What’s up with Amgalant?

Last year I hit ten years since I published Amgalant One and Two in 2012.

A lot has happened, to me and to the world, in ten years. A lot of bad stuff, frankly. I am not the same person, and Amgalant – can’t be the same book.

I dread turning out one of those delayed series finishers or sequels that either don’t fit, or prove to be unreadable. It’s common and a distinct possiblity. Too, I am afraid that I have deteriorated and do not own the brain space (cognitive issues, though perhaps now solved, have interfered in those ten years). Sales remain low to nonexistent for weeks at a time, and I have been tempted away into writing short fiction that people actually read.

Ten years is time to draw a line. I’m drawing a line under Amgalant – which, true to its title, now stands as the story of the unification of the steppe. This is how I have framed the series description:

Amgalant series

‘Amgalant’ means unity.

This story is about the unification of the steppe under Tchingis Khan (Chinggis, Genghis). From the shattered condition of the Mongol tribes before him, up to 1206 when Tchingis is acknowledged khan over the different peoples of the steppe.

Amgalant likewise follows Temujin, the boy who becomes Tchingis Khan,
from an outcast life of poverty to the achievement of his dreams.

The forty years from 1166 to 1206 saw great drama on the steppe, although settled societies off the steppe scarcely noticed. That remains true to this day.
Temujin’s rise to instatement as Tchingis Khan is the heart and guts of the Secret History of the Mongols, more important to its Mongol creators and audience than
the off-steppe conquests afterwards.

The Secret History of the Mongols is a gorgeous source for a novelist,
rich in human interest and incident. Amgalant follows this source
with humble fidelity to the history and faith in the art of the original.

The series does not end abruptly. I never believed in publishing unfinished story, and on principle, each book finishes its business. Yes, Tchingis is still alive at the end. His eyes are on the horizon. It ends upbeat (oh, I notice both the books do — hell, so do those of the four-set), and I like that.

Whatever comes next won’t be Amgalant. It’ll be post-Amgalant. That half-million words of raw material and draft I have for the projected third (see last January’s report)? Presently I am extracting strands and gobbets to shape into a novella or short novel. Another novella has suggested itself beyond that. I’ll tell the story. But in different ways. Not locked into a trilogy, I am free to reconfigure that material, even in radical ways, that suddenly seem doable to me. Whatever else, it’ll be short works. My thinking has become short-term.

I want to go on writing other short fiction too, whereas Amgalant (2003-2012) was a drown-out-everything-else commitment (moreover, when I deliberately didn’t have a life and didn’t do social media). Those days are gone, whether or not my writing self can turn out work to the standards of Amgalant. I’m not even pessimistic on that point, as I am excited and enthusiastic about the novella I have in hand.

(Its working title is ‘The Khan’s Orchestra’, and I tend to let off steam about it on my Twitter).

You can buy the Amgalant series direct from me here at my Payhip storefront.

Fantasy Tangut story


I have another story out, this one quite Amgalant-adjacent: ‘The Grief-Note of Vultures’ in New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine.

It’s set in a fantasy version of Tangut (the ‘Great State White and High’) in the late 12th or early 13th century. This is where I’m at in writing Amgalant Three, Scavenger City: off-steppe, the fringes of the steppe, contested frontiers between steppe and settled. That’s where my head is, and so this story.

My fantasy-Tangut is a bit of a dystopia, at least for nomads. Those steppe frontiers have a history—and an urgent present, at the turn of the 12th-13th century—of forced settlement, of anti-nomad policies. As well, Tangut was a place of steep inequality, as disclosed to me in The Economy of Western Xia: A Study of 11th to 13th Century Tangut Records by Shi Jinbo—an invaluable close-up on Tangut in open access.

The story plot began with a tidbit I glimpsed years ago: a hell scene that seemed to be a semi-realist picture of torture, state-comissioned shortly after the conquest of the area. A caption speculated that the atrocities of conquest were re-interpreted in this religious art, in validation or even in an obscure contrition. Well, that has gone into my draft for Scavenger City, and I pulled it out to serve as the nub of this short story. For Tangut and its art, visit the site of the International Dunhuang Project

What else is historical in the story?

On spirits, my human-animal amalgam-spirits and spirit behaviour in general, as always, my first source is Shamans And Elders: Experience, Knowledge And Power Among The Daur Mongols by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon. I cannot say too much about this book, but said a bit in my Goodreads review.

