Tallying the Books 2: The Serpent Bride

The Serpent Bride, my second published book, was a collection of ten short stories that were literary fairy tales, retellings of ballads from Medieval Denmark, was published in 1998 from Thistledown Press. (For non-Canadians, that’s a venerable small literary press out west.) I started off reading Victorian or early twentieth-century translations of some of these but then switched to reading the originals. Since my Danish is limited to God/Glaedelig Jul, Ja, Nej, Bedstefar, Rødgrød med fløde, and Tak for kaffe, this was a slow process. However, I’ve studied languages and around the same time had begun a correspondence with a great-uncle who had no English, so for a while there my (non-oral) Danish was improving. I choose to use some of the weird Victorian Anglicizations of names that I found in one collection, though — now I have no idea why. That’s something I’d definitely do differently if I were writing these again. I mostly stuck to the plots as given in the ballads, aiming to give flesh, bone, and blood to the sketches of the characters found in ballad form. I left my dragon-prince a shapeshifter, though, rather than under a curse. Had to get one voluntary shapeshifer in there, at least!

Cover of the book.

The Serpent Bride. Cover painting by Stevi Kittleson.

One significant change I made for the published version was to write a victorious ending for the hero of “Germand Gladensvend”; after defeating the troll and tearing it to bits — as she does in the original — she finds her husband alive. In the original version she only finds his hand. I wrote a version that ended like that, too, which I quite liked, but decided one tragedy among nine triumphant love stories was going to be jarring.

Why did I set out to write these? I have no idea; I have no memory of deciding to do it. It wasn’t that I came across a Danish ballad and thought, I’d like to retell this story. I don’t remember it being an idea at all; there’s just a point in my memory where that was what I was working on. Strange.

I still quite like them; as in the originals, they’re stories about forthright young women going out to solve their own problems — even if that means finding a knight to kiss you to break a curse, you can still take charge of the situation. They have a bit of quirky humour — some of it mine and some of it, like the nun wishing ‘God would send her such an [implied – sexy] angel’ original to the ballads. They’re stories for all ages, as folk or fairy tales always have been. Good fun, if I do say so myself, both to write and to read.

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Tallying the Books 1: 20 Years Ago … Torrie and the Dragon

Twenty years ago my first book was published. Torrie and the Dragon came out from a Canadian children’s publisher called Roussan in 1997. It was shorter and had less depth than I would have liked, but in Canada, kids’ books were often quite short. I think of it now as something long ago and far away, but when I go back and look at it, I realize it was not bad at all. I quite like it still, especially the humour of Torrie’s narrative voice, which has echoes of Milne, Lang, and the like, I think. And one thing it had, which the publisher of the later Torrie books wanted cut, was the framing story of what I called the peanut gallery — the crowd of sometimes restive animals and Old Things in the Wild Forest to whom Torrie was telling his adventures.

I wrote it when I was twenty, in eight days, during my father’s final illness. It’s the only eventually-published thing of mine he ever got to read, though it didn’t find a publisher till I was twenty-nine. A young enchantress gets fed up with her sorcerer father turning captured trespassers into wolf-headed guards, steals the latest victim from the dungeon, and sets off with him to slay a dragon and save his kingdom, all accompanied by Torrie, small and furry, ancient and wise, oldest of the Old Things of the Wild Forest.

Here’s the cover (art by Dean Bloomfield):

Some years and several other Torrie books later, I would rewrite it to make it more what I’d always wanted it to be, and that completely retold version, Torrie and the Dragonslayers, is still in print and available as an ebook as well. (I’ll talk about it later in this chronological survey.)

