to ruin. Fire and death would consume the entire continent, so the prophecy went, and so the king’s adviser had hired a midwife to smother the boy when he was born. However, she disobeyed these orders and not only saved the boy, but also determined to help him escape the city and the net that was set to ensnare him.

The midwife fled with her young charge into the wilds, desperate to escape the wrath of the vizier. Somehow, we are still not certain how, she managed to make her way through the encircling princes that had besieged the king, but she did, and she managed to make her way to the highlands of Pishapur, the homeland of the King’s queen. Her father took in the infant and and named him after his own father, and there he remained, while the civil war erupted and spread across the whole continent. Though his grandfather was of the nobility, he was not a powerful figure, but for all that he gave the boy all that he could wish for in his upbringing, training him in the arts of war and diplomacy.

From those beginnings, Xharyush was able to carve out an empire the likes of which his world had never seen. He began by solidifying his grandfather’s domains, becoming an able steward and a noteworthy soldier. Bit by bit he brought the surrounding tribes under his sway as well, until he had a formidable base from which to launch an all-out attack on the fertile plains to the east. Sweeping down from the highlands of Pishapur, he soon brought those lands under his control, forcing their rebellious princes to bend the knee. He also seized control of the several cities that had served his father as capitals, forging a chain of powerful bases from which he could, if he so chose, launch attacks against any who might wish to rebel against him. He also married several of his daughters to the most prominent of his former enemies, binding them to him with ties of marriage and blood (he also took many of their own daughters as his wives, contributing to a surfeit of sons and heirs).

The empire of Haranshar under his leadership became ever more powerful, rising to heights undreamed of. The rulers of all the lands of east and west came to pay tribute to the great Xharyush, and there were none who could deny that his was the power that now bestrode the world like a colossus. His rule extended from one ocean to the other, from north to south and east to west. It was a golden age, and to this day there can still be found statues erected to the majesty of Xharyush as far north as Svardö.

And at the Shah’s side was the man who would come to be known to future generations as Zarakh, the founder of the faith devoted to the god Ormazdh. Between the two of them, they forged an empire that was founded not just on the principle that all people were created equal (in the broadest sense), but also that all should be allowed to worship the supreme god, the one under whom all other gods were subservient.

Although the Haransharin would become known as benevolent overlords who were content to let their subject peoples continue with their own faiths unmolested, there were even in these early years signs of the discontent that would eventually sunder the continent into its eastern and western halves. Those in the west preferred to think of higher things, to devote themselves to the contemplation of things beyond this world, while the faith of the Haransharin stressed the beauties of the material. Xharyush proved this in word and deed, for her stressed that the only way to have a stable kingdom was to have effective rulers in all of its districts. Though he did not call for a radical redistribution of wealth–as some thought that he would–but he did do everything in his considerable power to make life easier for the commonfolk, and they loved him for it.

In that sense, Xharyush was indeed the one who brought about the end of the world, though not in the way that the vizier had thought. When he was at last brought before the Great King for judgment, he was spared death, but he was sent into exile. No one knows what became of him, though there are still stories told in Haranshar that he made his way to the lands across the ocean that even the Anukathi know nothing of. These, however, have never been proven.

Xharyush lived until the ripe old age of 92. When he died, the throne passed peacefully to his son. It was not long before his many other sons (and not a few of his daughters) began to plot and scheme with the disaffected nobles and priests, many of whom had grown resentful of their Shah’s continuing reforms and were even less friendly toward his son (who did attempt to impose a form of wealth redistribution). Indeed, his dynasty was to prove tragically short lived, for it came to an end under the reign of his granddaughter Veptish, who was deposed after only 5 years.

Still, his influence was vast and continues to be felt. His dynasty, though brief, is still remembered. It is enshrined even in the dating system used among the Haransharin, which measures all years from the date that Xharyush had himself declared Shahanshah (which is why everything is dated from 1 F.D., after the First Dynasty).

And, of course, there are always those who believe that Xharyush will one day return to return Haranshar to its previous greatness. And the tides may just be turning in their favour…


Novel Weekends (11): Progress

The novel has taken a bit of a backseat this past week, as I’ve geared up to get some hardcore dissertation writing done, but I was bit by the writing bug this weekend and feeling a bit disenchanted with academia (a rejection from a journal will do that), so I wrote quite a lot in my little fictional universe.

