Student sketching at the Art Institute of Chicago, November 2013.
Having characters with complicated pasts is, well, complicated, and writing about them in a successful manner can be even more so. In Allegiance, the newest from Beth Bernobich, the past weighs heavily on every character, and offered a unique set of challenges for the author as well.
Endings, the poet Tanja Duhr once wrote, were deceptive things. No story truly came to a final stop, no poem described the last of the last—they could not, not until the world and the gods and time had ceased to exist. An ending was a literary device. In truth, the end of one story, or one life, carried the seeds for the next.
This is how Allegiance, the third book in my River of Souls trilogy, starts off. But after I wrote that paragraph, I had second thoughts. It was slow, it was old-fashioned, it was… To be honest, my doubts were me being uncertain about the real theme and backbone of my book. So I set this version aside and tried out at least five other openings.
(Unlike the letter Miles Vorkosigan writes in A Civil Campaign, none of my drafts were in rhyme. Nor were they all that abject, either.)
None of the openings were bad. All of them are present in the final version of the book, though in later chapters. But in the end, I went back to the first version because it really did sum up for me what this book and this trilogy are about: second chances. And for me, for these books, second chances meant multiple lives.
You see, in the world of my River of Souls trilogy, reincarnation is a reality. You live, you die, and your soul is reborn. There’s nothing certain about this new self, by the way. Sex, gender, nationality—all of these can change from life to life. You might have been the queen of Morennioù, then a prince of Károví, then a mercenary and thief. Your enemy can become your ally, possibly your lover.
At the same time, rebirth doesn’t mean you start off as a blank, with no connection to your past. You remember those previous lives through vivid dreams, which can be brief and chaotic fragments—a few words from an important conversation, a confrontation, the image of someone turning away—or they might be long coherent narratives from your past. As you approach death, these dreams become more frequent and more insistent, a reminder of any unfinished business that has pursued you from life to life. And yeah, there is always unfinished business.
When I first started writing this trilogy, I had limited the idea of multiple lives to only two characters. My goal was to show two people entangled by fate throughout history, and how their conflict affected both their kingdoms and their family.
The result was…not a success.
The biggest problem was that these two people weren’t the main characters. (And even the person I thought was the main character, wasn’t. But that’s another issue.) When my attempts to fix the problem didn’t pan out, I started to wonder, why should the main characters clean up someone else’s mess? Why shouldn’t they have their own messes to clean up?
Which meant everyone could have multiple lives, multiple messes, and multiple chances to clean things up. (Or not.)
Eventually I sorted out who the main characters really were. In the process, one of the original pair vanished from the main story. His daughter inherited his backstory, which then overturned my previous preconceptions about the rules for reincarnation.
Anyone could be anyone. Man or woman, ruler or servant, scholar or merchant or poet. Or one young woman determined to create her own life, on her own terms.
Which brings me back to Allegiance and its opening. In this trilogy, Ilse Zhalina, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, flees from a proposed marriage with an abusive man. She ends up in the household of Raul Kosenmark, a former councilor in the Royal Court, where she discovers this is not her first encounter with this man, or with magic, or with international politics.
And here, in Allegiance, she sets off on a journey that is an echo of a journey she undertook years and lives ago.
Second chances, indeed.