Aliette de Bodard, another Angry Robot author, has an almost magical ability to bring history alive on the page and make the unreal real. Here, she talks about her series Obsidian and Blood, and the process she went through to develop the storyline.
Sparks: Aliette de Bodard
November 15, 2011 by kaaronwarren
“One of the advantages of having a series with a historical backdrop is that this provides ready-made inspiration in the form of various events: my Obsidian and Blood trilogy is set in the Aztec Empire in 1480, a fraught time when the Empire was nearing its maximum extension, but already showing the political weaknesses that would eventually doom it at the conquistadores’ hands. 1480 happens to be the date when the long-lived Emperor Axayacatl died–and the inevitable tussle for power that follows a monarch’s death formed much of the background for book 2 in the series, Harbinger of the Storm.
When I tackled the sequel, Master of the House of Darts–which would also be the last book in the trilogy–I naturally hunted for what had happened after the designation of a new Aztec Emperor. It turns out that the new ruler was meant to go on a coronation war, the success of which would prove his fitness to rule. It also turns out that the 1481 coronation war was a major disaster, quite possibly the only coronation war in Aztec history to have finished into an ignominious retreat. The Aztecs, a warrior culture, naturally interpreted this as the displeasure of the gods; and the new Emperor was made much weaker by this initial setback.
“This was perfect for Master of the House of Darts: its predecessor had ended with the selection of the new ruler; this book would open with the ruler’s utter failure to manage the Aztec Empire–a neat way to keep the stakes high, and to tie in with the previous book in the series.
“Unfortunately, I had few details of that time period: I completed this inciting event by as much as I could, by researching the personalities of the various people in presence. For instance, the young commander of the army, Teomitl (a major player in my series), was known for his hot temper, and his preference for war over political intrigues (he is recorded as marching with his soldiers and sharing their life on the rough). Many of those traits ended in the plot: Teomitl is beloved by his soldiers, but impatient, and utterly inept at peace-time court life. Having all this information helped me narrow down my plot options, by having the fictional characters compose with the reactions of the historical ones.
“However, something still wasn’t quite clicking. Though I could work forward from my inciting event and open up the plot, it all felt too mechanical, and I had the feeling that I was painting Aztec murder by the dots–something I absolutely wanted to avoid, as writing the same book over and over would have been a disaster for the series.
“It took me a while to realise that I had fallen into another series pitfall: because the cast and universe were already well in place, I had locked myself into a mindset where I wanted to keep the status quo rather than move the story forward. I didn’t want my characters to fall out, to attack each other, or even to have competing agendas–and this just wouldn’t work as a book: people getting on well together is marvellous, but as a source of plot it is a rather dry business.
In the end, I gave myself permission to work out the consequences with no holds barred. That was I realised that my characters would have fundamentally different responses to the opening events of the novel, and that the logical conclusion was the opening of rifts between them–not small quarrels, but deeper animosities that wouldn’t be solved so easily.
“Those rifts that open, not only within the Empire, but also within allies, ended up driving most of the plot: Master of the House of Darts is, first and foremost, a book about consequences spiralling out of control, and I borrowed many of its arcs from tragedy: it’s obvious that disaster looms, but many of the characters cling to their convictions, until everything hangs in the balance.
“The only thing I did not borrow from tragedy was the ending, because I had no intention of killing off my entire cast just for the sake of narrative fittingness (and I have always found the Greek tragedy endings a tad unrealistic, the other side of the coin compared to the “happy endings for everyone”, and equally unbalanced)
“But the ending is nevertheless harrowing, and painful; and it is clear when the last page turns that things have altered fundamentally, and that there will be no coming back to more carefree times.
“Quite possibly, this is why I hated the book while I was writing it, because I put myself as much through the wringer as my characters. But, in the end, I think it’s definitely a stronger book because I burrowed deeper; and it’s most definitely a lesson I’ll remember for future books.”