Friday, January 20, 2023

The Bachelor, Medieval Russian Style

As promised, this past Tuesday Five Directions Press formally announced the release of my latest Songs of Steppe & Forest novel, Song of the Storyteller. As you might guess from the title of this post, I had a lot of fun writing this particular novel—and for several reasons.

First, Lyuba is the kind of heroine I find easy to connect to: strong-minded yet thoughtful, self-aware, and in love with words. Although I accept that every character, even the villains, represents one or more elements of myself, Lyuba—like her predecessor Nasan—is not so much me as the person I wish I could have been at sixteen. She has a poise I lacked (I was neurotically silent and shy), yet she loves stories, just as I have since before I even learned how to read. And although she’s beautiful—another trait I wouldn’t lay claim to—she has little awareness of and no interest in that fact; she cares far more about people’s minds and hearts than their looks—even her love interest Timur’s, although she’s certainly not immune to his charms.

Best of all, from the perspective of storytelling, Lyuba is a writer, so she naturally thinks in terms of describing the scenes she experiences, the settings in which they take place, and the characters she meets—and she meets some real doozies in the course of this book. She’ll exaggerate for effect and dramatic impact, but she’s also alert to hidden vulnerabilities and subtexts. The more I submerged myself in her world and her way of seeing, the more readily the story flowed. Even her passing remarks—grumbling when people interrupt her while she’s crafting a sentence, for example—fit both who she is and the unique experience of producing fiction.

Other writers will understand what I mean by that. People who, in Lyuba’s words, “don’t live with stories buzzing inside their heads” may find it strange. Aren’t all characters the author’s creation, like paper dolls dressed up and moved around a cardboard stage? Why would one heroine be easier to write than another?

But in fact, novel writing doesn’t work like that at all. Characters emerge from the subconscious, and the writing flows naturally from letting them chart their own course. My only experiences with the dreaded writer’s block have been when I tried to force a character into behavior that met the needs of the plot but not the personality of the character. Like real people, though, not all characters move comfortably in the larger world. The shy and ungainly, the poorly educated, the girls trained to silent submission (so common throughout much of history)—discovering what makes such heroines unique and memorable can take months, if not years. So when I come across a self-aware, active, fiery heroine like Lyuba, with her vast vocabulary and her talent for nailing in a few words what distinguishes each person she encounters, that’s a gift.

The second factor that eased the writing of this novel was the historical backdrop. From the moment I realized that Lyuba would be just a month or two younger than Ivan the Terrible when the tsar reached the age of coronation and marriage, I knew I must find a way to set her story during his first bride show. Long before I figured out how she would navigate this historical incident that to a modern mind almost defies belief, I wanted to examine the bride show from her perspective. 

Indeed, the natural drama in this incident lets the story almost tell itself. In a country where it might take half a year in travel time to obtain a license to buy a horse, a small group of nobles and government officials were allotted less than six weeks to fan out across the provinces, summoning girls from the local towns. The idea was to bring the best (defined as the most beautiful, healthiest, most likely to be fertile, and, of course, virginal) highborn young women to Moscow. There they would be examined by the wives of the Moscow aristocracy, who would then whittle down the selection to a small group considered to be suitable as a potential royal bride. In addition to the qualities of the candidates themselves, the political loyalty of their male relatives and, in particular, the ease with which the new family could be incorporated into the existing pecking order among the elite were prime factors. The tsar got to pick the wife he wanted from that select group, but he probably had no more than fifteen minutes with each of them before deciding. The real work was done before the royal presentations began.

How well that worked in practice is hard to determine. The call for potential brides went out on December 12, 1546, and by February 3, 1547, the tsar had made his choice and held the wedding. What happened between those two dates is pretty much anyone’s guess, although we do have documents detailing the histories of some potential brides and the assignments of roles during the ceremony itself. And, of course, we know who won. It is probably not a coincidence that the girl who made the cut came from the Moscow aristocracy, although at least a few maidens from other towns did undergo the equivalent of background checks.

But from the perspective of fiction, that is not the important element. For reasons I’ve explained in a previous post, bride shows were held before every ruler’s wedding and even for some of the collateral heirs (the “spares,” in modern lingo) between 1505 and 1689. The stakes were high, and as a result, bride shows were rife with behind-the-scenes negotiations and outright skullduggery. Successful candidates died before, or right after, their weddings. Prospective brides developed bizarre illnesses that vanished as quickly as they had arisen after the girls returned home. Nasty rumors of inappropriate behavior ruined reputations—one reason provincial fathers hid their daughters from view rather than let them be selected for the journey to Moscow. The whole thing was a dramatist’s dream, and I had a great time deciding which of the many boulders would obstruct Lyuba’s path to success as she defined it and which would eventually let her reach her chosen goal.

The book description is below, and I hope you enjoy the novel as much as Andrea Penrose (whose Wrexford & Sloane Regency mysteries you should absolutely read if you have not already), who wrote, “C. P. Lesley brings an exotic setting to life with richly textured historical details and a wonderful cast of fascinating characters—it’s an enchanting tale worthy of her clever storyteller heroine!” 

If you do, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or GoodReads. I know time is scarce and the demands on it many, but reviews help other readers find my books by increasing their visibility, and they tell those who do discover the novels whether this is something they might like.

Lyuba Koshkina has long known that her father, an ambitious and unscrupulous nobleman, will stop at nothing to see her wed the grand prince—soon to be crowned as Russia’s first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. A few months after her sixteenth birthday, the call for the tsar’s bride show goes out. But Lyuba has goals of her own, and they do not include a royal marriage. She wants to record the tales that fill her head from morning to night, including the adventures of her own family. One day, she catches a handsome stranger reading her work and realizes that here stands the man she has loved since childhood—and that neither her father nor the Church will permit them to wed.

Timur Alexeevich has spent years away from home, learning from his uncles how to rule a Tatar horde. An unexpected summons brings him back to Moscow and the girl he once thought of as a little sister, now a scintillating, learned, and self-assured beauty destined—at least according to her father—to become Russia’s first tsaritsa. Even the grandson of a khan cannot compete with so exalted a future. All seems lost, until Lyuba discovers that a storyteller has the power to weave her own future from the twists of fate.

Image: Grigory Sedov, The Choice of a Bride (1882), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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