Kalyna’s family has the Gift: the ability to see the future. For generations, they traveled the four kingdoms of the Tetrarchia selling their services as soothsayers. Every child of their family is born with this Gift—everyone except Kalyna.
So far, Kalyna has used informants and trickery to falsify prophecies for coin, scrounging together a living for her deteriorating father and cruel grandmother. But Kalyna’s reputation for prophecy precedes her, and poverty turns to danger when she is pressed into service by the spymaster to Rotfelsen.
Kalyna is to use her “Gift” to uncover threats against Rotfelsen’s king, her family held hostage to ensure her good behavior. But politics are devious; the king’s enemies abound, and Kalyna’s skills for investigation and deception are tested to the limit. Worse, the conspiracy she uncovers points to a larger threat, not only to Rotfelsen but to the Tetrarchia itself.
Kalyna is determined to protect her family and newfound friends, but as she is drawn deeper into palace intrigue, she can no longer tell if her manipulations are helping prevent the Tetrarchia’s destruction—or if her lies will bring about its prophesized downfall.
That the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Existed
U.S. public schools aren’t known for their historical accuracy or thoroughness, so I was around 30 when I read Henryk Sienkiewicz’s classic historical novel With Fire and Sword (the Kuniczak translation) and learned that, for a few hundred years, there was a country called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was, as you might guess from the name, a combination of Poland and Lithuania into one state, but it was also a lot more than that.
The Commonwealth was huge, and sandwiched between some of the most aggressive empires of its era, yet it wasn’t despotic or centralized at all. It was almost, sort of, kind of, maybe a democracy, if you squinted. The king, who would rule both Poland and Lithuania, was elected. Elected by the nobles, specifically, who were certainly evil tyrants that owned serfs, but it was still a wildly different method of government than anything else in the world at the time. This London Review of Books article from a few months ago does a great job of showing just how wild and chaotic that election process was.
Without learning about the Commonwealth, I doubt I would have ever come up with the Tetrarchia[ES1] , the four-in-one country where Soothsayer takes place. Like its real life inspiration, the Tetrarchia is an experiment, unlike anything that’s come before it, mashing together existing ethnic and social groups into one lumpy hodgepodge of a nation.
Just How Long a Debut Can Take to Be Out in the World
I wrote a version of the opening scene of Soothsayer in late 2012. I think I finished the first draft in early 2014. I spent 2015 on revisions, and then on querying agents. Querying many, many, many agents. Hannah Bowman was interested, but the manuscript needed more work, so I did even more revisions and sent it back to her. She still passed.
Then it was the end of 2016 and for some reason I was very depressed and unable to write for two years.
In 2018 I got back in touch with Hannah, regarding a different project, and she became my agent. This was amazing: the closest I’d yet come to being published. Cue more revisions on Soothsayer, but now with Hannah’s notes. She did some merciless (and entirely correct) cutting, and also suggested a whole new character and subplot that improved the book’s plot and thematic cohesion immensely.
In 2020, Hannah sent it to editors. Sarah Guan at Erewhon bought it. More revisions. Sometimes, Sarah would have a note asking what I meant by a certain phrase or idea, and I would have to respond: “I don’t know! I wrote that eight years ago. Let’s cut it!”
There’s a strange, out-of-body experience to reading something you wrote when you were an entirely different organism. Sometimes it provides delightful surprises; sometimes it’s deeply cringey. But, when there’s a decade’s worth of revisions piling up on the page, you mostly get a disconcerting palimpsest that exposes a hundred different people you used to be, or almost were.
That I Like Writing First Drafts by Hand
I used to be the sort of person who’d spend all day on a paragraph, endlessly tweaking and rearranging. Unable to move forward until it was perfect. (I learned, less than a year ago, that this was actually ADHD, but that’s a whole other story.)
As a workaround, I began writing my first drafts by hand. Moment to moment, longhand writing is much slower than typing (and I used to do transcription as a full-time job), but it forced me to blunder forward, bad phrases be damned. A pen and paper not only helped me get the book done faster, but allowed me to access parts of my brain that were hampered by the ability to fine-tune every word forever.
Also, you can bring a paper notebook to cafés and bars that have “NO LAPTOPS” signs, and you never lose a day’s work because goddamn motherfucking Microsoft OneNote doesn’t sync.
That I’m Bisexual
When I began the book (again, a decade ago), I made my main character bisexual because I thought, “Obviously being bisexual is just the best: everyone knows that. I wish I was bi! It’s too bad I’m definitely straight.”
To be clear: if you ever see me in person, you will immediately know that I’m not straight.
Writing how Kalyna, my sort-of hero, reacted to people that she found attractive unlocked something in me. But it wasn’t the book’s queer attractions (of which there are plenty) that taught me about myself, it was the straight ones: when she admired handsome and pretty men.
This forced me think: What makes an AMAB person attractive? What attraction in them can I latch onto to make Kalyna’s internal monologue feel believable? And, most importantly, why is the friendly curmudgeon who’s just in charge of the royal palace’s fruit so very hot?
That There Really Were Medieval Weapon Treatises for Sickles
When she absolutely must fight, Kalyna does so with a sickle. In the back matter of the book, I wrote that there really were sickle-fighting treatises, but that I could no longer find where I’d learned that. Well, in writing this piece, I found where!
Paulus Hector Mair, a fencing master in 16th century Augsberg, wrote a combat treatise on a number of different weapons, one of which was a small, simple farmer’s sickle. Yes, there are pictures. It’s good to know, so many years later, that I didn’t just make up the stances that Kalyna uses.
Sickle-fighting appealed to me immediately because it’s rarely seen in fiction; because it forces the reader to imagine particularly ghastly and uneven wounds; and because, being a farm implement, it’s inherently proletarian. (Although I’ll admit the book was long finished when a friend pointed out the obvious communist iconography. Oh well. I’ll take it.)
Elijah Kinch Spector is a writer, dandy, and rootless cosmopolitan from the Bay Area who now lives in Brooklyn.
Elijah Kinch Spector: Website