I am now in the midst of Chapter 7. The preceding chapters are in various stages of completion, but I hope to get them into shape relatively soon. After that, I’m going to charge full-steam ahead.

So far, I’ve written chapters focused on the POVs of 5 of my principals (Theadra, Eulicia, Arshakh, Talinissia, and Antonius). I have one more major character to introduce and a couple of minor ones, and then the full cast will be there. I’m still not sure if any of them are villains in the typical sense, but I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one character who’s unpleasant, but that’s not quite the same thing.

I also really enjoyed getting to know my character Arhsakh this weekend. He’s a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. He’s a survivor, and a schemer, but he also has weaknesses and foibles, just like anyone, so we’ll see what happens to him. I see a bright future for him, but that could always change.

All in all, I’m happy with both the progress I’ve made and with the general trajectory of the plot. I think I have an interesting story to tell, and I think my story does and says something, so I think that’s a pretty good basis. It’s very easy to write shitty fantasy, but I like to think I’ve at least hit mediocre.

So, with that happy note, I’m off.

Until next week!

Character Sketch (4): Arshakh Nirhan

Born into the disgraced family of former Haransharin rulers known as the House of Nirhan, Arshakh is the current vizier to the Shah. As such, he is privy to the great councils of war, though he does sometimes wonder whether the Shah actually plans to keep him as involved as it appears at first glance. Relations between the two men have never been what one would call warm, given that the current Shah is a man not known for his human warmth but instead for a certain coldness toward almost everyone around him (with the notable exception of his favoured eunuch and lover Vagoash and his sister).

Arshakh is also the master of spies for the ruler, and he has a vast network of informants scattered throughout Haranshar, Korray, and the Imperium. As a result, he wields tremendous power, though not as much as previous viziers. His predecessor two times removed was one Nussahr, and it was upon his advice that the Shah Hivand III had gone to war against the Imperium, with a certain prince at the forefront of his warriors (this would be the brother of Talinissia, the current Imperator). This disastrous war led to the toppling of both the vizier and his master (and his master’s dynasty) and this fact, combined with Arhsakh’s dubious family history, has made his master reluctant to grant him the power that should rightfully be his.

Unfortunately for Arshakh, the Nirhan clan has a very dark place in the history of Haranshar. They were one of the most infamous dynasties to have sat the Sun Throne. They were cruel, rapacious, and brutal in their suppression of any who sought to challenge their might. However, they also ruled over the most splendid period of territorial advancement that the Haransharin had known since the Imperium split away. Large segments of Korray had fallen into the power of Haranshar, and there were even signs that the eastern provinces of the Imperium would fall. Through several generations, the Nirhan were able to solidify their place as one of the great dynasties of Haranshar.

Or so they thought.

The last Shah of that dynasty, Mivrash IV, was a complete and utter disaster. Weak-willed but vicious, he was unable to put down the revolts of the leading nobles, who toppled him. In the resultant chaos, the Korrayin broke away, the Imperium reasserted itself, and the Nirhan family fled to their much-reduced familial dominions.

Since that day over a century ago, the members of House Nirhan have lived in a period of disgrace, frequently derided at court and mocked by those who see in them a warning for all who would try to climb to high and who would ignore the needs and wants of the aristocracy and the nobility.

Despite his family’s shamed status, Arshakh has remained loyal to the royal house. His greatest loyalty, however, is to the Ormazdhian priests, who took him in when his own father, dismayed at the sad state into which the family had fallen, took his own life by throwing himself into the holy flames, and his mother took their other children and leapt from the tall tower of their ancestral home. Indeed, it was the kindly priest Nishua who took the young Arshakh in and inducted him into as many of the fire mysteries as one who was not actually of the priesthood could obtain. From that day to this, he has been their strongest advocate, and he has been a frequent mediator between the throne and the priesthood when conflicts have arisen (which they inevitably have).

