Shadows, Swordplay, and Ballroom Dancing: A Conversation with Anna Kashina
Most of us are prone to flights of fantasy. We imagine ourselves capable heroes of a mythical kingdom full of mystery, intrigue, swordplay, and magic. But fantasy stories are often shackled by shadows of elves, rings, and medieval knights. When a fantasy novel brings ideas both new and surprising, it’s worth celebrating.
Anna Kashina’s new novel Shadowblade seamlessly blends together adventure, romance, swordplay, and intrigue with a unique world. Naia dreams of becoming a Blademaster. After her training goes awry, she meets a stranger who rescued the sole survivor of a horrific massacre. This stranger wants to topple the line of imperial succession—and Naia finds herself at the vanguard of a plot that will change the world.
Anna Kashina is an author, a Russian-born biomedical research scientist at University of Pennsylvania, a competitive ballroom dancer, and a fan of martial arts, history, and folklore. Her books include the award-winning Majat Code series. Her latest novel, Shadowblade, will be available from Angry Robot Books on May 7th.
When did you get started writing?
I wrote my first “novel” when I was five—it was about 20 pages long, self-illustrated, and it ended with a romantic phrase “and they sailed off into the west, where the sun rises.” When grown-ups around me pointed out that the sun rises in the east, I was so embarrassed I immediately destroyed the manuscript. I never stopped writing, though, up until the time when I was ready to show my next piece to anyone. I was about twenty at the time.
How has working in academia influenced your writing?
Well, writing came first in my life, so I tend to think more of how my writing influenced my work in academia. Seriously, though, in both occupations, the ability to think logically, to organize your thoughts, and to phrase them precisely, are all key skills that can give one a major competitive edge. I tend to be more efficient in my academic job when I am also working on a novel in parallel. I guess the same is also true in reverse.
How has your knowledge of the Russian language impacted the way you write or tell stories?
Oh, this is a complicated one. When I first came to the US—as an adult, after getting my degree in Russia—my biggest dream was to learn English as well as I know Russian. I wrote my first novel, The Princess of Dhagabad in Russian, and then took a huge Oxford dictionary and translated it into English. In the process, I not only learned a lot, but also had a full chance to appreciate the differences between the two languages.
Russian is great for imagery and long descriptions. English is perfect for dialogue and fast action. In most cases, there tends to be no direct translation between the two, so one really needs to make adjustments. Probably because of this, my first novel is full of descriptions and imagery, while my latest books tend to focus on action. Language-wise, it was a very transformational experience.
I believe I still have more finesse in Russian, so when I write fast and don’t want to pause to think of wording, I put in Russian words to return to later when I edit the text. I think and dream in English, though, so this is really a complicated mix.
Over the years, I learned to use this as a tool, rather than a handicap. By now, I know how to balance this consciously. If I want to do descriptions, I read books in Russian. If I need to focus on action, I read in English. These shifts can be very subtle, but I enjoy playing with them as needed.
Which time period in history do you feel has most influenced your work?
When I was growing up, I was fascinated with British history. My grandfather used to read me the earlier volumes of Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples as bedtime stories. I also studied mythologies from all cultures, any books I could lay my hands on. Speaking of the time periods, everything from ancient China to Europe before the invention of firearms can inspire my settings and stories.
What inspired your newest novel?
During my work on my previous books, The Majat Code trilogy, I got pretty deep into developing a cast of super-warriors, whose weapon style blends Eastern martial arts with a medieval European-style setting. In The Majat Code, we see these warriors in action, but we never get to learn what it takes to create one. This was my original inspiration, to show a path of a young girl from a misfit and an outcast to a super-warrior, all achieved entirely on her own merit.
It ended up as so much more, though. The Jaihar warriors in Shadowblade are reminiscent of the Majat, but different in many ways. And then there is the rest of the story too—starting with an overarching political plot to overthrow the emperor, and ending with the fact that, for the first time in my life, I tapped into my academic background to figure out the “science” behind a warrior’s superior skill, and the vulnerabilities that come with it. Working all this out was so much fun.
