Last week while on Goodreads I happened to see a blog post by Nicholas Kotar regarding his new book release The Song of the Sirin. I read the blurb and decided to dive right in. After reading I was able to ask Nicholas Kotar some questions about his new book, being an author, and what he’s doing now. You can see my book review for The Song of the Sirin, and the Q&A with Nicholas Kotar below.
You can enter the giveaway for a free SIGNED copy of The Song of the Sirin at the bottom of the page.
Voran can’t help but believe the rumors. As blight ravages the countryside and darkness covers the sun, the young warrior of Vasyllia hears of an ancient spirit that devours souls. He feels powerless to fight the oncoming devastation until a mythical creature entrusts him with a long-forgotten song. Legend has it that such a song can heal the masses, overthrow kingdoms, and raise humans to divine beings…
Armed with the memory of the song, Voran must hunt down a dark spirit before it achieves its goal of immortality. His quest takes him through doorways to other worlds and puts him on a collision course with seductive nymphs and riddling giants. With each step of the journey, the strength of the villainous spirit grows, as does Voran’s fear that the only way to save his world… is to let it be destroyed.
The Song of the Sirin is an epic fantasy retelling of the Russian fairy tale Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf.
- Series: Raven Son (Book 1)
- Paperback: 380 pages
- Publisher: Waystone Press (June 26, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0998847909
- ISBN-13: 978-0998847900
*This review may contain a few very mild spoilers*
Fantasy isn’t one of my favorite genres and when it comes to epic fantasy’s like The Song of the Sirin, it takes me extra time to read it along with some concentration. After reading the blurb for this one and finding out that it was inspired by a Russian fairy tale, I couldn’t resist. I rushed to Amazon and picked it up at sale price. I believe it was an exceptional reading choice for me.
The story begins with Voran and Lebía, a brother and sister living in Vasyllia. Their father Otchigen and mother Aglaia have vanished and no one knows where they are. Some say Otchigen vanished after killing many people and stories abound claim him to have beaten his wife Aglaia. Voran doesn’t know what to believe, but he trusts in his heart that his father didn’t commit these crimes. He meets a pilgrim in the wilderness and discovers that everything may not be how it seems.
“You surprise me, young Voran,” said the Pilgrim. “How quickly you pierce to the heart of things. Whatever happens, my falcon, do not forget this. Vasyllia is everything. You must never let Vasyllia fall. She is everything.”
Voran begins to realize that Vasyllia is on the brink of destruction and he’s told that he must locate Living Water to save Vasyllia. At this point, everyone in Vasyllia and the outer lands is in danger. The Covenant Tree is fading, the Sirin sings for Voran, and the adventure unfolds…
There’s so much going on in the story and I was thoroughly surprised throughout the entire book. Even with each chapter having an excerpt from other tales, there was no way I could predict what was ahead. Every chapter had something new happening with separate plots taking place. New characters and events come into the story and they literally leave you aghast. The plot and the characters were so complex with a few of my favorites being Voran, Tarin, and Leshaya. Nicholas Kotar writes beautifully and his writing is very detailed and descriptive. With that said, I have to admit that there were times when I found the reading to be a tad difficult. I ended up with 235 notes and highlights by the time I was done. This may not be a book that you sail through quickly, but it’s very enjoyable to take the time and relish in the beautiful prose.
Overall, I enjoyed the book very much. This epic fantasy has a lot of what fantasy readers expect including shapeshifters, giants, wolf-like monsters, weird creatures, good and evil, magic, and mystery. The ending was heartwarming for me which was not expected with the events that were taking place throughout the book. I’m definitely going to recommend this one and I’m looking forward the other installments.
Anyone who enjoys fantasy will love this book. 4.5*****
Continue for the Q&A and Giveaway!
Q&A with author Nicholas Kotar
Q: At what age did you start writing and when did you decide you wanted to be an author?
A: The first thing I ever wrote was actually a collaboration with a bunch of friends with whom we used to act out our own version of The Chronicles of Narnia in our back yard (I was about 7 or 8). Our version of the story had a Stone Witch and the Lion (who was somewhat oddly named “Seaze”) would show up as a cloud formation occasionally. I still have the original book somewhere, complete with our own illustrations. Then I graduated to Star Wars rip-offs in my pre-teens, and a combination Star Wars-Lord of the Rings rip-off in my teens. As for when I decided to become an author? I didn’t. I’ve never known a time when I wasn’t writing something. The author part was just a rational extension of something I felt as a necessity.
Q: What are some of your favorite childhood books?
A: The usuals: Narnia, Prydain Chronicles, A Wrinkle in Time and the rest of that series. I had a soft spot for Isaac Asimov. I read all his books that the library had, even before I really understood them. There were also those illustrated abridged versions of the classics, you know? loved those. Oh, and I had an old Robin Hood book. I think it may have been Howard Pyle’s version.
Q: Could you describe the basic details of writing: How many hours a day to you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a typewriter/computer?
