I had a lot of fun on Juliette Wade's "Dive Into WorldBuilding" hangout. It was great to have a chance to talk about The Seven-Petaled Shield...and a bit strange to see myself on video. Here I am!
We were very fortunate to be joined by author Deborah J. Ross, who came to talk to us about her wonderful trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. She told us that it was inspired by an exhibit of Scythian art that she saw, and was a way for her to branch out beyond the tired tropes of pseudo-Celtic and Western European fantasy.
The Scythians were nomadic horse-riders in the central Asian steppe. They had shamans called enarees who, among other duties, would be asked to test the truthfulness of any charges brought against someone in their community. Enarees were men who wore woman's clothing and occupied a cultural niche in between the men's world and the women's world. One fascinating thing about them was that they kept the Romans at bay for hundreds of years.
Deborah began by writing four short stories set in a fantasy version of the Scythian world, known as Azkhantia. She wanted to write a novel, and found the right additional axis of tension when she realized she's referred to a place called Meklavar as "where witches dwell." She then expanded Meklavar into a society based on very ancient Judea. The Meklavarans have a very old written scripture, and literacy is very important to them, as is the knowledge of languages. Any given Meklavaran will typically know 3 or 4 modern languages and 2 extinct ones. Their magic is based in the scriptural stories.
She elaborated on this using parallels from the real world, where echoes of earlier goddess-based religions remain in scriptures of the traditions that followed them. She was also inspired by the tale of King Solomon's seals and the genie. When something has been pent up - something that needs very badly to stay pent up - we can forget things, and wind up in trouble. In The Seven-Petaled Shield, the empire of Gelon goes after Meklavar, and accidentally releases an evil genie.
The story focuses on the viewpoint of women, in part because she didn't want it just to be "Lord of the Rings with a twist." In this world, the solutions to problems can't come by the sword.
The "Seven-Petaled Shield" of the title is a set of seven magical jewels. Six of these occupy the points of a six-pointed star, and the seventh lies at the center. Each jewel has a different kind of power associated with a particular attribute (courage, strength, etc.) The six brothers with the jewels were magically linked and were able to defeat the evil power of Fire and Ice, which was made up of incompatible elements left over from the creation of the universe.
The story begins with the siege of Meklavar, in the person of Tsorreh, the young second wife of the king. Deborah explained that she wanted Tsorreh to be young, but old enough to be educated and have strong cultural heritage. She is part Mekalavaran and part Isarran (Isarre is something like Phoenicia.) In the siege, she chooses to save the library, saving the things that make her people unique. Just before she and her son flee, she inherits the central gem of the shield, which changes her power and perceptions. Her biggest strength is in making friends and having compassion.
Deborah wanted to make sure enemies were not demonized, and she wanted to explore how to resolve conflict in non-violent ways.
During the story, Tsorreh's son Zevaron believes that his mother has been killed, and becomes consumed by desire for revenge. Deborah explained that she drew on her own experience of her mother's murder to explore his character. In the end, she says she is the person she wants to be, and not defined by that experience. Her journey to healing is reflected to some extent in the story. She also looks at how people come to believe that "your pain will be over when X is destroyed."
There is love in the story, though Tsorreh's first marriage is political. Deborah says almost all her stories have love in them. The meeting of Zevaron with the Azkhantian warrior Shannivar was one of her earliest imaginings for the story.
Deborah placed the emergence point for Fire and Ice at the northeast corner of the steppe. She therefore did a lot of research on Mongolian life. Horses and camels are very important to the people there, and friction between clans is far less because just staying alive in this environment is so difficult. The culture as a whole comes to support the border clans who are those who clash most often with outsiders.
Deborah describes Shannivar (for whom the second book was named) as a very clear viewpoint character, easier to write than some of the others. She was excited to see Shannivar illustrated on the cover of the book as Asian, wearing clothing she could reasonably fight in! Shannivar's place in the Azkhantian culture allowed her to explore the question of how the culture might reasonably balance women fighters with the need for family and child-raising, as well as the need for a high birth rate. In Azkhantia, men and women are pretty equal until they are teens -they all ride, shoot, hunt, etc. Then they can participate in a ritual called The Long Ride, which is a status-raising activity. Once they have killed an enemy in battle, which is a prerequisite for marriage, women come under more pressure to settle down and take part in more settled activities like raising children and making felt for tents. Shannivar, however, is not interested in marriage because she wants glory.
One fascinating element of the story is how both Shannivar and Tsorreh experience love, but in neither case does that love hamper their drive or their power to achieve what they want.
Reggie asked, "How did the finished story diverge from your plan?" Deborah said that she knew the characters would have to find the various pieces of the shield, but initially had no idea how that would be accomplished. She had also put a lot of importance on a prophet character who bore some resemblance to Jesus - but he ended up being less important in the final draft. Shannivar's story was initially the last third of the book, but Deborah decided she needed to develop the details of Tsorreh's captivity. She wanted everyone to have internal journeys as well as external. Shannivar was given more room to develop from a talented girl to a war leader.
Deborah told us the moving story of her friend Bonnie Stockman, who was her best friend and taught her a lot about horses, helping her to develop Shannivar's relationship to her two horses. Deborah dedicated the book to her, but Bonnie became very ill before the book was to be released. DAW printed a single 8.5"x11" copy so that she could see it before she passed away. Deborah had very glowing words for DAW's relationship with her and their willingness to get her involved in the choice of her own cover art, by Matt Stawicki. She would like to see The Seven-Petaled Shield turned into an ongoing series - and so would I!
Thank you so much, Deborah, for coming to speak with us about your amazing books.Here's a link where you can purchase them.
And here's the video of our discussion, if you'd like to learn more!