Speculative Fiction Reviews, Interviews, Art and Whatever Else!
Instead of formally reviewing Twelve Kings of Sharakhai, in which would've just raved on a lot about how much I loved it - I thought 'heck, let's just interview the author!'. So, I asked Bradley lot's of strange questions about the book, and writing subjects I wanted to know more about.. And he actually answered them! With gusto! (I almost had a conniption when I read his responses! The answer to the second last question made me tear up!)..
Therefore, allow me to Introduce:
Hello Bradley Beaulieu (the crowd erupts in cheers)! Welcome to Book Frivolity! Tell us a bit about yourself! Please include at least one weird fact, so we readers can confirm that authors are in fact human, and not godlike creatures.
I’m a guy who loves to cook, hide out on the weekend with my kids, and catch the occasional sportsball show. I grew up in Wisconsin in the US and have a degree in computer science and engineering. I spent time writing code for a nuclear power plant before moving on to work for Big Blue (that’s IBM for those new to old-school tech-speak). I like single-malt Scotch, single-village Mezcal, and trippel Belgian ales. And I write from time to time.
Your new release Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (or Twelve Kings in the UK) the first novel in your The Song of the Shattered Sands series has been repeatedly compared to Arabian Nights (I don’t think I’ve read an article or review that hasn’t mentioned it!). For those that don’t know much of Arabian Nights, (yep, I was included in that group!) can you explain the concept of Twelve Kings in a way that the uninitiated can get a sense of what to expect when embarking on the journey?
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai set in a vast desert with a powerful city state at its center. It has a wide array of characters, but the lion’s share of the book is dedicated to the main character,Çeda (pronounced CHAY-dah, like Aveda). The story follows our young heroine as she strives to avenge her mother’s death at the hands of the immortal kings of Sharakhai, who rule the desert with an iron fist.
It has sandships, blood magic, and moon-blooming flowers that grant wondrous abilities. On the surface, it’s a sweeping tale of what men and women will do to retain power. But there’s a strong undercurrent about how difficult it is to erase the past entirely. Some have described it as an “intimate” epic fantasy, and I really like that, because I wanted to focus on Çeda and her story as it weaves through the many threads of Sharakhai’s past.
Was there are particular reason the desert setting appealed when writing Twelve Kings? Lays of Anuskaya (another of Bradley’s series) was quite a different terrain - how do you actually go about deciding on a setting? Does the setting present first and then you populate it, or vice versa?
I’d long wanted to scratch the itch to write a desert story. I can attribute this partly to liking the tales of the Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights), particularly the milieu. In fact, as The Lays of Anuskaya progresses, you can see more and more of the Persian-influenced Aramahn coming into the picture, culminating in long stretches of desert scenes in the final book, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh.
So the desert was something I really wanted to explore, and I knew I wanted to steep the history of the city in a nomadic, Bedouin-like culture, but I’d probably (letting my geek flag fly here a bit) give the most credit to the Thieves’ World anthologies for the inspiration for Sharakhai. I loved the city of Sanctuary when I first starting reading the anthologies in high school. I loved that it was the “armpit of the empire,” that it was a meeting point of old and new as the Rankan Empire drove into Ilsigi territory, that there were pantheons of gods vying for power, and in fact commingling even as they fought. Above all, I loved the vastness of Sanctuary and the hidden wonders it contained.
The feel of that is what I wanted to explore with Sharakhai. Sharakhai is in some ways a mere city state. But in effect it controls trade throughout a massive desert bordered by four powerful kingdoms, and because it controls trade, it has amassed incredible wealth and power. It hasn’t done so without making enemies along the way, however. The twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai are hated by many. And the roots of the story are buried deeply in that hatred.
As for how I went about populating it, I really just try to steep myself in things that give me inspiration. Part of that is using the feel of stories (books, movies, comics) that gave me the juice to write this new project in the first place. I take very little directly (i.e. characters or setting) from other sources, but the vibe of those stories, the feel of it; that I’m absolutely trying to recreate as I work on the new world.
I also use things like Pinterest boards and regional music to help put myself in the right frame of mind. I work out the world to a pretty detailed degree before characters really start fleshing themselves out. In fact, I really don’t know everything about a character until the first draft is complete. That’s when I can dig into the next draft and write truths about them, knowing them by that point as well as I do.
