Please help me welcome author Brian Gottheil to the blog! He’s talking history and I’ll think you’ll enjoy his post 🙂 Afterward check out his release Gateways and enter his giveaway 🙂
Take it away Brian…
In December of 2011, I took a vacation to Mexico. Not your typical vacation to Mexico, mind you – no all-inclusive resorts, only a brief stint on a beach toward the end. The tour focused on history. We wound from Mexico City to Playa Del Carmen mostly on public buses, a distance of nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres), stopping on the way to view the ruins of the great indigenous civilizations of Central America: the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Zapotecs, and many more.
I love history. I love what it can tell us about the world we live in today, but more than anything I love it for the stories. I love imagining what it would be like to be alive in a different era, in a different civilization. I love places where history, and the stories it tells, comes alive.
That I wrote a novel set in a historical alternate world, a novel that’s technically a fantasy but reads more like historical fiction, should come, perhaps, as no surprise. In fact, I think international travel is one of the best things a fantasy writer can do. It reminds you why it is so magical to explore new worlds.
We think of North America as a place without much history. Not compared to, say, Europe, where on any given street you can expect to pass a 2,000-year-old ruin on your way to the Renaissance-era building with the McDonald’s in it. But we do have history in North America, and Mexico is where you can find it. In fact, I was shocked by how much parts of Mexico reminded me of Europe with its ancient ruins, Spanish colonial architecture and modern buildings side by side.
And even though the world of Gateways, my novel, is inspired by World War I-era Europe, that trip to Mexico had a special influence. Not only because I patterned the indigenous architecture of Deugan, the main fictional country in the novel, after that of the Mayans, but also because it reinvigorated me to see the world of Gateways as a real world. A world where stories can be told.
In a place called Palenque is the greatest marvel of them all. To call Palenque off the beaten path would be an understatement; it’s in the middle of nowhere in a jungle (the jungle, by the way, also inspired a scene in Gateways, where a battle takes place there outside a secret facility). Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the ruins of a Mayan city-state emerge, its white stones overgrown with vines, trees and roots. A wide swath has been fully excavated, with beautifully preserved pyramids and temples, but in other places the jungle still twists through the ruins. There’s something in that which speaks to the fragility of life and culture. The Mayans were one of the most advanced civilizations of their time. Now their land is a place of beauty, but a haunted one. It is a place where the past becomes present.
That, more than anything, is the feeling I wanted Gateways to capture. It comes through best, perhaps, in the hero’s reflection of what might happen to Deugan should it be conquered. “In Carrak-on-Sea,” she tells a member of the enemy’s royal family, “there are rows and rows of pagoda houses in the Wassian style. They meet in a central square surrounded by Orastan pillars. … Then, overlooking the ocean, just south of the modern industrial parks and the shipyards, there are ruins from an indigenous Deugan culture. Stepped pyramids, pointed arches, statues of onyx and clay. I wonder if Brealand would add its own styles to the mix, enriching the city’s diversity still more. Or if instead it would tear down Carrak’s history brick by brick, until only a poor replica of Hastingvale is left.”
This is why I love history. Because it haunts me and inspires me, all at once. As it should.
For months, the Continent has been mired in a devastating war: artillery barrages lasting days, the death rattle of machine guns, toxic chemical gas, futile charges across no-man’s-land toward enemy trenches. Caryn Hallom, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Deugan and the first woman to have achieved such a powerful position in the fledgling democracy, is horrified that she failed to prevent the war from breaking out on her watch.
When Caryn finds herself trapped together with Michael Ravencliffe, a member of the royal family of Deugan’s main enemy in the war, she seizes on the opportunity to try to negotiate an end to the fighting. Little does she know that a new faction is about to enter the conflict, armed with a frightening magical weapon … or that it will be led by the one person on the Continent who knows the truth about Caryn’s past.
Gateways has been described as a fantasy novel that reads like historical fiction. Set in an alternate world that resembles Europe during the First World War, the novel combines geopolitics with plots, counterplots and magic, and ultimately asks the question: how far are we prepared to go for peace?
