Today, Bill and Jana chat with Bradley P. Beaulieu, whose most recent novel — Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, from DAW Books — is a richly detailed epic fantasy set in a bustling desert city. We discuss story structure, the difficulties in thinking outside genre molds, and literary influences. One lucky commenter will win their choice of a book from our stacks or a Fantasy Literature t-shirt!
Bill Capossere: Can you talk about your decisions regarding structure — the use of flashbacks, the ordering of them, etc. Did you start with this structure in mind or is it one you worked your way through? Did you have a specific goal in mind with the structure beyond just not using the same old same old linear structure?
Bradley Beaulieu: This was a very interesting transition for the book. The backstory in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai started out as a prologue only. The first two flashback chapters comprised that prologue. A few problems arose in reviewing it, though. First, it was LOOOONG for a prologue, and secondly (and more importantly) it didn’t answer a lot of natural questions about Çeda’s past, 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 a flashback approach. Lies worked on so many levels for me. And one of those was the parallel thread of young Locke as he navigated his (let’s face it) pretty treacherous childhood. It was such a treat seeing young Locke learn the ropes of thievery from the Thiefmaker and, later, Father Chains.
I used that as a basic template to dig a bit deeper into Çeda to show who she was, how her mother raised her, and how she raised herself after her mother’s death at the hands of the Kings. I ended up liking the structure a lot because it not only filled in a lot of details of her earlier life, it advised me on what Çeda was like in the present.
Bill: I’d also ask the same regarding POV. Were these the POV’s you’d originally planned on? Did someone demand to have a voice that you hadn’t planned on? Did you reject any POVs after starting with them and if so why? Were any of the POV’s more difficult than any others?
I actually started this book with a clear goal in mind: to write an epic fantasy with a single POV. And that’s how the first draft turned out. It was about 2/3 of the size of the final manuscript. But while I attained my goal, I found the story wanting. It is an epic fantasy, to be sure, and too much of the tale was being left aside, or was unclear, or I was performing literary contortions trying to get the reader the information through Çeda’s POV. In other words, the single POV wasn’t working.
So I expanded. I knew I needed at least on POV from the King’s viewpoint. I was debating on more than one, but King Ihsan, the Honey-tongued King, was the most interesting and provided all I needed to show the reader what the Kings were about. Emre was an obvious choice as well, as he was getting drawn into… well, *carefully avoids spoilers* things that Çeda wasn’t privy to. Important things. Things the reader needed to see. So he came next. And Ramahd, a Lord from a neighboring Kingdom, plays one more important role: the role of the outsider. He’s the only POV that’s essentially external to Sharakhai, and I felt that was really important to show, both for this book and for the series going forward.
Jana Nyman: Çeda’s narrative forms the core of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, but I think it’s important that we do see other perspectives — to show that there’s much more going on than her individual revenge quest. Was it difficult for you to balance her story against the chapters from Emre or Ramahd?
Yeah (bouncing off the answers above) this was one of the reasons I felt it was important to expand the number of POVs and explore more outside of Çeda’s experience. It was not terribly difficult, frankly. By the time I’d written the first draft I had essentially all of Çeda’s POV complete. It didn’t tell enough of the story, I decided, but at that point I knew the whole plot and it was simply a matter of choosing the POVs to fill in the unseen parts of the story.
I was careful, though, to let Çeda shine. In the end, she’s the star. This is her story to tell.
Bill: Speaking of same old same old, you chose a desert/Arabic/Persian sort of milieu for your story. It isn’t like we haven’t seen similar ones in the past, such as classics like Dune or the FADED SUN trilogy. But certainly the default in fantasy for so long has been the medieval Western Europe model. Did you choose this setting simply because it interests you, or did a desire to write against the grain also play a part? Why do you think (if you do) the medieval Europe default has been so dominant? Would you agree it seems more and more authors in the past few years are breaking out of that mold and what would you attribute that to if you do agree?
