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How to Find Worldbuilding Inspiration in the Desert

Image Place holder  of - 84Science fiction and fantasy books take us to all types of different worlds: forests, deserts, even the stars. Michael Johnston, author of Silence of the Soleri, joins us to talk more about the setting of his latest book and his own desert narrative.


By Michael Johnston

Let’s start with a simple proposition. The desert is another world, or maybe it’s as close to another world as we can get without, you know, actually visiting another world. If you’ve spent any time in Joshua Tree National, you know what I’m talking about. The place feels alien. So when I picture a fantasy or a science fiction world, my mind turns to the desert. For me, it’s a place that’s filled up with a sense of wonder. So let’s talk about why I love to read about the desert and why I chose to place my Amber Throne novels (Soleri and Silence of the Soleri) in the desert.

Let’s start with a little history. When we talk about desert civilizations, we’re immediately forced to consider issues of ecology. Just how did that civilization flourish in the desert? For Egypt, the answer was the Nile. Egypt was often called the breadbasket of the ancient world. Imagine that! A civilization in the desert was known as a chief supplier of grain.

It was all due to the annual flooding of the Nile. Everything depended upon the river overflowing its banks each year and enriching the soil for growing. And if the river didn’t flood, there would be trouble. Life in the desert is a high stakes game, and if something goes wrong, disaster is bound to follow. When I decided to write about an empire in the desert, I tried to capture that same sense of urgency. In Soleri, we encounter an empire dependent on a single crop, the amaranth. The plant is sort of like the Nile, it helps fertilize the land and without it there is no way to farm and no way for the empire to eat.

Survival isn’t always easy in the desert, and that’s where my favorite desert novel enters this story. Given its popularity, there probably isn’t an aspect of Dune that hasn’t been discussed, but I still think it’s worth mentioning and I’ll keep this one short. In Dune, I learned about ecology through science fiction. Honestly, after I read it, I started doing a hundred little things to save water. I was probably twelve at the time, and the novel had a huge effect on me. I found myself taking shorter showers, and turning off the faucet as often as was possible. I was struck by the shear focus on conservation in the novel, the way the stillsuit preserved every drop of water in the body, the way the water of the dead was valued.

When we write fantasy and science fiction, I believe we are fashioning metaphors. We are providing ways for readers to digest and understand their own world. For me, Dune showed me what a world without water might look like, and it made me value the water in my own world. It was the first time I really thought about the conservation. Dune trained me to think about how I used natural resources. And when it came time for me to write my own novels decades later, I came back to that same focus. In Soleri, we see what can happen to a world where the balance of resources is out of whack. For me, that’s a desert story.

And that brings me to the last thing I want to talk about: my own desert narrative. I guess it began when I was a kid. Like most people, I probably had my first encounter with the desert in a movie (Tatooine) or maybe it was a book (Arrakis or John Carter’s Mars). As a kid, I had an image of the desert, and it was mostly based fiction. It wasn’t the early 2000’s that I started actually visiting the sand, and I immediately fell in love with it. I bought a house and started living there part-time. What came next was a bit of a surprise. As I would learn, the desert is a really is a hostile place, and for me, it turned out to be particularly unfriendly. The heat and dry air made my eyes and mouth dry. I found I couldn’t read. I needed a humidifier in every room, and I seldom ventured outside in the summer.

During my first year, my health problems multiplied, and it was clear that the desert was behind most of them. I got the feeling that humans (or maybe just this one human, me) weren’t meant to live there. The desert lacks that one thing we need: water. Okay, arguably, we need air more than water and there is air in the desert, but when it’s heated to 125 degrees, it is almost unbreathable. The desert is hostile. The plants are studded in spikes, and the ones that don’t carry barbs are often poisonous. Those rolling sand dunes that I discovered in fiction were a lot less friendly than the ones I met in real life. I left the desert five years later, but I still visit during the cool, damp months. It’s pleasant in December and January. As for my interest in the desert, it’s come full cycle. The desert went from a place I’d only dreamed of to a home I was forced to leave. And now, it has a third location in my consciousness. Having completed the two Amber Throne novels, it’s a location I mostly just visit in my books. It’s safer that way.

Michael Johnston is the author of The Amber Throne saga. The most recent addition, Silence of the Soleri, is on sale now. 

Order Silence of the Soleri here:

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$2.99 eBook Sale: January 2021

We’re kicking off 2021 in the best way possible—SALES!!!! Below, check out which of our SFF books you can snag as $2.99 ebooks throughout the entire month of January!


Poster Placeholder of - 24Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.

