Today my special guest is author Anna Kashina! Anna is inspired by her diverse backgrounds as a Russian-born scientist, a competitive ballroom dancer, and a fan of martial arts, history, and folklore. She is the author of the award-winning Majat Code series featuring adventure fantasy, medieval politics, assassins, and romance. She lives in the US Northeast, where she combines her career in biomedical research and her passion for writing. Sounds interesting, right? Let’s find out more about her!
Anna, how did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in or did you fall into it?
I wrote my first “novel” when I was six. I think I tended to think of myself as a writer ever since then, without actually considering what it entails. I told myself stories all the time. Writing them down and perfecting my words always seemed like an essential step in making the stories mean something to me.
It is much later, after college, that I first thought of an idea of publishing anything I wrote. From there, it all snowballed to where I am now.
What were your favourite books/films/shows growing up? What kick-started your creativity?
I always loved fairy tales. Very early on, I started reading every fairy tale I could lay my hands on, from every possible culture. I think this kick-started not only my love for fantasy, but also my affinity to multicultural settings.
My first introduction into fantasy as a genre was “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”. I absolutely fell in love with these books in my teens.
Another big influence came from E. T. A. Hoffmann, one of the founders of magic realism. People know him mostly as the author of The Nutcracker, but it’s not, by far, my favourite among his work. As a child I was fascinated by his novellas and stories.
You recently released your latest novel, SHADOWBLADE – I LOVE the cover! Can you tell us a bit about this book and what inspired you to write it?
Thank you! I love the cover too! It’s by the ever-amazing Alejandro Colucci, who also created the covers for my Majat Code trilogy. My publisher made the process of cover creation very special, by involving me into proposing ideas, choosing the artwork, and giving feedback. I am so thrilled by the result, not only because of how perfect the image is, but also because I think it reflects the book as accurately as it possibly could. People who pick this book by the cover would absolutely get the experience they hope for!
But sorry, your question was really about the book. My original inspiration was to show a path of a young girl from an outcast to an elite warrior. I’ve always been fascinated by superb blade skill, so I decided to go deeply into what it takes to create this kind of a skill. My findings surprised me. I am excited by what I’ve learned, and by how it all fit into the book.
As I worked out this part, the story sort of folded itself into place. The main character, Naia, grows throughout the book, into an elite warrior, whose unique qualities land her with the most high profile and dangerous assignment in the Empire. There is a strong romantic subplot, lots of background politics, betrayals, dangers, and plot twists that, I hope, will appeal to the lovers of adventure fantasy. SHADOWBLADE was absolute fun to write, and my ambition is to convey this fun to the readers.
SHADOWBLADE is not your first novel. You’ve previously released several novels across a couple of series, as well as a stand alone. Let’s start with the duology, THE SPIRITS OF THE ANCIENT SANDS. I love these covers too. They look to be fantasy tales set in beautifully exotic worlds. Can you tell us a bit about these books?
The first novel in that series, THE PRINCESS OF DHAGABAD, was my first standalone book-length work I felt proud enough to share. I originally wrote it in Russian, and then quickly realized that there is no future in that, so I took a huge dictionary and translated it all into English. Remarkably enough, I sold it to a publisher almost immediately. The publisher wanted a sequel, so I wrote THE GODDESS OF DANCE. Unfortunately, this effort was faced with one of the most tragic coincidences. The publisher passed away, and his publishing house went bankrupt, so my books were orphaned and went out of print for many years.
These books are very special to me. They tell a story of a young princess, who owns a djinn – an all-powerful ancient wizard imprisoned in a bottle, who can do magic only when ordered by his mistress, but never on his own. There is a lot of tension that revolves around this contrast of being all-powerful but trapped and helpless at the same time. It’s a love story, but it is quite different from my later books. There isn’t much fiction about djinns out there, and I believe I found a completely original take on it.
I still have plans for book 3 in the series, if and when I have time. And yes, the covers. The artist is Stephen Hickman, and it feels like the images just come straight out of these books. It’s magical, really.
And then there’s THE MAJAT CODE What can readers expect from these books?