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Enter an Assassin: Ramblings on the Caravan Road 3

Ahjvar came into the Marakand story as a catalyst for disaster, the assassin who kills the Lady, or the Voice of the Lady (when I first conceived the story I hadn’t quite settled on how the Lady and the Voice interacted or if they were even truly separate entities), and sets off the civil war in Marakand. He was grim, angry, very troubled, and under a curse. And a grim, angry, very troubled guy wandering around entirely on his own is — really rather dull. His character needed a foil and gave birth to one almost at once as I began writing him, and thus Ghu was born. Ghu, very briefly, was one of those orphaned children my characters seem to acquire. (I blame Glen Cook.) That lasted for one draft of a few pages, and then Ghu gave me a Look and became Ghu, a young man nineteen or twenty-ish, age somewhat indeterminate both because he doesn’t know and because sometimes he finds it useful to be assumed younger than he is, an innocuous youth. Time’s a bit of a confusion for him anyway. Already, though his nature is a bit of a mystery, he seems possessed of a deep calm and assurance, a watchful stillness. Definitely not Ahjvar’s servant, whatever the two of them choose to let people assume. He’s appointed himself to look after Ahjvar. Why? If Ahjvar needs him for some grounding in his fading sanity and humanity, Ghu just as much needs Ahjvar, who gives him, he later thinks, words. And the warmth, the affection and acceptance his abuse-filled life has so lacked. That first scene of the two of them sitting together by the wall on the clifftop keeps coming back in subsequent times, right into Gods of Nabban and beyond.

The Leopard: Marakand Book One, cover by Raymond Swanland

Ahjvar, without Ghu, wasn’t likely to ever have been more than a passing character, an instrument of the plot, swiftly doing his thing and coming to an end at the Lady’s hand, leaving chaos for Holla-Sayan and that late lamented main character who got cut from the story to sort out. With Ghu, he became a hero, however filled with internal struggle and darkness his road.

Gods of Nabban, cover art by Raymond Swanland

Ghu, too, became more, because of Ahjvar. Not a holy innocent, not a merely a foil for Ahj to show up against, he was growing all the time, revealing more and more of his secrets — needing to, as Ahjvar fell further into darkness. Neither worked as a character without the other, which, as I realized that, began to shape them both. That other significant couple of the stories, Moth and Mikki, could exist and act without one another (though they’d both be different people if they’d never paired up, of course). Ahjvar and Ghu could not, without it being so shattering a thing that, if I did it, the separation of the two would have to be the heart of the story. The Ghu of Gods of Nabban could not exist without Ahjvar as part of what he is; by the end of The Lady, Ahjvar could not exist, literally, but for Ghu. (Read that sentence twice, paying attention to “for”; it works both ways.) Even by the end of The Leopard, it’s Ghu shaping the story of these two, not Ahjvar.

And emotional and psychologically-tangled as that is, that’s all something that exists alongside the other aspect of their relationship, the fact that from the start, Ghu’s complex — or maybe burningly simple — love for Ahjvar had a romantic and sexual layer to it. I didn’t send Ahjvar and Ghu to Marakand intending for that relationship to develop as it did, though in the caravan road world there’s no stigma attached to same-sex relationships. Ivah’s mostly attracted to women; Nour and Kharduin are a long-established couple (and their past was a romantic story I did want to write, but it didn’t fit in as more than an anecdote — someday it’ll end up a short story, maybe. And the story of Ivah and her poet-consort, too.) Ghu was from the start bisexual, which wasn’t something I thought about consciously. Like so much else about that character, it just was who he was. And Ahjvar’s past relationships had been with women; that was just him, too.

Ahjvar and Ghu very clearly loved one another, needed one another, but that didn’t have to mean a romantic love or a sexual relationship and at first I wasn’t thinking of it implying one. There are many loves and that there aren’t many really devoted non-romantic loves between non-siblings in fiction doesn’t mean that such relationships don’t exist, in reality or fiction, and initially that was what I thought I wanted to explore — a really intensely-felt, mutually dependent, non-sexual relationship. The fact that Ahjvar was rabidly celibate and that his distant past relationships had both been with women might also have seemed a bit of a hindrance to anything romantic Ghu might want to develop between them, except that when I was partway through the whole Marakand story and reread it, I realized that for a man who was a) rabidly celibate and b) presumed not to be interested in men, Ahjvar seemed awfully physically aware of Ghu, all the time.

All right then, I thought. If that’s what he wants, whether he knows it or not, let’s see where that goes, as another facet of their complex and mutually-dependent existence, and how that affects other things in both their lives and the larger plot as the story flows from The Lady into Gods of Nabban. And beyond.

