Peoli War

It’s February! Time for this month’s short story! (For those of you who don’t know, I’ve challenged myself to write at least one fantasy/sci-fi short story each month, a challenge for me because I can never keep things SHORT.)

 

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Summary: There once was an island. Now it is dead. This is the story of a fruit that killed it.

Science fiction/Drama

Content warnings: Violence 


 

Dear Arahi,

Forgive me the length of this letter. I drafted many a brief response, but there are no small ways to answer your question, and at any length, my story is not one I like to cut down. We are the stories we tell, and mine is a long one. I can tell you this because censorship has been repealed, and (I don’t think) they intercept letters anymore. The news these days is filled with this ‘fall of an empire’ narrative, which is heartening, because of course, the empire needed to die. They talk about liberating the colonies, from Yasi to Trellden. These are all large places, diverse and full of people. I feel for them, I am happy that they get their freedom.

I am also sad, for you were right—the first time we met, you told me I don’t sound like a colony-native. My accent, the colour of my skin, it all sets me apart. I’m not from the Four Small Nations our empire had conquered. You probably haven’t even heard of my hometown.

I was from the island of Wywinnie. It is dead now.

But let me start from a beginning that works for you.

Wywinnie was an island four miles wide, flanked on all sides by turquoise blue waters. The sea was so clear that on a good day, you could be lying on a boat at the surface, and you could see the reef and its thousands of fish down below. Our diet consisted mainly of the things we dragged out of the water. We would eat various kinds of itlehen (a species of fish now extinct), eel, sometimes even shark. Our island had no livestock, so aside from the seafood, we ate no meat.

What we did eat, however, was peoli. The orange, pumpkin-shaped fruit you find at any market. A single copper coin would buy you three, and you could feed a whole family on just that much. Peoli was indigenous to our island. It used to grow wild on long, wooded plants that were always bowed with the weight of their crop. The best peoli on our island, however, did not grow wild. It grew in our backyard.

Our father was the island’s most successful peoli farmer. From the crack of dawn until well past sunset, he would dig, plant, water, and chop, lugging huge sacks of compost to fertilise the plantation. I call it a plantation, but as I said, these trees grew in our backyard. We had ten, growing in two straight lines that created a natural canopy. It gave us some privacy. My younger brother Naro and I would play our silly, childish games and no neighbours could eavesdrop.

In those days, our father was the only man on the island with a motorised transport carrier: a small cargo ‘truck’. He would put sacks of peolis in the back, and we would climb in and sit with them. He said our job was to watch that the fruit didn’t fall or get squashed, but I think he knew we just enjoyed it. The truck wasn’t very fast, but we would still love the feeling of the wind and sand in our hair. Sometimes we stretched our arms out and pretended we were flying.

At this point, I must come clean and confess that I have never liked peolis. They were a staple of our diet, but I hated the way they smelled, the strange saltiness of their taste. As you can imagine, it was all we ate at home, and I would fight with my mother every day because she would always make the same dinner. My father never complained, and my brother was too simple to argue.

In those days, there was no school like there is now. Our island passed down knowledge from elder to child, and not in institutions. I still do not know which system is best. I have lived a life undoing many indoctrinations, and I am suspicious of anyone who tells me they know better. These days, I only trust information I find out for myself. Of course, when I was a child, there was no such nuance, and we had no need to question the powers that were. My brother and I would walk to Aunty Milri’s house, where we would sit under a short little tree in her yard with our friends, and listen to her talk about the gods we believed in. I still remember their names…perhaps I shall regale you with their stories some other time.

Our village functioned entirely on its own, uncaring of the world beyond the sea. Once, a lover told me that was our fault. That we deserved what we got, for there is no greater sin than the sin of ignorance. That saying works both ways. I had called him an ignoramus and a fool, and had kicked him out of my house. I think it is very easy to blame a victim of a crime, but it was no crime to live in our own ways.

In any case, I have realised I am safer when I am alone.

Because we had no formal schooling, we had no summer break, and our days stretched wondrously on, following the calendar of the moon. My brother and I would spend our free time at the beach. I was a particularly good swimmer, but he struggled and stayed near the shallows. He loved collecting sea shells, and being the good older sister that I was, I would swim as deep as I could to find him some nice ones. Some days, he would get bored of sitting at the shore and watching me swim, so he would get up and leave. I never minded. In an island where everyone knew everyone else, I relished these moments spent in my own company.