A: I try to write two hours, five days a week. With two toddlers, this hardly ever happens. I find that if I don’t write for a while, it takes a while for me to get back into the rhythm of writing. But when I’ve done it consistently for a while, I can sit down and it flows out. It’s an awesome feeling–that state of flow. I write in Scrivener. I used to write by hand, mostly because I felt I should as a matter of principle, but my brain is too fast for my hand. I get much better work done on the computer.
Q: What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
A: Starting anything. Whether for the first time or after a delay of some kind. The first day back to writing is excruciating and drains me of emotional and physical energy. But it has to be endured if I want to get back into the state of flow when the words just pour out.
Q: Do you have any activities that you enjoy outside of writing?
A: Plenty! I’m a voracious reader, I love gardening (we have a lovely vegetable garden in our home), I love to travel. I play basketball and run. I’ve been to all continents except Antarctica, and I would go there at the drop of a hat. Right now, most of my time is spent with my kids, who are three and one year old, and full of joyful energy and mischief. Cooking with my wife, too. That’s lovely.
Q: Being that you’re a vocalist, do have any favorite music artists and are there any of them that inspire you?
A: The Tallis Scholars. I listen to Renaissance choral music more than anything else. The complexity of the music actually helps me focus when I work. I also love Russia folk music. The real, ancient stuff that’s sung with a particularly distinctive, keening style. I hear a lot of that music when I write. Specific songs sometimes, for specific scenes.
Q: How do you balance writing with other life responsibilities?
A: I don’t. I’m terrible at it. Somehow, I manage to carve out time here and there. It’s hard.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors and are you reading anything now?
A: Tolkien is my favorite. Not just Lord of the Rings. Everything. I’ve even read parts of the ten volume “History of Middle Earth.” C.S. Lewis, but more for his non-fiction. Dostoyevsky is my favorite of all time. T. S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins for poetry. My favorite contemporary fantasy authors are N.K. Jemisin and Miles Cameron. I also love Gene Wolfe, but more for his older stuff. “New Gene Wolfe” is not as grand and serious as the “Old Gene Wolfe” of “The Book of the New Sun.” That book was a revelation to me. Now, I’m starting the Faithful and the Fallen series by John Gwynne, which I really like so far. And I’m really looking forward to the last volume of the Traitor Son series by Miles Cameron.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote?
A: Here’s one that I keep thinking about. It’s from Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastic book “Walking on Water”: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Q: What advice would you give to an amateur writer?
A: Writing is an apprenticeship. Find a master, become a student, study for a long time. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t seek to publish until you realize that most of what you write is terrible. Humility is absolutely necessary, as well as ability to listen to criticism. Read Dwight Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer.” Absolutely the best book on the craft I’ve ever read. Oh, and read A LOT! Not only in your genre. Read the classics, read philosophy, read theology. Become educated. Then write.
Q: Did publishing your first book Raven Son change your process of writing?
A: Publishing Raven Son was a mistake. I had done none of the advice that I gave above. I rushed to publish without learning how to write properly. So I took it down and began the process of apprenticeship. I found an excellent writing group that helped me form my voice. I revised Raven Son three more times. Finally, I got a professional developmental editor and wrote a version that I’m more or less happy with. That was how The Song of the Sirin came about.
Q: What else have you written and do you have any unfinished works?
A: I’ve written two more in the Raven Son series that will be published later this year. I’ve also written a short story about the stand-off between a carnivorous mermaid and a bunch of crazy Cossacks (it’s available for free on my website). I also have a blog where I write about interesting stuff from Russian history and about folk traditions. I don’t have any unfinished works in the sense that there’s a manuscript rotting away in some desk drawer, no. I try to finish everything I write.
Q: Where do you see yourself as an author in 10 years and do you have any goals.
A: I hope to become the kind of writer who can leave people changed by the experience of reading my books. Would it be really awful to say that I want to be the Dostoyevsky of our time? Not in terms of literary fame. He was a person who was intensely invested in the suffering of his fellow man. He wanted to change the world for the better. And he often managed to do it.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: All told? Almost ten years. But that’s with five or six complete revisions. Now, my process is much faster. I can basically write a book in less than a year. I think I’ll be able to go faster than that after a few more novels. We’ll see.
Q: What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning this book?
A: I’m always reading stuff for fun. A lot of what I write in this series has been percolating in my brain after a lifetime of living with White Russian emigres. If I need any specific information, I read scholarly books on folk culture in Russian. Or if I’m stuck, I’ll just read a Russian fairy tale or even the life of a saint, and often they jog my brain just enough to come up with what I needed. Some blogs. Atlas Obscura is great. As for the visual inspiration for my novels, I have a Pinterest board filled with gorgeous nature photography that I use to help me visualize places.
Q: When reading The Song of the Sirin, I was amazed at how you interlaced an old Russian fairy tale into an epic fantasy. Do you think that your writing will stay in this genre?
A: For now, yes. I really enjoy it.
Q: The plot and the characters in the book are so complex. Where do your ideas and inspiration come from?