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. And both of the books you mentioned, Dune and the FADED SUN trilogy, were inspirations for me. As my last series, 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 the setting. 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.
I think the Medieval European setting has been so popular for a variety of reasons, so many of which I won’t even be able to touch on. I think largely it’s because it’s so familiar (read: ingrained) at this point. So many stories trickling down from our immigrant past have set the stage for more and more and more in the same vein. Familiarity should not be underestimated. It’s what drives so many of our buying decisions without us even realizing it. And if that’s what’s selling, that’s what gets published, and the cycle ends up continuing ad infinitum. Just think about all the stories we were read as children. How many of those were Medieval European? Princes and princesses and dragons and knights. It prepares us young to be predisposed toward a certain type of story, and that carries over to adulthood and then influences our buying decisions (whether we’re conscious of it or not).
That said, I do agree that it seems like more authors are trying to break the mold of the typical epic fantasy (or space opera, or what have you), and that publishers are giving them a shot. Like any movement, there were forerunners that are breaking the mold and showing readers, publishers, and other authors that these types of stories can sell while bringing something new to the table. Authors like N. K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Nnedi Okorafor, and many more are writing stories outside the historical mainstream, and their success gives publishers more incentive to search for more.
If I were to hazard a guess as to “why now?”, I’d say that the democratization of the internet is helping a lot here. Now more than ever we are becoming an integrated, global society. We’re not homogenous by any means, but I think our awareness is greatly expanding, and I think it’s natural for this to be reflected in our curiosity about other cultures, which in turns leads to being more open to reading about them.
Here’s hoping the trend continues!
Jana: The world of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is diverse and offers equal opportunities to both male and female characters. Men and women can be Masters at the collegia, shop-keepers, pit fighters, etc. The only gender restriction seems to be that Blade Maidens are solely female. How did you come to that decision, and did it affect how you created the rest of the world?
I’m afraid the real answer to this is rather spoilery, so I can’t address it directly. But showing women in places of power is really important to me. As the world was still bubbling and before everything had settled, I started working out the ways that this was going to show up in the story. In the desert, as you’ve mentioned, the culture is egalitarian in a lot of respects, but the Kings are men and the city guard, the Silver Spears, are largely male. I wanted there to be an interesting counter to the Kings. That’s the very loose genesis of the Blade Maidens, but the reasons that followed (the “in-world” reasons) are wrapped up too tightly with the Kings and their history to reveal. (You’ll just have to keep reading the series to find out!)
Bill: Did the setting cause you any composition difficulties? Did you have to do more research than usual? Did you find yourself constrained in any ways? In what ways did it free you?
The setting didn’t really cause me any difficulties. It was interesting to write an epic fantasy essentially in only one city. There are some desert scenes outside the city, and the effects of the events in Sharakhai have implications that travel beyond its borders, but hopefully you take my meaning: the heart of this book lies in Sharakhai. And that actually gave me an interesting challenge. Because my attention was so focused there, it made me explore the city more than I might have otherwise. Like the characters, Sharakhai became very real to me in the writing. So much of it filled in and gained texture as I wrote, so that by the end of the first draft, it was a leaving, breathing thing. Restrictions in our writing can often lead to more creativity, and I found that to be true in this case.
Jana: The “epic fantasy” genre seems to be in a class all by itself. Does writing epic fantasy present any unique challenges for you, as opposed to writing within the constraints of another genre like portal fantasy or science fiction? Does the genre appeal to you for any particular reason, such as a beloved author or series, or for more general reasons?
I think secondary-world fantasy is a big challenge since you’re making up so much of the world. But that’s also what I enjoy about them, the feeling that it’s similar to ours, but different in so many ways. I don’t tend to like portal fantasies because they feel contrived to me. They’re good in that you can (depending on the story) use modern language, and it’s interesting to take the “what if I were in King Arthur’s court?” question quite literally. But in the end I largely find them hokey, and would rather explore what a world would be like if left to grow on its own, so to speak. (This isn’t to say that I don’t like some portal fantasies. HARRY POTTER is in essence a portal fantasy, and it’s one of my all-time favorite series.)
