Friday, January 17, 2020

Love and Magic on the Steppe

It’s always tremendous fun to release a new novel. The blood and angst that went into creating and revising the story washes out in production, leaving a finished text that looks like any other printed book. One by a bestselling author, say, or a prizewinner. (We can dream, right?) Except that it isn’t by someone else. It’s one’s own work, sent out like a beloved child to take its chances in the big, wide world.

And the thrill never gets old. The thrill of holding a physical book in your hand and knowing that you wrote it, especially. It’s one reason I hope print books never go away—at least during my lifetime. Seeing a book on an e-reader or tablet is cool, too, but nothing like the joy of hefting a novel in one’s hand, flipping through the pages, admiring the crisp text and vivid cover, the carefully chosen type ornaments and fonts—then placing it on a shelf next to all the other books.

Tuesday’s release of Song of the Shaman is the tenth time I’ve had that pleasure, not counting the second editions and the box sets—fifteen books or collections all told. In some ways, this novel is special: it took a long time to connect with the heroine, Grusha, despite having known her since I typed the first words to The Golden Lynx back in 2008. Finding her character eight years after her original appearance in a major secondary role, even an antagonist (although far from the main one), and her conflict in her new role as the shaman of Ogodai’s Tatar horde took time and multiple rewrites and rethinks. But here she is at last, and I hope her search for happiness, for herself and her young son, will pull you in and make you want to spend a few hours or days accompanying her on her journey.

But don’t take my word for it. Terry Gamble, author of The Eulogist and other novels, puts it so nicely in her endorsement on the back of the book: “A vividly told tale full of magic and mysticism, passion and betrayal. The story of Grusha will grab you by the heart and throat as you travel through the medieval world of Russia and the steppe.” You can find out more about Terry’s wonderful books from her interview at New Books in Historical Fiction.


So, may you enjoy the excerpt below and the novel itself. While you read, I’ll be rereading and revising Song of the Sisters so I can revel in the excitement of publication again this time next year. 

And here is an excerpt from chapter 1 of Song of the Shaman.


East of the Don, June 1542

Smoke—stinging, acrid, redolent with sage and the heavy odor of dried dung—filled my nostrils. Flakes of ash floated before my eyes, and I coughed as I reached for my drum. All around me, the tent rocked with the pounding rhythm of an instrument not my own, held in hands more experienced than mine, summoning me to the dance. Suzukei—the shaman of this camp, my teacher—whispered to the spirits of the hearth fire, the ancestors of the horde.

Squinting, I settled the plaits over my face to remind the snake spirits, guardians of wisdom, that they had chosen me, too, to serve them as a journeyer among the realms above and below. When I’d hidden my features, I lifted the rimmed circle, large enough to conceal my torso from waist to shoulder. The familiar heft of the drum, the smooth wood clapper in my other hand, the steady bam-bam-bam-bam as I beat the tanned hide—these things drew me out of myself despite the blistering smoke. The rhythm of my strokes, regular as the beat of my own heart, worked its way into my body, resonating in my chest and pulling me away from the present, into the places that lie beyond the middle lands of earth and water.

Against the crackle of the fire, each upward leap of the flames releasing another swarm of ash flakes, I heard the steady croon of Suzukei’s voice. Moving to the outer rim of the tent, I joined her song, matching her tone as best I could, adding the stamp of my own felt-clad feet. Strings of beads and shells, interspersed with metal shapes etched with sacred symbols, hung from the drum’s rim, adding sounds soft and sharp. I imagined them whispering my name to the listening spirits—Gru-sha, Gru-sha, Gru-sha. I loved the shushing of those beads and shells.

As Suzukei and I danced around each other, I watched her for clues. I couldn’t see her face, because like me she had concealed it behind several dozen plaits—black tinged with gray in her case, light brown in mine. Although half a head shorter than I, she appeared taller, the result of the red felt circle stitched with beaded eyes, nose, and mouth tied around her head and extended by a set of plumes as long as my forearm. Her leather robe, which fell loose from her shoulders, added to the sense of her being larger than life.

“O ancestors,” she called to the spirits of the hearth fire. “O grandmothers, save this child.”

“O grandmothers,” I echoed. “Return his soul to his body. Make him well.” Bam-bam-bam-bam, bam-bam-bam-bam—I punctuated each word with a drumbeat. Suzukei nodded her approval.

In response to a second nod, I redirected my dance in an inward spiral, aiming for a spot closer to the fire, beating my drum with every step and adding my prayers to Suzukei’s. She had charged me with monitoring the condition of our patient, the three-year-old Sibai Sultan—second son of Ogodai Khan, ruler of our horde. The child lay sick unto death on a pile of felts next to the rough stones that contained the fire, motionless except for the occasional sobbing breath and croaking cough. As I moved in, she spiraled out, as if we were two puppets pulled by the same set of strings.

“Grandmothers—bam—come to us—bam—see the child—bam-bam—your own descendant—bam-bam—save his life—bam-bam-bam—so that he can grow strong—bam-bam—and one day sire children to continue your line.” Bam-bam-bam-bam. I spoke to the drum as much as the ancestors, and the drum spoke to me, a wordless conversation.


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