Adira: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me about The Wrath of Ambar duology, Ms. Bhathena!
Tanaz Bhathena: Thanks for reading the books and your thoughtful questions! ❤
A: Can you tell me a little about your writing process and the inspiration behind writing Hunted By the Sky and Rising Like a Storm? Was the process for the two novels similar to each other or to when you wrote your contemporary novels, A Girl Like That and The Beauty of the Moment?
TB: In terms of the inspiration for HUNTED and RISING: I really wanted to write a fantasy series that was set in medieval India, a historical period that I was obsessed with as a teen. I also wanted to bring fierce girls and women to the forefront of the narrative; I was very inspired by a North Indian welfare organization called the Gulabi Gang, which had vigilante roots.
On the writing process for the duology: In terms of plot and characterization, it was not very different from writing a contemporary novel. The main difference really was with the worldbuilding, which was really quite fun and also a process that required a lot of thinking as this was a secondary world historical fantasy and not historical fiction. Though historical accuracy isn’t paramount in such fantasy, in many ways, it can be more challenging as you really need a deep knowledge of the world you’re developing and have to think about using your research in creative and inventive ways.
A: My favorite part of reading your duology was how rich and layered the setting and magic system of Ambar was. How did you go about researching and carrying out your world-building for Ambar? Were there any specific books or resources you drew upon when you created the magic system and mythology for the duology?
TB: Thank you! I used primary historical sources such as Ayeen Akbary by Abul Fazal Mobarak and reading historical non-fiction by authors like Ruby Lal, Abraham Eraly, and William Dalrymple. I also researched museum archives online, and made dozens of secret Pinterest boards about Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings, clothing, jewelry, and weapons.
I used existing mythology from Hindu and Zoroastrian sources (such as the Mahabharat and the Shahnameh) to create my own myths and magical creatures. I also took inspiration from a popular Indian mythical trope of the avatar: where gods take on human or animal forms and come down to earth. My magic system is more of a soft magic system, which doesn’t have hard rules, but there is a definite logic to how it works. Magic also comes at a deep cost to its users.
A: Your story is told through a split narrative between Gul, the series “Chosen One,” and Cavas, her love interest that has his own checkered past. What was your inspiration behind creating these two different characters, and did you find it hard to balance them against one another to build up to their romance and the plot twist that comes in Rising Like a Storm?
TB: I love writing multiple perspectives, so I knew from the beginning that there would be at least two if not more characters narrating this series. Both Gul and Cavas are important voices to this series because both are being persecuted in different ways. Their unique perspectives add layers to the book that wouldn’t otherwise be evident through a single person narrator.
A: As an aspiring mental health worker, I appreciated how well you approached the topic of trauma in your books, especially in Rising Like a Storm, in regard to Gul and Cavas and how they handled what could be seen as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they are pushed into the new roles of leading the charge against the Sky King and their enemies. Why did you feel it was necessary to take the characters through the process of acknowledging and grieving their losses before you allowed Gul to unlock her magic and pushed Cavas to face new dangers?
TB: When you write about something as immense as a political revolution or a war, you need to also reveal the physical and mental toll it takes on people. I feel it’s important for readers to see that courage isn’t inherent, that it takes time to develop. Gul and Cavas facing their fears is pivotal to the storyline, but that could only happen once they understood why those fears existed in the first place.
A: A large part of Gul and Cavas’ storylines is their families and the communities they draw on to prepare to fight the Sky King and their other enemies. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote your main characters and side characters, like the Sisters of the Golden Lotus, and areas such as the Tenements, in your duology?
TB: Community to me is about family—the one you’re born into or the one you find for yourself—and this definitely plays into the storyline. While I was placing my characters in difficult situations, I also wanted to show them having support systems: they were not entirely alone.
A: As a lover of the fantasy genre and a child of the 90s who had a limited amount of reading material in the fantasy genre that centered on characters with Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC) who I could relate to, your mantra of “decolonizing [the] imagination” to not center the West rings so true to me. An area where I saw this happening is in your usage of language throughout The Wrath of Ambar duology. Was there a conscious choice on you and your editor’s part not to go the traditional route of italicizing or explaining phrases for Western readers that aren’t English? If so, is there a significant role you wanted language to play in your novels and world-building?
TB: Yes, it was a conscious choice on our parts to not italicize non-English words—doing so felt like othering them. Language is a huge part of worldbuilding as it’s a gateway into a place and its people and their culture. I wanted readers to feel like they were in an Indian-inspired setting and language was a big way to bring in that immersive experience.
A: Keeping with the topic of “decolonizing imagination,” I watched a panel you did with the Carl Brandon Society called “Our Literary Mothers – Desi Authors on Influence and Inspiration,” and a topic that really resonated with me from that panel was how you and your fellow Desi panelists point out that as authors of color, you’re each telling your stories even when you draw on cultural mythology. However, you’re not always going into the writing process to “teach” the reader about your race or culture or to act as a spokesperson for any one marginalized group you belong to. As an author, have you ever felt pigeonholed to mold your writing to the will of what you think the reader may want or to protect the image of your culture or religion while staying true to the integrity of the stories your writing?
TB: All the time. It’s really a delicate balance—staying true and authentic for readers who are familiar with a culture, while also trying to be as clear as possible for those who aren’t. One thing I like to do is leave clues within a sentence to help readers interpret what a word means, without dumbing things down. I also add a glossary at the end because I feel it’s a nice little reference for readers who want to know more about the culture and it can be their starting point to Google and YouTube deep dives!
A: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or resources that you’d recommend to help perfect the craft of writing?
TB: Advice: Finish the book, it won’t write itself.
A couple of resources: Absolute Write Water Cooler, Poets & Writers. But the best advice I can give is read a lot of books! You will learn more from reading books than you will from any creative writing class.
A: I loved The Wrath of Ambar duology and am sad the series has ended. Are you working on any other books I can put on my TBR List?
TB: I’m hoping to be able to announce something in the coming year. 😁
A: What’s on your Summer TBR Reading List?
Thank you for your time, Ms. Bhathena!
Rising Like A Storm is out now!