In the aftermath of what I quickly came to call my Blessed Book, “The Secrets of Jin-shei” – the one that swept the world, was quickly published in some dozen or more languages including REALLY out-there ones like Catalan, and Lithuanian, and Turkish, and Hebrew – my agent asked if there was a sequel.
And I said no, at first, because there wasn’t, not really. That novel ended where it did and that was a very good place for it to end. There didn’t seem to be any other place for that story to go.
I said no, and kept saying no, and all the time there was a nebulous idea that was taking wraith-like form in the back of my mind. I said no… right until the moment that ghost coalesced, and I found myself saying, “Well, actually…”
And thus began ‘Embers of Heaven’.
Part of the push was a wonderful image I found online which gave me a visual through which I could step into that new story. I even harbored hopes that it might end up being the cover of the new book eventually, which it didn’t. But I still have it, that image. It retains its power, although now it’s the reminder of the story it brought forth rather than its inspiration. And part of it was the story itself that presented itself to me. This would not be a sequel, not directly – it would be another stand-alone novel, but it would be a follow-up to “Secrets of Jin-shei”, a story of what happened to that wonderful language of women and the women’s country of Syai which I had left behind in the earlier book.
Some four hundred years later.
I introduced the complication of what was arguably a ‘half-caste’ protagonist – a child of a woman whose roots were in Syai and a man who came from quite a different land and culture, from a place where the Syai mother had settled in exile from her ancestral country.
This would be a child torn between two worlds, and this would give her a unique perspective into both of them – and it also established a tough choice that would have to be made at some point, because nobody can stand straddling a border like this forever, one must eventually come down on one side or another.
The story involved my protagonist’s mother, her sister and herself returning to the land of their ancestors in pursuit of a fulfilment of promise – and about my heroine’s anticipation, and then disillusionment, in what Syai had become in the span of several generations. The Syai this little family finds is very different from the legendary country my young Amais learned of at her grandmother’s knee.
Amais has to take on this new place which she does not know, cannot understand, isn’t equipped to deal with – and as she does so she makes certain choices, certain discoveries, certain decisions, which shape the future of both her country and herself. In the cracks and crevices of the story there’s a great love, one which is star-crossed and never meant to be, a love between a young girl with dreams and a young man whose principles cross and destroy those dreams. But something comes from that collision, something stronger than both the forces that made it. Something that can dream and hope and yet maybe stand sturdily and pragmatically within a realistic world which needs real honest and tough decisions, no matter what the personal cost.
Because the personal cost was going to be huge. If the original novel was swathed in the lush luxury of ancient Imperial China… this book, “Embers of Heaven”, was set in a far different, far harsher time.
In the equivalent of our real historical China’s Cultural Revolution.
And this presented me with its own peculiar set of problems. I read and researched widely and voraciously – I read more than forty books to write this one, biographies, memoirs, historical accounts, geographical volumes, newspaper clippings of the time, photographs. I have shelves full of research material in my library, REAMS of notes. And yet… although everything I discovered wove into the fabric of my story, some of the stuff I found was terrifying and appalling, the tales of man’s inhumanity to man, and not all of it could, or even should, have just been regurgitated into a novel of a fictionalized account of the era. Which was still *within living memory*.
I couldn’t just make things up here, and plough forward. There had to be a HUGE amount of research – and then there had to be discretion, and empathy, and respect. Yes, this was history – but the lives that this particular cold finger of history touched might still be going on somewhere on this world and although it was unlikely that any of them would ever really directly connect with the story I was telling, I was acutely aware of their presence, and every word I wrote was written under the watchful eyes of these living ghosts who haunted my study as I typed into my computer.
I have to say, here and now, that I poured everything I had into the writing of this, in the hope that there was a shining moment in there somewhere – in the land of my fiction – that might have had its equivalent in the reality of it all. I found out the hard way that writing fantasy about (more recent) history is tough for a good reason. It was a good lesson in the simple truth that there is no such thing as “the past”, not as such – it may be a different country, but we are still living in it. History doesn’t end where the books do. It carries on, and so do people’s lives and experiences and expectations, and in some way we are still – we are ALWAYS – living it. It was this that I had to convey through the pages of my book.
What emerged was one of the most lyrical, most powerful, most astonishingly tender stories I’ve ever written. It has aspects of history, yes, but also of legend, and of myth, and of fairy tale. It is a book that I was, and am, and remain, very proud of – and it was one of the favorites of my late father’s. He returned to read this admittedly not very “masculine” novel at least three times, and there were things from it he could quote verbatim.
It is something of a miracle book, this novel that was born of so many iterations of ‘no’ and that one final ‘yes’ that gave it birth. I never really plan my novels, not really – but this one was an outlier even on that curve, it was not only not planned, it was never even considered viable… right until the moment it was born. And it was born, eventually, in a manner that was rare – smooth, silky, inevitable, *organic*. It was a story that had to be told, eventually, and it chose its own moment in which to emerge and spread its wings.
Come with me now and walk the streets of a Syai four hundred years older than my land of legend, a country torn between its past and its future, its immediate present fraught with fear and pain. And yet… and yet… these are embers of heaven. And in them, the fire still lives. All it needs is a breath, to rise again into the bright flames which will illuminate the way ahead.
Want to take a look? You can get it here