There is a real sense of finding beauty in this world, even in things that would usually seem mundane, humble or monstrous. Poisonous plants and beetles are glorious, foods though simple and meagre are made to seem sumptuous, the sands even though treacherous are a thing of wonder etc.. Is it important for you as a writer to show that even the poorest or potentially ugly parts of the world can still hold beauty? A way to show the smallest things are worth fighting for?
I’m glad for this question, because yes, this is certainly something that’s important to me. I love finding beauty in small things, whether it’s an intimate talk with an old friend, a bite of an exotic meal, or a glimpse of the natural world, even if it is dangerous. It was one of the ways I hoped to paint the desert as an alluring place, and that was important for two reasons. First, I wanted the reader to enjoy their time in my world. And second, it was a way for me to show Çeda’s love for her city. She is a child of the desert, through and through, and I felt I needed to show that, not simply pay lip service to it.
Twelve Kings is a particularly character driven book, yet the world-building is never neglected (an occasional side effect I’ve found of character-centric novels.) I was wondering, was that a consideration when deciding to write a character driven book in third person, rather than first? Is it easier to present a better sense of a character’s surrounds when writing in third person?
Hmm, interesting question, and I’ve never thought about it in quite this way. I don’t think there are any specific restrictions per se on showing the environment from first-person as opposed to third.
Setting aside third person omniscient and focusing instead on third person limited (which is what I used in Twelve Kings), you can really vary just how deep into the character you are. You can border almost on omniscient at times. Most often this is when the narrator’s voice is taking over for a time, perhaps to reveal backstory. Or you can go very tight to the character, showing almost nothing they wouldn’t see. I weave in and out of these two modes as the story progresses, typically using a tight POV at times of stress or high emotion, and pulling the camera back at other times.
First person doesn’t tend to have this sort freedom. Not that it couldn’t. It’s just that first person tends to be written with a pretty tight POV to begin with, and it gets even tighter at the emotional high points. It would be interesting to come up with an excuse for a first-person POV to have a more omniscient view. Godlike being? Precog? That would make for a good writing prompt…
The main reason I chose third person, though, was mostly to do with voice. First person works best when the main character has a strong, unique voice. Not that you can’t use third person with strong, unique voices. It’s just that first person tends to sit you more deeply into them, enhancing the effect to a degree.
Are you an Architect, a Gardener or an Architectural Gardener (they exist in real life apparently!?)
Oh, a bit of both, I suppose, but I tend more toward the Gardener end of the spectrum. I’ll work up the book’s major turning points and the rough ending. These are lights in the fog, in George R.R. Martin’s parlance. I start working my way through plot, but the way ahead is hidden by fog. I can only see a little of the path, but not exactly how I’ll reach those lights. So I write, then stop and plot, then write some more. I call it inchworming my way through the plot, slowly but surely forging a path to the first light in the fog, then replotting, then heading out again. Eventually, somehow, I find my way to the end of the book.
One of the most crucial skills for the pantser is to figure out when they’re writing wrong. That is, when they’re bulling forward and following the wrong path. I’ve become very good at noticing just when I can push and write through a block and when things don’t feel right and I have to stop. When I feel like they’re wrong, I stop writing and I re-plot. I re-work. I re-envision. And eventually I find the right answers and pick things up again. But in the meantime, while I may not actively be writing, I’m at least putting effort toward getting back on track and not taking the story in the wrong direction.
When reading Twelve Kings, I was thoroughly interested in the way the book is structured, -intertwining flashbacks with current events, in a way that doesn’t distract from the present narrative, but adds meaning to it. For a reader like me, that usually finds flashbacks frustrating, it was hard to believe how well you made this non-linear narrative work. Why did you decide to write Çeda’s (and partially Emre’s) story in this way? How did you decide what to include and where to place the flashbacks to create the most impact on the ‘present’ narrative?
The backstory started out as just a prologue. The first two flashbacks comprised that prologue. It was LOOOONG for a prologue, and really didn’t answer a lot of things about Çeda, like how she got so good at fighting, how she knew about the blooming fields, why she was so driven to take down the Kings. I needed more to tell that story and for the reader to really understand her.
I’ll credit Scott Lynch and The Lies of Locke Lamora for giving me the confidence to try this approach. I think it worked in the end, and I hope people agree. (Like you, they mostly seem to, a thing I’m extremely relieved to hear.)