A: I have no idea 🙂 I think it’s something like what Michelangelo said about just clearing out the marble from the sculpture that already exists inside the stone? It’s there, and I just need to uncover it. It’s a bit mystical, I think. But some of it is just from a lot of thinking about life and death and the big questions. I can’t help it. I’m Russian 🙂
Q: How many books are in this series and when can we expect the second?
A: I think the series will be three novel-length books and two novellas. The first novella is going to be available for subscribers to my mailing list for free at the end of this month. The next big novel will come out either in November or December.
Q: Can we expect some new characters in the second installment?
A: Yes, for sure. But we will see old friends as well.
Q: How did you select all the character names in The Song of the Sirin?
A: They all are explicitly Slavic- sounding, and for some of them I took an actual Russian word and twisted it around to make it sound better in English. “Voran” literally means “Raven” in Russian, which I did on purpose. Mirnían basically comes from the Russian for “without peace.” I try to do that to all the characters. But some of them have more standard Russian/Slavic names, because it’s hard to come up with a “deep and meaningful” name for minor characters.
Q: Who would you recommend read The Song of the Sirin?
A: It’s fairly literary in tone, so anyone who likes the kind of fantasy that isn’t just action scenes and plot devices. Certainly it’s for people who like The Lord of the Rings, but not necessarily all the “classic fantasy” that followed it. I think if you like Robert Jackson Bennett, Catherynne Valente, N. K. Jemisin, or John Gwynne, then you’ll like this book.
Q: What formal education did you receive and how did you get started in the Russian Monastery?
A: I have a BA in Russian literature from UC Berkeley and a BTh from Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary. The Seminary is part of a Russian monastery’s complex. I stayed on in the publishing department after I finished seminary, and eventually I became the main choir conductor for the monastery choir.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you as a resident conductor in a Russian Monastery?
A: I mostly conduct on the weekends. The Saturday evening service begins at 7 pm and ends around 10 pm. The morning is 9-11:30 or so. Sometimes longer, if there’s a bishop visiting. There are also occasional mid-week services. During Lent, things get a lot longer and more involved.
Q: Being that you’re a Russian to English translator and have written a fantasy based on a Russian Fairy tale, have you spent much time Russia?
A: I have, yes. My first time there, I was eight years old. I still remember getting off the plane and feeling like I had arrived home. It was the weirdest feeling. After college, I tried to visit at least once every three years (I have family in both Moscow and St. Petersburg). Then I married a Belarussian girl, and we go back to Belarus and Russia every year now for “vacation.”
Q: Did you learn anything when writing this book?
A: I hope I’m learning something every day. About myself, about the world…
Q: What are a few of your favorite myths and legends?
A: There’s a great legend about a historical Russian royal couple, Saints Peter and Fevronia, who lived in the 11th century. It has dragons and all kinds of magical stuff, but the coolest part of the story is that they each became monastics in their old age (living apart in different places), but they died on the same day, as an expression of their eternal love. I love that.
You can read about St. Peter and Fevronia HERE.
Q: What do you think makes a good fantasy?
A: I actually wrote an essay about that. I call it (rather pompously), my “writer’s manifesto”. You can find it on my website here: http://nicholaskotar.com/2017/05/02/w…. In a sentence, I think good fantasy is something in between “Tolkienesque” and grimdark.
Q: What’s most important to you in a fantasy, characters or the plot?
A: I think they’re the same thing. Plot comes from the conflict between characters, from the choices they make. But I know what you mean. I don’t like plot-driven stories with cardboard-cutout characters who are just put in place to “move the story forward.” A story needs to move because of the motivations of the characters and the disasters that they create for themselves.
Q: Do you have any favorite films?
A: It’s a hard question for me. I like to watch all kinds of stuff. Lately I’ve been into the Netflix Marvel series (just not Iron Fist. That was awful) But the one movie I can watch again and again? Believe it or not, the 90’s BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
A: I like interacting with readers and I always answer my emails. My readers’ group is active and we have lots of fun on Facebook and on email. Come by and check it out!
I’d like to offer a sincere thank you to Nicholas Kotar for his time in completing this Q&A.
The giveaway for a FREE SIGNED copy of The Song of the Sirin begins at midnight 7/13/17 and ends on 7/20/17
A short bio from http://www.nicholaskotar.com
I come from a family of Russian immigrants who moved from Russia after the Revolution, and I grew up in what was essentially a Russian ghetto in San Francisco. I spoke Russian before I spoke English.
My sister and I were homeschooled until a bright and sunny day when my mom had had enough of cat-herding. So she decided to open a school (thinking it would be less of a hassle, I suppose?), which she and my dad then administered for the next twenty years of their life (without taking a penny for it). This school, St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy, is a shining light of classical education in the Orthodox Christian community.
After graduating from UC Berkeley (yes, I studied Russian Literature, how did you guess?), I came back to teach in St. John’s for seven years. Those years were formative for me and for many of the teachers, because of the talent of the faculty. There were poets, philosophers, politicians, and musicians among my colleagues, and our regular tea-fueled conversations by the fireplace had something of the Inklings about them.