When the chaos from the most recent botched war between Haranshar and the Imperium finally settled down and the young Rahzad IV (the current Shah) assumed the Sun Throne, the Arshakh (who was only slightly younger than the new ruler), was plucked from seeming obscurity because of some prophecy that Rahzad had heard that said he needed a member of one of the old families to ensure the strength and longevity of his own reign. While he did not entirely trust his new vizier, and often mocked him in private, the Shah nevertheless treated him with at least a modicum of respect, and Arshakh has carefully and delicately built upon a trusting relationship with his ruler.

Arshakh is still very uncertain on his feet, however, for he knows that there are many in the other great houses of the realm who would like nothing more than to see him and his line utterly destroyed. He has not yet taken a wife, though he has found himself dangerously attracted to the Shah’s sister Isriah, an attraction that could cause him significant trouble…but which could also lead to a very different set of political fortunes if he can put the pieces of his personal gameboard aright. He has sensed some signs that she might also be interested in him,

Now that the world has again begun to totter and the established order to crack under its own weight, Arshakh sees an opportunity to bring about a redemption of his family’s stained honour. Though he had not yet begun to aspire to the position of the Shah, there is still a very small part of him that knows that it would theoretically be possible. Thus, his attraction to Isriah is not just a romantic one, but also a political gambit that may pay off.

It is precisely these little bits of himself that renders him vulnerable to those who have bigger plans for the world than even he can encompass. There are many, many noble houses in Haranshar, both great and small, and all have ambitions, and sacrificing the scion of a disgraced house is a small price to pay for these nobles who only want to see one of their own sitting in the Sun Throne.

All of these are dangers that the vizier must traverse if he hopes to attain his own ambitions, and time will tell whether he will be rewarded or if he will be merely another withered branch on the family tree.

Novel Weekends (10): Feeling Great

This has been an exceedingly productive weekend. I churned out a substantial part of Chapter 5, and I finished Chapter 4.

At this point, we have been introduced to almost all of the main characters that live in the Imperium: Imperator Talinissia, Tribune Theadra; Rowena the Huntress; Prefect Antonius; and Prefect Eulicia. They all have pretty interesting things going on around them, and now that we are in Chapter 5 the action is heating up as Theadra has to make a run for it.

I don’t normally like to toot my own horn, but I have to say that I have grown a lot as a writer in the last few months. Part of this, I think, stems from just writing a lot–on this blog, in my dissertation, on social media–and part of it comes from reading magazines like The Writer. And part of it comes from getting older and being more self-conscious. It’s a good feeling, to finally feel like you’re writing stuff that’s both interesting and pleasurable to read.

There’s still a long way to go with this novel project, but for the first time, I really and truly feel that it’s going to be a worthwhile journey, and that the endpoint is one that will be a strong payoff for both the characters and the readers.

What’s more, I think I’ve really begun to build a world and a story that have a lot to offer both in terms of depth and in terms of philosophy. I continue to draw from the deep wells of history in our own world, and I remain inspired by the fantasy greats in whose shadow my own work may one day grow.

Stay tuned, folks. While the Diss is calling, more world-building essays and updates on the novel are forthcoming, I promise!

Novel Weekends (9): The Big Picture

This weekend, despite still being a bit exhausted from the Orientation, I’ve been able to write a bit. What’s more, I’ve been largely happy with the writing, which is always a truly great feeling.

I’ve now moved into a new character chapter, that of Rowena, a half-Anukathi/half-human assassin, spy, and general operative. I don’t have a full sense of her as a character yet, but things are starting to emerge as I write this chapter. For me, that’s one of the most exciting parts about this project: discovering things I never knew about the characters I’ve created. I know that she lost a father in the revolt led by the current Imperator’s brother a few years before, but I don’t know which side he was on (yet), or what her own political affiliations are.

The book I’ve been doing for research about the rediscovery of Aristotle’s works in the Middle Ages has really revitalized my drive to work on this novel project. I now have a stronger sense of the larger stakes, though the endgame is still a bit fuzzy. I’m really trying to do something compelling with the final battle that’s definitely a staple and to answer the question: “what happens if the gods on both sides die?”What happens to human beings in this schema? Does the created world keep going, when the force that gave it life is gone?

