“The Terrible Oath” has the lush, rich feel of the myths and stories that stirred so many souls throughout history. As something of a companion story to Upon A Burning Throne, what inspired this particular tale?
Thank you! I was aiming for a classical mythic feel, something closer to Eddison than modern epic fantasy, but in the Indian style. This can be challenging because Indian myths haven’t been retold (or attempted) in this Western style by others before, to the best of my knowledge, so it’s uncharted literary territory. Happy to know I managed to pull off the illusion to some extent. “The Terrible Oath,” like the other Legends of the Burnt Empire appearing in Lightspeed, is actually an out-take from Upon A Burning Throne that seemed to stand quite well on its own. In fact, it’s part of the backstory of the novel and the series. Inspired by a myth from the world’s longest literary work, the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, it’s reimagined and dramatised in the context of the world and mythology of the Burnt Empire. In the original epic, Vrath was actually Devavrata, and after he took the famous oath, he was dubbed “Bhishma” which meant “He of the Terrible Oath.” Hence the title of this story.
The many-faced goddess is a familiar theme, as is the arch-type of the god as both boy and man. Were there any particular elements of these mythological representations that you wanted to explore with ”The Terrible Oath”?
Jeel plays a very prominent role in Upon A Burning Throne and the rest of the Burnt Empire series. She is, in fact, the closest thing to a God Supreme in that particular world. (At least for now. Who among us mere mortals can truly know which other Gods may lie lurking in the celestial cosmos?) She has great power and influence, since she governs all water bodies in the world of Arthaloka, from the eponymous mother river that feeds the supercontinent (five times the size of all our Earthly continents combined) to the oceans, lakes, ponds, groundwater, glaciers, and every other form of water in the world. She is also a counterpoint to the very masculine, toxic element Stonefire, of which the Burning Throne itself is carved, to which the reigning Krushan dynasty is linked by blood, and which dominates the saga. The fact that Vrath, a crucial character in the series, is her son as well as the son of a Krushan Emperor is key. He is literally the only character who embodies both aspects of that world—the feminine shakti of Jeel and the masculine potency of the Krushan. It’s a classic mismatched mother-father duo engendering a “mule” character who plays a major role in the epic but also represents the end of his line. Because of his “terrible” oath, Vrath will never reproduce, which means there can be no other character who represents this straddling of both powerful extremes.
Will readers see Vrath again in Upon A Burning Throne?
Definitely. A great deal of him, in fact. While this story is merely a taster of his backstory, it’s in the main novel that he really comes to the fore. You’ll see him in action, battling the powerful demonlord Jarsun in the Battle of the Allies. Let’s just say that their clash is not just the usual “epic” bout, but quite “interesting” in the unusual methods they use to try to destroy one another. That’s where the clash of Stonefire and Jeel is made flesh, quite literally, and I hope the reader finds their duel more entertaining than the average MMA final!
Do you find that you write more for a Subcontinental or Western audience? Does a given audience matter to your work?
I write for different readerships in India and the US. The books I write for India aren’t offered to publishers outside the country, while the books I write for the US (e.g. Upon A Burning Throne) are only sold later to Indian publishers, if at all. As with most other cultural content, India (like most of the world) is very accustomed to consuming Western content, while the West has yet to open its mind to world culture and content. So what readers here in the US see of my work is barely one percent of my total output. Upon A Burning Throne is my seventieth published book in India, but only my second book to be published in the USA. And that isn’t counting my graphic novels, comics, television series, feature films, short fiction, journalism, and poetry. The only exception are my ebooks, which I publish under my own AKB eBooks imprint worldwide since I’ve only sold Indian publishing rights to those other sixty-nine books so far and retain all other rights myself. My ebooks have sold extremely well over time, and of late sales have actually increased. My Ramayana Series in particular remains a favorite among US readers, too, and I’d estimate that the eight-book series has sold over 400,000 copies in the US alone over a fifteen-year period. As for writing for an audience, I write what I feel driven to write most passionately and stay true to the story, the characters, and the culture I’m describing. The only way to do that without “Americanizing” or “dumbing it down” for American readers is to simply avoid an US edition altogether. American readers, especially genre readers, can be very intelligent, open-minded, and diverse, but even to the brightest and best, the majority of South Asian literature simply isn’t comprehensible. The few genre stories we see here in SFF magazines and anthologies are mostly awful misrepresentations of Indian life and culture, and they’re all written by only members of the majority community. Which is ironic because I’m sure their editors here believe they’re publishing “diverse” stories and authors, but obviously they aren’t aware that all they’re doing is publishing the equivalent of “only white” American authors and cutting out the rich, diverse, multilayered cultural and ethnic stories of the real India. So yes, it matters hugely to me that JJA and HMH are publishing Upon A Burning Throne, which is undiminished, unadulterated, uncompromising Indian diverse epic fantasy. I hope everyone who loves epic fantasy enjoys reading it as much as I did writing it!
On your website you recommend a wealth of works by other South Asia and Subcontinental writers. Are there any works you would currently recommend to Western readers?
Well, yes. The same books you mentioned are the exact same ones I would recommend to all readers, Western as well as otherwise. I think it’s time we stopped pandering to Western readers. Dive in off the deep end, read something that’s really “diverse,” not just written by an American author of other-national origin. It’s all in English about human beings (for the most part), after all. I can guarantee they’re all easier (and much more fun) to read than the NYT crossword puzzle!
You are such a prolific writer, with so many projects currently in the works, how do you keep track of everything? What does your organizational and writing process look like?
Oh, I don’t bother with organisation and planning. I tend to gestate an idea for anywhere from twenty to forty years, accreting little details of character, place, history, and geography over time, then mapping out the larger story arc of the series, and finally plotting the book itself. By the time I sit down to write, I pretty much know the whole book and series inside out and simply need to get it all down on the keyboard. For some reason, don’t ask me why, I need to be developing around thirty-eight books at once. Why thirty-eight and not thirty-seven or thirty-nine or forty-one? I haven’t a clue. It just happens that way. It’s not a conscious decision or process. Think of it as walking into a multiplex with thirty-eight franchises playing at once on thirty-eight screens—some are single films, but others are multi-part series, all playing one after the other. I walk into a theatre, I pause the film, scrub back to a point or scrub forward, edit, remix sound or VFX, change actors or characters, cut or add entire plotlines, scenes, sequences. This is all happening in my head in the background, “the back office,” and it goes on while I’m out and about the everyday business of living. Even while I’m writing one book and deeply immersed in the draft, there’re other books whirring away elsewhere in my mind on those multiple screens, all being scripted, edited, filmed. How? Why? Where? When? I don’t know. Does it really matter so long as I sit down and write and it flows pretty much the way water comes out of a faucet or power from a plug point? I don’t know where or how the water or the electricity comes to the faucet or plug point either, but I’m happy to use it when it does. The only problem, if you can call it that, is shutting it off. But at this point in my writing career, I’ve developed methods of doing that. But the water and power are always flowing!
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