Friday, April 26, 2013


Fiction loves outsiders. Fish out of water simplify a novelist’s job. They have to ask questions, because they don’t know how the system works (just like the reader). They make observations—and mistakes—that the rest of us will also make about the society being discussed. They learn as we learn, obviating the need for pages of boring description that stop the action cold.

Science fiction and historical fiction, in particular, love outsiders. So much better to show the baffled stranger struggling to understand what drives the natives to haul a pine tree indoors and string lights around it than to contrive a tortured explanation: “Well, yes, Virginia, as I have said every year since you turned three, here in the United States many youngsters believe in Santa Claus. Please, let me tell you about the North Pole, the sled, and the elves. And did I mention he also brings toys to well-behaved children?”

By this point, the snickering reader has long since nominated that book for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (“Wretched Writers Welcome”) and gone on to other, more rewarding reads.

But outsiders need not come from outside. Insiders can be outsiders, too. For good or ill, the human condition appears to include a need to distinguish us from them, even when “they” have lived among “us” for seven hundred years. This reality forms the backdrop for Lenin’s Harem—the book featured in my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction.

Despite its title, the book does not involve harems in the usual sense (sorry if that news disappoints). Instead it refers to a joke/insult applied to the Latvian Red Riflemen, an elite military unit charged with guarding the Kremlin—dubbed “Lenin’s Harem” by the local wags because of its subordination to the first Bolshevik leader.

The rest of this post comes from the description at New Books in Historical Fiction.

One night in the Russian imperial province of Courland, an eleven-year-old boy more than a little drunk on his parents’ champagne slips away from his aristocratic manor and heads for the village that houses his family’s Latvian farmhands. It is Christmas 1905, two months after Emperor Nicholas II of Russia’s October Manifesto has turned his autocracy into the semblance of a constitutional monarchy, and the subject peoples of his empire are restive. In Courland, a province governed by Baltic barons who descend from the thirteenth-century chivalric orders of the Teutonic and Livonian Knights, that hope for change centers on the populace’s desire for independence from its German overlords—even more than from the Russian Empire itself.

Thus begins the story of Wiktor Rooks, a Baltic German boy who soon sees his family’s estate burned, its ancestral property lost, and his own future compromised. Wiktor yearns for the academic life, but family tradition requires him, as a second son, to become a soldier. He joins the Russian imperial army, which assigns him to spy on a unit full of Latvian soldiers eager to rid themselves of men like him. Slowly he wins their trust, and the friendships he forms there—and the wartime atrocities he witnesses—send him into the ranks of the Latvian Red Riflemen. By 1918, he is guarding the new Soviet government.

When Latvia achieves its independence in 1921, Wiktor’s fortunes change again, and he returns to the land of his birth. There he strives, once and for all, to overcome his past as the second son of a Baltic baron. But soon the forces of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia are massing, and tiny Latvia stands smack in their way.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Wild East

Fun with History, Part 3

As I mentioned during my blog interview with Diane V. Mulligan, my secret is that I’m a total girly-girl. I have no idea how I came to write swashbuckling heroes and kick-ass heroines (or swashbuckling heroines and kick-ass heroes, if you prefer). As a child, my idea of the perfect pastime involved dressing the hair of a dozen dolls. As an adult, I have spent my last twenty-three years studying classical ballet. I don’t even have the excuse of developing a hidden talent, because no one who starts ballet in midlife—native talent or not—has a hope of success. That’s the age when professional dancers start thinking about retirement.

Yet here I am, writing about nomads and warriors and loving every minute (yes, even the ones that have me pounding my head against the desk). So when, halfway through the rough draft of The Winged Horse, I realized that I really could not duck a portrayal of the Tatar council (similar to the Afghan jirga but limited to the four or five most important clan leaders) for even one more scene, I knew I had to stop procrastinating and do some research.

I started with Jack Weatherford’s wonderful Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, stuffed to the brim with information on steppe peoples that I had read and promptly forgotten. But I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted pictures—better yet, videos.

Hello, YouTube. Here I hit pay dirt. Not so much in the short clips of Tatars doing this and that, often in Russian—as invaluable as those are. The short clips reminded me of a film I had seen and loved but not considered in this context: Sergei Bodrov’s study of the rise of Genghis Khan, Mongol (2008). Better yet, it revealed another film that I had not even known existed, also directed by Bodrov and set in eighteenth-century Kazakhstan: Nomad: The Warrior (2005). I found the DVD. And the hi-def version on iTunes. In English, no less. I watched it—and fell in love.

