Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Mazanderan (Shahnameh Reading Project 12)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Mazanderan

“In which Kay Kavus becomes convinced that he is more powerful and awesome than even Jashid and Feraydun, attacks the demon homeland, and he and his entire army are literally blinded by his arrogance.”

baahubali poster

Poster for the Telugu film Baahubali: The Beginning, showing five of the main characters including the young Baahubali, center forefront, and to his right, his wise and canny royal aunt who saves his life.

TG: Not a lot of surprises in this section. Everybody by now should know what to expect from the moment the first lines open warning us about bad seeds taking over from their father kings. Once Kavus declares himself greater than the great warrior-kings who have come before him, we know he’s doomed, it’s only a matter of how.

I’m a little confused still about what demons are – I can’t tell if they’re all supernatural beings (some of them have to be, throughout the story), but sometimes they seem to be humans who use dark magic and follow Ahriman, not God. That they are mortal, with cities the Persians can travel to and kings and women and children speaks to them being sorcerers, not supernatural creatures.

The counselors certainly can tell a demon when they see one, though, despite the fact that I assumed the first demon, the one who tempted Kavus to invade Mazanderan, was in disguise. Kavas’s counselors knew right away he was talking about attacking the demon homeland, and it’s a wonder the demon was allowed to play at all, if they knew what he was.

(Kavus, of course, would have assumed himself to be too great to be tempted, so I can see him allowing a demon to play music in his court. He’d think he was immune.)

I thought it was pretty funny that Kavus either wants to destroy all the demons…. or tax them heavily, and poor Zal!!! I get the feeling Zal just wants to be left alone, but god, ok, fine, he’ll help out because it’s the right thing to do.

Very much looking forward to the next section of Rostam’s seven trials. You know he’s a hero because he has trials.


Kay Kavus chained in a cave, guarded by “the white demon” is basically a dude with an animal head that looks part bull and part cat? to me, kind of. I don’t know.

KE: Yes, indeed. Heroes will have trials. In fact, now that I think about it, that makes me want to write a story about a heroine having trials.

My thoughts: a demon trouble maker sets up this war! I have to think this was not done with the knowledge and consent of the demon king because the king does not react until he is attacked. I also can’t quite tell if the demons are bad by nature, supernatural, or just sorcerers. What they are is not the same as humans, somehow. Also I noted how the demon king’s heart is filled with pain when he hears news of the war devastating his subjects.

In some ways this reminds me of Jewish stories about demons, who are otherly natured people who have some supernatural aspect but who are not explicitly evil. In fact, there are Jewish demons who believe in G-d and follow the mitzvot and pray just as other Jews do.


“he wastes the wealth he took no pains to accumulate” and “Kavus is an arrogant man who has not experienced the heat and cold of this world” both remind me of our own economic inequality landscape, not to mention the current election in the USA. People who think that by being born into wealth they somehow have inherited greater worthiness. There are so many stories, both fictional and historical, of the inheritors of wealth and rulership squandering that which their forefathers (usually) created or built. They demand the privilege that’s already shown them. So it’s interesting to see what Zal says to Kavus (that he hopes never to hear Kavus bewail his misfortune and bad decisionmaking), and then of course that is EXACTLY what happens because this is in part a story of the fall of the mighty.

Also it is interesting to me how much of the story is taken up with council meetings, more than battles.

My favorite phrase:
“it was a place that even elephants feared.”

Finally, on the related but not quite analogous subject of usurpers who have taken the throne from a rightful heir, I urge every person to check out the Telugu film BAAHUBALI: THE BEGINNING (photo above) which is epic fantasy at its finest. There is good, there is evil, there are four major women characters (although they never talk to each other, but I’ll take what I can get), and it also reflects that element we have discussed in reference to Zal in which the hierarchy is set as by the gods, so that even a clearly superior prince like Zal will never try to usurp the line of Feraydun. One of the characters in Baahubali is a great warrior who serves a king he knows is unjust, because “you are the king and we are your slaves.”

