This is my post during the blog tour for The Jade Talisman by Alanna Mackenzie. In The Jade Talisman a band of rebels explores a wild, desolate island beyond the borders of an Empire controlled by artificial intelligence, in the hopes of finding animal spirits to join the battle against their oppressive rulers.
This blog tour is organized by Lola’s Blog Tours and the tour runs from 12 till 18 July. You can see the tour schedule here.
A talisman. A song. A gift that bends time, and alters the course of destiny itself.
It is the year 2762 in the Empire of Khalendar, and AI Masters rule the civilized world, striving to crush all dissent. But they have not yet managed to quell the Jade Rebellion or its leader, Walter Saltanetska. The rebels have sailed beyond the Empire’s borders to the infamous isle of Vei’arash. Their mission is to find animal spirits exiled long ago by the AI Masters, and return them to the mainland. With any luck, the spirits will strengthen the fading magical powers of their allies, the Western Mages, and join the battle against their oppressive rulers.
As the rebels plunge deeper into the jungle, physical laws are upended. The plants and animals of the rainforest are inextricably linked to divine beings. An ancient shaman-god entrusts Walter with the Jade Talisman, an enchanted gemstone that warps the basic rules of time and space.
The Talisman allows Walter to gaze into a mesmerizing labyrinth of future possibilities. But the visions it offers up are troublingly dark, giving Walter insight into the potential fates of himself and his loved ones. This gift proves to be a crushing burden, and Walter desperately longs for an ordinary life. But there is no going back…
The gripping sequel to The Jade Rebellion, The Jade Talisman explores whether nature and spirituality are capable of persevering in a world dominated by the cold logic of artificial intelligence.
I love the concept of world-building, but while I am writing a novel, I don’t always consciously try to “do world-building”. I start with the characters, their motives, and the plot, which are kind of a skeleton for the entire narrative, and then start to flesh out the world from there.
The Jade Talisman is the second novel in my series The Jade Chronicles, which meant that much of the world was already “built” by the time I started writing it, and so it was much easier to just focus on the story. The first book includes much more detail about the Empire of Khalendar, its social structure, history, geography, and culture.
The second novel takes place on an isolated and pristine island, Vei’arash, which is located outside the borders of the Empire. In some ways, the pristine wilderness of the island creates a blank canvas for the story to unfold, but it doesn’t remove the need for world-building entirely. In fact, it made the world-building more interesting because it was more of an internal process, which unfolded through the characters and the plot.
As a writer, I try to achieve a kind of organic dialogue between people and their surroundings, and not just their physical surroundings but also their histories, their memories, their dreams, and their aspirations. We can be located somewhere in physical space, but also be moving on a trajectory through time and space in our imagination, when we reflect privately or when communicating with others who are far away. We can also perceive the physical spaces around us differently depending on our emotions, personalities, and ingrained assumptions.
There are a lot of moments in this novel where the characters are in a certain physical setting but they are elsewhere at the same time. An obvious example is Walter as he experiences the visions that are induced by the Jade Talisman, which transport him to different versions of the Empire. The first version is pretty similar to how he remembers it, but also darker and more hopeless because nothing has changed for the better. The second version is the bleakest, as there is nothing remaining of civilization after the AI Masters destroyed it and moved to a planet where everything is an artificial simulation. The third version is also quite bleak, but in an entirely different way – it’s a world in which magic has taken root and technology of any kind is outlawed.
For Walter, this process is a mental journey, but as I was writing about these various settings I took inspiration from actual geographic locations that I had visited at different points in time in my life. The first version of the Empire was inspired by my recollections of a busy train station in Lyon, France, which had large billboards showing the various destinations of the trains. The scene of my novel that this memory inspired is charged with an almost electric excitement that reminds me of those train stations. I was also inspired by feelings that moving out of the busy city on a train sparked in me, as travelling in that way can give you a deep insight into the different layers of a city, from the bustling downtown core, to the secrets lurking at its outskirts, to the hauntingly beautiful wilderness outside of its borders. The second version was inspired by my travels to Iceland, which is probably as close as you can get to a world outside of civilization. It’s uncanny how much Iceland feels like a different planet, with its lava fields, underground tunnels, and the geysers that make you feel like the Earth is a fire-breathing dragon. I’ll have to confess that I didn’t really have any reference point for the world where magic has taken over, so I used my imagination to create the setting there.
For Vei’arash itself, I was also inspired by two places I’ve visited before, Costa Rica and Hawaii. Costa Rica is so lush and pristine, with glittering turquoise waterfalls, brilliantly colored birds, and dense vegetation, and it inspired my description of the jungles in Vei’arash. I climbed a dormant volcano in Costa Rica and that was inspiration enough for the rebels’ trek up Mount Samaya, but for my depiction of the crater at the top, my main muse was Haleakala, the 10,000 foot volcano in Hawaii.
Throughout the novel, I try to convey how the setting shapes the characters and what lessons they take away from visiting certain places. The village of Anatari is a great example of a place that shaped Walter. Initially, when he visits the village he is in a bad mood, and he doesn’t like any of the people living there. But as time goes on, even though he never really loses his distrust of them, he learns so much in his brief time at the village from its people, its plants, and its animals, and from their connection to the land. His child is conceived there, and he finds his totem animal there, so he establishes a deep connection with the village and he vows to return one day.