One evening, I sat on the shore long after the sun had set, the sand in my hair and sea salt drying on my skin. The moon was perfectly circular, as white as a new-born tooth. It cast a grey light over the beach, and in the silhouette, I saw a small boat dock. The fishermen sometimes came back late, so I ignored it and later went home, but thinking back, I believe I was the only one to witness our killers arrive.

The next day, my father took my brother and me to the market, as usual. I was in my fourteenth year, and my stomach hurt from pre-menstruation cramps. As my father and brother set up the peoli store, I wandered around the stalls, saying hello to all the people I knew. Eventually, I found myself approaching the stall of an old woman I had never seen before. I forget her face, but she introduced herself as the grandmother of a friend, she said she lived in the mainland.

I had never known anyone from the mainland before.

“What is it like?” I had asked.

“Oh, the things they have!” And she told me about flying cars and potions that could cure any disease, of beautiful clothes and pictures that could move. I sat with her for a long time, and in the end, she asked me if I would like some peoli seeds. “Your father is a farmer, right?” She handed me a cloth pouch tied with strings. “I have these seeds from the mainland. They grow the best peoli in the world. Surely your father would appreciate it.”

Later that night, I gave my father the pouch. He took some seeds in his hand, frowning suspiciously. “Who gave these to you?”

“The lady in the market. Alilia’s grandmother from the mainland. They’re supposed to be the best seeds in the world.”

My father was an easily convinced man, and he loved his work. He planted them the very next morning.

Nothing happened for a week, and I didn’t see the old woman or my friend. They’d left for the mainland together, said Aunty Milri. I was happy for Alilia. Her parents had both died when a snake attacked their home, and poor Alilia had been left all alone. I wondered about all the things she was doing now that she was on the mainland, but I couldn’t even imagine. It seemed like a magical world to me. Perhaps I was a little jealous of her.

A week later, the newly-planted peoli seeds had given rise to saplings. The next day, they were sturdy plants. Two nights later, they had blossomed into fully-productive trees. My father had never seen growth like this, he couldn’t stop smiling. The peolis that grew from these plants were enormous. Twice the size of a human head, and as orange as the setting sun. I still couldn’t stand the smell of them. I barely had a taste, but my family devoured them as I nibbled on some fried fish instead. The next day, we took the remaining peolis to the market, where my father had quickly outstripped the others in terms of sales. He had always been an excellent businessman, selling good things for cheap and profiting from volume. Very soon, everyone on the island had eaten these Mainland Peolis.

The first murder happened at the break of dawn. The wife of the village chief had been stabbed twelve times. The man himself had vanished. The elders set out search parties that took them into the woods. My father went among them. As children, we were not allowed to leave the house, lest something happen to us too.

It was a long day, and then a long night. My brother and I were clueless as to what was happening outside, but when our father did not return the next day, our mother set out to look for him. She found a commotion at the village square. All of the men who had gone looking for the murderous village chief had been killed themselves. In an orgy of violence, they had set upon each other. One lone eye-witness had survived, though he had been cut with an axe. He narrated the tales of horror: of men turning to utter savagery as they mauled each other in the dark of the foliage. I could not imagine my kind-hearted father ever lifting a hand on us, much less killing anybody else.

My mother wept when she told us the news, and we all wept together. Nowhere seemed safe anymore. I found my brother kicking our peoli trees, and I watched as overripe fruit fell from the branches. There was no-one to pick them anymore.

To our terror, the violence did not stop. People had turned on each other. Village meetings ended in arguments, fights broke out, weapons were raised. Blood ran through the street. Neighbour turned on neighbour. We were not allowed to go to Aunty Milri’s house any more. In the chaos, the market closed down, and our peolis rotted in our backyard, for there was no one to buy them. My mother and brother still ate, but since my father had died, I had lost all appetite. I could only stomach a little bit of rice every day, plain, with just a dash of salt. One evening, disgusted by the stench that lingered in our backyard, I set up a bonfire and burnt the rotting peolis. As I watched them disintegrate, I heard a terrible noise.

It took me only seconds to run back inside, but I saw a pool of blood, and my mother lying on the floor with a cooking knife in her chest. My ten-year-old brother had red hands, and wide, wild eyes. He turned to me.

“What are you doing, Naro?” I squeaked. “Stop it, what are you doing?!”

He took the knife out of our mother’s body and pointed it to me. “Voices in my head,” he whispered, “tell me to kill you.”

And I ran. I did not think twice. I did not know what he was talking about, though deep in my heart, I think I was very well aware. I know now that the Empire had considered us a hindrance and didn’t want to waste resources eradicating our people. The island was strategically located, and they needed it. Instead of sending ships and armour, they sent bioengineered psycho-manipulative seeds. They knew what we ate, and they used it against us. This was much cheaper. They only had to sit back and watch us decimate each other.

