Novel Thoughts: Turning History into Fantasy

Some of my favourite fantasy series involve some measure of real history in their inner workings. This is true of such series as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and, of course, the many works of Guy Gavriel Kay (most notably those of his works set in the world of his duology The Sarantine Mosaic). All of these authors make explicit use of real world antecedents in their myth-making, which adds layers and textures that enhance the reading pleasure. Of course, even the great master himself, Tolkien, had a keen eye for the importance of history at all levels of his work. Middle-earth, obviously, has a history as deep and rich as any in all of literature. The actions of those in the distant past of his world, after all, continue to echo down through all the subsequent eras, for good and for ill.

And it’s not just that the best epic fantasy makes allusions to real-world history; it also asks the same sorts of questions as historical fiction and nonfiction history do. These include: How does it feel to live at the end of an age? What ability do individuals–the small and the weak–have to change the world around them? Is there such a thing as historical agency, or are we all merely subject to forces that we cannot name and certainly cannot control? Do those living in epochal change know that they are doing so?

So, when I set out to write my own epic, I knew that I wanted to bring my love of history into my favourite genre of literature. I read widely and voraciously, and as I did I began to realize that many of the periods of the past that interested me most would make a fine fantasy setting. Particularly influential for me was the British historian Tom Holland’s (no, not that Tom Holland’s) fiery history The Shadow of the Sword. Whatever its merits (and flaws) as a book about the origins of Islam in Late Antiquity, it is a rousingly good read, and he offers some great insight into the period. Indeed, it opened up my eyes to an entire way of thinking about what I wanted to do with my work. What if, I wondered, the two of great civilizations of Late Antiquity–the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persians–were instead rulers of a vast continent, with a subaltern group sandwiched between them that was destined for greatness in its own right? What if their perennial squabbling was also part of a vast cosmological drama?

I continued reading, pulling in bits and pieces, creating a nation known as Aïonis that was essentially the Byzantine Empire (with some Holy Roman Empire DNA thrown in). Its opponent is Haranshar, the vast entity that rules about 2/3 of the continent of Aridikhos (name subject to change), a Sassanid analogue. And sandwiched between these two vast superpowers are the Korrayin who, in their mountains, are divided into four confederacies and numerous tribes. They’re basically the Late Antique Arabs, except in the mountains rather than the desert.

With this as the backdrop, a tiny little story I was working on–about a young cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and is forced to flee for her life–suddenly began to take on ever-greater dimensions, until her action became the catalyst for a continent-spanning conflict that could literally remake her world.

The result? Well, at this point there are roughly four strands of the novel as it currently exists. The three, more grounded strands are the brewing conflict between the two superpowers, Aïonis and Haranshar; the rise of the Korrayin as an unstoppable conquering army; and the rediscovery of a banned magical technology that involves the binding, through blood magic, of spirits of fire, air, and aethyr into the body of a human host to create an immensely powerful weapon (an obvious analogue of the development of atomic technology). These all take place against the backdrop of a brewing conflict between two essential forces, the creator god (known as the Creator, Ormazdh, or simply “The God” to its worshipers, Demiurge to its detractors) and the god of transcendence (known as Kagal, the Black Destroyer or Murash, the Great Lie to detractors and as Adonai to worshipers).

Through these continent-spanning narratives, I’ve tried to ask the big questions. What does it feel like to live at the end of an era? What happens when great powers become so ossified that they are destroyed from within and from without? How do the seemingly inconsequential actions of small people bring empires to their knees? I’m not sure how effectively or compellingly I’ve answered these questions, but I like to think that my work combines a good story with deeper musings.

In that sense, I think that it is appropriate that I’ve chosen to write in the genre of the epic which, perhaps more than any other genre of fiction, is equipped to delve into these questions in nuanced and detailed ways. As I continue to write the stories of characters such as Theadra, the cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and must flee for her life; Ishaq, a “barbarian” who sets out to avenge his father and claim the High Kingship of the Korrayin; and Bahram, a vizir who is a mere figurehead but yearns to redeem his family; I hope to do justice both to their individual stories and to the larger issues that they embody.

As such, I view my work as working against the (still-dominant) tendency to view fantasy as a low genre, incapable of asking the same deep questions as more literary genres. To my mind, some of the best, and most enjoyable, fantasy series are those that really make us think, that try to transform how we think about the world, our place in it, and our relationship to what has come before us and what will come after. There is so very much that fantasy fiction can do for us, if we but open up our eyes to the possibilities.