Here’s the trailer:


Next week: Rostam’s seven trials!

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad

Short Story Audio Drama with Redshift

The audio drama for Kate Elliott’s short story, “My Voice is in My Sword” premiered yesterday on Redshift!

Originally published in the anthology Weird Tales from Shakespeare, the short fiction story also appeared in print in Apex Magazine: “It is said that Macbeth is a cursed play, but will the curse follow an acting troupe to a distant world?”  Apex has partnered with Redshift Audio productions to bring sci-fi audio dramatizations to life.

You can listen to “My Voice is in My Sword” at Redshift or download the podcast on iTunes.


RT Reviewer’s Choice for Epic Fantasy Novel: BLACK WOLVES!!!

RT AwardSuper proud and excited to announce that Kate Elliott’s BLACK WOLVES won RT’s 2015 Reviewer’s Choice award for Epic Fantasy Novel!

This year’s RT Booklovers Convention took place in Las Vegas, NV from April 12-17, with over 200 workshops and other parties and events attended by authors, readers, bloggers, and reviewers. You can read more about the Awards Night and the RT Convention events at RT Book Review’s blog. Congratulations to all the winners and nominees alike!


Court of Fives 3 first draft done! Also: WorldBuilding Wednesday

Two days ago I turned in the first draft of Court of Fives 3 to my editors at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

I’m so excited that I had to put that news in BOLD.

My editors will read it and then the revision process begins. Meanwhile I’m resuming work on Black Wolves 2, about which I am extremely enthusiastic because it is filled with Stuff I can’t wait to write.

However, I am exhausted. In the interest of promoting creative health and minimizing my skate along the thin ice of burnout, I’m taking the rest of April off from writing my Worldbuilding Wednesday posts. I’ll resume in May.

The Shahnameh Reading Project will continue every week, and if you haven’t joined us yet, it’s not too late to start because this classic of world literature just keeps getting better and better!

Giveaway Winner & YASH Recap

Thank you to everyone who participated in the YA Scavenger Hunt! Make sure to check out the final results for each team, including my team, the Purple Team!

Congratulations to CALLY H., the winner of my bonus giveaway for a Court of Fives audiobook, narrated by Georgia Dolenz!

CoF-coverAn additional thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway and helped make the YASH such a success. For those of you interested, here are the results of the poll you all answered for the giveaway:

In my secret heart of adventure I want to:
A) Study magic in secret while pretending to be the responsible one – 82%
B) Be a kickass athlete – 15%
C) Rage against the machine – 2%
D) Always be the drama queen – 1%

That was more of a landslide than I expected. Special shout out to the proud drama queens! Don’t forget to keep an eye out later this year for the Fall 2016 YA Scavenger Hunt at the YASH main blog. Good job, everyone!

Tropes: A Guest Post by Juliet McKenna (Worldbuilding Wednesday 13)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This week I present an excellent post on tropes by Juliet E. McKenna. She’s recently released her Aldabreshin Compass series in ebook format. It’s a story I can’t recommend enough for its fantastic setting and characters and story. In fact, check out that link for some excellent posts on worldbuilding.


I asked Juliet to write about tropes because I think that if used wisely they can be a useful tool when thinking about worldbuilding.



Juliet E. McKenna


Just what is a trope and what should you do with it?

It’s one of those words batted back and forth in creative writing conversations, and if everyone else nods wisely but you don’t actually know what it means mostly you’ll mostly sit quietly and try to work out what it means from context.

Unless you can stealthily look up a definition in an online dictionary. Though that may not be overly helpful. According to the Concise OED, it’s ‘a figurative (e.g. metaphorical or ironical) use of a word’, from the Greek/Latin for ‘to turn’. Merriam Webster is more useful. ‘A common or overused theme or device’.