The operation was called Weeping Blood. I have personally discovered this by trawling through illegally acquired records. At that time, I didn’t know anything of the world, only that I had to escape mine. The only way to leave an island is to dive into the sea, and I threw myself into the water and swam. My brother followed, but he drowned before he could reach me.

I was near death when a fisherman’s boat found me. They were kind people, taking me to their fishing village in the mainland, plying me with milk and medicine. It is from there that my second life began.

To this day, the sight of peolis fills me with a vitriolic disgust. I used to blame myself, for it was I who took those seeds to my father. It was I who was manipulated first. Even if I never ate those dangerous, modified fruits, it was I who paved the way for the destruction of my people.

But then, to carry the weight of extinction on your back is an impossible feat. I try to console myself. How could I have known? I was just a child overpowered by the will of an empire.

In the briefest possible terms, that is my story. It’s where I was forged. I have lived a life of enormous silence, and I still keep a million secrets to my chest. But the empire is gone now, Arahi, and I will answer any more questions you have for me.

I hope you have found this letter useful, and expect you’ll be sensitive in the retelling of this account in your book.

Best,
E.

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Book Review – Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born

Author: Jin Yong (Pen name of Louis Cha)

Translator: Anna Holmwood

Publisher: Maclehose Press (Hachette)

Genre: Fantasy/Action/Martial Arts

Pages: 394

Rating: 4/5

Blurb: 

China: 1200 A.D.

The Song Empire has been invaded by its warlike Jurchen neighbours from the north. Half its territory and its historic capital lie in enemy hands; the peasants toil under the burden of the annual tribute demanded by the victors. Meanwhile, on the Mongolian steppe, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.

Guo Jing, son of a murdered Song patriot, grew up with Genghis Khan’s army. He is humble, loyal, perhaps not altogether wise, and is fated from birth to one day confront an opponent who is the opposite of him in every way: privileged, cunning and flawlessly trained in the martial arts.

Guided by his faithful shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing must return to China – to the Garden of the Drunken Immortals in Jiaxing – to fulfill his destiny. But in a divided land riven by war and betrayal, his courage and his loyalties will be tested at every turn.

 

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You are looking at a book fondly called the ‘Chinese Lord of the Rings’. This moniker so intrigued me that I purchased this copy and waited almost a month for it to be delivered (thanks, Amazon).

At first glance, this book seems a little intimidating, especially if you aren’t familiar with Chinese names and history. But it comes with a very helpful character index and introduction, that I frequently consulted if I got confused. But that, I thought, was a small inconvenience because the book itself reads like butter.

The story moves so smoothly from one scene to the next, each packed with incredible action and martial arts fight scenes worthy of a hundred silver screen adaptations. The book sports a rich pantheon of characters, and I had a lot of fun picking and choosing who I loved best. The main character, Guo Jing, is so honest and endearing that you can’t help but love him. The Seven Freaks of the South (great name for a group of martial arts masters, by the way) are just effortlessly cool and blow your mind constantly.

This story was first written as serialised pieces in the Hong Kong Commercial Daily in the late 1950s. I think this adds a special something to the writing style, because I do admit it takes getting used to. I do wish that the female characters received more attention, though it needs to be said that for its time, the Condor Heroes series was very progressive in its depiction of women.

I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading its sequel, A Bond Undone.

Book Review: Daughters of the Sun

Author: Ira Mukhoty

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Genre: Non-Fiction (History)

Pages: 276

Rating: 5/5

Blurb: 

In 1526, when the nomadic Timurid warrior-scholar Babur rode into Hindustan, his wives, sisters, daughters, aunts and distant female relatives travelled with him. These women would help establish a dynasty and empire that would rule India for the next 200 years and become a byword for opulence and grandeur. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the Mughal empire was one of the largest and richest in the world. The Mughal women unmarried daughters, eccentric sisters, fiery milk mothers and powerful wives often worked behind the scenes and from within the Zenana, but there were some notable exceptions among them who rode into battle with their men, built stunning monuments, engaged in diplomacy, traded with foreigners and minted coins in their own names. Others wrote biographies and patronised the arts. In daughters of the sun, we meet remarkable characters like Khanzada Begum who, at sixty-five, rode on horseback through 750 kilometres of icy passes and unforgiving terrain to parley on behalf of her nephew, Humayun, Gulbadan Begum, who gave us the only document written by a woman of the Mughal royal court, a rare glimpse into the harem, as well as a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of three emperors Babur, Humayun and Akbar her father, brother and nephew, Akbar’s milk mothers or foster-mothers, Jiji Anaga and Maham Anaga, who shielded and guided the thirteen-year-old emperor until he came of age, Noor Jahan, ‘light of the world’, a widow and mother who would become Jahangir’s last and favourite wife, acquiring an imperial legacy of her own and the fabulously wealthy begum sahib (princess of princesses) Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s favourite child, owner of the most lucrative port in medieval India and patron of one of its finest cities, (No Suggestions). The very first attempt to chronicle the women who played a vital role in building the Mughal empire, daughters of the sun is an illuminating and gripping history of a little-known aspect of the most magnificent dynasty the world has ever known.

