Inventing Raíz

Preparing for release of The Queen of Izmoroz

Hello newsletter folks, both longstanding and new! The Queen of Izmoroz comes out later this month, so I thought it would be cool to send out a couple of newsletters this month that talk about some of the elements that influenced the book.

The first book of The Goddess War trilogy, The Ranger of Marzanna, takes place almost entirely in the fictional country of Izmoroz. I’ve mentioned, both in this newsletter and in the acknowledgements for the book, that Izmoroz was inspired heavily by both my ancestral Poland, and Russia, in terms of history, politics, and culture. There are a few other fictional countries that show up on the map for Ranger. We get a brief glimpse of Uaine, for which I drew largely on Celtic culture. But the others, Aureum, Kante, Victasha, and Raíz, we only hear about. 

With The Queen of Izmoroz, we finally get to see some of these other places. Aureum, which lies directly to the south of Izomoroz, draws primarily on the Holy Roman Empire, although it’s empress, Catarina Morante, has a great deal in common with Russia’s Catherine the Great. I’m going to hold off on talking about Victasha and Kante because I don’t want to give too much away on them just yet. Instead I want to focus on Raíz.

One of the main characters in The Goddess War, Jorge Elhuyar, is from Raíz, and by the end of The Ranger of Marzanna, we see hints that he, or at least his family, is kind of a big deal down there. We also get a glimpse of the food and culture, at least as it’s seen through his eyes. I think that last bit is an important distinction, because we will find in The Queen of Izmoroz that Jorge is not exactly a typical Raízian.

Anyway, when creating Raíz, I drew upon both Spain and Mexico for inspiration. Much like the US and the UK, they are two countries separated by a common language. That is to say, while it seems they might have a lot in common, it’s less so than outsiders would think. In fact, the reason I mushed them together was, in part, because of the interesting internal conflict it creates. Every national identity is, in some way, conflicted. Even a quick glance at the news will convince you of that. So when creating a fictional country, I find having some built-in friction makes for a more complex and interesting setting that can impact the plot just as much as the characters.

I confess that some of the reason why I chose Spain and Mexico in particular is because one of my oldest friends is from Spain and now lives in Mexico. On a recent trip to visit her and her family, I was able to observe the fascinating tension between the culture she grew up with and the culture she lived in. Also, while I was there, I fell in love with Mexico and felt a mighty need to capture its beauty and spirit in prose. There is a great deal to love, from its beaches….

To its cenotes

And Mexico City, where my friend and her family live, is teeming with color, expression, and art, from the markets…

To the chapels…

To the boats along the canals.

The fact that there was so much art and expression in Mexico City made it a perfect fit for something else I’d been wanting to do for a while. Nearly every fictional country in The Goddess War has its own magic system, and the magic users of Raíz, called Viajero, are artists who conjure their spells with music, dance, painting, and writing. I suppose the idea of magical art might seem strange to some, but for me, the experience delivered by truly good art is as close to magic as we’re ever going to get. I hope in my writing I was able to capture that to some extent.

One other thing I wanted to mention about Raíz was the language. In the real world, language plays a huge part in culture, and in writing Goddess War I didn’t want to ignore that aspect. When the Aureum Empire took control of both Izmoroz and Raíz, they made some show of allowing minimal autonomy, but they aggressively stamped out the languages of both cultures. This can actually have a brutal effect on the people of that culture, and the idea seemed to resonate with a lot of my readers. One of the quotes from The Ranger of Marzanna that I see posted most often to social media is this one from Yuri, a village elder of occupied Izmoroz:

There are many ways to conquer a people. You can force them to submit by the sword, but that will only get you so far. To truly conquer them, you must make them forget who they are. Little by little, they chip away at what it means to be Izmorozian.

Just as words give shape to our thoughts, language is a large part of what gives shape to the expression of a culture. So when these two countries, Izmoroz and Raíz, begin fighting for independence, it makes sense that they would want to recover their linguistic heritage, and I wanted to depict that longing. To do that, I needed other languages. But unlike Tolkien, I have neither the time nor the inclination to completely invent new languages.

Izmoroz’s language is basically just Russian. Chose it because I think its pretty, and it works as a fantasy language because most english-speaking folks are not overly familiar with it. But my editor, Angeline Rodriguez, pointed out that using Spanish for Raíz felt a little odd because there are a ton of Spanish words that English-speaking people use without even thinking about it. The majority of my readers are unlikely to say “Privet!” when they see a friend, but some of them might be inclined to say “¡Hola!” now and then. And that familiarity detracts from the “second world fantasy” feel of a story like this. However, it felt weird to base a fictional country on two Spanish-speaking countries and not use Spanish. So…what to do?

Thankfully, Angeline had a brilliant suggestion. Just as there is Old English, which only vaguely resembles what we speak today, there is also Old Spanish! Alas, it wasn’t quite as easy as hitting up Google Translate to swap things out. Partly because Google Translate doesn’t have an Old Spanish option, and partly because many of the words that are used in the book did not exist at the time that Old Spanish was spoken. So I had to look at the differences between modern Spanish and Old Spanish and sort of reverse engineer it. For example, the word “chief” in Spanish is “jefe”, and in Old Spanish, it’s “xefe”. So I reasoned that any time I had a Spanish word that began with a “j”, I could swap it out with an “x”. Is this truly Old Spanish? Absolutely not. But it has its own internal logic, and it looks different enough on the page from Spanish that it doesn’t conflict with that “second world fantasy” feeling.

So that’s a few of the many considerations that went into creating the fictional country of Raíz. During this time when travel is still not a safe option for most people, perhaps a fantasy travelogue will help scratch that itch. 

Listen

Since we’ve been talking about Mexico City, my music recommendation this issue is a band based in that large and complicated city:

“Quema” by Sotomayor

And that’s it for now. I’m hoping to have time next week to write about another element that went into The Queen of Izomoroz: character growth! Until then, take care of each other, stay safe, and maybe have some paella.

_j