“A Hundred Thousand Arrows” is certainly the most action-packed story out of the series so far. How did it feel to write it?
It was fun! I love writing stories that draw on Indian mythology yet turn the tale around in some unexpected way. In this story, it’s especially fun because I got to write a chase sequence and a battle both at once! So they’re literally chasing after Vrath and attacking him from behind as they try to catch him (or destroy him). That was really fun to write. Chariots and magic arrows and a demi-god who can’t be killed but can be wounded and hurt. That’s counterpointed with the larger world of the Burnt Empire and their very odd, arcane culture. It’s a mini-epic in itself and I consider it one of the best of the Legends of the Burnt Empire stories.
It’s been interesting seeing how Vrath grows up between all of these stories. He’s a fascinating character. How has it felt for you, seeing this character from his birth, growing up into a young man, and becoming this epic hero? I imagine you have some feelings about him after spending so much time with him.
Vrath is one of my favorite characters from the world of the Burnt Empire. He’s a challenging character to write, since he’s inscrutable, doesn’t display human emotions outwardly, is a demi-god, and has taken a lifelong vow of celibacy. In most fantasy stories, a vow like that would be like a red flag to an author, making you want to deliberately throw temptation in Vrath’s path time and again, if only to show his “human” side. But that’s not the case with Vrath. There’s no question of him being tempted because he’s more “other” than human. This otherness and the questions it raises about writing “other” characters is what makes him so rewarding to write.
I embrace his otherness and accept it as completely “normal” for him, regardless of how odd he may seem to our twenty-first-century eyes or even the people of his time and place. But writing the story of his birth and infancy was crucial to me to understand Vrath from within. The tough part is that I know so much more about how he’s feeling at any given moment than I can reveal to the reader. Because I’m showing not telling, and Vrath doesn’t show emotion, ever.
I think the best comparison to him in popular culture would be the character of the T-100 in the Terminator movies. Arnold’s character. He can’t show emotion either, but it’s what he does and says in context that makes our throats lump up. We attribute human emotions to him, projecting what we are feeling onto his emotionless face and heart.
Upon a Burning Throne is a massive story, in both content and scope. There’s a lot of world, characters, and story for readers to dig into. When did this project as a whole really start for you? How has it evolved over time?
I guess I’ve wanted to write this kind of epic since I was a kid and knew I was going to write epic fantasy. It took me a very long time to work up the chops to attempt it, and the experience, maturity, and skill to pull it off. I still have a long way to go, in my opinion, and someday I hope to write the epic fantasy to end all epic fantasies. But you know what Lennon said, life is what happens when you’re busy doing other things. Maybe the Burnt Empire series is that epic. Maybe not. I guess it’s my attempt, at least.
Coming to actual years, I first attempted to tackle the story in the late 1990s, then knew I wasn’t ready and discarded it in favor of what later became my Ramayana Series. In 2004, I took a second crack at it, and wrote it not as the Burnt Empire Series, but as a more straightforward retelling of the Mahabharata. But then in 2014/15, I finally waded back into it and this time began looking at it as a whole new story. I kept the bones of the Mahabharata and some characters, elements, and ideas, but I began to dismantle many of the key assumptions of the epic.
By 2016, I knew what I had was only superficially the Mahabharata but in actual fact a whole new epic in its own right. The book that you now see as Upon a Burning Throne is actually a strange offspring of the Mahabharata, the Mughal Sultanate, and Egyptian mythology, all set in an alternate world reminiscent of ancient India and Egypt, but with significant differences. The story that unfolds seems at first like the Mahabharata, but as you’ll see, it takes sharp turns by the end of the book, and in the second book, A Dark Queen Rises, the main protagonist Krushni steps onstage and the bigger story kicks off in epic fashion. At that point, even the most well-informed Mahabharata fan will know at once that Toto, we’re not in Hastinapura anymore!
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