As someone obsessed with process, I love reading annotated things. Books, comics, movie commentary, what have you. When trying to understand how to do a thing (say, write a book), it can be invaluable to get that peek behind the curtain. But if there is one thing we can say for certain about the process of writing, it’s that no two writers do it exactly the same. So when you read this annotated excerpt, I invite you not to latch on to any one thing too strongly, and view it merely as one more sample in a vast sea of writing processes.
In this world there are writers who simply sit down and start writing the book from the beginning and eventually come to the end. And that’s the book. Done. One of these “people” is a friend of mine, so I will refrain from saying anything else about this “method” except that it is most certainly not mine. My drafting process is messy and chaotic, and subject to change drastically from one revision to the next as I stumble blindly through those early stages.
For example, the excerpt below is the first chapter of The Ranger of Marzanna, but it was not written first, second, or even third. In fact, I’d written the entire first draft before I realized the beginning was completely broken. Among other things, it needed the proper framing for the world, and a proper introduction to Sonya Turgenev Portinari, who I imagined before I ever thought of the story, or the setting, or the theme, or anything else. Perhaps it’s my acting background, but character always comes first for me.
Anyway, the purpose of this chapter was let the reader know just what kind of world they’re dealing with and what kind of person the world perceived Sonya to be. So with those two goals in mind, let us proceed…
Istoki was not the smallest, poorest, or most remote village in Izmoroz, but it was close. The land was owned by the noble Ovstrovsky family and the peasants who lived and worked there paid an annual tithe in crops every year at harvest time. The Ovstrovsky’s were not known for their diligence, and the older folk in Istoki remembered a time when they would even forget to request their tithe. That was before the war. Before the empire.
This first paragraph is doing a lot of work, as a first paragraph usually (but not always) does. First, the names, Istoki, Izmoroz, and Ovstrovsky signal quite emphatically that there be some serious slavic-type peoples up in here. My own background is Polish, but frankly (and I can only say this now because my grandmother Leokadjia has passed away—God rest her furious soul) I happen to like the sound of Russian names better. There are a number of long and beautifully convoluted Russian names in this book. Blame it on my years studying Chekov under three professors from the Moscow Art Theater.
But now imperial soldiers arrived each year to collect their own tithe, as well as the Ovstrovsky family’s. And they never forgot.
We also learn in these opening paragraphs that Izmoroz is a poor country with a stark gap in wealth between the nobles and peasants, that there was a war a while back that involved an empire, and that the empire won. There is now a strong and efficient imperial military presence in Izmoroz.
Little Vadim, age eight and a half, sat on a snow-covered log at the eastern edge of the village and played with his rag doll, which was fashioned into the likeness of a rabbit. He saw the imperial soldiers coming on horseback along the dirt road. Their steel helmets and breastplates gleamed in the winter sun as their horses rode in two neat, orderly lines. Behind them trundled a wagon already half-full with the tithes of other villages in the area.
Vadim was originally a girl (I forget the name I used) but after some consideration, I decided that I liked the visual of a little boy in this scene better. I have no logical or objective explanation for that change. That’s just how these things go sometimes. I left him having a doll because I had dolls as a boy and got a lot of crap for it, so I like normalizing stuff like that whenever I can.
They came to a halt before Vadim with a great deal of clanking, their faces grim. Each one seemed to bristle with sharp metal and quiet animosity. Their leader, a man dressed not in armor but in a bright green wool uniform with a funny cylindrical hat, looked down at Vadim.
We start to get little Vadim’s reaction the soldiers, which, very reasonably, is one of quiet terror.
“You there. Boy.” The man in green had black hair, olive skin, and a disdainful expression.
The description of black hair and olive skin, and later in the book, the names as well, might suggest that this empire is loosely based on the Roman Empire. But in fact they’re based far more on the Russian empire. I gave them the appearance of Italians more to draw a sharper visual distinction between natives of the Empire and those of Izmoroz. I suspect many people would have difficulty telling the difference visually between a Pol and a Rus, and I wanted a more pronounced difference.