That probably gives you a sense of the trajectory. I’m still envisioning a quartet that leads to the final battle, but I also want to do a second series that continues the story of the first but in some new ways. I haven’t even decided which characters are going to survive, but I’ll figure that out as I go along.

Things are heating up, and I couldn’t be happier.

Novel Weekends (8): Momentum

Well, it seems as if I have finally hit some momentum when it comes to my novel. I finally have a story that I think holds together pretty well, and after re-reading some of the material I’ve produced, I’m also happy with the way that I’ve told it so far. There’s a lot yet to go, but I’m confident I can get there.

Over this weekend, I managed to finish up the Prologue (which is now basically done), as well as parts of Chapter 3. I also published a character sketch of one of my primary characters, which really helped me to understand his depth and motivations in a much more sophisticated way.

I’m really happy with the way that the pieces of the first part of this novel are coming together. Writing an epic that’s more than just an adventure (though there’s nothing wrong with that), is a bit of a challenge, but it is definitely one that I am determined to undertake. I really want my fantasy novel to do, something and that is what makes it such a tremendously enjoyable endeavour.

I’ve also begun reading a fascinating little book called Aristotle’s Children, which details the rediscovery of Aristotle’s works in the late Middle Ages and the learning revolution that it sparked. This has helped to add some layer and depth to the story that I am telling, for The Heretic’s War is, quite simply, about one of those periods of epistemic shift that really reshapes how an entire civilization thinks of itself.

Now that I’ve started to make some genuine progress on the Dissertation–and, more importantly, nearing the finish line–I feel like I have a bit more space to work on my creative projects. That is truly a great feeling, and I look forward to the adventure!

Character Sketch (1): Antonius

Born into a yeoman family in the western duchy of Aspaña, Antonius was not, at first blush, fated for any sort of prominent position. However, he was from his youth a tremendously ambitious young man, and through sheer ruthlessness and determination he was able to secure himself a position in the local monastery, where he could at last indulge his love of books, knowledge, and the wisdom of the ancients.

It was not long before the abbot recognized his innate potential and began grooming him for a potential career in the highest echelons of the Church. He was sent to the Academy in Aïonis, recognized by everyone as the only sure way for those born into the lower classes to make their way up the ranks. He impressed his teachers, who recognized his intellectual and spiritual gifts and did all that they could to continue cultivating them.

He soon made a name for himself as one of those insufferable types of students who insists on following the rules, despite the fact that this made him tremendously unpopular among his fellow students. He was tormented by those who saw him as doubly a threat, both because of his accomplishments and because of the fact that he was a lower-class person who had risen to a position that they deemed the exclusive purview of the wealthy and the elite.

Though there was much he hated about his time at the Academy, he met the man who would come to be the love of his life, the nobleman Trystane. This youth, who came from the Peninsula, was one of those rare people who, despite their innate privilege, makes a point of befriending those in the lower classes. He was a few years younger than Antonius, but he was also brilliant, though in a different way. Whereas Antonius leans toward philosophy and theology, Trystane is more attuned to science and to the workings of things, including the affairs of nations.

The two began their relationship during their time at the Academy, and they have remained with one another ever since. Given that the Church officially condones same-sex relationships–both among the clergy and the laity–they have been allowed to be joined officially in the sacrament of marriage. This caused no small amount of friction with Trystane’s family in particular, since doing so not only abrogated any of his political ambitions but also sullied the vaunted name. Still, the relationship has persevered through all of that.

Indeed, it has been Trystane’s political acumen that has allowed Antonius to quickly ascend the ranks of the Church. There were, of course, many who opposed him, but Trystane was quite willing to do away with those who stood in the way of his beloved’s interests. Though he may have abandoned his traditional family loyalties, he was still able to use the skills that had been cultivated in him from an early age.

As Prefect, Antonius made it his duty to ensure that the purity of the Church is maintained. He views the stability of the Church as key to the stability of the cosmos, and he is also determined to ensure that the Imperators do not interlope too thoroughly on the interests and prerogatives of the Church. As a result, he has had several tense run-ins with the previous Imperator, and he has also been known to have heated arguments with the current Imperator Talinissia.