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Endless Sky: Ramblings on the Caravan Road 2

I think the first time I drove out west was the summer I was five. I, obviously, was not driving, but plunked in the back seat with my little sisters and a colouring book and some old physiology exams to draw on. My family went camping in the summers, and that year we were heading for the Rockies.

I seem to have spent quite a lot of my childhood sitting in the back of the car watching the shoulder of the Trans-Canada Highway unroll. I’m a connoisseur of styles of overpass and underpass and road-cuttings and roadside weeds and scrub. (Compulsive reader who got carsick if I read much on the road. Anyway, you can’t take enough books with you to last all the way across the continent. Ereaders were still thirty years in the future.) (Also, on that trip I couldn’t read for myself yet.)

Three vivid memories of that particular trip have stayed with me, and they’re all landscapes. One is eating our sandwiches by the roadside. The dry wind blowing. Foxtail grass growing on the gravelly shoulder. It was scratchy. And knapweed, with its purple flowers. Also scratchy on little bare legs and sandalled feet. The wind was cold, and it seemed to be blowing across an unending sea of dry grass. I did not like the prairies, I decided at that point. They were cold and windy, gritty and prickly, and aside from Drumheller, which had badlands and dinosaur bones, boring. But the land and sky both seemed to go forever and the horizon was so distant as to be unreal.

A second memory of that landscape is a river in national or provincial park in Alberta. (I don’t know which one.) What I remember is a tangle of interlacing streams, broad and shallow, flowing over rounded pebbles bigger than my fist. The water was rippling, restless, and I thought it was so shallow I could probably wade right across and into the forest beyond. A slightly older self would have tried it.

The third, which comes chronologically before the above river, is looking ahead out the windshield — I must have been in the middle of the back seat — and seeing mountains beginning to rise over the horizon. They were low, and sharp, and purple, almost translucent, nearly lost in the sky. I remember this not so much as the actual landscape I saw, but because it so struck me I tried to draw it. Purple was the right colour for the mountains, which really seemed strange — mountains are stone and stone is supposed to be grey, when colouring and for the first time I really saw, and tried to draw what was there rather than some accepted iconography of how things are “supposed” to be. The mountains were a dim and hazy purple. And so low. But they climbed higher as we drove. Oddly, I don’t remember them as anything more impressive later. It was that first sight that stuck with me.

The landscapes I feel most at home in are places of hills and woodlands and brooks where the soil is a skin worn lightly and the bones of the land thrust through. But vast, far horizons and mountains continue to fascinate me, so when I came to write Blackdog, and it drew to it the landscape it did, that old sense of wonder at the endless sky and the sea of grass and the mountains slowly climbing into view came into it.

So where did the landscape of Holla-Sayan’s world actually come from? A number of years before I ever started writing Blackdog, I’d watched the documentary series, and then bought and read the book Realms of the Russian Bear, by John Sparks. It was a natural history of the Soviet Union, except that the USSR disintegrated around that time, so that wasn’t what it was called. As soon as I started writing Blackdog, the story of a possessed caravan-guard, that documentary and book wrapped around Holla-Sayan like a second skin that had been his all along. This was his world, from the northern forests, through mountains, steppes, winter-cold deserts . . . a tiny bit of the Kamchatka Peninsula (look for the giant fennel). I haven’t worked the Volga delta into anything you’ve seen, but I can tell you exactly where the Volga delta-esque landscape is. (I’m not going to, though. I might want to use it someday and it’s good to have surprises.)

What ties all those landscapes together?

Realms of the Russian Bear, one of the godparents to the novels of the caravan road.

Realms of the Russian Bear, one of the godparents to the novels of the caravan road.

The silk road did, more or less, if you count all the tributaries feeding it, rivières to its fleuve. That’s not a good metaphor, I know, since a river only flows one way and the current of a road flows both. Nonetheless, there it is. Holla-Sayan’s road runs from the kingdoms of the north to Nabban in the east, with threads running off to the fallen empire in the west, to the winter-dark forests of Baisirbsk, carrying goods — and stories, and people — to and from ships that sail between the Five Cities and the ports of Nabban, the continent to the south that you haven’t seen yet, and Pirakul in the farther east.

