FanLit talks to Juliette Wade and gives away a copy of Mazes of Power

Juliette Wade and Mazes of PowerJuliette Wade is a native Californian who has traveled extensively and lived in Japan on three occasions. She has advanced degrees in anthropology and linguistics and knows several languages. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog and Clarkesworld. “The Persistence of Blood,” a novella set in the world of Mazes of Power, following characters that appear in the novel, was published in Clarkesworld in March, 2018.

Juliette is working hard on the second book in THE BROKEN TRUST series but she took some time to answer some questions for us. Her publisher will give one copy of Mazes of Power to a commenter we choose at random. USA mailing addresses only.

Marion Deeds: Juliette, thanks for taking the time to do this. I saw you at your book event at Borderlands Books, in San Francisco, California, in February, but I had to leave early to catch a ferry. I really liked what you said about several things, so I’m going to ask you to repeat some of those answers for our readers.

Mazes of Power alternates among three point of view characters; Tagaret, the oldest son of the First Family in the Grobal caste; Aloran of the Imbati caste who is the personal servant of Tagaret’s mother Lady Tamelera, and Nekantor, the younger son of the First Family. Tell us why you needed a certain amount of “decompression time” after writing in Nekantor’s POV, and talk a little bit about how you approach character generally.

Juliette Wade: I think the best way to approach this is to start with the question of character. Whenever I build a world, no matter how much work has gone into the task of worldbuilding, character is always my entry point. In any scene, you need only as much world as the point of character can perceive, know, and judge. In Varin, no character can be a fully reliable narrator, because their judgments and actions grow out of their life experiences, which are full of caste-based prejudice.

Character voice, to me, is a language-learning challenge. I’ve always loved learning languages, and when I was little, I had the unfortunate habit of accidentally picking up speech habits and dialect from the people I was speaking to. At this point I don’t do that anymore! However, when I write, I try to speak the language of each character. That language is English, but the character’s version of it is based on their world, and their history, and the metaphors and narratives they use to explain the world to themselves.Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade

The metaphors and narratives about life that a noble character like Tagaret has internalized after listening to them his entire life are very different from the ones that an Imbati servant like Aloran has had to learn. The ideals of the nobility are all about power, purity, responsibilities and obligations. The ideals of the servants are supposed to be selflessness and complete dedication to the goals of another person, or of a noble house, or of the state as a whole. They also use very different terms to refer to the people around them. The more different the character’s language is from mine, the more deeply I have to commit to it in order to speak it well enough to write the internal point of view, and that is certainly the case with Nekantor. In addition to his noble background, Nekantor notices divergences in expected patterns, and is bothered by them, so he returns to them over and over. He casts judgment almost instantly, usually negatively, because of the way that his father taught him. It always took time for me to “click into” his way of thinking to write his chapters, and it took several minutes for me to stop speaking that language when it was time to stop.

MD: When is the second book due out? And, without spoilers, tell us a little bit about where you see the series going.

JW: The second book, Transgressions of Power, is due out in 2021, but the release date has not been finalized yet. I have five books planned for the series, which covers a thirty-year span of Varin’s political history. The point-of-view characters in Transgressions of Power are all different from those in Mazes of Power. We will get to see through Lady Della’s point of view, for example. Tagaret, Aloran, and Nekantor are still active in the story, though, as non-viewpoint characters.

I’m glad to hear that we’ll get some of Lady Della’s point of view.

Your world is intricate, deeply detailed and original, but there are definitely resonances with earth-bound societies. I thought about the fifteenth-century European city-states like Florence on more than one occasion. Tell us what you researched in developing this highly-stratified society, and what the book’s influences were.