I have a woman ‘king’ of bandits. She is inspired by Yang Miaozhen, who led a force of ten thousand bandits in the chaos of North China under Mongol invasion, and when she went over to the Mongols, was appointed to a governorship by them. I feel that this commoner woman’s career, as bandit leader and as governor, was only possible in the chaotic situation, and so I link my bandit with chaos. On Yang Miaozhen, the necessary article is ‘Yang Miaozhen: A Woman Warrior in Thirteenth-Century China’ by Pei-Yi Wu in the journal NAN NÜ: Men, Women and Gender in China (2002).

Angaj-Duzmut and friends have other stories in progress. I have cast them in pre-Chinggis Tangut, with the thought that in future I can have them live through a fantasy Mongol invasion. On Chinggis Khan and Tangut, see my rather long post.

There is a second steppe-related story in the magazine. ‘The Curse of the Horsetail Banner’ by Dariel R. A. Quiogue riffs, fantasy-style, on Chinggis history. Seen here with art by Hardeep Aujla.

 

 

 

 

New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine’s Issue 0 is free in epub and pdf, and available at-cost in paperback and hardcover. Go here: https://newedgeswordandsorcery.com/

A Truce with Evil


I have a novelette in a new anthology, Queer Weird West Tales edited by Julie Bozza.

The call went, ‘If it’s weird, if it’s queer, if it’s on a frontier…’
My story, ‘A Truce with Evil’, is set in a fantasy version of the Russian-Siberian frontier of the 16th century.

I talk about the story, its inspirations and background, in this interview on Julie Bozza’s blog:

QUEER WEIRD WEST TALES: author Bryn Hammond

‘Steppe nomads are how I got to this frontier in the first place. My historical fiction series Amgalant is set in the 13th century, when the taiga is a frontier for Tchingis Khan as well. In ‘A Truce with Evil’ I have Bilbil, a spirit who lived in the 13th century, hark back to the Mongol intrusion.’

This is rich and diverse anthology, with settings of the American Old West and beyond from an ancient Roman wall to outer space. I loved its range of story, style, and of queer representation.

 

Writing for Effect with Marian L Thorpe

Writing for Effect: A dialogue with Bryn Hammond

Today I am a guest on Marian L Thorpe’s blog for the first in her series Writing for Effect.

Marian says, ‘This is the first in a blog series, the purpose of which is not only to spotlight an author’s work, but, in a dialogue between myself and the author, to illustrate the variety of ways the techniques of writing can be used, and how styles differ… Bryn has chosen to discuss how she used poetic speech, homely metaphor, and lively conversation in her work.’

I call this photo ‘My shrine, with offerings’: The Secret History of the Mongols in several translations, with the version that is my novels.

On Laury Silver’s list

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a real honour to make Laury Silvers’ list of five ‘Seriously Historical’ historical novels. By this she means novels that ‘do history’ — do historian’s work, within the practical format of the novel.

Laury Silvers is the author of The Sufi Mysteries — exemplary of novels that do history, since Silvers not only draws on her previous scholarly work but pushes it further with the help of fiction. Fiction as a way to explore historical questions, fiction as a tool in itself.

Seriously Historical Historical Fiction

While you’re at Shepherd, you can catch up with my own list of five ‘Seriously Epic’ historical novels: Seriously Epic Historical Fiction. Or see Laury and I discuss our process in this joint interview by Julie Bozza: Interview with Bryn Hammond and Laury Silvers

I interview Sarah Tolmie


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had the fortune to interview Sarah Tolmie, medievalist, poet and novelist, about her novella with Tor.com, All the Horses of Iceland. We were hosted on The Great Raven, a blog owned by Sue Bursztynski.

I’m proud of this interview, which roves, like the novella, from Iceland to the steppe: The Secret History of the Mongols and Icelandic sagas; magic, priests, and shamans; historical fantasy and history; women, disability, and ghosts. If I can boast (and on my own blog who’s to stop me?), Sarah said, ‘These were the best questions about a book I have ever answered’ — and her answers are fire. Please visit The Great Raven and read.

An interview with Sarah Tolmie

 

status January 2022

I owe you a status report on Amgalant and related matters.

Amgalant Three, Scavenger City, sits in a doc of 490,000 words. This includes some of its notes, although most of that is draft. I had the cover for Scavenger City made at the same time as those for Against Walls and Imaginary Kings. The cover’s no secret — it’s better that you see I have serious intention to finish, than wait for a cover reveal.

