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Friday, February 24, 2017

SNEAK PEEK: Excerpt of Chapter 2 (Merit) from Soleri by Michael Johnston (Excerpt Intro by Michael Johnston)





Fantasy Book Critic is excited to welcome Michael Johnston to our blog. Michael Johnston is the author of Soleri, which will be published June 13, 2017 by Tor. Today, Michael has stopped by to introduce us to Soleri and provide us with a sneak peek at Chapter 2 of the book.

Before we welcome Michael, let us provide you with a summary of what Soleri is about!

Summary of Soleri:

Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

Now, without further ado.... Please welcome Michael and enjoy this sneak peek. 

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Introduction to the Merit chapter sample


This is the second chapter of Soleri, but it’s also a great introduction to the book. Soleri is a tapestry piece. It’s a story woven from a wide range of characters, all of them bound together by the blood of a single family. Here we meet two sisters. Both are daughters of the king of Harkana, one of the five lower kingdoms of the Soleri empire. The chapter is set around Merit, the king’s eldest daughter and the older of the two girls. As the chapter unfolds, we witness her ambitions, and how far she’ll go to achieve them. Beneath that, we also get a peek at the greater empire. We meet Merit on a very special day, one the empire calls the Devouring. It’s the highest and most holy of days in the empire of the Soleri and all of the lower kingdoms (Harkana is one of them) are forced to observe it, though each is allowed to do so in their own fashion. The Harkans have found a unique way to celebrate the high holiday. They do it with blood, which tells you most everything you need to know about this family and the kingdom they rule.