When I set out to design Varin, I wanted it to feel simultaneously familiar and unpredictable to people familiar with the Western literary canon and with SF/F as a genre. What I did to achieve this was take several disparate cultural ingredients, explode them out into their components, and then mix them and put them back together in logical yet very different configurations. The general cultural character of the noble families comes from my explorations of French castles and history. The level structure of the caste system is based on the Japanese castes of the Edo period, with some distinctive changes including the addition of the Imbati servant caste. However, Varin isn’t a society that exists in some theoretical past; its technology is roughly at the same level as our own. Technology doesn’t work the way it does here, though, because aspects of Varin’s history and culture cut off or altered some branches of the technology tree, such as the development of color screens and visual media. I drew heavily on my studies in anthropology and linguistics in developing this world, and developing the ways that Varini would think and talk about themselves. Perhaps it will come as no surprise that I have always loved the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. My favorite book of hers is The Left Hand of Darkness. In my own way, I strive to achieve the kind of depth and cultural resonance that she brought to her work.

Linguistics is one of your fields, and in addition to several specific ceremonial responses – it seems like one for each caste – you use gaze direction and gestures, especially among the Imbati, to communicate. What were the challenges in getting those onto the page so that the reader understood them?

I love linguistics, especially the study of politeness and other forms of language used for social smoothing, so thank you for asking about this! In fact, there are five ceremonial greetings. The basic rule is that you have to use one if you are opening or closing a conversation with someone who is Higher than you are. An undercaste person would receive no ceremonial acknowledgement, but would have to use all five, one for each of the castes above them. The exception is that there is no ceremonial greeting for the nobility. This is one of the things that allows nobles to behave as though caste is invisible to them, even though they’re highly aware of it at all times.

When it comes to the Imbati gaze-gestures, I developed them because it seemed natural that manservants and attendants would have a way of communicating messages without distracting Highers with speech or dramatic movement. Essentially, servants make eye contact, and then execute a series of directional eye movements to communicate a few essential code signals. The biggest challenge in introducing them was finding a way to make them clear enough, and plausible, without devoting a lot of words to explaining them. Readers don’t need to know what all the eye movements are, just that they exist as the basis for this communication. I therefore provided a few key descriptive details when they first appeared, to demonstrate this concrete basis for the system, and thereafter trusted readers to come with me and extrapolate.

You posted a picture of your family at the Borderlands event, “cos-playing” members of the various castes. I think your younger son must have been an Imbati! Fashion plays a part in this story. Lady Tamelera uses high fashion as a method of artistic self-expression and rebellion, and one plot thread involves gloves. What are your thoughts about fashion as an aspect of a society?

My goodness, that was fun! My husband and sons each chose a caste they wanted to portray, and yes, my younger son was dressed as a student from the Imbati Service Academy. Fashion does play an important part in Mazes of Power. However, I should start by saying the legislated caste marks that Varini are required to wear in public are not exactly fashions. One is just a color (rust-red) and one is a traditional design painted or tattooed on the face. The ones that are garments (a pale gray coat, a thick brown belt) can change with fashion so long as they don’t lose their defining character. Fashion habits are thus a somewhat separate question. I feel fashion choices reveal a great deal about character and world, because they are part of how we publicly present our identities. Many people throughout history have used fashion as a social statement of rebellion, and Lady Tamelera, who doesn’t have a lot of political power, seizes the tools she’s given – music as well as fashion – and uses them to influence the people and the world around her. Her partner often makes snide remarks about how powerless she is, but I wanted to show that there were different kinds of power. Her drive to innovate, as well as to protect her family, is the reason why virtually every member of the nobility is wearing gloves by the end of the book.

Call me shallow, but I loved the whole thing with the gloves and how easily you slide it in there, without making a big deal. The readers know what has happened, though.

Varin has seven castes, whose tasks are rigidly defined. While the book focuses largely on the Imbati and the Grobal, through context I knew what each caste was responsible for by the end of the book. One of the most intriguing, and most elusive, was the Akrabitti caste. Tell us a little about what they do, why they are so important – and so reviled.