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Novel Thoughts: The Savage Joys of Cutting

Since I’ve been struggling a bit with revision today, I figured I’d take a break and write about writing about writing a bit, particularly about cutting.

Unfortunately, I’ve always been one of those people who writes with a mind to length. My daily writing goals are typically focused on achieving a certain amount of words, and I still can’t quite take to hear the idea that concision is more effective than bloat. I’m getting there, but boy is it hard to shake the mind patterns of a lifetime.

So, unsurprisingly, when I compiled all of the separate chapters of my manuscript, I found out that it clocked in at a staggering 280k words. Even for an epic that’s a bit preposterous. In fact, I was convinced that something had gone wrong with Word’s counting mechanism. Nope. I’m just that wordy.

Commence the cutting.

One of the greatest joys of this round of revision has been the excision of superfluous words, phrases, paragraphs, even entire chapters. While the rewriting of entire chapters–and, in one case, an entire story arc–can be somewhat exhausting and dispiriting, cutting brings with it a savage sort of pleasure. I guess you could say that it’s a form of creative destruction, demolishing that which isn’t working so that something more beautiful and effective can emerge. When you absolutely have to cut things, you begin to realize, and sometimes re-evaluate, which parts of your narrative and which parts are a needless distraction.

I tend to be wordy, piling clause upon clause and rumination upon rumination, until I can imagine my reader shouting: Get to the point! So that part of the revision process has been a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated. It’s hard to describe, really, except to say that there’s something liberating about cutting away the dross and fluff to reveal the lean, muscular prose beneath.

This isn’t to say that complex syntax isn’t sometimes a good thing, but instead to say that I’ve learned that excess verbiage isn’t just confusing, it’s boring. It’s actually been very helpful to read through the entire manuscript as if I were a lay reader, trying to identify those places where the prose sagged, or where the plot began to meander in useless directions. Let me tell you, that has really opened my eyes to some serious bloat that I wasn’t even aware of while I was in the midst of writing it. Needless to say, in subsequent weeks a lot of that has ended up on the cutting-room floor.

As i move forward with the revision process (which is going quite well, thank you), I have to constantly remind myself of the value of being concise. Even now, when I’m drafting a new chapter or scene, I find myself slipping back into those troubling habits. The difference now is that I identify those tendencies a lot faster, so at least they’re not making it into the revised chapters.

There’s still a long load of revision ahead, but I’m increasingly confident that, with metaphorical scalpel in hand, I can whip this beast into shape.

Novel Thoughts: On Finishing and Revising a Rough Draft

Well, since it’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the status of the novel, I thought I’d set out some thoughts on how the revision process is going. I have to say, I’m happy with the novel as a whole. I think it’s got good bones, though I do have to totally rewrite one character’s entire story arc. And let me quite honest: it’s just thrilling to have actually finished a rough draft of an epic fantasy novel. The only other creative project of this magnitude that I finished was an historical novel, and that was 8 years ago. So, yeah, I feel accomplished.

However, as I’ve reread the rough draft, I’ve noticed some aspects of my writing that I really want to work on curtailing as I compose more material. It’s always hard to take a good look at your own composition process, but it can also be very healthy.

First of all, I like to pile clause upon clause upon clause. I’m not sure why I do this, other than that it’s the way that my writing processes my complicated thoughts. This definitely hamstrung some parts of my dissertation, but it is even more distracting in fiction.

I also tend to have my characters ask too many questions, either to one another or in their own minds. This is, of course, related to the clause issue, and again I’m not sure why I do it. As I’ve embarked on revision, I’ve tried to take the majority of those interrogatory sentences and convert them into declarative (when I don’t delete them outright).

Speaking of character thoughts…I tend to spend too much time in my character’s heads in third person. To try to correct this I’ve focused more on action. After all, while it’s good to let readers get to know your characters and what motivates them, excessive navel-gazing isn’t very interesting to read. Perhaps my tendency to spend so much time in my characters’ heads reflects my own introspective tendencies. Or maybe my characters just don’t have enough to do yet.

I have to say that working on this revision is both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting to be able to sculpt and craft the rough clay of a draft into something that really sparkles. But man, it takes so long, and it’s very alienating (and dispiriting) sometimes to see all of the mistakes that you made as you were floundering your way through the plot.

