Marie Brennan is joining us today with the serial fiction Born to the Blade, written with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw. Here is the description:
Youth. Ambition. Power. Oda no Michiko and Kris Denn have much of the first two, and crave the last. To get it, all they must do is survive.
For centuries, the Warder’s Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the nations of the sky a way to avoid war, as their chosen warders settle disputes through magical duels of blade and sigil. But that peace is on the edge of crumbling, crushed between the aggression of the Mertikan Empire and the determination of the still-free nations to not be consumed. Twaa-Fei may be neutral, but it is also home to a million intrigues, schemes, and deadly intentions.
Michiko and Kris arrive in this treacherous world together, bladecrafters eager to serve their countries — Michiko as a junior warder for Katuke, a vassal of the empire, Kris as an upstart challenging to win a seat for his home, Rumika, in the Circle. But before the young bladecrafters have even settled in, a power struggle erupts, a man’s head is parted from his shoulders, and every good thing Michiko thinks she knows about the empire comes into question. A storm is coming, and Kris and Michiko stand at its eye. Will it bind the nations of the sky together… or tear it apart?
This is going to sound weird . . . but my favorite bit in Born to the Blade, the collaborative novel I wrote with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, might just be Bellona.
Bellona? The arrogant, high-handed character everybody loves to hate? How can I name her, when I could choose from Michiko, Kris, Ojo, Adechike (officially nicknamed “Beautiful Cinnamon Roll” by the writing team)?
I don’t like Bellona. It’s no accident that she’s named after the Roman goddess of war: she spreads strife wherever she goes, sometimes on purpose, sometimes just by being who she is. She’s utterly invested in the ideology of the Mertikan Empire, which is best described as “rabid meritocracy.” It’s a land where every person is . . . not encouraged, that’s too gentle; more like required . . . to pursue excellence in whatever it is they do, whether that’s being a bladecrafter representing the Empire on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei, or a street sweeper in the capital city.
In Mertika, if you can prove you’re good at a thing, then the job is yours. Other islands in the sky use formal confrontations with swords to settle political treaties or points of dispute, but in Mertika, you can challenge for any position, attempting to prove your worth through a suitable kind of duel. Want to become a cook? Think Iron Chef. Barber? Time to see who can produce the fastest, cleanest shave. Anybody can become Emperor or Empress . . . if they can defeat the current ruler in a test of combined swordplay and magic.
Of course, there are consequences if you challenge and fail. Then you tumble all the way to the bottom of the hierarchy, not only in this lifetime but the next.
Because that’s the other thing: Mertikans remember their previous lives.
Every island in the sky bestows a magical birthright on people born there (regardless of their ancestry). For Mertikans, it’s past-life recall. Combine that with their ideology, and you have a recipe for the “tiger mom” stereotype on steroids: a constant drumbeat telling them to achieve, achieve, achieve, and the awareness of whether they’re surpassing their previous incarnation or failing to live up to it.
I don’t like Bellona, but I love the window she gives us into the Mertikan Empire. She did great things when she was Aelia Tullius, and now she’s ambitious to do more. She has to be excellent at everything she sets her hand to, whether that’s dueling, lying (an excellence she’s never really possessed), or throwing a baby shower for a pregnant Warder. When her superior, Lavinia, tells her she should recognize the limits of her reach, Bellona rejects that outright:
Only an idiot concluded that, because the peach was high in the tree, she would never be able to pluck it. Someone, sometime in the distant past, had faced the same problem . . . and invented the ladder.
Bellona will invent whatever ladders she has to in order to achieve her goals. Even when I detest those goals, even when I want to smack her upside the head with proof that just because Mertika pursues excellence doesn’t mean it’s good, I find her mindset compelling. So while I love many of the characters in our story — nerdy Takeshi, long-suffering Yochno, noble Penelope, flamboyant Shun — Bellona might just be my favorite, because she’s so determined to be the best.
If what she winds up being best at is making readers loathe her, then we’ve done our job.
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. Her collaborative novel Born to the Blade, written with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, is out this spring from Serial Box. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and more than fifty short stories. For more information, visit www.swantower.com.