Vadim hugged his doll tightly and said nothing. His mother had told him it was best not to talk to imperial soldiers because you never knew when you might say the wrong thing to them.
“Run along and tell your elder we’re here to collect the annual tithe. And tell him to bring it all here. I’d rather not go slogging through this frozen mudhole just to get it.”
We’d already established how Vadim felt about the soldiers (terror), and now we know how the captain of the soldiers feels about Vadim’s village: blech.
He knew he should obey the soldier, but when he looked at the men and horses looming above him, his whole body stiffened. He had never seen real swords before. They were buckled to the soldiers’ waists with blades laid bare so he could see their keen edges. He stared at them, clutched the doll to his chest, and did not move.
As we layer in texture on the relationship between these two stranger, we learn that while Vadim is scared of soldiers and knows about them, he’s never interacted with them personally before. This implies that while there may be a strong imperial military presence in Izmoroz, it isn’t something the common folk out in the boonies deal with a whole lot. Perhaps only once a year during tithe collection.
The man in green sighed heavily. “Dear God in Heaven, they’re all inbred imbeciles out here. Boy! I’m speaking to you! Are you deaf?”
Slowly, with great effort, Vadim shook his head.
“Wonderful,” said the man. “Now run along and do as I say.”
He tried to move. He really did. But his legs wouldn’t work. They were frozen, fixed in place as if already pierced by the glittering swords.
The man muttered to himself as he leaned over and reached into one of his saddlebags. “This is why I’m counting the days until my transfer back to Aureum. If I have to see one more—”
What was the captain reaching for? Something with which to beat some sense into the boy? A treat to win him over? We’ll never know, because…
An arrow pierced one side of the man’s throat and exited the other side. Blood sprayed from the severed artery, spattering Vadim’s face and hair. He gaped as the man clutched his gushing throat. The man’s eyes were wide with surprise and he made faint gargling noises as he slowly slid from his saddle.
To be honest, I live for paragraphs like this one. Not just for the sudden eruption of violence itself, but the trauma it inflicts on that sweet little child. I am clearly a terrible person.
“We’re under attack!” shouted one of the other soldiers.
“Which direction?” shouted another.
A third one lifted his hand and pointed out into one of the snowy fields. “There! It’s—”
Then an arrow embedded itself in his eye and he toppled over.
Vadim turned his head in the direction the soldier had been pointing and saw a lone rider galloping across the field, the horse kicking up a cloud of white. The rider wore a thick leather coat with a hood lined in white fur. Vadim had never seen a Ranger of Marzanna before because they were supposed to all be dead now. But he had been raised on stories of the Strannik, told by his mother in hushed tones late at night, so Vadim knew that was what he saw.
And here we are at last, our “hero”, Sonya Turgenev Portinari, to the rescue. Incidentally, “strannik” doesn’t mean ranger, but religious pilgrim. The reason for that will become clear later.
“Get into formation!” shouted a soldier. “Archers, return fire!”
But the Ranger was closing fast. Vadim had never seen a horse run so swiftly. It seemed little more than a blur of gray and black across the white landscape. Vadim’s mother had said that a Ranger of Marzanna did not need to guide their horse. That the two were so perfectly connected, they knew each other’s thoughts and desires.
The Ranger loosed arrow after arrow, each one finding a vulnerable spot in a soldier’s armor. The soldiers cursed as they fumbled for their own bows and let fly with arrows that overshot their rapidly approaching target. Their faces were no longer proud or grim, but tense with fear.