My doc has less word count than it did a year ago, because I extracted a standalone, but Amgalant-adjacent novel, which I’ve titled An Ingratitude of Goats. It’s told from the perspective of three Tanguts — two captives of the Mongols, and one volunteer. This novel has an arts focus: one of my three is a musician from Temujin’s (historical) Tangut orchestra, and one is involved in the early flourishing of zaju, or popular opera. Extracting these storylines left Scavenger City more workable, and with a concentration on Temujin that continues from Against Walls and Imaginary Kings. But I’d love to write Goats.

The world being in the state it is, I need to add a note in case I am incapacitated. If worst comes to worst and I never finish Three, I’d like you to think of Amgalant not as an incomplete trilogy. I have treated each book as a novel in itself. They have ends, and I have allowed them to have their own stylistic features, as suited the individual work. Aside from that, Against Walls and Imaginary Kings together run through the chief content of the Secret History of the Mongols. In the Secret History, the post-1206 off-steppe conquests are almost addendums, written in much more cursory fashion than Temujin’s life on the steppe. In a way, my re-telling of the Secret History is done. The creators of that history, too, weren’t cut off, but wrote to the interests of their audience. If I fail to finish — which has been my nightmare — I’ll comfort myself that the original creators knew what was important, and their work has a sense of conclusion. Maybe I’m unwise to be writing Three at all, without the Secret History to rest on.

Nevertheless, that is my goal this year.

Epic HF: my five picks

For a site called Shepherd, I have chosen a list of five Seriously epic historical fiction.

In introducing each of them, I tried to discuss what makes a novel epic in my eyes. It isn’t just about size…

Have a look at my picks. They are five fabulous books.

 

 

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Image: Delacroix, Tiger Attacking a Wild Horse, from the Commons. I had this on my first edition cover, to express an epic conflict.

Shaman story in Bell Press anthology

I am happy to have a story in an anthology from Bell Press.

Bell Press publishes literary anthologies and operates on the unceded Coast Salish Territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Squamish people.

The Knot Wound Round Your Finger is an anthology on the theme of memory. Memories lost, memories made. What to discard and what to keep? How do we form them and how do they form us? From speculative and historical fiction to memoir and creative non-fiction, each piece explores these fragments of the past and how they trouble us or offer comfort.

Edited by Devon Field

Contributors: Deborah Bean, Mark Blickley, Helen Bowie, Heather Diamond, Benjamin Gardner, Heidi Greco, Bryn Hammond, Geoff Hart, NC Hernandez, Joanna Michal Hoyt, Shereen Hussain, Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim, Vandana Nair, Stephen O’Donnell, Emma Prior, Karen Rollins, Lorraine Schein, Carsten Schmitt, Shanon Sinn

My short story, ‘Ill Spirits’, concerns the memory work a shaman does in a community.

“The stitching Taliat said to Paliap perplexed, ‘A shaman works in grief and love as I work in skin and sinew.’”

I wrote this story because I hadn’t found room in Amgalant, yet, to say enough about shamans, emotions, and spirits as a memory of harm, suffered and inflicted. Late in Two, Temujin comes close:

“Our sane spirits sit at the hearths of their fathers and cause us no disquiet. We don’t have a justice court of God, we have the ghosts of our injustices and they haunt us, and they aren’t just, Borte. They are hurt creatures… Ill spirits are another sort of history, the history of our ill acts. If our spirits can’t be escaped, why, our victims can’t escape. Justice is an artifice. What is actual is emotions.”

I stole a line from him to write ‘Ill Spirits’. I stole the title, with its play on ill as in malign and ill as in sick. In my draft my shaman in the story said after him, ‘Justice is an artifice. What is actual is emotions’, but I gave him his own lines, to press the same point.

The story — as does Amgalant on the belief system of the Mongols — owes heavily to the wonderfully rich study Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Daur Mongols by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon (Oxford UP 1996). For an explanation of Mongols’ understanding of spirit attacks as caused by social harm, often to the most vulnerable, see my post on Mongols and the plague, where I quote extensively from Humphrey and Onon.

While writing, I was aware that shamans have been ill-served by fiction. Zen Cho, in a Roundtable on Faith Depiction in SFF transcribed at Strange Horizons, says this is still the case. So I am out to undo a few misconceptions on the way.

For soft stags and hard does, see Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (St. Martin’s Press 2000).

The Knot Wound Round Your Finger is now available in ebook and paperback.
Order at Bell Press.


New Historical Note

I have a new Historical Note in my Amgalant four-set, which I post beneath.

The original series (Against Walls & Imaginary Kings) have several appendices, while the four-set I kept slimline. As I prepare them for paperback, however, I’ve written an updated historical note for the four-set.