As for how I did it, oy vey. It was mostly trial and error. Trying things out in certain places, moving them around and seeing if they worked in that new configuration instead, and if not moving them back again because maybe it felt better that way. And once I got them mostly in the right places, a lot of rewriting to find more resonance and to set things up better. It was a lot of work to get those to feel right to me. I wish I had better advice, but flashbacks are tricky. You don’t want them if they don’t pull their own weight. And they really have to perform double-duty; they have to reveal the past and illuminate the present.
I am unabashedly a Çeda fan. She encompasses all that many wish they could be, strong, smart, loyal – generally kick arse! Yet all those traits are well juxtaposed by her love, her kindness, her guilt, her fears. Is It a multilayering process to make sure your character creation isn’t a two dimensional affair? Do you ever go back and re-create/layer character traits to flesh them out, or do they just write themselves that way?
This is another dark art that’s so hard to explain, or even recognize within the process of your writing. I can say this, though. Çeda became intensely real to me in the writing of this story. I didn’t know her well when I first started writing the first draft. She was a bit two-dimensional at first. But I knew her very well by the time I was done with that draft, and I used when I learned to then “paint her in” more in the early parts of the book.
Certainly there were more brush strokes added here and there as I found places where I wasn’t speaking the truth about her or the story at large, but for the most part, those first two drafts really cemented her for me, and then it was just a matter of brightening the places I wanted to brighten and darkening the places I wanted to darken.
The main characters in this book are quite diverse in their reasons for participating in the downfall of the Twelve Kings. Their reasons are either out on display, kept hidden, or aren’t seeing the whole picture. What type of character is more enjoyable to write: the upfront, the mysterious or the deceived?
Hands down, the mysterious. I love playing with character (and so, reader) expectations. It’s really fun to have hidden motivations, to hint at them and see who picks up on them.
OK! Let’s lighten it up a little!! If you had the opportunity to surf sand waves, would you?
Oh, hell yes! The sand-surfing scenes were some of my favorite in the entire novel. And they’ll be back. Trust me!
If you were one of the Twelve Kings, which one do you think you would be, and why?
Ihsan, for sure. He’s the only King who got his own POV. And that’s partially because he has some motivations that were fun to play with (see “mysterious” answer above). But he’s also snarky and sarcastic. Who doesn’t like snarky and sarcastic?
What are your top 10 obligatory fantasy books/series reads?
What authors/books/genres are you reading at the moment?
For Speculate, the podcast I run with Gregory A. Wilson, I just finished The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker and The City and the City by China Miéville. Both stunningly good books. Right now I’m listening to Zero World by Jason Hough. A great start to the novel, and I really enjoyed his The Darwin Elevator, so I’m expecting great things. Ben Aaronovitch’s The River’s of London was also a wonderful (recent) read.
Are you an e-booker or a dead tree collector?
Actually, I mostly read by sound waves lately. I have so little free time, I catch words by listening to books on Audible while driving, working out, doing yard work, and so on. It’s really convenient for me, and I fear that if I didn’t do it that way, I’d hardly read at all.
If I were to wander into your writing room right now, what would I find?
Oh dear. An outright mess. I’ve really let my home office go. Papers. Bills. Books. Old computer parts. It’s a terrible mess. So, uh, give me a few minutes, would you?
Is there anything else you wish to tell the world? About anything at all?
Oh, gosh. To the writers out there, enjoy what you’re doing. Enjoy all the little successes along the way. I see so many (not all, but a good number) of writers who are always looking to the next thing, never enjoying what they’ve achieved. So take the time to revel in what you’ve done, because believe me, 98% of the people out there who want to write won’t get to where you are now.
Last of all, will you be releasing a cook book companion to Twelve Kings? I think we can get gather support! Damn I’ll kickstarter it! ;)
Ha! I totally should, shouldn’t I? I’m actually going to make one of the recipes I mention in Twelve Kings. I’ll send you the recipe when I do!
*Kristy does a happy jig and prepares to order an oven that works*
All the thanks go to Bradley Beaulieu for visiting and surviving Book Frivolity (you have no idea how relieved I am not to have hide the body)! Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (DAW) or Twelve Kings (Gollancz) was released on the 1st of September 2015. You can read the first three chapters here.
You can also check out some of of the images that inspired Bradley on his pinterest board!