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(As you can see from the pink post-its, I’ve made copious notes of all the things I loved in this book.)

There are few things I love more than feminist history, and about the Mughal empire? That’s it, I’m sold. I have always been endlessly fascinated by the Great Mughals kings. This book is a story of the women who surrounded those men, influencing Indian politics and changing the shape of the country as we know it. We are introduced to women such as Babur’s older sister Khanzada, Jahanara and Roshanara Begum, Noor Jahan, and countless other royal ladies with Daughters of the Sun. 

Mukhoty’s thoroughly-researched book blends seamlessly with a light-fingered writing style, as she manages to capture the lives of these women in the context of their tumultuous times. This peek into the Mughal zenana destroys the Orientalist image of a harem of sexually-frustrated, oppressed women (an idea popularised by European visitors to the Mughal court, who never actually got permission to enter a zenana, and were left to simply imagine what it was like inside). It puts women back into the story of Mughal history, and frankly, I’m glad for it.

I would recommend this book to any feminist, any Indian history nerd, and in a larger sense,  anyone who is capable of reading a human language. It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book like I enjoyed this.

I was at the Hyderabad Literary Festival!

This weekend, I crossed a milestone by launching my novel, The Sunlight Plane, at the Hyderabad Literary Festival. It was. So. Cool. 

It goes without saying that I met some incredible writers. So many people are doing such amazing things, and it was such a privilege to be sitting among them. I received some excellent advice on how to improve my craft, and I got my first real taste of the real literary scene.

My book launch happened on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I had ten minutes to talk about my novel and read a small excerpt. Amita Desai and Dileep Jhaveri jointly launched The Sunlight Plane, which I was so happy about! I even had a standee. Which is probably a lame thing to be excited about, but well.

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(Also, it was pretty risky wearing a white sundress and white cloth shoes on a day so rainy, but I managed not to get any mud on my outfit!)

Besides that, I also got interviewed by the New Indian Express (Hyderabad edition), a clipping of which is below:

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It was an unforgettable experience, and I’m really looking forward to the next step in my writing adventure.

You can buy my book on Amazon (Available in India and USA). The Sunlight Plane will also be available in Crosswords Bookstores across India.

 

Book Review – Perdido Street Station

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Author: China Miéville

Publisher: Macmillan

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 867

Rating: 4/5

Blurb: 

Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies the city of New Crobuzon, where the unsavory deal is stranger to no one–not even to Isaac, a gifted and eccentric scientist who has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before encountered. Though the Garuda’s request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger. Soon an eerie metamorphosis will occur that will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon–and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it evokes.


 

Here’s a book you don’t come across often.

Before I get into it, a bit of backstory: I went through this phase where I was fascinated by the -punk genres. Steampunk, cyberpunk, dieselpunk, whathaveyou. It took me a few seconds of Googling to find this novel, which I would say falls nicely into the dieselpunk fantasy genre. It’s a long book, and part of the Bas-Lag series, although you don’t need to read other novels to be able to understand this one. It can stand alone.

This book gave me whiplash with every page. The main character, Isaac, is a scientist who is dating some kind of…I guess the best way to put it is ‘insect woman’. Because the best I understood it, Lin is literally a human-sized anthropomorphic insect–of a race called the ‘khepri’. She is an artist, and they are deeply in love.

Next, there’s Yagharek, a Garuda. Those of you accustomed to South Asian mythology are familiar with this word, but in the desi context, Gardua is a great mythical bird (or bird-like man). In Perdido Street Station, the Garuda are a race of mostly desert-dwelling birdmen with an intensely fascinating set of ethics and philosophies.