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Chapter 2 

Dear friends,” Merit Hark-Wadi said, projecting her voice across the stadium so that each person in the arena could hear her words, “people of Harkana, honored guests from Feren, on this last day of the feast, I wish each of you a good death.” The crowd applauded as she sat back down on her father’s chair. Adjusting her finely pleated dress, it occurred to her that she did not truly wish each of them a good a death. After all, it was the bloody deaths that made the crowds cheer loudest.
    “May you honor Sola with your presence, and Harkana with your blood,” she said as she waved to each of the combatants, her eyes lingering on a tall and powerfully built Feren warrior in silver armor. Merit settled back into her chair. The first daughter of Harkana was a woman of regal bearing and a cool, calculating gaze. She was a decade past coming into her womanhood but still a grand beauty at six and twenty, with long black hair that fell in thick ebony waves down her back, bronze skin, and full pink lips. Dressed in a dyed-blue linen so new it sweated color on her elbows and ankles, giving her elegant limbs a shadowy, bruised look, she raised one silver-bangled arm and waited—for the sounds of the crowd to die down, for a silence that she deemed sufficiently respectful of her place and position.
“Take arms and let the contest begin,” Merit said.
The warriors saluted with a dip of their swords, first toward the visitors from the neighboring kingdom of Feren as a measure of respect, then the Harkans. Only a handful of them would survive the ring, and even fewer would be afforded a good death. But it was early in the games’ last day, and the combatants were still fresh, still convinced of their own strength and skill.
The contests were a annual tradition and had been around for years, for centuries as far as Merit knew. The Soleri calendar held three hundred and sixty-five days—twelve months of thirty days each, which left five remaining days unaccounted for. During these five days, the people of the empire observed the high festival, the Devouring of the Sun. These five days existed outside of normal time—no work was done, no animal was slaughtered, no field was plowed. Five days out of time—a period of rest, five days to drink and play as the people of the empire waited for the sun to turn black.
Every year the feasting paused on the fifth day and exactly at noon the moon eclipsed the sun and the sky turned dark. The Devouring. Throughout the kingdoms, the people of the empire gathered together as Mithra-Sol dimmed his light in acknowledgment of the emperor. In the blackthorn forests of Feren they buried torches in the red earth. In the Wyrre, the beggars banged iron pots and smashed clay vessels to ward off the devourer. In Rachis, the mountain lords lit blazing pyres that turned the coal-black sky orange. But in Harkana, where hatred of the empire ran strongest, the people observed the festival in a more personal manner. The Harkans could not work or sow, but they could play and so they played at war. If they must commemorate their own defeat, if they must toast in honor of the emperor, the Harkans would do so with blood.
Merit shaded her changeable blue-green eyes as she surveyed the field. Below her, the sound of iron striking wood shot through the arena. A Feren warrior cried out in pain as he fell to the arena’s dusty floor. Merit looked away with a grimace. Though it was her duty to order men to commit acts of violence, she didn’t much like watching it. She could stomach brutality as long as she didn’t have to look at it.
To Merit’s right, the queen’s seat was empty, as it had been for nearly a decade. Her father, the king, was absent. Her brother, Ren, the heir, was locked in the Priory of Tolemy, so it was left to Merit to represent the royal family and to sit on the king’s chair as the combatants clashed swords, a duty that by rights was her father’s, but Arko Hark-Wadi, king of Harkana, refused to display patronage to the empire. The king was hunting in the north as he did each year during the Devouring.
A thought occurred to Merit. Did the boys in Tolemy’s house observe the festival? Did they stand and watch the sun dim? Did Ren know that his people spent the day battling one another with spears and swords to remind the kingdom of its once-brave history? Her own father, the king, had never served in the Priory. His father had fought a war to keep his son safe at home. She wondered if that was why Arko always left Harwen for the Devouring. Is he too proud to salute the bravery of others?
“The Soleri emissary will take it as a sign of disrespect, Father,” she had told Arko, watching him ride out with his hunters. “Any slight will be noticed.”
But her father had dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “Fear not, Merit, I’ll raise a cup when the sky darkens and I’ll offer the emperor’s spies a drink if any are watching.” Then he had left, not even looking back at the place and the people he was abandoning. He did not even acknowledge the burden he had left her to bear. The queen’s duties came naturally to the king’s first daughter, but the king’s obligations were another matter. As much as she tried to fill his place, she was not his heir, and as much as she cajoled and flattered their allies, it was clear that no man save Arko could command their respect, and the king showed little interest in his duty. She longed for permanence, for recognition, for a power that was hers alone. Since her father would not grant her what she desired, she had decided she would take it for herself. She would find her own path to power and if that meant getting a little dirt on her hands, well, that wouldn’t bother her a bit.
