My next review and interview is with C.P. Lesley, author of The Winged Horse. The Winged Horse is part of a larger series called “Legends of the Five Directions”; C.P.’s previous book, The Golden Lynx, was the first book in the series.
The books take place in the 1500s in what is now Russia. The Winged Horse focuses on intrigue, romance, and war in the ethnic group known as Tatars. Familiar names appear in this novel – Russia, Lithuania, Crimea, Poland – but their context is entirely different. In this era, they were warring kingdoms constantly seeking advantage over each other; the Tatars, nomadic Muslim tribes that were loosely allied by kinship and heritage, were pawns in their game as well as significant players themselves.
The main characters of The Winged Horse are two brothers, Ogodai and Tulpar, and Firuza, who is betrothed to Ogodai but coveted by Tulpar. The brotherly rivalry extends far beyond who will marry Firuza, as the young men are also rivals to become khan of their horde (and yes, “horde” is an organizational term here, not just a general descriptor).
There’s a second plot involving their sister, a Tatar princess named Nasan, who has been married into the Russian court and finds herself involved in the intrigues between the Russians, Crimeans, and Tatars as well. I will confess that when this plot came into the story, I was thoroughly confused for a while as a whole new cast of characters came into play. But having read descriptions of The Golden Lynx, I now realize that Nasan was the central character in that book, so I imagine that readers who come to The Winged Horse from The Golden Lynx will have a much richer and more seamless experience. I’d recommend starting with The Golden Lynx and then moving on to The Winged Horse.
Once I got over the “foreignness” of the novel (distant place, distant time, different culture), I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Firuza in particular grew on me as the book progressed. At first I found her indecisiveness frustrating and a little forced, but the farther I went the more sense it made. After all, she’s a young woman in a patriarchal warrior society, with very little leverage over her own fate. But once she settles on a suitor, she’s there for good.
SW: C.P., thanks for participating in this interview! Could you start by giving us a little background about The Winged Horse and how it came to be? Your original inspiration for it?
Thank you for inviting me! In short, it grew out of my research. I’m a historian specializing in 16th-century Russia. With fiction, people say “write what you know,” and what I know is this wonderfully obscure but fascinating time and place. In 2008 I began working on The Golden Lynx, which precedes The Winged Horse. I needed a heroine who could be competent with a sword and a bow, and in 16th-century Russia elite girls lived very restricted lives. So I made her a Tatar who had grown up in a nomadic camp. The more I learned about Tatar culture, the more interested I became—and my readers wanted to know more, too. So when I started book 2, I decided to set it entirely among the Tatars, mostly in the steppe but also in the city of Kazan.
SW: I see that this novel is part of a larger group of novels, Legends of the Five Directions. What’s the bigger picture into which this book fits?
The series covers the years 1534 to 1538, or thereabouts. It was a challenging time for Russia, because the father of Ivan the Terrible died unexpectedly in December 1533, leaving a three-year-old son, a young widow, and two power-hungry brothers ready to take the throne. Most of Russia’s neighbors saw rule by a child as their chance to take back whatever territory they had lost during the previous reign. Against this backdrop my series tells the tale of Nasan, the daughter of a Tatar khan; Daniil, the Russian nobleman she marries against her will; and various members of their families as they strive to survive amid the cut-throat politics of the Russian and Tatar courts.
SW: This novel deals with such a distant time and place to most Western readers. Were you concerned about making the story and characters relevant to modern English-speaking readers?
The lives of medieval women can be difficult for modern readers to appreciate, because women were supposed to be submissive and long-suffering and content with serving their husbands and children. But the truth is always more complex, and each of my female characters copes with those expectations in her own way. I think what’s important is for a writer to show what triggers a character’s emotions. Emotions themselves don’t change, but the triggers do. Sixteenth-century Russia and Tataria were honor cultures. Characters go ballistic at perceived slights that today wouldn’t cause people to bat an eyelash, but so long as readers understand the character’s reaction, it’s relevant in the moment. Isn’t that part of why people read historical fiction: to experience varying outlooks on life?
SW: I’m curious about the culture of the Tatars, which is the ethnicity of the main group of characters in the novels. How would you describe Tatar culture to a novice reader? What do you find interesting about them?
What interests me most are the contrasts. Babur, the Tatar prince who conquered India, spent his life at war, yet he most valued his accomplishments in poetry, architecture, and gardening. Tamerlane could raze a city to the ground before breakfast and commission an exquisite mosque in the afternoon. Tatar culture is actually not monolithic, which is another element I explore in The Winged Horse. The nomads lived as steppe pastoralists, in small groups that moved their herds between grazing areas on a regular schedule. They supplemented herding with plunder, raiding the settled lands to the north and east. In the 1530s, they had converted to Islam but retained many animist beliefs. And although elite nomadic Tatars had harems, it wasn’t a bad place to be a woman. Nomadic life requires active women capable of defending themselves, their families, and the herds when the men are away. Women shamans were even considered to have exceptional spiritual power.
The urban culture of Kazan and Crimea was quite different: more conventionally religious, more restrictive for women, more stratified in terms of wealth and stature, but also much more luxurious—better food, more goods of all sorts, international connections, basic schooling, medicine. The urban Tatars, like the Mongols before them, made their money off the Silk Road; they had links to China and Persia and India. They were very much part of the larger world.
SW: The political situation at the time of the novel is pretty chaotic. Is there a contemporary analogy to the kind of situation the Tatars find themselves in?
The Middle East leaps to mind, although it’s probably a false analogy. The western part of the Mongol empire had disintegrated by the 1530s, and the successor states (including Russia) were fighting over the spoils. But these were huge entities with developed governments, not failed states. The real connection to today’s global politics is the Russian annexation of Crimea, which I did not anticipate when I set out to write The Winged Horse. Nonetheless, the novel will help readers understand the remote background to the Crimean saga, or at least the absurdity of Putin’s claims that Crimea has “always been Russian.”
SW: What element of your writing are you most happy with? And conversely, what element do you find most difficult?
I am a plot-first writer by nature. I can spin endless reams of ideas for what my characters might do. But figuring out why the characters would want to do those things (other than for my convenience) is a struggle. Fortunately, I belong to an excellent writers’ group that hauls me up short when I get over-focused on plot at the expense of story.
SW: Do you have any writing tricks or habits that you use to get your creative side flowing?
I edit what I’ve written, if I have anything. If not, I sit down and start writing, no matter how bad it is. I can always go back and delete the dreck.
SW: What’s next on your agenda?
I’m a third of the way through The Swan Princess, book 3 in the series. Daniil has been at war for almost eighteen months, and Nasan is getting pretty ticked-off at life in Moscow. When her mother-in-law develops heart trouble and decides that her dying wish is to see her childhood home in the north, off they go into the woods, where danger lurks behind every tree…
SW: Best of luck with The Swan Princess! Thanks for spending time with us!