The one thing that stuck out to me the most was the world-building. In fantasy, that’s always crucial, and this book has some of the best world-building I’ve ever seen. The sheer amount of detail packed into each page is awe-inspiring, not just in how it displays the writer’s attention to detail, but also in how readable it is. I never found this book boring.

I also really enjoyed all the characters, though I did think that they would have done with a little more development. That’s not to say that they’re underdeveloped or bad–quite the contrary. But personally, I respond to intimately crafted characters, and I didn’t get a sense of that here.

I took a very long time reading this novel. I started in September of last year, and I finished it in January 2019. This is because I was only reading a few pages at a time. The world-building detail I mentioned before? That did make things a bit overwhelming. This book is a bit like extra-rich chocolate cake. It’s so good, but you can only have it in increments, or you feel ill.

Would I read this again? Yes, absolutely. But…not any time soon. I finished it feeling like I’d climbed a mountain. I need a break.

The Wind Dance – Part 2

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Summary: In Lysithea, music and the wind are part of life. When good music plays, the wind twirls and dances in tune. But when the air itself is injured, the wind struggles to sway. Nicolo Callister is tasked with finding a solution, if his disease doesn’t kill him first. 

Fantasy/Action/Romance/Drama


Rohir took Nicolo to his room, away from the smog outside, making him sit on a plush sofa chair. They spoke little. To his credit, Rohir did not fuss or fret or baby him. He perched across from Nicolo at the edge of the bed, absently plucking at his cuticles as he waited for Nicolo’s breathing to ease. It was just a bout of coughing. Nothing too far out of the ordinary.

The window was shut, but the air outside was soupy and grey. Nicolo spied Rohir watching it, his lip curled in disgust. After about twenty minutes, however, the air had begun to clear, turning a sickly white, and then, finally, blue.

“What was that about?” Rohir murmured.

“I don’t know, but it’s the clearest sign confirming our suspicions. There’s no way a giant wall of smog is normal at Cloudhall.”

“Look!” Rohir stood, putting his nose to the window glass. Nicolo stood, and before them, the sky…had changed. They were flying over a magnificent garden, the bushes and trees bursting with newly-bloomed flowers. He exhaled, the glass crystallising before him. “It’s amazing,” he said in undisguised wonder.

Even from the distance, Nicolo had to admit this was the finest garden he’d ever seen. He could spot countless topiaries and manicured hedges, a bright red strip of roses, lilyponds, frangipani and marigolds and tulips and apple blossoms and— “I don’t even think half of these are in season,” Nicolo muttered as the ship flew close over the garden.

“Cherry blossoms!” Rohir practically shrieked, pointing out to a single, bright pink tree. “I love cherry blossom trees! There used to be one right outside my home! This place is incredible! I can’t believe someone gets to live here!”

Nicolo squinted as a shape in the distance grew larger. “There it is,” he whispered, as a marble white mansion came into view. “Cloudhall.” He picked up his violin case from the table. “Let’s go.”

Captain Arche was watching the gardens with her arms crossed. When Nicolo emerged to see her, she said, “Milord, there are already more signs of damage.”

“The air is clean?” Nicolo prompted. “I can breathe just fine.”

“Have you noticed any wind?” she all but snapped. “Where are the chantrari?”

“Wind horses?” Rohir asked, coming up from behind Nicolo. “I thought that was a legend.”

“They’re real, my father told me about them.” Nicolo watched the sky. It was so blue and so empty. “There should also be sylves—they’re birds that bring rain.”

The ship went around the mansion, parking at an airborne jetty. Nicolo stepped out first, followed by Captain Arche, then Rohir, and two of Nicolo’s bodyguards. The rest of the sailors stayed on their ship.

“Perhaps I read too many adventure stories as a boy, but there’s a part of me that feels like we’re walking into a trap,” Nicolo mused, stroking his chin.

“Stay alert,” Captain Arche ordered. “And Duke Callister, do allow me to walk first. For your safety.”

Nobody greeted them, and there were no guards—not that there would be. The Lord of the Air was not a martial spirit. From the corner of his eye, however, Nicolo did see a girl. He turned his head and watched the ends of her long white hair disappear behind a marble pillar as she fled from view.

“One of the servants,” Captain Arche explained, watching her go. “The Lord of the Air has many. They won’t stop us.”

They walked up the wide stairway and into the grand doors, which only needed a gentle push to swing open. There were more servants in the foyer. They were all wind spirits, without true physical form. Humanoid, their bodies consisted of gently swirling translucent air. Their hair was always white, and their eyes always black. Usually, wind spirits were excitable and constantly mobile; moving in bursts of speed, they appeared to turn into balls of air.