Merit stood up once more, as her duty required, raising her hand to the crowd. “To arms,” Merit said as the second of the matches, the contest of kings, began. This next bout pitted highborn warriors from competing kingdoms against one another in a melee. In practice, the servants and soldiers of wellborn families often fought in the contest, but the rules of the game did allow for the participation of the highborn and even the king’s family. Such participation was rare but not unheard-of in the contests, and so on a day such as this one, a day when the wellborn citizens of both kingdoms stepped into the ring, the games held an added tension, a thrill that was palpable. Noble blood meant the possibility of noble death.
Finally something worth watching, she thought.
On the field, a fierce battle raged between the Harkans and their Feren adversaries. Her eye tracked the Feren warrior in silver who had caught her attention earlier. The swiftest and most nimble of the Harkan warriors, a slim figure in a royal set of black leathers, with the horns of Harkana emblazoned upon them in silver, one Merit knew well from many previous celebrations, one the crowd knew as well, advanced on the Feren in the silver, but was driven backward by a pack of Ferens. There were five of them against just the one Harkan, and the Ferens were taller and their swords were longer and heavier. The Harkan had every disadvantage, but the warrior in black was undaunted. The Ferens, with their heavy armor and heavy weapons, moved slowly, giving the Harkan time to lift a short sword from the sand, where someone had dropped it. With two blades, the Harkan held back the five Ferens, parrying blows with one arm while attacking with the other.
The crowd roared its approval, and even Merit clapped.
Moving with confidence, the warrior in black executed a deft maneuver, throwing the short sword like a dagger and striking one of the Ferens in the leg, bringing him to the ground while the Harkan slashed at another, knocking the sword from the man’s hand and taking a finger with it.
The remaining Ferens pressed their advantage. Two attacked from the front while the third came at the Harkan from behind, moving with exceptional speed, thrusting his sword at an exposed patch of the Harkan’s armor. The blade drew blood, and the warrior in black retreated to the edge of the field.
Merit edged closer to the lip of the platform. She hated when the fighting dragged on like this. The air smelled like blood and sinew and her stomach churned.
On the field below, the Ferens pressed the lone Harkan. Injured but still defiant, the warrior in black blocked a fierce blow from above while from the side a gauntleted fist pummeled the Harkan’s cheek. A second blow sent the Harkan stumbling. The Ferens pushed in for the kill.
Damn it all, Merit thought, this will ruin the games. Merit wondered if she should call an end to the match. It was within her right to end the contests, to declare a winner without further bloodshed. She raised a finger and the crowd’s gaze swung from the field to the platform where Merit stood. The people waited. A word would end the melee, but no sound issued from her lips—as there was no longer a need for her to act.
What’s he doing?
The highborn Feren in the silver armor had advanced across the ring and was attacking his own countrymen, clobbering one soldier with the pommel of his sword, sending the man crashing to the sand while taking the second man by the collar and tossing him outside the ring, ending his part in the contests. The last of the three Feren warriors, unwilling to raise his blade against the noble warrior in silver, dropped his weapon. The crowed roared as he scurried from the ring.
Clever man, thought Merit. He wants her all to himself.
Two combatants remained, one from each kingdom, the tall and powerful Feren in silver, the small and stealthy Harkan in black. Her head swung from one to the other, watching closely. These next few moments would be the critical ones, the moves that would decide the match.
The Harkan advanced, feet shuffling in the dirt, stirring gray clouds, sword gleaming in the light.
The crowd went silent.
The Harkan lunged with frightful speed, then faltered midstrike.
The crowd gasped.
Merit bit her lip.
Searching for an explanation for the Harkan’s failure, Merit noticed blood seeping from the black armor. Taking advantage of his opponent’s injury, the tall Feren struck at the wounded Harkan, disarming his opponent, putting his blade to the Harkan’s neck, ready for the kill.
“Halt!” ordered Merit. She swallowed an uneasy breath. “Show yourself!” she ordered the Harkan.
On the field, the Harkan angrily tore off her helm, revealing the face of a girl of ten and six years with close-cropped hair and brown eyes.
Harkana’s last warrior in the field was Kepi Hark-Wadi, second daughter of Arko, king of Harkana. Merit’s younger sister. I told her to stay out of the games. Merit had urged Kepi to sit alongside her on the platform, but her sister had little interest in Merit’s advice—little interest in anyone’s counsel save for her own.
The tall Feren took off his helm. His dark, wet hair was plastered to his head, his strong jaw lined with dark stubble. He was Dagrun Finner, the young king of the Ferens.
Below Merit, the crowd surged with anger at Kepi’s defeat.
Merit held her breath, waiting for Kepi to yield so that the match would be over, but her younger sister gave no sign, no indication that she would relent. Right, thought Merit. She isn’t going to make this easy for me.
The two combatants stood, unmoving, the Feren blade held at her sister’s throat, the crowd whispering, as soldiers from both sides began gathering at the edge of the field, ready for war. All eyes turned to Merit. But she remained impassive, unwilling to release her sister from her fate. Instead she caressed the folds of her blue dress as she watched Kepi shudder beneath the blade, watched her squirm while the crowd held its breath. Let Kepi worry.
When the moment had stretched for a sufficient time, Dagrun, the king of the Ferens, tired of holding his sword, let his blade nip her sister’s throat, drawing a sliver of blood.
Forcing Merit’s hand. Save her sister or send her to her death.
She had little choice.
Merit slashed the air with her hand, surrendering the match to Dagrun.
You won’t taste death today, Kepi.
After all, Merit had plans for her little sister.



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