So, I’ve now made it through Chapter 6 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with how they look. There’s still a long way to go, though, given that the rough draft was almost 60 chapters. And then there’s that pesky character who finally decided to reveal his real plotline. Still, I’m going to really, really try to get a revised draft done by the end of March and thus be ready to start querying agents by April.

These goals are definitely ambitious, but I am nothing if not determined to see this book in print, come hell or high water.

So, onward we go!

What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!

World Building: “The Song of Princes” and the Fall of Old Korray

The following is an extract from Alexias Korenas’ A History of the Korrayin People, Their Customs, and Legends. Compiled roughly 200 years ago, it remains the definitive work on the Korrayin people.

Among the Korrayin, there is no tale more sacred nor terrifying than the Fall of Old Korray. It is related in full in an epic text known as the Song of Princes, and while no complete copy has survived to be investigated by either Imperial or Haransharin authorities (that we know of), enough pieces have been recovered that we can relate the events that took place in at least some detail.

It is said that Old Korray was a land such as had never been seen since the dawn of the world. Larger by far than the distant Middle Kingdom, more lush and verdant than the continent upon which the Anukathi dwell, and far more civilized than any culture in Aridikh, Old Korray was the envy of the world. Indeed, dignitaries from the world’s powers came to the court of their High King–the Melkh, as they called him–to offer their alliances, their daughters, and their riches. Old Korray was, then, the center of the world, the axis around which the other great powers of the world revolved.

The first sign that all was not well began, the Song asserts, when the 29th king of the Uzurite House, Shavid, died in a tragic accident, leaving his numerous sons to squabble over the inheritance. Four of them quickly rose to the top: Kilab, Ethream, Elishua, and Avnon. They at first attempted to divide the kingdom among them, but it was inevitable that they should start to feud among themselves, each seeking to reclaim all of the patrimony for himself. Soon all of Old Korray was torn apart by war.

That war was arguably the most terrible event the world had seen, not to be rivaled until the civil war that brought down the reign of the Old Ones here on Aridikh. There were many great and terrible deeds committed by all sides during those dreadful years, but the end result was that Old Korray was soon an irreparably fragmented kingdom. No House, no matter how small, was able to avoid being pulled into the orbit of one of the Princes. Nor, for that matter, was the royal family, whose ranks were decimated as assassinations and battles flourished.

In the seventh year of the conflict, so the chronicle tells us, the Darkness fell. Perhaps, had the Korrayin not been involved in a feckless war with one another, they might have been able to resist the tide that swept them away, but as it was it took each army one by one. Finally, pushed to the sea, the four brothers–the last of their House–decided to set aside their feuding for the good of their people (a bit too little, too late, it must be said). They commandeered the great ships at the harbour city of Kivala and set sail with their followers. It is hard to say now how many perished as the Darkness overtook Korray, but it is clear from the Song that far more were left behind than were able to be taken in the ships. Truly, it was a dark day, and it haunts the Korrayin to this day.

Some speculate that it was an invading army from either the Middle Kingdom or the Old Ones of Aridikh that were responsible for the collapse of that mighty kingdom and the flight of the Korrayin. It is possible that such a strong attack might have been transformed by the myths and legends of a people into an abstract concept. However, it would have taken a truly mighty army to overcome the Korrayin, even divided as they were.

In my own professional opinion as a trained historian, it is far more likely to have been some sort of natural disaster. The lands to the west, what little we know of them, are reputed to be extraordinarily volatile, and so it seems to me likely that a great volcanic eruption is the source of the myth of the Darkness.

It is also unclear just how much time the Exiles spent on the seas, but it was probably no more than a matter of months. They soon spotted land, and when they came ashore they found a continent almost as prosperous as their own: Aridikh. They landed in the north of what is now Haranshar, very near the border of what is currently called Korray. They quickly found, however, that the mountains just to the west (what we now call the Mountains of Korray) were more hospitable for them, and they began their colonization efforts there. Some few, however, did move southward into the desert regions of Haranshar, where they remain to day.

