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Alexander

the desert's blowing and nothing grows

Last week my novelette "Women in Sandstone" was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A general crosses a desert of living winds to outdo her world's Alexander the Great. It opens:

“Your mouth is hanging open like a bell,” the South-East Wind said. “I wonder, if the wind blows between your teeth, will you clang or chime?”


The general tore her gaze from the temple’s walls. The tall wine-dark plume on her silver helmet bobbed and swayed in the North Wind | I blow through it and it is like the grass near a battlefield: heavy with the smells of burning and blood and bones | and then it tilted as she removed the helmet, revealing her hair -- long and black with white running through it like embroidery, fastened in four thick braids -- and the extent of her dark, scarred face. “I wish to honor your great temple,” she said.



Lois Tilton has given it a RECOMMENDED in Locus Online, with particular enjoyment of the bells. This pleases me: the bells are the oldest part of the story and one of my favourite details.

Other favourite details include the Alexander references. Here's a guide:

(1) Kandros is obviously Alexander. Where the real Alexander died in Babylon, after returning from India when his army mutinied and insisted on returning west, Kandros went alone to the desert of the winds. After Alexander (and Kandros) died, the lands conquered fell into generations of war between the Successors. Berenike was a common name for royal women among the Successors of Alexander.

(2) Berenike's breastplate is embossed with "a woman, heroically nude, stabbing a lion that reared on its hind legs" because a) heroic nudity is an artistic convention for men in ancient Greek cultures, and I liked the idea of a woman using that convention, b) Achaemenid Persian kings (the dynasty Alexander defeated in Persia) liked to depict themselves stabbing lions on their hind legs, like so, just as Assyrian kings did before them. There's a lot of inheritance of kingship motifs in the Near East, in architecture, textual traditions, etc, which Alexander's textual traditions participated in (and Alexander himself!) so Berenike, as a Successor to Kandros, would adopt kingship motifs to demonstrate her (intended) kingship.

(3) Berenike's shield is "embossed with a map of the world’s mountains" because mountains are an important motif in the way the world is described in textual traditions about Alexander, which draw (I argue) from Near Eastern traditions in which mountains are also important. Mountains are at the edges of the world, where heroes journey, heroic/legendary acts occur and "inhuman" peoples live. A conqueror like Berenike would embrace this motif in her own narratives -- would want to reach every mountain range and outdo her predecessors' deeds there. See, later: "...the high mountains where people with partridge bodies were rumored to live..." The people with partridge bodies are from the Cuthean Legend about Naram-Sin, a descendant of Sargon, a real and legendary king of Akkad.

(4) Berenike's coins are described as having thick curls of hair over her forehead, though her hair's straight. The famous coins of Alexander minted by Lysimachus depict Alexander with thick, curly hair, which it stands to reason a Successor like Berenike (especially one, like Berenike, who is noticeably mixed race) would emulate.

(5) Berenike's mother was Central Asian: an Amazon, a tradition of warrior women inspired by the real warrior women of Central Asian societies. The Amazons were said to have sent a delegation to Alexander, at a different point in his invasion to when they meet him in this story. The sea of grass is the steppe.

(6) Šammuramat (Š = 'Sh') is the name of the real royal Assyrian woman who may have been the model for Semiramis, who Alexander is said to have outdone in crossing the Gedrosian desert. (Semiramis and Alexander are interesting: they're both exemplars for each other.) It's convenient for Berenike that she has a good story (that happens to be true) about herself in the desert of Šammuramat.

(7) This simile: "...like one of a pair of snakes leading her across the desert." When Alexander went to the temple at Siwa (in Egypt) to consult Zeus Ammon, he became lost in the desert, upon which two snakes appeared to lead him to the temple. This is told by Arrian, who is considered our 'sober', 'factual' source for Alexander's campaigns.

(8) Roshanak is the name of Alexander's Bactrian wife. It's not impossible that she would have had contacts among the nomadic peoples of the steppe. Her life after Kandros' death is a lot better than her life after Alexander's.

I think that's all. If anyone wants to know more, do ask!

I had a lot of fun mixing ancient history into a world that's very fictional, too, with winds that "blow the winged women of the Aĝir people into the snowstorms where they test their strength" and see "a palimpsest of women, mother under daughter, granddaughter like a scarf around them both".

Comments

Stories with such a deep sense of history make me happy: thank you. (This is one reason why I love Judith Tarr's books so much: you can taste the past in all its different shapes and narratives and realities.)
It's so much fun to write: the ability to create a clearer sense of the past(s), the delight of inventing details.
Alex: you are amazing and I have bookmarked this novelette to put on my reading to-do list.
this would be amazing if it was illustrated!
Yes! Sadly my ability to draw is, uh... shit stick figures...
Thank you for assembling this! I picked the "heroic nudes" but most of the rest is completely unknown to me. It enhances what was already a story I enjoyed very much.
Thank you! I'm really glad you enjoyed it.
vomiting foxes

October 2014

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