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Image Place holder  of - 74Fate of the Fallen by Kel Kade

Everyone loves Mathias. Naturally, when he discovers it’s his destiny to save the world, he dives in head first, pulling his best friend Aaslo along for the ride. However, saving the world isn’t as easy, or exciting, as it sounds in the stories. The going gets rough and folks start to believe their best chance for survival is to surrender to the forces of evil, which isn’t how the prophecy goes. At all. As the list of allies grows thin, and the friends find themselves staring death in the face, they must decide how to become the heroes they were destined to be or, failing that, how to survive.

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Place holder  of - 95The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people—even her soul. When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free. But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.

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Image Placeholder of - 41Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha

Nina is an information broker with a mission—she and her team of mercenary librarians use their knowledge to save the hopeless in a crumbling America. Knox is the bitter, battle-weary captain of the Silver Devils. His squad of supersoldiers went AWOL to avoid slaughtering innocents, and now he’s fighting to survive. They could burn down the world, destroying each other in the process… Or they could do the impossible: team up.

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Placeholder of  -24The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

In The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley, the emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

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Wild Cards I by George R. R. Martin

There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces—those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were termed Jokers—cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.

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The Mongrel Mage by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

In the world of Recluce, powerful mages can wield two kinds of magic—the white of Chaos or the black of Order. Beltur, however, has talents no one dreamed of, talents not seen in hundreds of years that blend both magics. On the run from a power hungry white mage, Beltur is taken in by Order mages who set him on the path to discover and hone his own unique gifts and in the process find a home. However, when the white mage he fled attempts to invade his new home, Beltur must hope his new found power will be enough to save them all.

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Soleri by Michael Johnston

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

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An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass

In Cantagna, being a sorcerer is a death sentence. Romy escapes her hardscrabble upbringing when she becomes courtesan to the Shadow Lord, a revolutionary noble who brings laws and comforts once reserved for the wealthy to all. When her brother, Neri, is caught thieving with the aid of magic, Romy’s aristocratic influence is the only thing that can spare his life—and the price is her banishment. Now back in Beggar’s Ring, she has just her wits and her own long-hidden sorcery to help her and Neri survive. But when a plot to overthrow the Shadow Lord and incite civil war is uncovered, only Romy knows how to stop it.

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New Releases: 6/13/17

Happy New Release Day! Here’s what went on sale today.

Endgame by Bill Pronzini

Placeholder of  -65 The Nameless Detective has taken many cases over the years… and this is one for the books.

Or rather, two cases that will test his agency’s resources. Love is in the air…more to the point, love gone awry. One case involves a woman whose husband died accidentally in a remote cabin in the Sierras. The wife isn’t buying that her husband was alone, and is determined to find out his secret and get closure…in spite of any potential heartbreak.

Roar by Cora Carmack

Poster Placeholder of - 12 In a land ruled and shaped by violent magical storms, power lies with those who control them.

Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom by Bradley W. Schenck

Image Place holder  of - 2 If Fritz Lang’s Metropolis somehow mated with Futurama, their mutant offspring might well be Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom. Inspired by the future imagined in the 1939 World Fair, this hilarious, beautifully illustrated adventure by writer and artist Bradley W. Schenck is utterly unlike anything else in science fiction: a gonzo, totally bonkers, gut-busting look at the World of Tomorrow, populated with dashing, bubble-helmeted heroes, faithful robot sidekicks, mad scientists, plucky rocket engineers, sassy switchboard operators, space pirates, and much, much more—enhanced throughout by two dozen astonishing illustrations.

Soleri by Michael Johnston

Image Placeholder of - 25 The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

NEW IN PAPERBACK

The Monster War by Alan Gratz

Place holder  of - 90 Having discovered the monstrous secret of his origins, Archie Dent is no longer certain that he is worthy to be a member of the League of Seven. But with new enemies to face, he realizes that he may not have the luxury of questioning his destiny.

Wielding the Dragon Lantern, the maniacal Philomena Moffett has turned her back on the Septemberist Society, creating her own Shadow League and unleashing a monster army on the American continent. Archie and his friends must race to find the last two members of their league in time to thwart Moffett’s plan and rescue humanity once more.

Wild Cards VII: Dead Man’s Hand by George R.R. Martin and John Jos. Miller

Chrysalis, the glass-skinned queen of the Joker underworld, has been found brutally murdered in her popular restaurant, the Crystal Palace. New two men are out to find her killer: Jay Ackroyd, the Ace private investigator who discovered her ruined body, and the vigilante archer known as the Yeoman, who has been framed for the crime.

Their quest leads them on a nightmare odyssey of madness, violence, passion, and political intrigue that will forever alter the fates of Aces and Jokers everywhere.