The thing about the steppe is that life changed slowly there in the pre-industrial age. Eighteenth-century Kazakhstan didn’t differ too much from sixteenth-century Kazakhstan—or, to judge by the costumes, the fourteenth-century entity known incorrectly as the Golden Horde. Nasan’s and Ogodai’s ancestors, contemporaries, and descendants.

Not so many council sessions as I would have liked, I admit. But enough to let me write the one I needed. And to give me the confidence to tackle the three other council scenes that for the good of the story need to precede this one.

But first I have to watch Nomad again….

Screen Shot from Sergei Bodrov's Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Purple Sage

I don’t want to turn this into a book blog, although as luck would have it, four of my last six posts have discussed the books of others. One post addressed a classic, another high-quality genre literature, and the third an author widely considered to have churned out the print equivalent of the kinds of films that used to end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or as candidates for the Golden Turkey Awards. But I had yet to encounter a book that might, depending on the reader’s point of view at any given moment, qualify as all three—that is, not until the Dead Writers Society (DWS), the same Goodreads group that adopted Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth as its March read, decided to tackle Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage for April.

A couple of things you need to know. First, Riders wasn’t the only book the DWS settled on for this month. It also chose Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which I last read years ago, and Frances Hodges Burnett’s The Secret Garden, another old favorite of mine. At the same time, Laurie R. King’s Virtual Book Club (also on Goodreads) picked her Justice Hall for its April read—and because I am interviewing Laurie in May for New Books in Historical Fiction and in connection with Garment of Shadows, which in a sense builds on Justice Hall—I wanted to re-read that one too. Not to mention Lenin’s Harem for my April interview. The reading schedule was getting a bit tight.

I finished Lenin’s Harem first and decided to get a head start on April (on that book, more next week). Riders of the Purple Sage was available free for Kindle (there’s my tech reference for this post!), so I started in on it. Two hours later, I was halfway through, and the next day I finished. The first Western I’ve ever read, and possibly the last.

But I still have no clue what to make of Zane Grey. What is one to do with an author who can describe people with the melodrama characteristic of my first example but surround it with passages of raw beauty like the second?

“Venters, will you take your whipping here or would you rather go out in the sage?” asked Tull. He smiled a flinty smile that was more than inhuman, yet seemed to give out of its dark aloofness a gleam of righteousness. (4)

Here again was a sweep of purple sage, richer than upon the higher levels. The valley was miles long, several wide, and enclosed by unscalable walls. But it was the background of this valley that so forcibly struck him [Venters]. Across the sage flat rose a strange upflinging of yellow rocks. He could not tell which were close and which were distant. Scrawled mounds of stone, like mountain waves, seemed to roll up to steep bare slopes and towers…. All about him was ridgy roll of wind-smoothed, rain-washed rock. Not a tuft of grass or a bunch of sage colored the dull rust-yellow. He saw where, to the right, this uneven flow of stone ended in a blunt wall. Leftward, from the hollow that lay at his feet, mounted a gradual slow-swelling slope to a great height topped by leaning, cracked, and ruined crags. Not for some time did he grasp the wonder of that acclivity. It was no less than a mountainside, glistening in the sun like polished granite, with cedar trees springing as if by magic out of the denuded surface. Winds had swept it clear of weathered shale, and rains had washed it free of dust. Far up the curved slope its beautiful lines broke to meet the vertical rim wall, to lose its grace in a different order and color of rock, a stained yellow cliff of cracks and caves and seamed crags. And straight before Venters was a scene less striking but more significant to his keen survey. For beyond a mile of the bare, hummocky rock began the valley of sage and the mouths of canyons, one of which surely was another gateway into the pass. (21–22)

Is he Barbara Cartland, Edith Wharton, or somewhere in a bizarre category of his own?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Dark Shadows

I had a lot of fun this week preparing for my blog interview with L.M. David and her resident vampyre, Preston. At the last minute, I gave into the urging of Nasan, heroine of The Golden Lynx, and carried a sword. Boy, were we glad. Vampyres can be so touchy.

Alas, Preston imagines himself the Fourth Musketeer. That part of the encounter didn’t go so well—for him. Nasan had a great time.

Preston is recovering nicely, thank you. No damage except to his pride—and his pants. Hey, how was I to know he’d swish a cape better than a sword? (I do feel bad about the pants. Turned out he'd charged them to L.M. Oops!)

