Wednesday 14 August 2013

Triskele Bookclub THE GOLDEN LYNX by C.P.Lesley

Review and Interview by Liza Perrat


Russia, 1534. Elite clans battle for control of the toddler who will become their first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Amid the chaos and upheaval, a masked man mysteriously appears night after night to aid the desperate people.

Or is he a man?

Sixteen-year-old Nasan Kolychev is trapped in a loveless marriage. To escape her misery, she dons boys’ clothes and slips away under cover of night to help those in need. She never intends to do more than assist a few souls and give her life purpose. But before long, Nasan finds herself caught up in events that will decide the future of Russia.

And so, a girl who has become the greatest hero of her time must decide whether to save a baby destined to become the greatest villain of his.

Review ...

The Golden Lynx is set in 16th-century Russia, with Nasan, an Islamic Tatar as protagonist. Nasan witnesses the murder of her brother by a Russian, triggering a battle, and the young Tatar princess becomes the peace offering. Nasan is sent by her parents, far away from her homeland, to marry Daniil, who is related to her brother’s killer. Before long, Nasan finds herself caught up in events that will decide the future of Russia.

This was a period of history about which I knew next to nothing, and I enjoyed learning about it through this story, which is always a sign of good historical fiction for me. I loved the author’s excellent descriptions, and her intriguing exploration and contrast of the two cultures.

In her refusal to play the expected role of women in this society, Nasan comes across as strong and independent, even though I would have like to witness just a little more of her nightly escapades. I loved the idea of the Golden Lynx playing “detective” in parallel to Daniil, and, all in all, found this a compelling 16th-century adventure. I look forward to reading more of this author’s work.

Interview with C.P. Lesley ...

As a child, C. P. Lesley thought everyone told themselves stories to help themselves fall asleep. It never occurred to her that anyone would pay her for them, and for a long time, she was right—no one would. But after years of producing horrible prose, reading books about novel writing, and pestering hapless fellow-writers and friends to read her drafts, some of the advice stuck, and she finished The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, followed by The Golden Lynx. Five Directions Press published both books in 2012. When not thinking up new ways to torture her characters, she edits other people’s manuscripts, reads voraciously, maintains her website, and takes classes in classical ballet.

LP: One of Triskele Books’ hallmarks is a strong sense of location, and this is what first attracted me to The Golden Lynx. In the opening, I truly felt I was tramping around in the snow with Nasan. Is this sense of place, or location, important to you too? 

CP: I think location is an understated but crucial part of the reading experience—especially for historical fiction, since “the past is a foreign country,” to quote David Lowenthal. It’s difficult to become immersed in a world if you have no idea what it looks, sounds, or smells like. There is a balance: as a novelist, it’s important to tie the description to one character’s emotions in the moment, remembering that other characters, or even the same character at a different time, will see the surroundings differently. But when location occupies its proper place in the story, it can capture the reader. I’m delighted to hear that Nasan did that for you.

LP: One of the things I enjoyed about The Golden Lynx was the credible historical detail: language, customs, religion, and social conflicts. I know you are an historian, CP, specializing in 16th-century Russia, but did you have to do any extra research for this novel?

CP: Oh yes, tons. I know a lot about the Russians, but the Mongols and Tatars are much less familiar to me. I love that part: the research into this culture that has turned out to be so much richer and more complex than I imagined. With the Russians, too, I have to read up on battles and military equipment and the like to ensure that what I describe is appropriate for the 1530s. Even simple things like what people ate and drank changed between the beginning of the 16th century and the end.

LP: Tatars are among the cultures I knew nothing about, and it was a delight to read such a well-researched novel that allowed me to peek into their culture, as well as their relationship with the Russians. Why did you choose to write about the Tatars in this era?

CP: This is a classic writers’ story. In brief, I fell into it. When I originally conceived The Golden Lynx (under a different name) years ago, I intended it to kick off a mystery series featuring a husband-and-wife team from the Moscow aristocracy. I set it in 1534, because that was a difficult period in Russian history. In December 1533, Grand Prince Vasily III died and left the throne to his three-year-old son, Ivan (later known as Ivan the Terrible). Child rulers in traditional monarchies almost always give rise to conflict, and this was true during Ivan’s childhood as well.

In that early book, I made my heroine half-Tatar so she would have a reason to be less bland and passive than young women were supposed to be in those days. When, years later, I decided to rewrite the basic idea into The Golden Lynx, I needed a heroine proficient in archery, riding, and swordplay. Only among the Tatar tribes of the steppe could women plausibly develop any of those skills. That was when I began doing research to find out what my decision meant. In fact, I still am. I have Natasha Fijn’s Living with Herds next to me at this moment.

LP: I found one of the strongest parts of the novel was the portrayal of the differences between two very different cultures, including religious differences. Can you tell us briefly about these two cultures, and why you decided to explore these differences?