At the time of the novel, he has already been serving as a Prefect of the Church for the last twenty years, and in that time he has become one of the most ruthless and relentless persecutors of those who have been found. Unfortunately, he does not enjoy a great deal of support among the population of the Imperium, though the rank and file of the Church find him to be generous. He has made it a particular point to cultivate the talents of those who come from similar backgrounds as himself, including and especially the young Theadra. This girl, the daughter of a butcher, has a bright future ahead of her, though the events of the novel will test her in ways that she would never have imagined.

Further, Antonius has also earned the enmity of several of his fellow Prefects, almost all of whom hail from the nobility and thus view him with no small amount of skepticism and outright hostility. Of particular note in this regard is the Prefect Eulicia, who sees in him a threat to all that she has come to hold dear, particularly the order imposed by the aristocracy and the nobility. The two have spent many years sparring with one another, neither able to gain a definitive advantage over the other. How long that stalemate lasts, and who will emerge the victory in their strife, is one of the major plots of the novel.

Stay tuned for more characters sketches as I learn more about my characters and share that knowledge with you.

Novel Weekends (7): Good Progress

Well, this was actually a tremendously productive weekend in terms of novel composition. I wrote a total of 2500 words of Chapter 2, as well as some fine-tuning of Chapter 1. The latter is not completely finished yet, but it’s close to it. I’ve made a conscious effort not to leave any big gaps. In other words, I’m determined to work straight through. At this stage in my process, I think that’s really the best way.

Today’s chapter was told mostly from the point of view of the Prefect Antonius, one of my fave characters in the work. He is a straightforwardly queer character, one who lives with his beloved of many years, Trystane. He comes from one of the rural western duchies, from a farming family of modest means. This chapter reveals a lot about him, as well as his sense of loyalty, which at this point is being torn between his acolyte and his duty to the Church.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the way that Chapter 2 is turning out, and I’m excited about some of the research that I’m drawing in. Right now I’m reading a book on the Muslim conquests, as well as one about the way that the senses were understood in the Enlightenment. Everything, no matter how tangential, will prove to be grist for my imagination mill. Given that my series is loosely based on the Muslim conquests and on issues of embodiment and transcendence, these books should be especially useful for me.

I’m hoping to continue the forward momentum, though since I’m going to be traveling that might be a bit difficult. Still, I’m confident that I can eke out at least a couple thousand words before the end of the week. Then it’s back to Syracuse and back into the regular swing of things.

World Building (6): Haranshar

The empire of Haranshar is without question the leading political power on the continent of Aridikh and possibly the entire world. Featuring numerous peoples, geographies, religions, and traditions, it is without question an empire without rival. It is precisely because of its titanic mass, however, that it has remained stymied in its attempts to bring either Korray (in its entirety) or the Imperium back under its aegis. The Shahs have enough to do to keep their own provinces under their control, and they simply do not have the resources or the manpower to make a concerted push of reconquest.

Haranshar is a remarkably diverse nation, with many different races and ethnicities living in an uneasy peace. While there have been, at the start of the novel, at least two decades of relative stability and prosperity, there are still rumblings, both among the great powers of the native Haransharin (which are the dominant ethnic group), as well as among their various subject peoples, many of whom want to assert their own form of independence. The example of the Imperium is a powerful one, and there are many that would like to form their own sovereign states.

Foremost among these is the Kingdom of Eshkum, which has rebelled several times under the leadership of their powerful queens, known as Kidakia (from one of whom the current Imperator Talinissia is descended). Like the Korrayin, the Eshkumites claim a type of foreign descent, claiming that they come from the lost lands of Larkoness beyond the farthest horizons of the ocean. They yearn for a deliverer, one who will lead them to independence.

Despite the polyglot nature of the empire, since the rise of the semi-mythical Xaryush in the far-distant past it has remained the policy of all Shahs to subscribe to the faith of Ormazdh. For them, the material world is one that should be celebrated and embraced rather than abandoned or disavowed (as is the case with the Church). Thus, the trappings of the good life are to be embraced and cultivated assiduously, rather than disavowed (as is the case with the Church, as we have seen). As a result, the quality of life in Haranshar is quite high, particularly in comparison to the Imperium. This is not to say that the culture is an egalitarian one, since that would be against the hierarchical ordering of the universe that is key to the Ormazdhian belief system.

