The Big Idea: Stephen Aryan
As a child, author Stephen Aryan wanted to see people like him in fantasy books, but rarely did. Now that he writes books himself, he made sure to represent his roots in his new novel, The Judas Blossom. Follow along in his Big Idea to see how this first installment of the trilogy came to be.
So, why did I write a historic fantasy book set in Persia? And, have you ever felt like an outsider?
If you’re reading this in America then you may have noticed my surname. Forget what you think you know, as that came from a Frenchman in the 1850s who thought racism was a good idea. Fair warning, his wiki entry is an eye-opener. It actually comes from the term Aryan or Arya, which was used in ancient times as an ethnocultural self-designation by Indo-Iranians.
I was born in Iran, but moved to the UK as a baby, and I’ve lived here my entire life. I’m one of a small but growing community of Geordie-British-Iranians, from in, or around, the city of Newcastle. In the 1980s in England, the racial mix in schools was not what it is today. Add in the fact that I’ve been tall my entire life, and am now well over six feet tall, and it’s fair to say that growing up, I kind of stood out.
So reading fantasy growing up, there wasn’t anyone like me, and yet. Tanis Half-Elven came from two different people and had a foot in each camp. Weis and Hickman also wrote the Rose of the Prophet trilogy in the late 1980s, set in a pseudo Middle-Eastern setting, with a cast of characters that are all people of colour. Most of the people in Le Guin’s Earthsea books had brown skin. Although there have been many others over the years, these three are my earliest recollections of seeing someone familiar. Now, own voice books are far more common, and there are fantasy series with connections to many different countries around the world.
Given all of that, you can begin to see why I have a vested interest in making sure that a series set in 13th century Persia (the old name for Iran until 1935) feels as authentic as possible. However, with thousands of years of history, and a culture rich in poetry, art, music, and literature, with gloriously delicious food, and a people known for being outspoken, passionate and warm, I knew trying to convey all of that to the reader would be difficult. As it turned out, writing this trilogy was the biggest challenge of my writing career. I felt an enormous weight of responsibility bearing down on me.
You see, I wanted to tell a dramatic story, but as a historical fantasy series, I knew I would have to massage the facts to make it a more cohesive narrative. Historians may get upset about things I’ve changed, ignored or got wrong, despite my research and that’s fine. At the same time, I also wanted to immerse the reader in a different time and place, giving them a peek at a culture they probably know little or nothing about.
In 2014, the incomparable Anthony Bourdain, in his Parts Unknown TV series for CNN, visited Iran and, for the first time in years, we caught a glimpse of what life was like for ordinary people. The situation has obviously changed a lot since then, but, without making this political, what’s happening now just demonstrates what I touched on earlier, about Iran being a land of passionate people, and forthright women.
My hope for this book, and this series, is that the reader goes on an exciting adventure and has a great time until the very last page. My wish is that a few readers become interested in finding out more about the country, culture and its people. And my deepest desire is that, one day, a little kid reading it sees something familiar in the characters, and doesn’t feel so alone.