Hi James! Welcome back to Zigzag Timeline. Last time you popped in here, you were promoting your epic space adventure, the "New Dawn" books. Your latest book, Dynasty Wars, starts out in a somewhat similar vein in that it takes place in a dystopian space opera-type universe, but quickly shifts gears to Alternative History when its protagonists are thrown back to ancient China. What was it like, writing such a different kind of book?
Hi Mary, it's great to be back. Well, my favorite genre to write would have to be Alternate History, actually. I've loved history since I was a little kid. When I discovered Alt Hist in 2009 – yes, I wasn't a big reader for most of my life, I admit – I knew that was the kind of thing I would most love to do. I find it fascinating to consider pivotal moments and wonder how history would differ if one or two key things were different. Everybody and their mother who writes Alternate History has done WWII stories to death – hint, the Nazis win almost every time, lol – so I wanted to stay as far away from that as I could.
In Dynasty Wars' space age opening, individuality is considered a threat, and straying from the collective is punishable by law. What inspired this dystopian world? Is there a message behind it?
The stories of H. Beam Piper helped inspire the world itself. I recently came upon his works and marveled at how he envisioned the world of the future: with all nationalities mixing together. That's how my characters of Kurt Ito Rodriguez and Xu Maria von Steiblitz came together. Since the level of wonderfullness of such a thing really happening is up to future historians to debate, I chose to go a darker route than Piper with my 'everyone connected' future earth. Of course, in Piper's universe, Earth was also at the center of a human empire, mine is just a darker place, full of the abuses of government.
Why did you choose to write about Han dynasty China?
That era of Chinese history has always fascinated me. In many ways, it was the rival of its counterpart, Rome in the West. Technologically, the Han did things differently than Rome – they didn't have aqueducts that still work today, for example – but the people of the Han, especially the Eastern, or later Han, had the first functioning crossbow and knew of gunpowder. The end of the dynasty in particular is more interesting than most others, with perhaps the possible exception of the Ming Dynasty, the last truly Chinese dynasty. The later, Qing was ruled by Jurchen people, not considered 'true' Chinese even today.
What kind of research did you do in order to depict ancient China?
Hmmm, how to divulge the truth without being laughed at? Oh well, lol. I first found interest in the time from two different video game series. One called Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a war/strategy game series begun in the late 1980s. It's based heavily on the Luo Guanzhong novel, written during the early Ming Dynasty. It pulls you heavily into the story of three warlords – Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan – who rise to eventually split the empire into three, smaller states. The other game series is called Dynasty Warriors and is much more action oriented. You play as any of the Three Kingdom characters – with some made up ones too – and run through a battlefield hacking people up, lol. I also lived in southeastern China – Shenzhen to be exact, near Hong Kong – for close to 4 years. I learned many things about modern Chinese culture that have been around for centuries, which I applied to my Chinese characters. For instance, it's a terrible insult to hold out your pinky finger to a man, for it implies you have a small, er, male member. Or if you say someone has 'small ears' it means they are bad in business.
What's your favorite scene in Dynasty Wars? Could you please describe it and/or share an excerpt?
One of my favorite scenes is where Wan, the humble court maiden of young Emperor Xian, classically the last Han Emperor, truly transforms into the historical character Diaochan. She becomes enamored over Daoism, particularly the Yin or 'female' side, eventually coming to believe that only a woman can truly understand the inter-relationships between Yin-yang. I did have to do some research about Taoism – now spelled Daoism under the current pinyin Chinese to English translations. Side note: All spellings to the best of my knowledge, are in the current version (example, the new pinyin makes the character name Cao Cao, pronounced with an 'S' sound, while the older translations spelled his name T'sou T'sou. Mao, founder of the modern People's Republic of China, is currently spelled Mao Zedong, whereas in the older version it was Mao T'se Tung). Everyone in the Imperial court plots against everyone else, and Wan succeeds in outdoing them all in her guise as 'humble courtesan'. In this excerpt, Wan cleverly deceives the powerful – but naïve – warrior, Li Bu, then uses the same tactic to deceive the Prime Minister, Dong Zhuo. By the way, though the English spelling appears to be Lu Bu, in China everyone said his name as Li or Lee Bu, so I've chosen to spell his name Li.
