Atlantic Ocean-hopping Mazarkis Williams is the author of the Silk Road Fantasy Tower and Knife trilogy (The Emperor’s Knife, Knife Sworn, and the new novel, The Tower Broken). Maz was kind enough to answer some of my questions.


Paul Weimer: Hello Maz! I understand that Mazarkis Williams is a pseudonym. Why use a pseudonym?

Mazarkis Williams: Why a pseudonym? Since that was the decision made by my publisher, I can’t really delve into the exact reasons why. There have been a lot of discussions in the last few years about pseudonyms and the effects they may and may not have on sales, and while it’s a fascinating discussion I don’t think any of us authors have the data to make any conclusions. However I do think that for buyers who care about the gender of an author, gender-neutral tricks such as initials (e.g., J. V. Jones) take it out of the equation, at least for that first moment at the bookstore.
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We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: What are some of the most overdone tropes and stereotypes in SF/F? What are some of the most useful? What are some of the most damaging?

Here’s what they said…

Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning, Nebula nominated author. Her personal and professional exploits have taken her all around the world. Visit kameronhurley.com for details on upcoming projects, short fiction, and meditations on the writing life.

Tropes are a funny thing. To some extent, knowing and expecting what’s going to happen next in a story – anticipating a particular structure and story elements – is why we’re drawn to specific genres and sub-genres. Many romance readers are looking for boy meets girl, boy loses girl (or girl loses boy) but they happily (and sexily) get together at the end. Hard SF readers may be reading for a Big Idea and exploring how it changes our society, but be less interested in the characters moving that big idea around on the stage. Urban Fantasy readers may be looking for tough – but vulnerable! – heroines put into paranormal situations that may seem harrowing, but all work out at the end. And in Epic Fantasy, many still expect the White Hats (Stark white!) to Save the World.
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MIND MELD: Monarchies in Fantasy

UPDATED to include a response from Delia Sherman

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Very often, in secondary world fantasy novels, the default political setup is to have a Monarch of some sort, often one that acts in a seemingly autocratic manner. Many times, this Monarch rules by some sort of divine right or providence.

Q: Why are kingdoms with monarchs the default political setup in many secondary fantasy world novels? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such political structures? What are some exceptions to this?
Mark Charan Newton
Mark Charon Newton is the author of the Legends of the Red Sun series. He is also a Whisky addict. Find out more about him at Markcnewton.com

When people create worlds, we only really have our own world for reference, or from which to glean conscious and subconscious influences. Kingdoms, empires, monarchs – that’s all human history has pretty much known. Even today, we’re under the illusion we have democracy, but it’s much more wishy-washy than true ancient Athenian democracy, where power was genuinely more equally distributed, and more citizens played a role in the functioning of society. Today our monarchs and empires now are largely trade-based hegemonies, imperial campaigns given the spin of delivering peace through drone bombings. We are now subject to political and financial kings and queens (well, strictly speaking, in the UK we’re still subjects to the queen, but hey).

So in one sense, that’s life. That’s all we’ve ever known.

Emphasizing this point, many fantasy writers tend to look towards history, consciously or otherwise, for inspiration. Given that, aside from moments in the ancient world, there are very few examples where there are not kingdoms and empires, it’s inevitable.

There’s a wonderful season of Shakespeare on the BBC at the moment, which is hammering the point that I think still lingers today, and that’s a fascination with those who hold ultimate power. The pressures. The mental state. The sheer audacity to rule. Holding a position of god on earth. It is the biggest stage in a nation. So what does that do to an individual? What does that do to their mind? Can they ever be truly human? Such questions continue to inspire fantasy writers today. We’re very much interested in that big stage and what it means when ordinary people connect with it in some way.

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REVIEW: The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

SUMMARY: A solid first effort, with a great amount of potential. Looking forward to more.

SYNOPSIS: Silk Road fantasy. Sarmin’s life has been confined to a tiny room, but as his brother begins to show signs of The Pattern, Sarmin finds himself becoming far more important to the survival of the kingdom.

MY RATING:

PROS: Good voice; unique setting; intriguing characters.
CONS: Pacing wobbles at points, and there are tinges of exoticism.
BOTTOM LINE: Definitely worth the read, and looking forward to the next ones.
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MIND MELD: The Non-Genre Influences of Genre Authors

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Usually when ask genre authors about the influences on their work we are expecting, and usually get, responses that name other genre authors. This week’s question, as suggested by an SF Signal reader, explicitly asks about non-genre influences. We asked our panelists this question:

Q: Which non-genre writers have influenced your work? How?
Kay Kenyon
Kay Kenyon’s latest work from Pyr is a science fiction quartet with a fantasy feel: The Entire and The Rose. The lead title, Bright of the Sky, was in Publishers Weekly’s top 150 books of 2007. At her website, she holds forth on writing, the industry and other curious pursuits.

This question is almost impossible to answer; I wonder if we ever know, or whether literary critics with a little bit of distance from the subject could best intuit how admiration for certain works inevitably leads to unconscious imitation. I doubt anyone writes novels thinking they will write like someone else. But you’re asking for influences, which is more subtle, and all the harder. This is especially a tough task since fantasy and sf books have always been my focus. However, here goes:

I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and feeling a sharp ache for what she had accomplished with language. The novel remains seared in my mind, but this was well before I thought that I would be a novelist. Still, I admire her work so thoroughly that I would be surprised if she were not an influence. I value wordsmithing. She is a master at this. Her environmental motifs went straight to my heart. Also: Early on Marge Piercy was a favorite of mine. Gone to Soldiers. Woman on the Edge of Time–although that last one must be considered science fiction; still, she is primarily a literary writer. Her feminism appealed to me, and the woman’s point of view presented with such stark emotion. The emotional dimension is a focus of my work. Writers like these likely showed me the depth that was possible. I’m always aiming for that depth.

I’ve been equally impressed with the big storytellers, especially James Clavell. Some of his books I wished would never end: Tai-Pan and Shogun, especially. The exotic locales of these books tied in to my love of strange worlds in science fiction. As it happens, worldbuilding is the feature most critics mention about my work. I always wonder at that, because I thought I did characters best. It’s a goal of mine to do both, like Clavell, but of course you always fall shy of your heroes.
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SYNOPSIS: In the Cerani Empire, a royal assassin, an imprisoned prince and his future bride stand athwart a plot that threatens the Empire’s throne and beyond.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Vivid non-standard fantasy setting; well drawn characters; beautiful language.
CONS: Plotting in the denouement feels a bit abrupt; worldbuilding is somewhat slight; occasional unclear, esoteric scenes.
VERDICT: An ambitious, sophisticated and thoughtful debut novel that belies its cover.

Sometimes you can be fooled by a book’s cover.

Take a look at the cover of the debut novel from Mazarkis Williams, The Emperor’s Knife. To first impressions, knowing nothing about the book, with that cover and that title one might be led to think this is a Middle-eastern version of the Jon Sprunk’s Shadow series, or perhaps a riff on Peter V. Brett or Brent Weeks. An assassin goes carving a bloody path through the desert sands, right? Riding in blood to Samarkand?

Don’t be fooled. The author has a completely different agenda.

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