CP: Russia in the 1530s covered an area less than a quarter of its present size, composed of northern forests, taiga, and tundra. It was brash, vibrant, Orthodox Christian, oligarchic (although it presented itself as an absolute monarchy), agricultural, expansionist, and determined to overcome its isolation from Europe—the result of more than two centuries of Mongol/Tatar rule. It had a fledgling bureaucracy, a large peasant population, and no standing army or schools. Only the bureaucrats and the clergy, for the most part, could read and write—and with parish priests, “literacy” often meant memorization rather than learning. Among the elite, men and women lived segregated lives, with women confined to the house much of the time. Most peasants lived in small villages scattered throughout the forest, farming poor soil under adverse weather conditions and vulnerable to disease, famine, and invasion.

The Tatars occupied a huge arc to Russia’s south, from east of the Volga through what is now western Ukraine. By the 1530s, their glory days as the rulers of western Eurasia were behind them, although they hadn’t realized it yet. Their empire had broken up into separate kingdoms, each of which thought itself the heir to the whole. They are harder to categorize than the Russians because they combined a small, formerly nomadic Mongol elite; sedentary townspeople and farmers who had lived in the area for centuries; and nomadic Turkic tribes. These groups formed at least two connected cultures, both officially Muslim but with fundamentally different orientations. Urban Tatars were culturally sophisticated, cosmopolitan, often literate, polyglot religious moderates who supported the arts and sciences and built schools, universities, and observatories. They lived off the profits of the Silk Road, so they had indoor plumbing, books decorated with Persian miniatures, Chinese-style pottery, and the kind of architecture that survives in the Taj Mahal. Yet their princes fought constantly, and even the most cultured of them were ruthless in battle. Loot and the sale of slaves obtained through military campaigns supported them just as much as trade and tribute. Their khans (male descendants of Genghis) ruled as autocrats with the assistance of the leading clans, but by the 1530s political disintegration led to many assassinations, plots, and coups. They kept their many wives and concubines in harems, although elite women often acquired an education and could exercise considerable power behind the scenes.

The nomadic Tatars, in contrast, lived scattered across the steppe in round felt tents, moving between summer and winter pastures as they had for millennia, supplementing the products of their herds with raids and plunder, and getting together only in response to specific outside threats, the appeal of a khan, or a festival. They regarded townsfolk and settled peoples as prey and clung to their ancient customs while paying lip service to Islam. The exigencies of nomadic life meant that women had to ride, defend themselves, and care for families under harsh conditions. Although subordinate to men, women played an important role in steppe life. Their connections with the hearth fire, birth, and the ancestral grandmother spirits who protected each clan gave women exceptional shamanic power—or so people believed.

As to what attracted me to the subject, Russian history has fascinated me since college. I find the Tatars, if anything, even more interesting because of the complexity of their culture. It seems a shame to me that so many Westerners know so little about this part of history. And although I didn’t set out to explore cultural differences—as I mentioned, I had practical reasons for making Nasan a Tatar—once I started, I found these differences a rich source of characterization and conflict.

LP: Apart from your other novel, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, I believe you have sequels planned for The Golden Lynx. Can we have a few teasers, please?

CP: I am currently working on The Winged Horse (Legends of the Five Directions 2: East). It follows Nasan’s older brother, Ogodai, as he travels to a nomadic horde in the southeastern steppe to marry a girl he hasn’t seen in six years and discovers another candidate muscling in on both the horde and the girl. In the subplot, Nasan and her husband visit the Tatar stronghold of Kazan on Russian government business, where they uncover some of the political machinations mentioned above. The idea is to contrast the different types of Tatar culture—urban and steppe—so that people get over the idea that all Tatars are the same.
The series will include three more books: The Swan Princess (north), The Vermilion Bird (south), and The Shattered Drum (center). At the moment, I have only general ideas as to what will happen in them, but Swan Princess reintroduces a couple of past villains while Daniil is fighting for his life (literally) against the Lithuanians, forcing Nasan to revive the Golden Lynx. So she will have more night-time adventures—to the great distress of her mother-in-law. Vermilion Bird is Maria’s story, and Shattered Drum is Grusha’s; I can’t tell you more than that, because it would give away too many spoilers.

LP: You belong to the author collective Five Directions Press. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to publish independently? Or would you have preferred a traditional publishing deal?

CP: In the end, it was a conscious decision, but I did pursue a traditional publishing contract first. At the time, I assumed that was the only path to publication. I also worried in the beginning that my books were not good enough, and I didn’t want to rush them into print. When I reached the point where several agents liked my work but said they didn’t know editors who would buy it, I decided the problem was marketing, not quality. By then, my writers’ group had made the decision to go ahead with Five Directions Press, so I pulled The Golden Lynx from the one agent who was still considering it to maximize the collective’s chances of success.
LP: Since this interview, Triskele Books has had the pleasure of interviewing all the members of Five Directions Press, in the first of our series on The Author Collective. Read our "blogversation" here.

LP: Thanks so much for answering my questions, CP, and best of luck with the sequels to The Golden Lynx.

CP: I had a great time answering your questions. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.


The Golden Lynx Retailers: Print $16.99 or Kindle $5.99
Barnes and Noble- Print- $16.99 or Nook $5.99
Apple iTunes- $5.99
and as a special order by bookstores

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