NEW FROM TOR.COM

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

 

NEW IN MANGA

Dragonar Academy Vol. 12 Story by Shiki Mizuchi; Art by Ran

Masamune-kun’s Revenge Vol. 5 Story by Takeoka Hazuki; Art by Tiv

Red Riding Hood and the Big Sad Wolf Vol. 1 Story and art by Hachijou Shin

Species Domain Vol. 2 Story and art by Noro Shunsuke

Tales of Zestiria Vol. 1 Story and art by Shiramine

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Architect Invents Time Travel

Image Placeholder of - 21Written by Michael Johnston

Okay, you’re not likely to read that title in the New York Times—not any time soon at least. But I have my hopes for the future. See, I’m trained as an architect, and this foundation has played a crucial role in furthering my other creative endeavors. Mainly, my novel writing. All of the great ideas in my novel, Soleri, came from my study of architecture.

What we call “world building” in fantasy, architects have been doing for hundreds of years. Many architects draw buildings and oversee their construction. They build skyscrapers or fancy modernist homes. I’ve done that. But there’s another kind of architect. Some call them “paper” architects; I prefer the term “visionaries.” They imagine spaces through drawing or computer modeling, building ideas in the virtual realm or the blank space of the page. The drawing or the computer model is the building—it contains the whole idea and that’s the end of it.

One of the earliest and most well known of the “paper” architects is a guy named Piranesi. He created something called the Carceri d’invenzione (or if you prefer English, the ‘Imaginary Prisons’). Google it. If you want to know where M.C. Escher got the idea for his staircase drawings, look at Piranesi. These drawings don’t tell a literal story; rather, they suggest an idea for a place in an incredibly compelling way. For hundreds of years they’ve inspired artists and architects to imagine dark and labyrinthine spaces, ones that are impossible to build. That last part inspired me the most.

Authors can do the same. We can suggest and imply the impossible, and that’s something I tried to do in Soleri. That’s why novel writing is so exciting for me: real architects can’t do this. In fact, it’s just about the opposite of what they do in daily practice, which is why I found the practice of architecture a bit boring. I always prefered the “paper” architect approach.

Étienne-Louis Boullée is another interesting example. Boullée practiced something called architecture parlante or “talking architecture.” He and his contemporaries thought buildings could actually say things with their forms and compositions. His most famous building is his Cenotaph for Isaac Newton. The building replicates the cycle of a day, displaying everything from a nighttime sky twinkling with stars to a sunlit afternoon. It’s worth a moment on Wikipedia—check it out. He thought buildings could communicate ideas, that they could speak, which to me sounds like storytelling. The cenotaph tells the story of a day. Again, I found this idea to be a lot more compelling than my daily practice, which mainly involved things like making certain there was enough legroom in front of the toilet (trust me, this is drawn incorrectly all the time).

You can probably see where I’m headed. I liked the narrative component of paper architecture. I’m a visual person, but I wanted to communicate ideas and tell stories that involved provocative and deeply compelling places. So the cities and building in Soleri are also characters. They aren’t just backdrop. They inform and interact with the people in my novel. And they tell their own stories, they suggest, confound, and inspire.

So, while I might not have tackled the problem of time travel, I did take my knowledge of architecture and put a lot of it into a novel. And I think that’s pretty interesting.

Order Your Copy

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Follow Michael Johnston on Twitter and on his website.

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On the Road: Tor/Forge Author Events in June

Tor/Forge authors are on the road in June! See who is coming to a city near you this month.

Cora Carmack, Roar

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Saturday, June 24
Book People
Austin, TX
6:00 PM

Cory Doctorow, Walkaway

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Sunday, June 11
Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest
Jones College Prep
Chicago, IL
11:30 AM
 Cory Doctorow in conversation with Mary Robinette Kowal

A.J. Hartley, Firebrand

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Wednesday, June 7
Park Road Books
Charlotte, NC
7:00 PM

Thursday, June 8
Malaprops
Asheville, NC
7:00 PM

Michael Johnston, Soleri

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Tuesday, June 13
Borderlands Books
San Francisco, CA
6:00

Wednesday, June 14
Barnes & Noble
Los Angeles, CA
7:00

Sunday, June 18
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA
2:00 PM
In conversation with Melissa de la Cruz.

Sheryl Scarborough, To Catch a Killer

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Friday, June 16
University Bookstore
Seattle, WA
7:00 PM
Also with Kelly Garrett.