Walter has these powerful misconceptions about Vei’arash and its inhabitants, that are completely at odds with his actual experience of the place. I think that this happens a lot, that we think we don’t want to travel somewhere, or we do travel somewhere and we’re in a bad mood at first, but the place kind of grows on us and we learn a lot from our time there. Just being in a place that is different from our home can be so transformative, which makes the loss of travel during the COVID-19 pandemic all the more tragic. If I hadn’t have travelled to all those interesting places, I wouldn’t have been inspired to write about similar places in my fictional novels. Of course, we can use our imagination as a substitute for travel – by reading a book, for example – but there is no substitute for actually being somewhere new and letting the place itself transform you.
I hope that wasn’t too long of a description of how I go about the process of world-building, and I hope you found something useful in there that might help you build your own fictional worlds. To sum it up, the process is deeply personal, as both authors and their characters are shaped by the places they visit and this in turn, shapes the stories they write about and experience.
In the lobby of the apartment building, Elaine deliberately avoided eye contact with the concierge, who smiled and nodded at her as she passed him by. The hovering spirit of Walter exited the building with her. It was a clear but crisp autumn day; the wind was gusty, and the trees lining the streets were ripe with leaves the color of burnished copper. Elaine drew her coat tightly around her body, shivering as she stepped outside.
The woman now began walking quickly, each of her movements infused with purpose. After a few blocks, Elaine arrived at a train station that was crowded and bustling with people going about their daily business. When the hovering spirit observed the throng of people more carefully, he could see that it was comprised primarily of humans, but also included many mixed-race peoples, who had actuators and elastic nanotubes embedded onto their arms, legs, and faces. It soon became apparent that there were robots everywhere, scattered throughout the masses like clues buried in a puzzle. Most of the guards and officers at the train station were uniformed AI Fighters, and there were a few higher-ranked AI Masters. The Masters could be distinguished from the Fighters by their sleeker, more sophisticated humanoid bodies and red badges emblazoned with white diamonds: the official symbol of Crystal City.
The train station itself was a large public square surrounded by screens projecting lists of dozens of cities and villages in Khalendar and beyond, along with the arrival and departure times of the trains. The hovering spirit noticed that each screen appeared to be devoted to a particular region, and that Elaine was perusing a list related to the region “Barrens Reserve IV.” Elaine appeared to have found the platform for her train and hastily walked toward it, keeping her head lowered but her eyes alert. She glanced around nervously, deliberately avoiding clusters of AI guards and trying to blend in amongst the crowd as much as she could.
When Elaine arrived at the correct platform, she impatiently checked an old-fashioned golden watch she kept in her coat pocket. There were a few other people scattered around her, but the general sparseness of the crowd suggested that she had arrived early. After what seemed like an agonizingly long wait, a silver bullet train finally appeared in the distance, snaking its way rapidly toward the platform. The hovering spirit saw that Elaine was now more than mildly anxious; her brow was sweating profusely, and she was shifting back and forth on her feet in impatience. The crowd had grown substantially by this point, and everyone jostled each other as they lined up along the train tracks. The spirit saw Elaine’s eyes widen as she spotted, through a clearing in the dense multitude, blue-vested AI Fighters arriving at the station: Crystal Militsiya. These heavily armed cyborg cops were equipped with state-of-the-art facial recognition software and were hard-wired to detect criminals based on their appearance. When a bystander witnessed a crime, or suspected that one had occurred, they would report a description of the suspect’s appearance to an employee at the central police station, who would input the description into a database and send out a unit of these trackers to hunt down the criminal. The hovering spirit of Walter understood this intuitively, without knowing why.
The cyborg cops stopped momentarily at the entrance to the station to converse with the guards selling train tickets. One of the guards pointed in Elaine’s direction and the police followed his lead, marching briskly toward the platform where Elaine was standing. Fortunately for her, by now the crowd was very thick, and Elaine could conceal herself behind the wall of people standing in front of her. The train then suddenly arrived, blocking her completely from the Militsiya’s line of sight. Trembling, Elaine stepped impatiently onto the train, nearly knocking over a young child in front of her. The young girl’s mother began to chastise Elaine, calling her a “kayensta,” the Khalendi word for rude whore. Elaine did not turn around to acknowledge the woman, and upon entering the train, she immediately made her way toward the washroom and locked herself inside.
The hovering spirit followed her, effortlessly floating through the walls of the locked washroom. Elaine glanced in the mirror at her own exhausted face—the dark under-eye circles, the grey hairs, and the wrinkles on her forehead and around her mouth. She heaved a long, unsteady sigh as she opened her briefcase and carefully removed a black bag containing a brunette wig, a fake adhesive nose, and an elastic band. After tying up her long red hair with the band, she covered her head with the wig and meticulously tucked any stray hairs underneath it. She then removed another pouch from the briefcase which contained foundation, lipstick, blush, and eyeliner. Acting quickly, with trembling hands she placed the adhesive nose over her own and began applying the makeup onto her face, covering up the puffy bags under her eyes and bringing warmth and vibrancy to her pale cheeks and lips. When she was finished, she looked like a different person entirely, younger and prettier than the exhausted woman who had entered the bathroom.
When she left the washroom, Elaine tried to appear casual as she walked down the aisle to find an unoccupied seat. After a painful few minutes of searching, she finally spotted one next to a sleeping elderly man who was snoring quietly. As she settled in and tucked her briefcase under the seat in front of her, she could hear a man’s voice projecting over the loudspeakers: “Alert, alert: criminal spotted at Vennyest train station. Remain calm and seated while the train is searched for the suspect.”
***About the Author***
Alanna Mackenzie lives in Vancouver, Canada. She holds degrees in History, French studies, and Law from the University of British Columbia. An environmentalist at heart, she believes in using the law as a tool for social and environmental change. When she is not pursuing that passion, she can be found brainstorming the next chapter in her novels, playing Irish fiddle tunes on the violin, and hiking West Coast trails.
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