These servants, however, were made out of smoke. Awful smells: burning rubber, ash, petroleum, mixed together. A thin layer of dust covered the floor, and the wind spirits coughed as they staggered, holding onto railings and furniture to stay upright. As soon as Nicolo breathed the air inside the mansion, his coughing resumed in full force.

“Nico,” Rohir cried softly, rubbing circles over his back. “He can’t be here,” he said to Captain Arche. “He’s going to have an exacerbation if he stays here.”

“No,” Nicolo coughed out. “I’m the only royal among us, I need to stay.”

For a moment, Rohir looked like he might argue, but then he just sighed, and helped wrap Nicolo’s scarf around his nose and mouth.

Captain Arche stepped forward. “You,” she pointed at the nearest servant. “We represent the Lysithean government. Where is the Lord of the Air?”

The servant, mute, shook his head and dissipated into a cloud of smoke. Nicolo held his breath, but it was pointless. Violent coughing shook his body, his knees buckled with the force. Rohir tried to steady him, but it was obvious that Nicolo literally couldn’t breathe in here.

“We’re leaving,” Rohir snapped, turning Nicolo around. Even his voice sounded hoarse. The air was just too toxic.

From the other end of the foyer, someone said, “But you just arrived. Sit down. Have some tea. The young prince looks ill. Perhaps he should rest.”

The woman who spoke was not human. Her skin was as grey as bone shards after a cremation. Her dark hair tumbled down her back in a matted mess, her eyes were the colour of pencil graphite. The edges of her body seemed fuzzy. Like she was smouldering. The hem of her black robes tapered into a cloud of smoke.

Her appearance was marked by how the wind-spirits reacted. Many of them just collapsed to the floor in soundless moans, clutching at their throats and gasping. Nicolo’s complexion now somewhat resembled hers. His throat was closing, but he forced himself upright. He was a prince. He was the leader of this mission. He had a job to do.

“We need to speak to the Lord of the Air.”

“Oh,” the woman had girlish voice. She looked away, pouting. “Visitors for my brother. I incapacitated him.”

The admission was startling in its honesty. Captain Arche let out a short gasp, Rohir reached for Nicolo’s hand, but Nicolo himself barely even reacted. A corner of his lip twitched, and he narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?” his voice was much softer, much weaker than it should have been, but the woman answered anyway, smiling as though delighted to be asked.

“I am the Lady of Smoke. Whatever can I help you with?”

Nicolo regarded her, pursing his lips. “We want to speak to the Lord of the Air. You can help us with that.”

Beside him, Rohir made a face. “Now’s not the time for your sass, Nico.”

She circled the room to approach them, and as she did, the foul stench of burning rubber spread further across the room. Captain Arche coughed too. Rohir covered his nose with his hand. The wind spirits that could still move hastened towards the exits, slipping out from underneath the grand doors and the spaces between the windows and their panes. Others just lay on the floor, unconscious.

The Lady of Smoke didn’t seem to notice or care about the effect she was having on the room. She only glided, soundless, to Nicolo, and put a hand on his cheek. Her skin was as soft as cigarette ash. Nicolo’s head was swimming. He was going to faint. He could no longer breathe, and everything in the room spun, except for her terrible, inhuman eyes.

“I want to help you,” she said gently. Her smile seemed so genuine. “What can this immortal spirit do for a Lysithean prince?”

“Back away,” Nicolo rasped out. He slipped out of her grasp, collapsing to the floor in a fit of wheezing. Vaguely, he could feel Rohir call to him, feel hands on his back. Mostly, however, he felt the tightness in his chest, and the terror of her figure looming over him.

“All right.” The Lady of Smoke took a few steps back, and her noxious aura retreated by fractions. Nicolo still couldn’t stop the wheezing. He tried to pat his pockets, mindlessly looking for his inhaler, but in the next moment, Rohir had shoved one into his hands, whispering reassurance as he helped him use it.

Above them both, Captain Arche stared the woman down. “You’re what’s wrong with the wind.”

“The wind?” she hummed, stroking her chin. “I didn’t do anything to that little brat. She’s free to go where she likes, except she always tries to escape. So I have to keep her here. I didn’t touch her, but I confined her. Just like I did her father. They are both such terrible brats, aren’t they?” She seemed to be talking to herself. “I always try to be friendly, but they never want me around. They push me around! But I’m much stronger now than I used to be. There’s far more smoke in the air these days. I feel powerful.” She smiled widely, as though bearing her teeth.

“The smog,” Nicolo rasped out.