Thus, as uncertain as many of the facts are surrounding the fall of Old Korray, it is certain that the incursion of the Korrayin onto Aridikh triggered the titanic series of conflicts that brought about the demise of the Old Ones. They landed in their great boat -and immediately set about marrying and conquering the various kings and queens of the Old Ones. Some of these had already established contacts with the Korrayin in their own country, and so the solidification of such alliances was only natural. Of course, by the time of the landing, the first cracks in the Hegemony of the Old Ones had already begun to show, so it was to be expected that a sudden influx of new peoples would exacerbate existing conflicts. And so it proved. Within a generation the Old Ones were mostly gone, and it would not be until the rise of Karyush the Great that the continent of Aridikh would once more find unity.

Since the subsequent history of the Korrayin is recounted elsewhere, I shall end by noting that the priests of Korray, regardless of what faith they follow, continue to hold the Song out as a warning and a promise. An entire body of prophecy has also sprung up, proclaiming that one day a Meschach, a saviour, will arise to unite them and lead them to conquer the continent of Aridikh, restoring them to the greatness that was once theirs.

Such things are, of course, laughable, considering how divided the Korrayin remain and how few of them there are compared to either the Imperials to the west or the Haransharin to their east. Still, one cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to those myths.

But since such things are better left to the Alchemists and their stargazing, I shall end this part of my chronicle here.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”–Part 3

The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.

Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.

He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.

Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?

He narrowed his eyes and waited.

***

            Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?

Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?

She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.

At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.

It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.

“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”

When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.

“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”

She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”

Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.

She made up her mind.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”: Part 2

The palace was imposing, and not for the first time Siska marveled at what humanity could achieve. The sheer scale of it dwarfed anything that anyone had been able to accomplish since the time of the Old Ones, and everyone knew that they had been a mix of gods and men. Confronted with the vastness of its bulk, she was aware of her own limitations, and she shuddered.

The Immortals led her through one of the many smaller gates into the palace precinct, and though she felt mildly annoyed that she was not to be given a grand entrance in the main gate—she was about to help deliver the empress of a child—she pushed down those feelings. After all, hers was a higher calling, and it was unworthy of her to think of attaining glory.

She wasn’t entirely successful.

As Siska was led through the halls of the great palace, she felt the familiar rush of awe at the wealth that she saw on display. An entire hallway was paneled in the ebony that was one of the most lucrative exports of the fiercely independent of Ashkûm. She could not imagine how much it had cost the Shah to have it brought so many miles away from the forests. Every niche in another hall was filled with the finest sculptures from the distant peninsula of Helleneia. Though they were undoubtedly uncouth barbarians, their ability to capture the vitality of the human form in the frigid lineaments of marble was unmatched.

Yet Siska knew that if the princes outside the city were to have their way, all of this would be put to the torch. All this beauty that the Shah had taken such pains to collect, the soaring heights that the human spirit could achieve, would be destroyed in the fires of civil war. The Shah’s inability to produce an heir was his greatness weakness, and it threatened to undo them all.

The only thing standing between them and that fate was one midwife and the decision that she would make.

 

She could see at once that the queen was not going to live through the night. Her face already had the pale, waxy look of death, and Siska thought it would be all she could do to save the child. She shook her head in anger and frustration. Why was it that men always thought that the life of the mother was the least important part of child-bearing? Why did they care so little for the woman who bore it?

Now that she was here, she knew that she would do everything in her power to make sure that this child was born alive, that he would survive even when the mother would not.

But, of course, that was exactly what she had been told, in no uncertain terms, not to do.

Still, in times like this, she could do nothing but what she had been trained since childhood to do. She would bring the baby into the world, and she would face the consequences of defying the wishes of one of the most powerful men in the empire.

Bracing herself, she set to work.

 

Short Fiction: “The Midwife: Part 1”

I’ve decided to be brave and start doling out a short story I’m working on in installments here on the blog. It’s set in the same universe as the “The Heretic’s War” and details the miraculous happenings surrounding the birth of Xharyush, the founder of the great empire of Haranshar. It’s titled “The Midwife.”

I hope you enjoy it. Part 2 will be released next Sunday, and for as many Sundays as it takes to finish telling the tale.

The Midwife

A pall had fallen Pasgardakh and all was quiet. Too quiet.

But then, an invading army encamped at the gates would do that to even the most bustling of cities.

The great palace of Shah Xhishmeh reared on its mighty rock above the rest of the city, a testament to the might of the King of Kings. He might be besieged like a badger in its den, but his house still announced to the world, and to the army that could see it on its rocky promontory, that here indeed was a king that could fight all the gathered princes of this world until the last breath in his body. This was a king that was the brother to the moon and stars and was second only to the sun in his radiance. This was the king of the world.