Oh, so it’s another word for cliché? Yes and no, and this is why this particular word has become useful in discussions about plot, character, setting and all the other intricacies of creating convincing fiction. ‘Cliché’ invariably has negative associations. A cliché is a woman spilling red wine on a white dress or tablecloth in the first five minutes of a TV crime show. You just know that’ll be mirrored by blood before the closing credits – or before the first adverts.

But let’s not forget that a classic can often be a cliché that’s simply been really well presented. There are only so many plots after all. The number varies from thirty six to seven, depending on which writers’ handbook you read. Some strip all these down to two essentials, literal or metaphorical; ‘someone goes on a journey’ and ‘a stranger comes to town’. Those who go still further insist these are the same thing, just from two different perspectives. More than that, especially in genre writing, some much-repeated plot elements are essential. If you’re writing a murder mystery, there pretty much has to be a dead body somewhere – without or without a wine/blood-stained dress.

The vital thing to remember is it’s not what you do but the way that you do it. The difference between cliché and trope is akin to the difference between stereotype and archetype. The wiser, older man offering guidance is an archetype in fiction. The very word ‘Mentor’ was originally the name of Odysseus’s trusted advisor. Someone playing this role can be a useful writerly tool. But if all a story has is an old man who turns up to offer plot-crucial information when the narrative stalls, that’s a stereotype. That character has to be integrated into the world and the story’s relationships to be a memorable individual as well as one who resonates with the reader’s familiarity with the archetype. Then you have mentors as different as Polonius in Hamlet, Belgarath in the Belgariad and Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

In the same way, recognising tropes becomes an essential writerly skill. Then you can look at what other writers have done with them and find your own, distinctive take. Because what the people reading your work – from agents and editors though to the stranger picking your novel up in a bookstore – are looking for is a unique blend of the familiar and the unanticipated. Otherwise you’ll get the same sort of rejection letters as my first and thankfully unpublished epic adventure. ‘There’s nothing to distinguish this from the half dozen other competent fantasy novels that have crossed my desk this week.’

That blunt assessment helped me understand how to work effectively with well-established tropes in my epic fantasy writing. In my Tales of Einarinn, a young woman goes on a quest to unravel the mysteries of magical artefacts – because she’s initially blackmailed and after that, she’s in it for the money. How’s that going to affect her decision making? In The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, the central character is an honourable feudal lord in the high heroic tradition – which means he doesn’t question unpalatable aspects of his absolute power. So can the reader entirely trust the world view of a good man with massive blind spots? In The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, rival dukes are battling for the crown in classic epic fantasy fashion. Only the ordinary folk who suffer in such warfare have decided they’re sick and tired of it. What happens to a feudal elite when those they’re ruling withdraw their co-operation? In The Hadrumal Crisis, I take a look at a frequently unexplored question in fantasy; why don’t wizards rule the world? All too often, the answer seems to be ‘because they’re jolly decent chaps, like Gandalf’. Well, what happens if they’re not?

So you can use tropes to draw readers into your story and then surprise them with a plot twist at the outset. How about setting up a mighty hero with a magic sword departing on a quest, only to have him fall off his horse and break his neck, leaving someone wholly unexpected to pick up that burden? An old woman whose wisdom is countered by her infirmity. A young man with domestic responsibilities which he can’t simply abandon. Let’s not forget how unusual The Lord of the Rings was at the time of its publication. Quests before that were all about retrieving an item of power, not destroying it. Great heroes did great deeds, not humble everyman Hobbits.

As you become practised at spotting tropes you can start to actively use them within your writing. As your story progresses, you can use familiarity to fulfil readers’ expectations and maintain the swift pace of a narrative, saving everyone time and pages. As your tale approaches its climax, you can offer up a range of possible plot options and keep the reader guessing which way events will turn. Is this Thermopylae, Roncevaux or Helm’s Deep? Not that your readers need to know the specifics of those particular battles. They’ve seen these tropes play out in countless movies and books. Will there be a valiant last stand? Will treachery undermine all heroics? Will anyone escape, how and at what cost? Will there be a last minute reprieve? Or something else entirely?