“That’s right.” She snapped her fingers. “Smoke is heavier. It keeps the wind-spirits grounded. And the wind…she’s such a little narcissist, she hates the smog. She won’t fly through it! I suspect she can’t.”

“Look,” Rohir cried, “we just came here because there were no wind trails when we played music. Just let the wind—”

“I hate music.” With that, the Lady of Smoke reached down to the floor, where Nicolo had discarded his violin case, and picked it up. She opened it, ever so delicately, and put her fingers on the body of the violin.

Within seconds, the polished wood turned to ash.

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The Wind Dance – Part 1

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Summary: In Lysithea, music and the wind are part of life. When good music plays, the wind twirls and dances in tune. But when the air itself is injured, the wind struggles to sway. Nicolo Callister is tasked with finding a solution, if his disease doesn’t kill him first. 

Fantasy/Action/Romance/Drama


An orchestra of a hundred sat serenading one man.

A conductor, a concertmaster, a soloist, the first and second violin sections, the woodwinds, brass horns, the piano, the doublebass and cello, each musician playing their parts with the intensity of a sniper, for the only opinion that mattered right now was that of the man who sat in the front row. He was flanked by suited bodyguards. A servant had brought him a cup of tea.

As the music reached a crescendo, the air in the high ceiling of the concert hall started to swirl. Whirlwinds the size of pebbles swayed blissfully in tune, and the man eyed them, his lip curling in disappointment. The breeze gently carded his light brown curls, and everybody’s clothes ruffled with the dancing air.

It was several more minutes before the orchestra stopped. The players each broke form for much-needed rest, but the conductor and the concertmaster turned to their distinguished audience and bowed.

The man in the seats clapped politely and stood. He made his way backstage, followed by his bodyguards. The musicians scrambled to stand as he passed, each of them placing a palm over the right side of their chest as they lowered their heads.

The Crown Prince acknowledged them with a dismissive wave of his hand and a brief: “Salyu’ei.” He shook hands with the conductor and the concertmaster, both old and experienced men. His eyes livened slightly when he glanced towards the soloist, but his attention was short-lived.

“Conductor Naris, that was resplendent,” he complimented, “a true achievement. Do you have any more rehearsals left?”

“My deepest thanks, Your Highness. The concert is next week, so we’ll have rehearsals every single day—morning and evening.”

“That’s good.” The Prince nodded, and then looked up to the ceiling. The air had stilled in the absence of the music. “I must express my surprise, however, with the wind trails. There should be more, larger and more wondrous. The audience must be—if you’ll excuse me—” he cracked a brief and playful smile, “blown away.

Nobody but the prince found any humour in his pun. They only glanced tensely at each other, for the wind trails had been shockingly absent in the last month. They had been practicing for this concert all year, and in the beginning, the wind had danced powerfully and joyously at the music, swirling and twirling like a dancer’s skirt. In the last few weeks, however, the only time the air moved was during the crescendo, and even then, it was weak. In an auditorium with only the prince and his bodyguards, it didn’t matter so much. But soon, five thousand people would fill these empty rows, and then it would be a problem.

The wind was a spirit, and a dancer. It lived in the air, and when a musician or singer performed particularly well, the wind saw it fit to dance. The ground-dwelling kingdoms always assumed that the wind would make it hard to hear the music, but up in the sky cities, that was not the case. Wind trails made the music sound sweeter, more intense, more emotive, they turned the mere act of listening into an experience of a lifetime.

It was expected of a professional orchestra that their music be accompanied by the dance of the wind. And for a concert so important, there could be no mistakes.

“The Queen Mother is turning ninety and this is the first time I’ve ever organised something at this scale,” Crown Prince Philippe reminded, starting to pace. “Foreign dignitaries and the public alike will sit in these seats.” With each word, his good humour dissipated. He was sounding more and more annoyed. “You have to do better than this. I expected more from your musicians.”

“Your Highness…” the conductor replied, his voice fainter now. “You see, well…actually, the problem, you see…uh…”

“If I may, Your Highness,” a crystal-cool voice interrupted. The soloist stepped out from behind the conductor. He was tall, very pale, with short and neatly-cut black hair. His eyes were not grey, they were silver. But perhaps the most defining thing about his face was his nose. It was very fine indeed, but the tip tilted upwards slightly, giving his features a kind of refined arrogance.

Prince Philippe regarded the soloist with an eyebrow raised. “You may, Nicolo.”