Unfortunately, he was also a childless one.

Which was why, when the cry of a mother entering her birth-pangs shattered the stillness of the night, the windows of the palace lit up with the glare of a thousand lamps, and the sounds of footsteps echoed through the empty night.

There were cries for the midwife, and two of the Shah’s own Immortals were sent to retrieve her. This woman was to hold the future of the entire realm in her hands, and thus she had to be handled with extraordinary care. After all, if this child survived the night, and if he was a boy—it must certainly be a male child, or otherwise all of this would be in vain—he would be the heir to an ailing king and the harbinger of a new future to come.

But first, he had to survive the night.

***

Siska had spent the greater part of her adulthood as a midwife. Trained by her mother, who had been trained by her mother, she came from a long line of women who had given their services to the family of the Shah. And none of them—not a one—had ever had her patient experience a miscarriage. It was a badge of pride carried by her house, a mark that suggested that they, more than anyone else, had been touched by Ormazdh. They were the ones chosen to bring the light of the sacred fire into the world.

It was therefore no surprise when she was called to the bedside of the queen who, everyone knew, had already endured a difficult pregnancy. To be called to aid this woman was the highest honor a woman like Siska could ever hope to attain, and she was not blind to it. Her people had always existed closer to the world of life and death, and she knew that she held the future of the world in her hands.

Though the usual rush of exaltation rushed through her at the thought of bringing another bright light into the world, she also could not shake a feeling of foreboding.

As she made her way through the dark streets of the city, she thought back to the fateful evening just two nights past when the Dashturi, the Shah’s foremost adviser, had come himself to her small house.

At first, she had been almost too overwhelmed to even make sense of what was happening. What would this man, this powerful man, want with someone like her? Certainly, she had delivered several babies for various nobles, but that surely did not warrant him coming here, did it?

He had been accompanied, as was only appropriate, by several Immortals, who had conducted a quick search of her home to make sure that there was no one there that would seek to do harm to the one that they had been appointed to guard.

The Dashturi was a strikingly handsome man, with his dark eyes and his glistening black hair, his sparkling white teeth and his high forehead. No one could say from whence he came, but there was no doubt that there was no one closer to the king than he was.

“You must understand the importance of what is about to happen.” When he spoke, it sounded like honey, so exquisite, so smooth, that she felt herself giving way to him, even though something about what he was saying struck her as odd.

She found herself nodded her assent, not even trusting her voice enough to say it aloud.

And then he was gone, and she was left alone.

Now here she was, making her way to the palace to deliver the child who would save the world.

Unless she did as she had been told.

Dissertation Days (57): An Overdue Update

Since I realized that it’d been over 2 weeks since I’d written an update on the Dissertation, I thought I’d take a hot second and do so. Things continue apace. I’m getting ready to submit a revised version of parts of Chapter 3 to the adviser, while I continue finishing up the readings themselves.

And, fortunately, I continue to make some really good progress on Chapter 4. The writing has been coming remarkably smoothly these last few weeks, and that is a huge relief. I now actually feel like I can get this whole project done and defended in the next 7 months, and that is also a tremendous relief.

There is something poetic about writing about the lost dreams of a a powerful woman and the feeling of melancholic utopia that that generates in the wake of 2016. It’s not that everything in the world has to line up neatly with the election and its aftermath, but it’s funny how very different it feels to write this dissertation now that an eminently qualified woman and her dreams of a better future were dashed. Not to mention the fact that when I began writing about a period in which an entire country trembled before the possibility of nuclear war I never dreamt I would be living such a reality.

Such, though, are the vagaries of a project that takes a couple of years to complete. Now that I’m almost done, I can take a bit more time to reflect on those larger questions. If nothing else, they’ll make a nice anecdote with which to open or close the book (when I finally get around to changing this beast into a monograph).

Overall, I’m very happy with the way this dissertation has taken shape. I’ve worked long and hard on it, and I feel like I’ve intellectually accomplished something. There are still a few more mile-markers to cross, but I do believe I can see the finish line, over there in the distance somewhere.

I plan to continue these little updates until the very end, but they may be a bit more sporadic. I have a lot of other writing projects going on, both on this blog and in the outside world, and I want to make sure they get the attention they deserve. In the meantime, you can always check my Twitter, since I usually tweet diss updates there.

Well, I’m off.

Keep writing, my beauties!