February Newsletter: The Valentine Thracians

A lavender sky
An unusual color
Between the buildings

Oof.
Sorry.
I began writing this newsletter a week ago, but I was stymied by my ridiculous subconscious. The weather turned warm and it reminded me of three years ago, when I was sick. Wobbling from that, I tried to reconstruct the extinct (and virtually unknown) Thracian language. So yes, I spent a week fearing that I would die before I could finish translating the sentence “Welcome to Thrace.”

A bird woke me up.
It’s too much like before.
I hope it will snow.

But let me share with you what I wrote (and planned to send to you) last week.

So there I was, celebrating Valentines day with Pavlina at Moskovska 15, a very fancy restaurant. I had set a recurring reminder to make a reservation a week before Valentine’s Day, which I did. Then I spent the next week fielding calls from the restaurant asking if I was really, totally, super-duper sure I planned to go there for dinner on the 14th. The last call was on the Monday before Valentine’s Day, when I was trying out Pavlina’s gym, walking on a treadmill, writing on my kindle, and using my bluetooth headset to confirm, da porachame mesoto i ribata. I felt very grown up.

Look up from the street
That white and salmon house there
With clouds behind it

Then, over red wine and artistically arranged salmon, Pavlina gave me the most romantic gift of all: she pitched a story to me.

Here are her actual words, from a note she emailed to herself (and then to me when I asked her):

“He loved her religiously, like an idolatrous shaman loves his goddess of winter… Pity that she didn’t dream of a dutiful obedient lover. She dreamed of worshiping her own god of winter. Someone who would take her over, and would not require her to be the leader.”

Above the streetlights
The morning star of Venus
Between them, sunrise

So I asked the obvious question, which was, “what the setting here? Is it historical or fantasy or what?” Yes, of course that’s the obvious question. Obviously.

Pavlina decided her story was historical. The man in that passage should be a literal shaman, and the woman his goddess. The woman could be a modernizer, wracked by internal conflict as she tried to figure out how to sell her hallucinating followers on germ theory and universal education.

I said I was pretty sure that all the shamans in Siberia already have cell phones, so we’d have to set the story back in at least the Russian Civil War. But then you’d either have people already westernized or fighting with swords against the Red Army (and losing). So we should set the clash of cultures even earlier, maybe to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Pavlina proposed the Thracians, and a lot of things started to make sense.

An unrepaired bridge
An old sodium streetlight
In its crook, the moon

The Thracians were an ancient people who lived in various places on the Balkans north of Greece, and spoke a language that was (maybe) distantly related to Greek and Albanian. They were Christianized in the 4th century, then died out. But what if they didn’t?

By the 4th century, the Thracians (who called themselves the Bessi) were restricted to the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria, an area famous for its caves. What if the Thracians retreated to those caves? What if they only pretended to Christianize? What if they continued worshiping the old gods and speaking the old language, pretending to be whatever religion or ethnicity was politically convenient and killing anyone who found out the truth? What if the tumultuous history of the Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires was actually the result of the cryptic machinations of the cave-Thracians?

Then comes the Russo-Turkish war., and the Treaty of San Stefano. In 1878, it’s clear that the Ottoman Empire is falling apart, and the Thracians’ land is going to be carved up into newly independent nation-states. The young, Swiss-educated oracle-priestess knows that to survive, her people must finally come out of the shadows and join the nations of the world. It is an uphill battle. Until a Ukrainian doctor defects from the Tsar’s army and flees into the hills north of Thessaloniki. Ignoring the warnings of local shepherds about the terrible monsters that there, he sets up camp in the mouth of a cave. In the middle of the night, he is awakened by a strange, wet, fungal smell, and the hands gripping his ankles, dragging him down into those cold, dark depths.

Veserghdhi s’Vessia!
Welcome to Thrace!

See that sentence? That’s the one it took me a week to write. Those damn prepositions! And I couldn’t decide whether to have case endings or not. And every time I looked up at the flawless blue sky and smelled the fresh breezes of spring, I felt the specter of death rise up behind me. But that’s a story for the next newsletter!

The old copper domes
of the university
And the cloudless sky

Anyway, I’m working on this Thracian story because I don’t have much to do on other fronts. Junction is out there being read by people. I got paid for it, which means I could buy membership in Eastercon (Heathrow, UK, April 15-19) and Worldcon (Dublin, Ireland, August 15-19). If you plan to be there at the same time as me, let me know.

The Centuries Unlimited is still with my agent. I mostly finished my part of one unmentionable project, and now it’s up to the other people involved to get it ready to make its debut. The other unmentionable project is being mulled over by my editor. I have the feeling that March will see all these stuff crashing down on me at once with new urgent deadlines. So I guess it’s good that I spent most of February drawing future raccoons and deriving Thracian verbs.

And reading! I also spent time reading.

Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky – was an excellent, practical, and non-extreme guide to productivity and general wellness. One of the big things it convinced me to do was withdraw from social media, which is why I had the time to read all these other books…

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds – had its moments. I liked the long backstories of all the characters and the world, but after a while it got soapy. The third time the bad guy came back from death to menace the heroes, I sighed.

Knife Children by Lois McMaster Bujold – a sweet little novella about a big dumb doofus from the second two novels in Bujold’s Sharing Knife series. It had some good stuff about what it means to be a grownup. But I would have preferred a novel.

Extreme Prey by John Sandford – wasn’t actually as extreme as I was hoping. But it was an interesting example of a thriller. We knew who the bad guy was even when the hero didn’t.

Arkad’s World by James L. Cambias – has Good aliens. Good good aliens, each with their biological, linguistic, and cultural quirks. Which of course ensue in hilarity when they rub up against each other. There’s a suggestion of a plot there, too.

The Ascent of Gravity by Marcus Chown – is a great history of science book, which has a lot of science to balance out its history. It gave me a very good picture of the state of modern physics (we’re definitely wrong about the universe, but until the next Einstein, we won’t know exactly how). The audiobook reader did goofy accents, though.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett – wow. This is a damn good book, and now I want to write a story like Pratchett did, beating out a fun little yarn about goofy magic, then going back and crafting it into a masterpiece of subtle meaning. “There was a thoughtful pause in the conversation as the assembled Brethren mentally divided the universe into the deserving and the undeserving, and put themselves on the appropriate side.” Wow.

And A Coffinful of Nightmares by Emil Minchev – I edited this collection of short stories, Emil’s first works available in English. It’s got a tentacle on the cover. Come on. Read it.

See you next month,
Dan

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