Nicolo Callister’s hands were filled. In one palm, his bow. The other, his violin. “The problem isn’t with the orchestra,” he stated, calm, quiet, and confident. “The problem is with the wind itself. We have been practicing every day for a whole year. If there were issues with our playing, they have been long-resolved. Each musician here is at the forefront of their field.”

The crown prince regarded him for a moment, considering his insubordination. “What are you saying?” he finally prompted, his voice softer now.

“What I’m saying, Philippe,” at this, Nicolo raised his eyebrows, his eyes narrowing a fraction as though issuing a challenge, “is that I will not let you imply that these musicians haven’t practiced enough.”

Prince Philippe raised a hand, and patted Nicolo’s narrow cheek. “You have always been so headstrong, wan’ya.

Four years his junior, Duke Nicolo Callister was the crown prince’s first—and favourite—cousin.

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My 2019 Writing Challenge and Other Updates

We’re midway through January 2019, and I’ve been keeping busy. I’ve challenged myself to write a short story a month.

This may not seem like a big deal for normal people, but the thing is, you see, I am an idiot. I have a lot more practice writing long-form fiction. I adore the medium and the freedom it gives me. So for me, writing a coherent story under 7500 words is practically impossible. Case in point: for the January challenge, my “short story” ended up being over 11,000 words. It’s so long that when I upload it, I’m going to divide it into two parts.

I also want to make accompanying art, which is even harder for me, because I’m not an artist. I am learning though, and I’ve made some improvements. But you know, I’m not very good at it.

All my short stories are going to be fantasy or science fiction, and I’ll upload them on this blog when I’m done. I’m also going to try and be more active with my posting.

Besides that, I have some exciting news! My debut novel, The Sunlight Plane, will be launched at the Hyderabad Literary Festival on the 27th of January (next week!) I’m so nervous. But it’s a good kind of nervousness, and I can’t wait!

Another one of my goals for 2019 is to begin violin lessons. But that’s a whole other thing. My short story for January, The Wind Dance, will be coming up on this blog soon!

 

 

A Portrait of the Darkling as a Villain

Last Friday, I finished the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. I’ve written about this series before, not in the nicest of terms, and I can say with confidence that I did not entirely enjoy it. I wouldn’t read it again. In fact, I didn’t read it at all. I listened to audiobooks, because I knew for a fact that if I tried to read this series, I wouldn’t get through it. Reading is a far more immersive activity than listening, and I knew I couldn’t bear Mal and Alina whining about their love life all the time.

That being said, something still did keep me ploughing through these books. Why would I bother with this series otherwise? Truth be told, from his very first appearance, I was fascinated by the Darkling.

I’ve written about him too, but now that I’ve finished the series, I think I have a clearer idea of who he is. So I’d like to write about him as a villain, and consider what we, as writers, can learn from this character.

This post will contain SPOILERS for the Grisha trilogy. You have been warned.

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Sierra Burgess is a Villain

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I watched the Netflix movie, Sierra Burgess is a Loser, over the weekend. I liked it, but more than that, I was quite interested in the main character. Because Sierra Burgess, my friends, is not a loser. She is the story’s main villain.

So if you find yourself thinking, “Wow, she is a real jerk!” – yes. She is.

Sierra is a smart kid, but not a popular one, who is routinely bullied by Veronica, the standard ‘hot, dumb cheerleader’ trope. Stuff happens, and male lead Jamey is lead to believe that he’s texting (and flirting with) Veronica, when in reality, in a case of mistaken identity, he is actually communicating with Sierra.

Sierra and Veronica team up as an unusual pair to snag the guy and win the day.

I mean, it’s a high school movie, don’t overthink it.

I just want to make the case that the story’s main villain is its main character. It’s actually a classic example of a story told from the villain’s perspective. Sierra is very relatable. I love her as a character, I understand her motivations. The movie takes us right inside her mind, and we feel for her. Her insecurities are ours. Yet, she finds herself acting on her insecurities in negative, selfish ways, first conning Jamey, then backstabbing Veronica, perhaps the most vulnerable character in the whole movie. (I also adore Veronica). Sierra is the bully, the opportunist. In Veronica and Jamey’s stories, Sierra is the bad guy.

From Jamey’s perspective, Sierra is the girl who is impersonating his crush, catfishing him, and kissing him basically non-consensually. She is being incredibly manipulative.

From Veronica’s perspective, Sierra is literally the girl who she let into her life, who saw her at her weakest, saw her messed-up family, and even after that, betrayed her in the most awful way.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved this movie and I would watch it again. It has some incredible performances. But brace yourselves, because here are no heroes in his story. Just a villain and her victims.