This isn’t your first series of novels. What appeals to you about writing a series?
Funny enough, when I wrote my first novel, I was dead set against ever writing series. I strongly believed that each next book in the series is bound to be worse than the previous one. I was absolutely sure I would never write a sequel in my life.
And then came Blades of the Old Empire, the novel I wrote for several years, until I became intimately familiar with all aspects of the world and the story. I couldn’t get enough of my characters. Writing began to feel like spending time with close friends. I missed it when I finished the book, and I continued to write chapters that, as I believed at the time, would never get published. I didn’t even realize I was writing a sequel until it was already more than half done. I think that this sequel ended up even better than the original (opinions differ, on that one), and the whole experience certainly made me a convert.
This appeal, of creating an entire world, populating it with kick-ass characters, and then being allowed to spend as much time with them as you want, is really unlike anything else. Worldbuilding for a brand new series does involve work, in addition to the fun. Writing sequels in the same world is pure undivided enjoyment.
The romance within your novels never feels forced or out of place; how do you go about crafting a believable romantic relationship?
In any romance—real or fictional—it’s all about people. I start by creating characters that feel like real people to me. Then I put them together—and literally just sit back and watch what they do. If I’ve done a good job of making them a match for each other, the attraction between them really comes on its own. If not, I never force it. Sometimes it takes time for them, more than I anticipated, but I always let them do it at their own pace.
Interestingly, when I wrote book one in my previous series, I was not sure about the fate of the main relationships until the very last pages of the book. In Shadowblade, though, the characters had a great chemistry right from the start. I hope there are no spoilers in this statement, but I am really happy about the way the dynamics between them played out.
Imperial succession can be complex. In Shadowblade, did you base this on any real-world historical dynasties?
I was guided by historical precedents at every step. Shadowblade is a blend of cultures, with the setting based mostly on the Middle Eastern civilizations. I took some of my inspiration from the Mogul Empire, but the plots around the imperial succession are actually connected to several episodes in Chinese history. A lot of this work was behind the scenes, but I believe glimpses of it do show through in the book.
When researching Shadowblade, what is one interesting fact you came across?
I was thinking of mentioning the history of medieval Middle Eastern clothes, or the early versions of chess that inspired the shatranj game in my book . . . but probably the most interesting one is the fact that people do actually eat deep-fried scorpions and find them tasty.
What does your writing process look like?
These days? Absolutely chaotic. I have two small children, and a very demanding day job, so there is absolutely no chance for a set writing time every day.
I carry my laptop in my bag at all times, and whenever I have any spare moment—even fifteen minutes—I sit down and write. I also write in the evenings, after I put my kids to sleep. And, I do research in between, sometimes scribble maps and details on pieces of paper and keep them around as I work on the text.
After coming up with a reasonable first draft, I always put it aside for a month or so, and work on something else, then come back and edit it from a fresh perspective. It takes several passes—the last two or three on paper, with the whole novel printed out.
Have you found a way to include your experience as a competitive ballroom dancer into any of your stories?
Oh, yes definitely! The warrior skills, as taught by the Jaihar, build on the real-life weapon techniques, but also include the techniques commonly overlooked in regular combat classes but taught extensively in ballroom dancing. Keeping your balance using stomach muscles, initiating movements from the tips of your toes, moving relative to your opponent, turning on axis, spotting your turns . . . Not all of them are explicitly mentioned in the book, but I do work through all the moves, and discuss them extensively with my martial arts consultants, and I am occasionally able to surprise them. I think I probably wouldn’t have chosen high-level blademasters as my characters if I haven’t studied both dancing and martial arts.
What is one piece of writing advice you’ve been given that has stuck with you throughout your career?
“Never give up.” This is the advice I live by every day.