Monday, August 8, 2016

Writing "The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang"

I was really tickled by the idea of writing a more action oriented Cthulhu Mythos piece, particularly one that should be set in the past to accommodate a focus on melee weapons. I had previously written "The Ancestors" as my Chinese American take on "Shadows Over Innsmouth" so I figured why not make another go around?

It didn't take long for me to decide that I wanted to work in the Three Kingdoms period due to it being one of the most famous and intense periods of Chinese history. But the problem was, aside from the names of the major players and a few of the battles, I really had no idea what the context for the whole thing was. Most of my previous Chinese history research had been regarding the Qing Dynasty (which served as the model for the fictional dynasty used in "The Held Daughter") and there's about 1400 years of history in between the two.

All I knew about the Three Kingdoms was that the Han Dynasty had fallen and there was a war that divided the empire in three as three different men claimed themselves to be the true emperor and successor to the Han.

It was a setting ripe for conflict and made famous by the 12th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

While brainstorming my initial choice for protagonist was Zhuge Liang, because he was known as the master strategist of Shu and possibly the most brilliant person on any side of the war. Due to the nihilistic nature of Lovecraftian fiction, I wanted to set the story during Zhuge Liang's final battle, because I knew he had died before the war was over.

But then I learned that Zhuge Liang had died due to a combination of stress and overwork, which was not a dramatic death at all, even if he had been on the campaign trail at the time.

I also considered using his wife Lady Huang, who was considered to be as talented as he was, but information on her was so scant and I could find no evidence that she accompanied him on the campaign trail.

Then I considered making Sima Yi the main character, figuring that it might be interesting to tell the story of the person who was fighting against an opponent with mythical tactical abilities (and supernatural powers), but it just wasn't clicking, because Sima Yi only wins by outlasting Zhuge Liang and when he finally gets out of his fortress on the Wuzhong Plans he's routed largely due to his own paranoia.

Finally I noticed a name that I remembered hearing before, but didn't know much about. Jiang Wei. He was Zhuge Liang's successor.

Reading about Jiang Wei I found him to not be as cut and dry a successor as I thought he would be, but his mixed legacy was attractive, and I found it fascinating that he was so devoted to his adopted nation of Shu even though he had originally been an officer in Wei (his personal name "Wei" is written differently from the country "Wei").

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms Jiang Wei is presented as a very romanticized character, with the brains of Zhuge Liang and the fighting skills of Zhao Yun, who had the misfortune of being one of the last Shu generals of any standing left towards the end of the war, at which point there was nothing he could do to save the kingdom.

The reality was more complicated, but still, I liked the idea of the student who can never surpass the master, when it's something we always want to happen. Zhuge Liang today is still a part of Chinese culture, with four different actors portraying him in two different movies and two different TV series in the last ten years alone. That's pretty good for a guy who's been dead for 1800 years! How can anyone live up to that kind of legacy?

So I decided that the heart of the story would be about Jiang Wei trying to live up to being Zhuge Liang's successor while also keeping the Shu army intact during their retreat from the Wuzhong Plains. While the reality of Sima Yi's retreat was more a combination of paranoia and a well-placed ambush, in folklore the Shu army either used a wooden statue of Zhuge Liang or Jiang Wei dressed as Zhuge Liang himself to scare him off.

I figured on something a little more supernatural…

But I still have a nod to both, because I think readers who are more familiar with the time period (or are only familiar with it from the novel) might be expecting them.

I really enjoyed writing this one, and I'm mulling over ideas for the future considering that Jiang Wei has many more battles ahead of him in which I could still being the Mythos to bear.

If you would like to check out a preview of this story, there is a teaser now up at Stone Skin Press.

Music listened to while writing: "No Differences" from the Aldnoah.Zero soundtrack and "Kimi no Matsu Sekai" (trans: "The World Where You Are Waiting") from the first set of opening credits to Magic Kaito 1412