I find the readers’ site Goodreads a useful place to watch what general readers are thinking about Mongols. I pick up the state of play from readers’ reviews of Mongol-subject books, whether scholarly, popular history, or fiction. My overview is addressed to such readers, a response to the kind of questions they express about Mongol history and its historians.

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Historical Note

If you’ve read the novel first, you’ll know that I refer closely to a text, the Secret History of the Mongols, written in the thirteenth century. This primary source stands to my fiction as canon stands to a transformative or fan work: it can’t be changed, and I have to allow for everything in it. A report on my historical accuracy starts there. As for how historical the Secret History is or tries to be, I believe its creators had serious aims to record what was true. Even when the history uses the style of oral epic, this is reserved for people’s speeches; and speeches were committed to memory with the help of poetic techniques. So I do not cut out any details as unlikely, or as too like a story. No history-telling method escapes the effects of transmission. Besides, I am at least as interested in ways the Mongols told their history to each other, in how they imagined their immediate past, as I am in ‘what happened’.

What about my novelist’s imagination? From the Secret History, I give you ‘the truth’ and ‘the whole truth’: meaning, if it’s in there, it’s in mine, and nothing that is in there I leave out of mine. But on the third clause, ‘and nothing but the truth’ – no, a novelist can’t do that with such a puzzle of a thirteenth-century text. I give you much else that isn’t in the original, to extrapolate from its brief glances and explain its shifts in action and in character, so concisely told as to be often enigmatic. The text leaves motives unstated, except as people report them – in its conscientious historicity. Although rich in subjectivities as self-presented or as seen by others, the narrative does not guess at people’s insides. Whereas I am a novelist, and love to construct motive out of an odd sequence of conduct and a few riddles of quotes.

For more on the Secret History, my interpretations of it, and my accounts of how a novelist works with primary source material, see posts on my website amgalant.com, or my craft essay Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe.

Onto secondary works. For a bibliography, again, my website can lead you to where I keep my virtual steppe shelves. I like to review Mongol books both scholarly and popular. It’s hard to pick a few works to list here, but I can’t resist the opportunity to mention İsenbike Togan. Togan has chosen often to publish in Central Asian journals in order to support them, and this means her scholarship can be less well known. A specific debt I owe is to archaeologist Gideon Shelach-Lavi for Hoelun’s ‘Great-Antlered Stag’ lesson to her children. But if there is one book I could not have written without, it is Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon. In these pages is found the lion’s share of my research on Mongols’ belief system. The book is anthropology on the twentieth century, but Urgunge constantly refers back to the thirteenth century as the classic age in Mongols’ memory. In any case, history is well fleshed out with anthropology when sources are skimpy.

Let me make a general comment. When I began to research for these novels in 2003, the state of Mongol history was fairly dire. I felt assaulted by my own library. Since then there has been an opening-up of Mongol studies, sometimes called ‘the cultural turn’, that takes into account material history, art history, intellectual history. A sense for culture was exactly what the old standard history, David Morgan’s, lacked: it came across as Eurocentric because it had no idea of interpreting the Mongols through their own culture. The advent of Jack Weatherford in 2004 was a shock, not least to me. What he did invaluably was inject a big dose of anthropology into our historical understanding. Straight historians were hostile at first, but by now there is far more acceptance of Weatherford. As for me, I’m glad I conceived my novels – their gist, and the character of Tchingis – before Weatherford published, or I’d have had an anxiety of influence. The reason I spell him ‘Tchingis’ was to distinguish him in my head as my character in my fiction – to develop him out of, but away from, that library of mine (he is nobody else’s Chinggis: but he is possible, from the evidence). The ‘cultural turn’ is not only about the Mongol Exchange – an update of the Pax Mongolica idea, that looks at exchanges between cultures in the joined-up world under Mongol governance. It is also about cultural awareness in our history-writing. 

Things aren’t as simple as that old work is Mongol-negative and new work is Mongol-positive. Individual historians still differ greatly. In the prehistory of Mongol historiography, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw amazingly positive takes, while a couple of early twentieth-century writers are among my champions. Igor de Rachewiltz in his last interview spoke of his resistance to the new trend, and he remains influential through his Secret History translation for Brill, where his negative views are evident in his translation choices as well as in his commentary. In the popular arena, one of the most negative assessments of Chinggis I have ever anguished over is Frank McLynn’s 2015 biography. I can only say, be aware. Read widely.

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Paperbacks of 1.1 and 1.2 are already available, at least on Amazon. Elsewhere, I hope, soon.