It was an old memory, the kind that lies concealed in the corners of the mind until it emerges in times of tension. A dirt floor, a boy, and a night sky filled with so many stars that it almost seemed white.
The stars were a surprise she’d prepared for Brenner. The boy had been moody ever since she met him, but his malaise was darker now. He had set himself apart from Jayla and the professor, brooding, barely speaking. But as she led him out from the room where he slept and as the stars came into view overhead, his harsh expression melted and he hugged her with more warmth than she’d thought possible.
Now they were lying side by side on the ground, staring up at the stars and talking about dogs. “How can you not like dogs?” Jayla demanded. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Hey, I have nothing against them,” Brenner said. “They’re cute and all. But you never really know what they’re going to do.”
“Well, yeah, they’re alive,” Jayla said. “They’ve got brains. Sometimes they’ll surprise you. But dogs are awfully predictable. He sees a smaller animal, he’ll chase it. He smells food, he’ll come running.” She grinned. “My little brother was like that.”
“But you could reason with your little brother,” Brenner said.
“Not when it came to food. Or chasing smaller animals. Besides, you can train a dog.”
“Sure,” Brenner said, “and that’s why I’m okay with them. At least you can figure them out and use that. Seems a bit manipulative, that’s all.”
Jayla grinned again. “Brenner Halloway! Is the strong, silent specimen who has sulked sullenly the past six span so seduced by this splendid starry sky that he’s sorry about manipulating a canine?”
He laughed, a deep belly laugh that echoed off the stone walls. Then his voice turned serious. “How do you do that? I haven’t laughed since we got in here. And you just say a bunch of words that start with the same letter and it’s like none of it ever happened.”
Jayla glanced over at him. He was lying on his side, looking back at her. His brow was furrowed. He was a handsome boy, moody as he was. He was thin without being skinny, tall without being overpowering. His brown hair was still combed over neatly, a curious attention to fashion considering the circumstances. Lacking any shaving supplies, he had grown a fierce brown beard that nearly hid the faint discolouration on the right side of his chin and neck. And while he hardly looked an athlete, there was some definition in his arms as he propped himself up from the ground.
“How I do it?” Jayla repeated. She shrugged. “I really don’t know what to say.”
“Not a problem I ever thought you’d have,” Brenner teased.
“Look, I’m scared and angry too,” Jayla said. “I’m just trying to make the best of it. We might still get out of here. The Guard might still come.”
“Oh, open your eyes,” Brenner snapped. “The Guard isn’t coming. Nobody’s coming, they’re the ones who —”
“Oh, open your eyes,” Jayla interrupted him, “and look at those stars.”
The night sky was gorgeous. Jayla had grown up in Villasud, the city known throughout Wassia as the Light of the South. Its nickname had never been more fitting. Since wide-scale electric lighting was introduced to Villasud a few years before Jayla’s birth, its commercial and industrial centres were constantly lit, hiding most of the night’s stars. Jayla’s father, who had made his fortune purchasing and managing many of Villasud’s factories, called it “progress.”
“I wish I could take you to the manor,” Brenner said. “Show you some real stars.”
“Hey!” Jayla shouted, pointing at the sky. “These ones are real.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think I created an entire sky?” Jayla said. “If I was that good, we’d be out of here by now.” She looked around the cavern. At one end of the room, she could still see the green rocks and the dust that had collapsed there, trapping them inside when the avalanche had hit. There were several small holes in the barricade, allowing in the air that kept them alive, but they lacked any tools with which to expand the holes and escape. Throughout the rest of the cave, the walls were not green but orange, strange, rough and glowing. They jutted up from the hard dirt floor, but instead of curving around to form a ceiling, their tops appeared suspended in the air, like the ancient walls of the Raolin Temple ruins in Villasud or the famous arches of the Old Empire, waiting to collapse.
“What did you do, then?” Brenner asked.
“I spoke to the rocks,” Jayla said. “The ceiling, I mean. It wouldn’t move aside to let us out. But I got it to hide itself. To turn invisible. So we could see the sky through it.” She glared at him. “The real sky.”
Brenner sat up and looked at her. He frowned and rubbed his new beard. “You spoke to the ceiling?”