Governmentally, the empire is divided into four xhusts that are aligned with the four cardinal points. Each of these is under the administration of a powerful noble general, a svateth. These four enormous provinces are: Shakastan (the north), Kusharstan (the east), Pishapur (the south, and the traditional homeland of the ethnic Haransharin), and Hamarkhan (the west). These are divided into numerous smaller provinces, each of which are headed by great noble families, all connected by often complicated bloodlines.

Although the many powers in the empire frequently clash with one another, they all owe at least nominal allegiance to the Shah, who as the King of Kings is both the god’s divine representative on earth as well as the central part of the government. While this may be true in theory, it is not always so true in practice, and it is not uncommon for the various potentates in both the royal family and outside of it to attempt to seize the throne. While the bureaucracy of the state may ensure that Haranshar as a whole continues to function, ever man who ascends the throne of Haranshar knows that his life will be at constant risk.

The military is a powerful presence in the empire, and they frequently provide the muscle. Of particular importance in the military are the armoured cavalry. These soldiers always come from the nobility, particularly those of ethnic Haransharin stock, and it is this core of shock troops that has enabled this ethnic group to maintain its hold over its fractious empire. However, it is also a source of possible rebellion, as the events of the novels will make clear.

Women in Haranshar occupy a complicated but generally empowered position. They frequently circulate in the highest halls of power, and there is no law that states that they cannot assume the title of Shah should the need arise. Indeed, thre have been several women who have managed to secure a reign in their own right, though it must be noted that Haransharin law does demand that if a son is born his claim to the throne shall surpass that of any sisters that he might have, regardless of their birth order. Women can own property in their own right, and they can occupy the position of head of House. However, there are bans preventing them from occupying positions of authority in either the Ormazdhian Church or in the army. This does not mean, however, that they cannot influence those spheres of life, merely that they must do so on the sly.

Unlike the Imperium, which can trace the bloodline of its ruling house back to its very origins, Haranshar has been ruled by a number of dynasties, most of which are not related to one another by blood. Indeed, it has only been by a supreme effort of will that the Shahs have managed to keep the entirety of Haranshar from breaking apart altogether, and it is for this reason that there has long existed a measure of cooperation between the rulers and the priesthood of Ormazdh. For both of them, the stability of the religious and the worldly ensures that the cosmos itself remains stable and perpetual.

Indeed, as the events of the novel will show in some detail, there are many who are still quite resentful of both the House Nirhan (to which the primary character Arshakh belongs)   their successors the Harqashiri. Many of the other great clans still seek an opportunity to claim hegemony over the lands that were once theirs. The scheming and plots that will emerge among these powerful families will come to have dreadful consequences for the entire world that they have sought so assiduously to maintain.

Novel Weekends (6): Increments

Well, this weekend wasn’t quite as productive as I would have liked. I did publish a small piece of world-building, and I wrote around 1,000 words of the revised Chapter 1. However, I hope to at least write some bits and pieces this week, mostly focused on finishing up the outline for both the first volume and the subsequent ones.

Overall, I like how the entire trajectory is shaping up. There’s a lot going on in my vision of this series, and I have constructed the entire world in such a way that I see a lot of stories that I can tell that are set in it. Though I have other fantasy worlds that I’ve developed  during the years, this one feels like it has potential that the others don’t.

I know that some writers don’t like outlines, but when it comes to my fiction I like to have a strong sense of how the overall plot arcs are going to go. I don’t need to have every detail worked out, but I do like to see where all of the major characters are going to do and what’s going to happen. And, fortunately for me, I think I have all of those worked out. I’ve managed to give all of my characters, even the challenging ones, important things to do (which is harder than you might think, actually).

Speaking of the trajectory…ideally, I’d like to have a full draft of this book done by the end of the year. It’s ambitious, but I think it’s doable. Even more ideally, I’d like to start hunting for an agent sometime in the coming spring. But, given that the dissertation is also in the final stages of completion, this timeline may have to accommodate some adjustments.

But, it can be done!