The Akrabitti are the lowest of all the Varin castes, and are elusive for two reasons: first, because Highers avoid them assiduously, and second, because Highers are likely to abuse Akrabitti or get them killed, so they avoid contact as much as they can. Even the city’s infrastructure is used to keep Akrabitti in places no one else goes. They do jobs no one else wants, such as collecting garbage, sorting trash for recycling, and cremating the dead. The city of Pelismara would not function without them, but people of the Higher castes prefer not to acknowledge their existence. We will definitely learn more about them in future books.

It was a strange experience to read this book during the COVID-19 outbreak, because of the dreaded Kinders Fever that is often fatal to the Grobal. Here was a place where you showed us just how tightly the Grobal have painted themselves into a corner with their contradictory social mores. Will we see more about the fever, or other diseases, as the books continue?

That was certainly a strange coincidence because, as you can imagine, I wrote the book long before COVID-19 became a phenomenon. Understanding how the values of the Grobal directly harm their health and wellbeing is really important, and Kinders Fever allowed me to bring that contradiction into focus in Mazes of Power. It plays less of a role going forward. On the other hand, the Grobal can’t escape the myriad health problems that arise from their insular thinking and inbreeding. Those will continue to play a large role in future books.

Thinking about the castes, the physical description of the world, and the biological hazards reminded me about how good your world-building is. In fact, you have a podcast called Dive into Worldbuilding. Please tell us where we can find it.

Thank you for asking! Dive into Worldbuilding is a YouTube streaming show, and its goal is to bring focus and depth to areas of worldbuilding that are easy to overlook. We talk weekly about various topics, from Gender Roles, to Death, to Underwear – and every month, I interview a guest author about their worldbuilding, writing process, and research interests.

I also write reports summarizing what we have discussed during the hour, for those who can’t, or don’t have time to, watch an hour of video. 

And in commenting on the worldbuilding, I don’t mean to shortchange your characters. Nekantor in particular was compelling. How did you create him?

Nekantor spent many years growing and developing as a character. He was, in part, a response to the many overly simplistic or dramatically evil antagonists I’ve seen in my life of reading and media-viewing. I consider him one of the protagonists of Mazes of Power. He’s the ultimate Grobal in ways both good and bad. He believes in the values of the noble caste as his father taught them to him, and understands the machinations of politics in a clear-headed way that few others can manage. He’s very effective at promoting his Family’s political interests, in part because he’s not hindered by moral compunction. His internalization of the Grobal’s fixation on purity, order and caste categorizations is so thorough, however, that it has become the organizing principle of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. He and Tagaret are two sides of the same coin, very different results of the same inbred genetic lottery. The tragedy of Nekantor is twofold: first, the same sensitivities that give him his genius also cause him suffering, and second, the general Grobal unwillingness to admit to weakness prevents him from accessing interventions that might make his life less painful. After all, he is also just a young man trying to find his way in a deeply oppressive society.

We generally ask our interviewees if they have a favorite beverage they would like to share with our readers. What’s yours?

My favorite beverage, by far, is black tea. I drink it every day! My favorite everyday tea is Trader Joe’s Irish Breakfast, and my favorite fancy tea is the Temi tea variety from Mariage Frères teahouse in Paris.

Thank you for your time, and for Mazes of Power!

It’s my pleasure!

Readers, comment for a chance to win your own copy of Mazes of Power.


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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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10 comments

  1. Great interview! I love getting in the minds of authors and learning how they think.

  2. A great interview! However, this is a book I want to read because the cover is appealing!!!

  3. John Smith /

    It sounds like the book has really filled out this whole society with the castes and the linguistics and the secret languages and gestures! Her academic background has definitely come in handy!

  4. Susan E Hensley /

    Great interview! I’ve just started the worldbuilding videos and find they’re wonderfully useful, so thank you Juliette. Marion, great questions as always.

  5. I know you love Mazes of Power, Marion, so I can’t wait to read it!

  6. Sethia /

    I have heard great things about this book (some from this very site!)! Thanks for the great interview!

  7. Susan Hensley, you win a copy of MAZES OF POWER!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  8. Ooops! Fixed. I wonder if that happened on the Best Book Read post too.

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