“Not with words.” It was so hard to explain. As a child, Jayla had always been good with people. She’d had to be, to survive at home. Her father was a gruff man whose pride and joy was his business. He was rarely away from his desk, and when he was, its stresses still consumed him. Jayla’s mother came from an old but heavily indebted family that had sacrificed much in the way of pride to arrange her marriage to an industrialist. She often felt torn between her new family and her old one, and felt lonely and isolated in the city. Two tired, ragged people who belonged apart had been thrown together, and their arguments were fierce. Jayla had learned from an early age to mediate, to make peace — and that meant she had learned to understand them.
Jayla was concentrating on the orange rocks and on the power that coursed through her, trying to reach out to both at the same time, when suddenly she felt the air shimmer and a wave of warmth rushed through her body, starting at her feet and shooting past her ankles and up through her legs, her centre, her chest. She saw a vision then, a jagged grey boulder jolted with a flash of lightning. She raised a hand to steady herself, but faster than a blink, the warmth was gone and the image faded.
“Have you ever thought about what it would feel like to be a rock in a place like this?” she asked Brenner.
“Rocks don’t feel anything.”
“I know. It’s just a thought.” She had thought for several minutes about the vision. Something cold and lifeless suddenly seeing a surge of power rush through it. Unpleasant. Jarring. Then she imagined the feeling continuing, non-stop, like spending hours at that carnival game that tested how long you could stand an electric shock pulsing in your hands.
And the power responded. Flash — a huge mass, breaking apart, its pieces melting — and flash, the vision gone. Jayla focused on physical changes, on no longer being the shape you once were. This was one Jayla really could understand. After a month and a half in this Well, her own body was no longer the sixteen-year-old one she remembered.
“I’ve used the magic,” Brenner said. He said it grudgingly, as though the very word were shameful. “Or the power or the energy or whatever we’re supposed to call it to make it sound less childish. There’s no rhyme or reason to when it works. Sometimes you just think about something, and boom. Other times it happens when you don’t think about it. Once I was desperate for water, and I bent my whole mind to finding some, and I felt it stir in me and I heard raindrops. My entire room was raining and I stuck my tongue out and drank it straight out of the air. But I tried the exact same thing two days later and nothing happened.”
“Well, this one worked because I somehow understood the rocks,” Jayla said. “Don’t ask me how. Just like your rainstorm, it probably won’t work again two days from now. All I know is that I tried to understand them, and the power kept giving me clues, and after awhile it felt like I was talking to the rocks themselves — and I knew I could turn them off, fade them out. Without knowing how I knew it.”
Brenner grimaced. “I don’t like this.”
“Neither do I,” Jayla admitted.
“I do like your sky, though,” Brenner added. He smiled. “Thanks.”
She remembered watching him as he left that day. She’d pulled the moody, brooding Brenner out of his shell, briefly. She’d felt the incredible warmth of his hug and the strange tingling that swept through her stomach. She’d felt something else, a sense of partnership or friendship, as they watched the stars together from the dirt floor of the cavern. But then she’d felt a very different Brenner, a cold one, aloof and untrusting as he withdrew from the room.
Jayla reached out to the Well’s power, but not with much hope that she would ever truly understand him.
I’ve been writing as a hobby since, at the age of four, I penned an epic about my then-favourite sport, the charmingly mis-spelled “baceball.” I’m more of a basketball fan these days, but I have kept up my love for writing throughout.
I live in Toronto, Canada, or as we Torontonians like to call it, “the centre of the universe.” I’m just joking about that … mostly. I’m writing a novel at the moment in which the main character hates Toronto, so that’s been a bit of a challenge. At one point she describes it as a “frenetic smogscape.” To each her own, I suppose.
In my day job, I work as a labour and employment lawyer with Bernardi Human Resource Law (visit us at www.hrlawyers.ca). I practice labour and employment law, which I think is fascinating and covers everything from union certifications to human rights issues, employment contracts to severance packages, and court and tribunal work to harassment investigations.
Outside of work, while I’m less enamoured than I once was with “baceball,” I’ve replaced it with a hobby and passion that I find even more creative, exciting, and easy to spell: swing dancing.
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