Something else entirely is what you should aim for and the more famous or familiar a trope is, the harder it becomes to do something genuinely unexpected with it. Is anyone going to come up with a convincing new twist on the ‘no man born of woman can slay me’ prophecy after William Shakespeare has given us Macduff from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, and Tolkien offers Dernhelm’s defiant cry ‘But no living man am I!’.

As for tediously repeated tropes, the woman seeking revenge on her rapist and the man seeking revenge on whoever killed his girlfriend/wife/mother really have been done and done again ad nauseam across so many genres and narrative forms. A talented writer might well come up with a new take on these but still fail to find an audience because the familiarity of that premise has now bred such contempt that no one even bothers to read past the first page or watch more than the first five minutes.

So pick your tropes carefully, and always remember to only use them as a starting point or as a writerly tool. You also need all the other elements that make up compelling fiction; fully realised characters, a gripping plot, a convincing setting. Otherwise you still risk falling into stereotype and cliché. What you’re aiming for is that elusive balance between offering your readers the reassurance of archetype and the rewards of the unexpected.



Next week: Trope Study: The Forced Marriage

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience, Narrative Maps, Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas

Rostam and Kay Qobad (Shahnameh Reading Project 11)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: Rostam and Kay Qobad

Synopsis: Kay Qobad is made king of Persia, and with Rostam’s help, they end Afrasyad’s invasion and Qobad rules for 100 years.

 Rostam & Afrasyab



First of all, Kay Qobad is a great name. But I remain mind-boggled that Zal or Rostram even aren’t taking the throne. This story is really serious about farr and lineage – probably this is evidence of Zal’s honor and goodness that he refuses to consider it himself.

When Qobad is made king, I love this detail that he places the crown on his own head – after it’s suspended over the throne. He is not ordained or given the crown by a man’s hands (or woman’s or priest’s) but takes it as if from God himself. Very strong symbolism.

The description of the army is amazing! “the world was like a sea of pitch over which twinkled a hundred thousand candles!” 

I’m a little in love with Rostam’s frustration at himself, though this is his first battle, so of course he makes mistakes: “Why didn’t I tuck him under my arm instead of hanging on to his belt?” LOL. This is a wonderful characterization moment.

It was interesting to me that previously Afrasyab was bloodthirsty and happy to be in this war against Persia, but then he’s nearly killed, and it changes his entire outlook on the war — he tells his father how it’s impossible to understand without being there, and that’s always been Pashang’s fault. 

“Wherever there is a kingdom, there is warfare.”

This book is really teaching me to let go of timelines. Qobad rules for 100 years and the next section is his son’s rule… and Rostam is clearly going to play a part as a young, strong warrior, not old like Qobad. Even Zal is still alive.


Like you I am fascinated by this theme of correct kingship. Pashang and Afrasyab are also descended from Feraydun, just like Kay Qobad.

The text continues its exciting war stories, but now as you say we get to see Afrasyab change his tune. The arguments he makes to Pashang are quite interesting when contrasted with the idea of farr:

“You should renounce this ancient longing for revenge,” he argues, and goes on to point out that, “worse than this [deaths of many men], your name and reputation, which can never be restored, have been destroyed.”

At times I think some people may see this obsession with name and reputation as some sort of holdover from older days but don’t we see it playing out in modern media constantly?

Beautiful descriptions from this week:

“the calligraphy of the letter this man wrote was so beautiful that it was worthy of a master”

I love that calligraphy is seen as this valuable and honored.

And, yes, what’s not to love about Rostam’s fight with Afrasyab? (see illustration, above)

Kay Qobad’s final speech is quite idealistic, in its way. Justice and generosity conjoined are the fulcrum on which a peaceful world turns.


Next week due to deadline hell we have to take another BYE week. But we will return on April 15 with Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan.

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh