Fantasy author Anna Kashina on balancing folklore & fact

Anna Kashina talks Blades Of The Old Empire, The Guild Of Assassins and Mistress Of The Solstice

Author Ania Kashina
Author Anna Kashina

Anna Kashina has had a very busy couple of years. As well as her two books from Angry Robot in 2014, Blades Of The Old Empire and The Guild Of Assassins she’s worked extensively with US publisher Dragonwell Publishing and her latest with them, Mistress Of The Solstice, won an Independent Publishing award recently. Ania has carved a name for herself as an author of intelligent, aware fantasy. I talked to her about her influences, her process, her books and the line between folklore and fantasy,

How did you get started writing?

I always wanted to be a writer. Not sure how exactly it started, but I wrote my first “novel” when I was six. I like to think I improved down the road. I heard an opinion that a writer is a person who cannot help writing, and it definitely fits my situation. I was probably born this way.

What authors inspired you?

Early on, an odd mix of Russian, British, and German authors. On the Russian side, one of my favourite books is Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master And Margarita – an all-time classical novel that can also be described as urban fantasy. On the British side, I was always a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott. But my role model, at least early on, has been ETA Hoffmann, best known to the American audience as the author of Nutcracker. All my earlier writing has been heavily influenced by his work.

What authors inspire you today?

I read mostly fantasy these days. My favourite fantasy author is Terry Pratchett, his books inspire me, even though I can never hope to achieve the same excellence. Among the recent authors, I greatly admire the work of NK Jemisin.

What does your writing day look like in terms of schedule?

My life is crazy these days, especially after I had two small children on top of a demanding day job. I tend to think of writing more as indulgence time. Ideally, I try to sneak in an hour or two after the children go to sleep. More realistically, I think of ideas as I go through my days and then binge on writing whenever I have a chance. This worked really well for my just-released novel, The Guild Of Assassins. I finished a full first draft in about 3 weeks, after getting to the point that I simply had to write everything down this minute or my head would explode. It was a lot of fun.

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Tell us a little about Mistress Of The Solstice.

This is a dark romantic fantasy based on Russian folklore. I love putting themes from fairy tales and folklore into my writing, and I believe that Russian folklore is unique, because it is a true blend of East and West. Special Russian versions of dragons, phoenixes, and magic mirrors that can tell fortune are all intricate parts of it, along with a number of unique creatures like Baba Yaga, Leshy, Kashchey the Immortal, and others. I know that these themes are occasionally explored in Western fantasy, but I have not yet seen the level of authenticity that allows the readers to fully appreciate them. I hope my Russian background gives me the edge.

Mistress Of The Solstice is a romance at the core, but with twists that put it outside the conventions of the genre. Marya, the main heroine, has a first-person point of view, while Ivan’s point of view is third person. At the same time, Marya starts off as dark and evil, representing the “bad” of the fairy tale world, while Ivan is warm and likeable, representing the “good” (the sun and the moon, in the celestial sense). This duality, being in the first person for the “bad” and in the more distancing third person for the “good” worked really well for me when I wrote the book, and I think it adds a good twist to the story.

This novel is based on one of my favorite Russian fairy tales Ivan Tzarevich And The Gray Wolf, but it is sufficiently different so that no one, even a person familiar with Russian folklore, would find the story line predictable.

I originally wrote this story as a novella (Solstice Maiden, published in Once Upon A Curse anthology from Dragonwell Publishing), but then felt the need to expand it into a full novel. And yes, the solstice theme in this novel is genuine, and is based on the real-life Slavic rites of solstice celebration. Moreover, it is still practiced today in some forms (minus the human sacrifice).

Your work explores different elements of different cultures, melding them together to create something that both evokes the past and creates something new. What sort of research and editing skills are required for that?

In a few words, all this requires a lot of research, and editing, of course. Every time you set out to explore one culture, you need to learn as much as possible about it, which is essential to infuse your writing with the authenticity it requires to make the story palpable, believable and vivid. When you blend cultures, you need to learn this much about each of the cultures you are trying to blend. And then you need to do more work to figure out how to blend them organically, so that they feel like one.