As the Ranger drew near, Vadim saw that it was a woman. Her blue eyes were bright and eager, and there was a strange, almost feral grin on her lips. She shouldered her bow and stood on her saddle even as her horse continued to sprint toward the now panicking soldiers. Then she drew a long knife from her belt and leapt toward the soldiers. Her horse veered to the side as she crashed headlong into the mass of armed men. The Ranger’s blade flickered here and there, drawing arcs of red as she hopped from one mounted soldier to the next. She stabbed some and slit the throats of others. Some were only wounded and fell from their horses to be trampled under the hooves of the frightened animals. The air was thick with blood and the screams of men in pain. Vadim squeezed his doll as hard as he could and kept his eyes shut tight, but he could not block out the piteous sounds of terrified agony.
There are three distinct emotional reactions happening in this sequence of excessive violence. There is the growing fear of the soldiers, of course. There is also the horror Vadim feels about witnessing it. And then there is the clear indication that Ranger Sonya is enjoying herself immensely. Could it be that she, like her creator, is a terrible person?
And then everything went silent.
“Hey, mal’chik,” came a cheerful female voice. “You okay?”
Cheerful. After killing all those people.
Vadim cautiously opened his eyes to see the Ranger grinning down at him.
“You hurt?” asked the Ranger.
Vadim shook his head with an uneven twitch.
“Great.” The Ranger crouched down beside him and reached out her hand.
Vadim flinched back. His mother had said that Strannik were fearsome beings who had been granted astonishing abilities by the dread Lady Marzanna, Goddess of Winter.
This is why she is strannik. She isn’t just a ranger but a follower of the Goddess Marzanna, who is not the nice sort of goddess.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” She gently wiped the blood off his face with her gloved hand. “Looks like I got you a little messy. Sorry about that.”
The sweetness of her behavior to this mal’chik (Russian for boy) is in stark contrast to the ferocious slaughter she’s just perpetrated. Does she not get that she’s just traumatized this boy? Or does she not care? We just don’t know at this point.
Vadim stared at her. In all the stories he had ever heard, none of them had described a Ranger as nice. Was this a trick of some kind? An attempt to set Vadim at ease before doing something cruel? But the Ranger only stood back up and looked at the wagon, which was still attached to a pair of frightened, wild-eyed horses. The other horses had all scattered.
Here we learn that while the people of Izmoroz might respect and honor the Strannik, that respect is primarily born out of dread. Vadim is confused when she doesn’t seem to fit his expectation completely. As a reader, we might wonder if the peasants are generally wrong about the Strannik, or if perhaps she’s merely an unusual Strannik.
The Ranger gestured to the wagon filled with the tithes of other villages. “Anyway, I better get this stuff back where it came from.”
She looked down at the pile of bloody, uniformed bodies in the snow for a moment. “Tell your elder I’m sorry about the mess. But at least you get to keep all your food this year, right?”
She patted Vadim on the head, then sauntered over to her beautiful gray-and-black stallion, who waited patiently nearby. She tied her horse to the wagon, then climbed onto the seat and started back the way the soldiers had come.
Okay, so maybe she’s a little rough around the edges, but it seems like her heart is in the right place. She’s bringing all the money back to the people. That’s pretty great.
Vadim watched until he could no longer see the Ranger’s wagon. Then he looked at all the dead men who lay at his feet. Now he knew there were worse things than imperial soldiers. Though he didn’t understand the reason, his whole body began to tremble, and he began to cry.
When he finally returned home, his eyes raw from tears, he told his mother what had happened. She said he had been blessed, but he did not feel blessed. Instead he felt as though he had been given a brief glimpse into the true nature of the world, and it was more frightening than he had ever imagined.
For the rest of his short life, Vadim would have nightmares of that Ranger of Marzanna.
But it’s important to note that despite Sonya’s good intentions, this kid is well and truly messed up by what he’s witnessed, and we can infer by her behavior that this is not an isolated incident.
And yes, that phrase “his short life” is ominous, but you won’t see him again until book two. He’s like a running joke, except not funny.
Jon Skovron’s The Ranger of Marzanna is published tomorrow by Orbit Books in North America and in the UK.
Also on CR: Interview with Jon Skovron (2017); Guest Post on “Progressive World-Building: Screw Restoring Order to the Kingdom”; Review of Hope and Red