Epic fantasy is even more challenging since it demands a wide canvas, a broad cast of characters, and so on. But again, that’s also what I like about it. I like that it’s so meaty, that it’s so intricate, that it’s (for me anyway) so immersive. I’ve always gravitated toward that sort of tale — from The Lord of the Rings to Dune to Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn to The Assassin’s Apprentice — so it’s been a natural leap for me.
I sometimes envy the standalone novel that tells a wondrous, self-contained tale. Neil Gaiman is especially good at this. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of my favorite novels. As is China Miéville’s The City and The City. I read them and I thought: why can’t I just find an idea and write it all between two covers? But I think the story types we like, and so write, are very ingrained in us. We are who we are. So I’ll content myself with reading those brilliant one-and-done novels and write my epics as I can.
Bill: It seemed to me that one of the themes running throughout was the idea and power of story and storytelling. Am I just seeing things or was this something you intended the reader to pick up? If so, can you talk about that theme at all — why it’s there, and its connection to plot or character?
Yes, that was absolutely one of my goals: to explore what story is, its power, how it can be manipulated and used by those in power in order to retain it, and so on.
One of my favorite analogies for J.R.R. Tolkien’s works is that The Hobbit is fairy tale, The Lord of the Rings legend, and The Silmarillion myth. I love that. And I love the notion that there are different prisms through which we can view the world. I find it very interesting how history changes over time. Our modern perceptions skew the way we look at the past, and as more time passes, more and more layers of story are added to the history, until you end up with archeological strata, each layer adding its contemporary baggage, that distorts or occludes or sometimes completely conceals the truth. It’s a very human thing we do as we write our collected histories, and that was something I wanted to play with in the history of the Kings, the city of Sharakhai, the desert tribes, and even the gods of the desert.
Jana: Which was your favorite scene to write and, conversely, which was the hardest?
My favorite scene in the book is one in which young Çeda is dreaming. She dreams of a pilgrimage to a salt flat deep in the desert with her mother. They visit a great flock of starling-like birds called “blazing blues.” I’d painted her mother as a very harsh woman throughout the book to that point, and in many respects she is harsh — she had to be to keep herself and Çeda alive — but there’s a loving mother hidden within, and I had to reveal that at some point. So that scene, when they see this natural phenomenon that amazes them both, it ended up being very touching. It showed a different side of Çeda’s mother, which played in stark contrast to the rest of her scenes, heightening the sense of love she shared with Çeda in that one brief encounter.
Jana: I thought that scene was lovely — the two of them just being together, with the birds and the water, was obviously a powerful moment and memory for Çeda.
The toughest was probably the opening. I wrestled quite a bit with where to start the story, trying this then that, finally settling on the pit scene with Haluk. And once chosen, I had to rewrite it quite a bit since it was the opening for the entire novel and hadn’t been previously. I must have rewritten and polished that scene two dozen times.
Jana: Lastly, a feature of our Author Interviews at Fantasy Literature is that we like to ask authors about their favorite recipes — either as they relate to the author’s creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with their work. Are there any drinks which remind you of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
Can I give you an original? I made this around the time that Twelve Kings was sold a few years back. I’m afraid it’s going to be a pretty (ahem) half-baked recipe because I didn’t write it down and made it only once with stuff I had on hand.
I haven’t had those ingredients since, so never perfected it, but if I recall correctly, it was like so:
- 1 part cream sherry to 1 part mezcal
- ½ lime, squeezed
- ½ tsp garam masala spice mix
- ¼ tsp fresh nutmeg
Mix all in a blender and serve immediately. I’m not a mixologist, but it tasted AWESOME to me. Let’s call it a Sweet Desert Sky!
Jana: Sounds good to me — a Sweet Desert Sky it is! Thanks so much for stopping by and answering all of our questions. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for Çeda in the future!
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