In my writing, I started with single-culture books. My debut novel, The Princess Of Dhagabad, is based on Middle Eastern culture. Mistress Of The Solstice is all Russian folklore. In the past, I have also co-written a historical novel about Elizabethan England with my grandfather, Vladimir Keilis-Borok.

In my latest project, The Majat Code series, published this year by Angry Robot Books, I undertook the challenge of blending all the cultures I researched and used before, creating a world which organically combines all their elements. This is an epic fantasy series with lots of adventure and some romance, and I look forward to explore different culture blends in different instalments of the series.

How does the historical research you do blend with the folkloric research?

I believe that folklore roots in history, so these are ultimately two sides of the same research. When you read folklore, some elements of it, including word usage, clothing, customs, environment, would be unique to the culture that created it. These elements are usually not the ones you would find in common history books, which focus more on the facts and the grander scheme of things. I feel that even when writing historical fiction, research of folklore is essential and it gives an angle to an author which cannot possibly emerge solely from historical facts. I love to explore this angle to the full, and this may be one of the reasons I favor fantasy. Once I know the folklore, it is just too tempting to explore a world where its elements would be at least partially real, grounded in everyday life. If done well, writing from this perspective can erase the boundaries between historical fiction and fantasy. Ultimately, both are forms of literature, and blending these elements well can bring this out.

Where do you see the line between the two? Is there one?

I think folklore starts where historical facts stop, which sort of makes them two sides of the same coin. Recorded history can only focus on major events which changed lives of at least hundreds, more often thousands of people. Folklore talks about things important on the scale or one person, at most a family or a village. It adds magic to the mix, but one can always guess what kind of facts underlie it. So the line, if there indeed is one, would be in these details. Of course a folk hero would change the lives of thousands, save his kingdom or even the world. These deeds also root in actual historical facts, and finding this correlation is another challenge that could lead to eye-opening revelations.

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Your work combines gentle fantasy, romance and action adventure. Is it a challenge to combine them? Is there ever a conflict between the different styles?

All my earlier novels have been almost entirely free of fighting, focusing more on emotions, feelings, and human interactions, with magic as an integral part. I always felt in my element with this style, and yet, I became increasingly interested in exploring the more physical aspects of human existence, including–in my historical settings–sword fighting and romance. With each next work I always aimed for a more fast-paced story that would combine all my strengths as an author of the non-action genre and put them into the action setting. This is how The Majat Code series came into existence.

I was surprised to realise that writing good action requires no less research, which can be quite different from the research of the historical books. As a small example, each warrior in my novel has a rare, often unique weapon, and believe me, I practiced with each as I wrote. My medical knowledge, from my day job, also came handy. It was fun.

Tell us more about The Majat Code series and your newest release, The Guild Of Assassins.

The Majat Code books centre around the Majat warriors, superb martial artists that exist in a medieval European-like setting. They form a guild which has no loyalties to any king or ruler, but are very loyal to their contract, so whoever hires them does not need to worry about swaying their allegiance. The top-ranked Majat, Diamonds, are very expensive to hire, and nearly impossible to defeat.

One of the Diamond Majat warriors, Kara, is at the center of the series. Thrown into a kingdom fighting a powerful magical enemy, she finds her loyalties and beliefs constantly put to the test and eventually is forced to make choices that would doom her to an execution. In the first book of the series, Blades Of The Old Empire, Kara is actually a non-point-of-view character and the action around her unravels entirely through the eyes of other people, a prince who is in love with her, and a common girl who finds herself infatuated with her counterpart. In The Guild Of Assassins, which takes us into the secret depths of the Majat Guild, Kara becomes a central point of view character. I plan to give her an even bigger role in book 3 in the series.

Among other things, these books are a good example of blending cultures–the Majat themselves are a blend of East and West and combine the features of ninjas and medieval mercenaries. In addition, the kingdom of Tallan Dar in my book, and its surrounding lands, harbor a blend of Anglo Saxon, Slavic, Mongolian, and Middle Eastern elements among its many nations. It is taking me more than one book to show off these blends, and I look forward to exploring these multicultural themesfurther.

The Princess Of Dhagabad, The Goddess Of Dance and Mistress Of The Solstice are all available from Dragonwell Publishing now. Start with Mistress Of The Solstice, it’s great. Blades of the Old Empire and The Guild of Assassins are available from Angry Robot now.