Grabbing her by the shoulders, Li stood up with her, towering over the maiden. "What is it?" he demanded. "How have I offended thee again?"
"You have not given offense," she said meekly, then tore away from him, nearly shouting, "Dong Zhuo, your precious lord has given offense!"
Horror spread quickly across his features and he rushed to clamp a hand down over her mouth. "You must say no such things, especially in so loud a voice, my lady," he demanded. "Do you wish for scorn, or worse, death?"
"Death would be most welcome, for I have already been scorned by those living," Wan replied. The wind gone from her sails, she dropped heavily onto her stool. Without conscious thought on the subject, she had to admit to herself that this was the performance of a lifetime. In another life, she might have been a denizen of the stage, if women had ever been aloud, of course.
"The dead are my only considerate companions now," she added sullenly.
"Say not such things," Li Bu told her hotly. "The spirits can hear, and they will take your soul prematurely if you voice such thoughts too frequently. That can only end in misery for all time."
"What do I care for 'all time'?" she asked quietly. "I am raped every night by the Prime Minister of the empire. Can there be another, harsher fate awaiting me?"
His eyes grew wide until he appeared as a green tree frog, a foolish thing indeed. "What?" he croaked, almost drawing a laugh from her. "Raped?" A faint redness swelled in his cheeks that he fought to keep from his eyes. "I thought you chose to return to my lord's bed chamber?"
Turning away from him, Wan bit her tongue again, forcing more tears out. "Wang Yun chose for me." Sobbing once more, she tried in vain to push him away. At last, when he stared into her bleary eyes once more, she continued. "I thought, when he adopted me, that I would be safe. Instead, to gain favor with the Prime Minister, my lord Wang convinced him to take me back. Now, I endure all over again, every night."
"I will slay him!" Li nearly shouted, then hushed himself aggressively. "Such a monster must not be suffered to lead our people." His eyes had gone far away in that moment, but then focused on her intently. "A monster should not be allowed to abuse one so beautiful as you."
"Oh, master Li," she said in a throaty voice.
Descending quickly, Li Bu's lips came down over hers in a fury. Arms tightening around her shoulders, she reacted by touching his chest, hoping she would not have to endure a long humping by the ignorant tree frog. That comparison nearly made her giggle again, but doing so with his lips against hers would make him wonder what was really up. With real force, she shoved the idle amusement back down for later, when she was alone.
About to break the lip lock, Wan touched his hand, intent on leading him to paradise, if it would then bring him to do as Wang Yun wished. Instead, she gulped when the door slid open. A startled gasp and a grunt of anger broke the would be lovers apart.
"See this insolence!" Dong Zhuo roared.
"Unbelievable!" the man with him shouted. In a blur, Wan recognized him as Li Su, an adviser to the Prime Minister who hailed from the same town as Li Bu and might have been a cousin.
"Give me that!" Dong shouted to an unseen person in the hall. Half his body disappeared, leaning outside the small chamber while Wan and Li Bu gaped, half stuck in a trance. Tearing away from Bu, Wan began to sob again, clutching at her left arm.
Quickly, Dong swung back fully into the chamber, a halberd clutched between meaty hands. "I shall not miss this time, thou fiend!" he screamed at Li Bu before lunging with the dangerous weapon.
Terror flashed across Bu's face as he dodged the clumsy, rage filled strike. Leaping, Bu tore through the paper window in Wan's chamber, to flee into the night. The lout was quick as a tree frog, she observed, this time painfully; now, she would surely die, unless her performance was exceptional. She'd half hoped against hope that Bu would have stolen the halberd and slew his master, rather than run away. Ultimately, though, she judged Bu a coward who would fight ferociously if in self preservation, but not for anything - or anyone - else.
"Whore!" Dong was still raging when her thoughts returned to the little chamber. "Tell me why I should not slay you this instant!"
Seizing the moment, Wan rose from her seat and glared at the fat oaf. "Tell you I will!" she screamed, equally up to the task of speaking to him in that tone. Shocked, Dong sputtered something incomprehensible before falling away into a much welcomed silence.
"I should be thanking you, my lord," she ground out through clenched teeth, "but instead, you threaten my life for almost being raped." Li Su appeared ready to say something, but Wan struck out with a finger in his face which kept him quiet. "That man would surely have taken what he wanted, and yet you say I am the whore?! Who is the larger of us, my lord? Who is the stronger? Who the quicker and possessor of martial might?"
"But saw you with our eyes, we did!" Dong protested. "You were engaged as much with him as he with you."
"Do not believe her, my lord," Li Su suggested. "To save her life, this courtesan would say almost anything."
Rounding on him, Wan loaded every bit of scorn she could muster and shot it at him in her words. "And you, son of a fatherless whore, would say anything in defense of your countryman and cousin."
Before the insulted man could react, she'd rolled up her sleeve and shoved her left forearm at them. "This was the price I paid!" The arm was purple and red and swelled slightly. "Earlier in the day, this was how he lured me here." The tears were flowing freely now. Remembering every injustice to ever befall her, in the heat of the moment tears came easily. "Then again, when you burst in, did you not see the grip he still held? Do you see!" she screamed, shaking her arm close to Dong's face.
Turning away, she sank to her stool, showing her back to the Prime Minister. When next she opened her mouth, her voice sounded hollow in her ears. "If you will no longer love me, but instead shame me, I may only save honor through my death. Permit me, at least, my lord Dong Zhuo, the last saving grace of suicide to avenge myself on those who have wronged me."
Who is your favorite character in Dynasty Wars? What makes him/her unique?
You always ask the tough questions, Mary, lol. Tough, but good. My standard answer would be that I love all my characters equally. However, I identify best with Kurt Rodriguez. I try to make characters believable, so I often ask myself: What would I do in his/her shoes? Often, depending on my mood, the answer is different. I put myself, and others I've encountered in life to varying degrees, into my characters. To me as an author, that's the best way to create believable characters. To my mind, Kurt and I are in similar positions in life with similar goals, to be independent and individual, though Kurt knows less of what that really means, as he was raised by his government in the distant future.
Are there any themes or messages in your book?
Oh, yes. We here in the United States are facing our greatest test. Do we want to further push our citizens under compliance and dominance of the federal government for some often promised, yet under-delivered idea of 'security', or do we wish to remain as individuals, free to make our own choices and mistakes, and pay for them accordingly. I personally don't want someone else telling me how to live my life, what items I can/can't purchase, what programs I have to support, etc. So I'd say the biggest theme in Dynasty Wars is about the whole idea of who's responsible for your actions: you alone or society as a whole? Kurt has to figure out how to accomplish his goals, while wrestling with the way he was raised and trying to find a happy medium where he was never taught the value of individualism. He only has a vague notion of what that means – some instinctive, feral, down deep in his gut – and spends much of the book trying to form it into something concrete, while still trying to help his people and the local Chinese who've come under his care. These are big issues not easily dismissed, nor should they be left up to others to decide for us.
What are you working on now?
My current WIP is a political manifesto, of sorts. It takes place in the not so distant future and may have repercussions for all of us currently living, along with our children. I'm also working on a book that continues in the New Dawn space opera galaxy my friend and sometime co-author Anne McAlduff aka Jade Max (check out her Faded Phoenix series, it's awesome!) and I created some years ago. It's a stand alone book, so there's no need to know what happens in New Dawn. I'm also working on another alternate history story set during the Hundred Year's War. I also have a book ready to publish that's a sequel to my alternate American Civil War book, Birth of a Nation. The sequel will be out next March!
Dynasty Wars is available at: Amazon US (Kindle), Amazon US (paperback)