Dan Wells, Nothing Left to Lose

Friday, June 9
University Bookstore
Seattle, WA
7:00 PM

Sunday, June 11
Borderlands Café
San Francisco, CA
5:00 PM

Tuesday, June 20
The King’s English Bookshop
Salt Lake City, UT
7:00 PM

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Excerpt: Soleri by Michael Johnston

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Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

Soleri will become available June 13th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

THE BLACK SAND

They used to be fishermen, but that night hunger made them thieves. Under a moonless sky the men set out from the island in small wooden skiffs, sailing across the ink-black sea toward the distant kingdom. They were crowded in the long thin boats, crammed shoulder to shoulder, some turned sideways or doubled over to shield themselves against the waves. Gusty wind and angry water forced a few ships to turn back, while others were lost to the surf, and those who journeyed onward kept their eyes focused on the horizon, searching for the dim silhouette of the Dromus. The skiff rolled and the boy caught sight of the desert barrier. The great wall was hewn from cinder-gray rock and reflected no light, its jagged ridge biting at the low-hanging stars like a blacker piece of night.

A cresting wave propelled the boy’s craft to shore. He clutched his oilskin sack and held it tight against his chest. The skiff tipped as they neared the black sand, and everyone went overboard. He was first in the water, overwhelmed by the dark, the rushing swells, the screams of men. In all his ten and five years, he had never left the southern islands. Now here he was, scrambling for footing on a foreign beach, staring at the desert wall.

As he marched up the black-sand beach, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake, if he should turn back. Others were whispering, afraid to go on ahead.

As if in reply, the eldest among them urged them forward—reminding them that for the last several months all they had to eat were the bones of last season’s salt-dried fish and those were all gone. There was no going back now. There was nothing to go back to. The men turned once more to face the Dromus, that ash-stone monolith, onyx black, impenetrable, they said, impossible to breach—this wall that kept Sola rich, protected, and apart from the lower kingdoms. In the distance, as the sun rose and its light spread from the barrier’s rim, they saw the first glint of what they had come for—the riches promised beyond the wall—gold.

All the gold of the Soleri. The words rang in their heads, the proverb they had heard as children at their fathers’ knees, words from their deepest memories: “Before time was the Soleri, and after time the Soleri will be.” The ruling family had been in power longer than even the calendars that stretched back 2,942 years—first in stone, then clay, then parchment. Those records told a history of conquest and domination by a family descended from gods, a family older than anything in the known world, ruling with nearly absolute authority for three millennia. There was no world without the Soleri—they were the center of everything, the end and the beginning—and so it was to the center of the empire, to the Dromus and all that lay beyond, that the men from Scargill, dressed in sea-soaked rags and driven by desperation, now turned.

They pressed on, passing into the wall’s growing shadow with a mixture of dread and determination. They had crossed the burnt-sand beach and were within striking distance, but now they were vulnerable to attack from above, from the dead-shot archers of the Soleri Army. They scanned the wall for signs of its inhabitants, upward and down, following the ragged contour of the Dromus until it disappeared into the horizon. Nothing.

The line of the wall thinned out along its broad curve, and they moved more quickly now as the ground became more certain underneath their feet, the wide plain of the desert opening up around the ash-stone barrier. There it was. The Gate of Coronel, the southern gate of the Dromus, three days’ march from the city of the Soleri. The boy could see the two panels of the gateway, each one the size of a great raft turned on end. But what was this? The doors stood open.

A trap, some said. But others disagreed, said it was just a bit of luck, that the guards must be napping in the first light of dawn. They should take this chance, they murmured, while they still could. The boy remembered that the Feast of Devouring approached. Perhaps the guards had gone off to prepare for the high holdiday.

The open gate stood before them.

The elders made the decision: the fishermen of Scargill would charge the gate as planned.

They crossed the Dromus and entered the gate. Steeled themselves for spears, for swords, for fire, for the emperor’s soldiers, warriors of exceptional skill and ferocity who were bred to conquer and slay. Who were said to be able to kill with a breath, with a look.

They were ready for anything, but nothing rose to meet them. No fire. No arrows. No soldiers. The Dromus was empty. Unguarded.

There was no one there.

No soldier stood guard, and even the gold they had seen from a distance was nothing more than the sun’s first rays reflecting off the temple’s tattered dome. No army and no riches here. No food or fresh water either—the storehouses and water barrels stood empty.

The fishermen from Scargill, their limbs thin, bones poking out at the joints, who had come if not for gold then simply for food for their children, could not go home, not yet.

Past the temple, past the fields of spears and upturned earth, the men pushed onward till the air turned foul. Here at last were the mighty soldiers of the Soleri. But the fighting men were not arranged in serried ranks, nor were they spread out in a mighty phalanx of spears and helms. The soldiers lay lifeless, stacked in mounds, left to rot in the sun and the wind, left for the crows’ next meal.

The men from Scargill, woolly bearded elders and smooth-chinned boys stopped their advance. There was nowhere else to go, nothing left to see. The boy flung his oilskin over his shoulder, scratched his cheek, and spat.

Around them, the Dromus stretched to infinity—its black line holding the last traces of night.

Everything else was just sand.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael Johnston

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