The silk road brought me right back to Holla-Sayan and his caravan, following the road through desert and grass, with mountains edging their horizons. Must have been what I intended all along.

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The Birth of the Caravan Road: Ramblings on the Caravan Road 1

Hwaet! I’m starting a series of eight or so blog posts (which may appear somewhat erratically). This here is the first of them. Each is going to take a question of the sort that people seem to want to ask and ramble on about it a bit. I’m thinking of this as “Informal interview with self.” I shall speak aloud, virtually, with enthusiastic hand-waving. Just imagine all that.

So, here we go:

As I’ve said elsewhere, outlines kill stories for me, so I generally avoid them like the plague, and I don’t start a book with any kind of coherent “This is a story about X” idea. What starts a story off for me is generally a character in a situation, and the situation is always one that has some setting attached. It expands — explodes, quite often — from there.

For Blackdog, Blackdog-thumbnail-Swanland which was the first thing I wrote set in this world of the Caravan Road, that character was a man, a mercenary of some sort. He was in a small town not his own, which was under attack by its enemies. The man was being possessed by a — thing. (I say ‘thing’, because the obvious ‘demon’ means something else in this world.) (Demons are pretty much the only beings who don’t go around possessing or enslaving people’s souls, I’ve just realized. Human necromancers, wizards, gods & goddesses, ghosts . . . yes. Not demons. Demons are rather hermit-like by inclination and quite possibly the most morally upstanding beings in this world.)

[Demon considers attempting possession. Shrugs and says, “Why would I want to do that?” and wanders off to think profound thoughts in the woods, or just ask a human they find attractive for a date. Actually, demons do the latter rather less than gods & goddesses, too, based on the evidence in the book, Mikki’s mother notwithstanding.]

Anyway, that was where it began. Man possessed with a battle going on.


“Why?” is the question that makes the story happen. “Who is he?” that’s another one, and “What happens next?” but why most of all. Everything else unfolds as I try to find out.

Holla-Sayan — that was his name, after about sixty seconds of being named Holly after my then-computer, which used to declare, “Emergency, emergency, there’s an emergency going on,” in Norman Lovett’s voice just before it crashed, which it did frequently — was one of those story seeds that exploded into vast life and a full personality almost instantly. It’s rather like falling in love or getting hit on the head. Bang. Wow. There he is.

He was also obviously not the start of the story. I don’t remember thinking up the Blackdog, the dog-spirit guardian of the incarnate child-goddess Attalissa. It just — was.

So then I went back and I started writing the story at the beginning, with the conquest of the goddess’s town of Lissavakail. Holla-Sayan comes into it at the point where he needs to be, which is slightly against the rules, because there’s this other man at the start who’s obviously the hero and then . . . he’s dead. Sorry. That’s how it happened.

But anyway, there was Holla-Sayan, a decent man, if at that particular point a bit gloomy and sulky, since the woman he had a sort of a thing with in this town has gone off and married someone else. Also he was trying to be properly put out about it and get drunk and some damned horde of wizard-led warriors from the Great Grass invaded and began trashing the place. And tried to steal his horse, which wasn’t even his, he’d borrowed it from a friend. So that didn’t end well. Not for the person stealing the horse. He does what he can to help with the defence and then takes off, the locals having been pretty clearly defeated and he has a caravan and his boss — who is also his other girlfriend — to get back to.

And on the way, among the refugees, he finds a child with a dying dog. And nobody is helping her, nobody is gathering her up to take her along. So he does. He was adopted himself. He doesn’t ride past abandoned children. And that changes the course of his life, and the course of his world.

I didn’t think of any of that in any conscious way. It just all happened. But once the words flowed out for that much of the story, everything else about the world began to fall into place around those figures and the situation they were in. Holla-Sayan, unwilling host to the shapeshifting dog-spirit called the Blackdog and Attalissa the child-goddess herself took to the caravan road, leaving a conquered town in the mountains behind them. And the caravan road, it turned out, was going to run through almost everything in this world.

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