Here’s a (slightly edited) excerpt from the interview. But there are lots of good questions I left out, so make sure to read the whole.

Q. Tell me about the character Nasan.

A. Nasan is a descendant of Genghis Khan, which makes her a princess. At 16, she is on the brink of marriage—as her mother reminds her about 18 times a day—but she has grown up among the nomads, a world where women live much more active lives than those residing in towns. Nomadic girls learn to ride and to defend themselves; they wrestle cattle and do whatever needs doing, especially when the men are off raiding and at war. Nasan is a tomboy who resists growing up, which for a 16th-century princess means marrying and becoming a mother. She justifies her reluctance by appealing to ancient Turkic legends in which warrior heroines marry only men who can defeat them in battle, men they can respect. She also appeals to the ancestral spirits of her clan, the grandmothers, to guide her along the path to achieving her dream: to become such a warrior heroine. But she knows this is unlikely, and when she fails to prevent her younger brother’s murder, she begins to question whether she can fulfill her dream. Then her father orders her to marry the son of their enemy, a Russian nobleman, and she has to adapt to not only a new family but a new culture, a new language, and even a new religion.

Q.  What would draw a 14-year-old to this story?

A. Nasan is 16, married to a 19-year-old. She lives in a different time and another part of the world, but she has a lot of the same problems that any teenager has. Her mother and mother-in-law are always on her case, trying to get her to act like the perfect lady. Her father orders her around and makes plans without consulting her. Adults spend most of their time telling her what to do. The hot guy she’s married seems to be fooling around with another girl. She has to deal with her mean sister-in-law. And Nasan doesn’t take these things lying down. She fights back; she stands up for her right to define her own identity as a woman.

Q. Your next book, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, what inspired you to write it?

A. I actually wrote this one before The Golden Lynx. I read the original Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, when I was 14 and loved it. It’s about a guy who seems to think about nothing but clothes, but he’s really a swashbuckling hero who saves people from the guillotine during the French Revolution. In 2005, Penguin put out a centennial edition, and I read it again. I loved it just as much, but I found myself retelling the story in my head, imagining myself as the heroine, Marguerite, and thinking about what I could do to fix her conflict with her husband. Eventually I decided to write my version down. The original is in the public domain, so I was able to use it without violating anyone’s copyright. But only about 10% of my book actually comes from Baroness Orczy; the rest is my invention.

Q.  In this story, Nina, Ian, and a college professor enter a virtual reality video game. How did you come up with this concept?

A. I didn’t want to do a straightforward time-travel novel, because The Scarlet Pimpernel is fiction, not history—and besides, time travel is kind of a cliché. I needed something that would put people into the book but still let them alter it, and computers seemed like the obvious way to do that. When I began writing the book, back in 2006, the technology to produce the kind of experience that Nina and Ian and their friends have seemed far-off, but now we have wireless refrigerators and smartphones everywhere, so I figure it’s only a matter of time before there’s an app for that.

Q. In both books, your female characters are strong-willed, solid characters. Do you see them as role models for the age group these books were written for?

A. I write strong female characters because I can’t stand to read about weak, whiny women. Of course, women often had little choice historically—even in the present, in many places—but as a historian I know that women can exercise power in ways that don’t necessarily draw attention to themselves. The two mothers in The Golden Lynx are also strong female characters. Other characters in The Golden Lynx are not, but they will get there before the series ends. A couple of reviewers have criticized my characters as too modern for this reason, but in fact I put a lot of research and effort into making them historically accurate. People just tend to assume that women in the past were downtrodden, which was not always true, especially among the elite.

As for them being role models, yes, I hope they are. Not in the sense of swinging a sword or stringing a bow, but in the sense of being true to yourself while balancing your own needs against those of others and the demands of your society—I think that’s a lesson everyone needs to learn.

Q. Do you have a current work in progress?

A. The Golden Lynx is book 1 of a five-part series. Right now, I’m halfway through the first draft of book 2, The Winged Horse. Mostly it involves Nasan’s older brother and his attempt to claim the young woman promised to him six years earlier, despite the efforts of a disgruntled half-brother to grab the girl and leadership of her nomadic horde. Nasan and Daniil appear in a side plot set in the independent khanate (kingdom) of Kazan. There’s lots of politicking, races, duels, assassination attempts, and stampedes. And quite a bit of romance, although the characters don’t really think in those terms. I’m eager to get it done, because plots for books 3 and 4 are already pounding at my brain.