THE MAJAT CODE is written in a style similar to SHADOWBLADE, except that it is a bit lighter on romance, especially in book 1. It’s an epic adventure fantasy, featuring the elite Majat warriors, a politically independent guild of mercenaries whose top warriors are proud to call themselves assassins. Each book is a standalone, but the three together form a bigger story.
Writing these books I strived for the same fun as I did in SHADOWBLADE, and I think they will appeal to the same kind of readers. There are hidden parallels between the worlds in both books, so that some day, if my books are hugely successful, I can in principle connect them all into one big series of standalone novels.
And lastly, THE MISTRESS OF THE SOLSTICE, which appears to be a stand alone. What’s the story behind this one?
MISTRESS OF THE SOLSTICE is probably my most serious book, definitely the darkest. It is a fantasy based on the world of Russian myth and folklore. In addition to some of the darker folklore characters, it also includes herb lore as well as obscure Solstice rituals and practices that root deeply in the Russian culture. This novel is directly based on my own knowledge and background, so I believe it is very authentically portrayed. I am very proud of this book.
You hold a PhD and are currently on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. What drew you to this line of work and has it had any influence on the stories you write?
Well, I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer, but I never thought of writing as a profession. It’s more like indulgence to me. Work-wise, I always wanted to be a scientist, and life sciences and biology always seemed to be my thing, possibly because I grew up in a family of biologists.
I always felt that my creativity in both writing and science feed each other. When I am working on a novel, I am far more productive at work. Writing fiction has taught me to sharpen my phrasing, so that I become more effective relaying my thoughts when I write science. On the other hand, science has taught me to be extra careful about getting my facts right. It also helps me to be more logical in my fiction writing, and make sure that all the information I put down, even minor, fully reconciles with each other and there are no loose ends.
Despite being a scientist, I have never written any science fiction. Very recently, though, I finally started toying with the idea of incorporating some of my scientific background into my writing. In SHADOWBLADE, the superb abilities of the Jaihar warriors are linked to the properties of their blood, and this quality comes up at some point not only as their strength, but also as a potential weakness. It proved to be fun to use my scientific knowledge this way, so maybe in my next book I will do this even more.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion we don’t know about?
My dream job is to be a scientist and an author. I feel incredibly lucky that this is what I actually am. If I didn’t have these things in my life, I would probably starve.
No matter what else I do, writing is something I can’t help doing, rather than a job. If I am too busy to write, I tend to get depressed. The fact that I also earn money by writing my books is a big bonus, but no matter what job I have, I will never be able to stop being a writer.
With that, I do believe I need a balance of writing and non-writing to feel fully accomplished. I tried doing only one thing at a time, and it just doesn’t work for me. So, I think I have the occupation that fits me uniquely and perfectly, and if I couldn’t do this I would probably get incredibly depressed and end up in the gutter.
My secret passion? Let’s see. I love making jewelry. I usually develop a special piece of jewelry, sometimes several, for each of my books. I have a workshop in my basement where I go whenever I have time to make a new jewelry piece. There is just something incredibly satisfying for me in playing with colors and handling stones. Does it count?…
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then?
I grew up in Soviet Russia, where people doing any creative work tended to be highly respected in the society. When I moved to the US, I had to fall down from that pedestal, and it took me a while to adjust my expectations. I think if I could have fully understood that creating something worthwhile amounts to nearly nothing unless you can also sell it, it would have helped me, if only by saving me a lot of early disappointment.
Another leftover from my upbringing has to do with being ambitious and promoting yourself. In Russia both are viewed very negatively. In the US, I had to learn to embrace these qualities and learn to use them positively. It felt incredibly hard to say something positive about myself to other people, let alone to admit at least to myself that yes, I do, um, have ambitions, and I will not stop until I’ve tried my best to achieve them. I wish I’d learned this sooner, or at least in the easier way.
What can we expect from you next?
More novels about elite warriors and assassins, for sure! I also have a romance on my to-do list.
On another note, I keep toying with an idea of a true science fiction, or at least science fantasy that fully builds on my background in biomedical research. Definitely possible…
Sounds great to me! Thanks for being my guest today, Anna!
Readers, if you’d like to read an extract from The Shadow Blade, you can do so here. Otherwise to find out more about Anna and her books, check out the links below.
And you can buy her books here: