By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
Today we’re thrilled to welcome author Joyce Chua to the WNDB blog to discuss her Asian fantasy book, Land of Sand and Song, out since September 2021!
Legend has it that a magical spring lies dormant in the heart of the Khuzar desert. Said to be a gift from the gods, the spring holds the cure to all mortal woes.
As mercenaries from everywhere try in vain to find the mystical spring, 17-year-old Desert Rose is on the run after her chieftain father is overthrown and captured by rebel clans. Now out for revenge, she sets out alone to the Oasis Capital to assassinate the person instigating the rebellion: the corrupt Emperor Zhao, who will stop at nothing to possess the elixir of life from the spring.
To infiltrate the Imperial Guard, Desert Rose must pass a series of trials to test her wit, mettle, and her loyalty. But the real test lies in navigating the cut throat court politics with no ally but a rogue prince and a latent magic stirring in her—magic that can bring a kingdom to its knees or destroy her from within.
Thank you so much, Joyce, for your time! Let’s start with telling us a bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Singapore, and I’m currently a finance sub-editor by day and author by night. I edit finance articles at my day job, which helps to balance off my fiction writing brain. I’ve always loved writing and reading fantasy, so it felt like a no-brainer to write fantasy, but also it felt like a huge step to write Asian fantasy because I never thought I could write that until a few years ago, as diverse books really came up and started flourishing a little bit more.
What was your inspiration to write Land of Sand and Song?
I think it had been brewing for a while, to be honest, because I grew up watching Chinese wuxia/xianxia dramas like Madam White Snake and Legend of the Condor Heroes. But I never thought that I could actually write stories like that and have them published. They’ve always been at the back of my mind, all the folktales and the mythology. And after being blown away by Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands (hands-down my favourite book of 2016), I thought maybe I could try writing my own Asian fantasy story.
I also came across this book in 2016, called The Stone of Heaven, which chronicles the journey of jade throughout the ages. The fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Emperor Qianlong, was obsessed with jade. He would send his troops everywhere to look for it, even to the extent of killing them on this arduous quest.
There’s also another emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who was obsessed with immortality. I thought maybe I could combine these two characters into one—someone who is obsessed with finding the elixir of life in a mythical spring. And that was the genesis of the idea of the story. The pursuit of immortality and the lengths to which someone can go, the sacrifices he’s willing to make, and what kind of father he would be, what kind of emperor? And that developed into the political power struggle trope that I enjoy watching in dramas and movies. I then had this image in my head of a desert girl running through the desert on a pitch-black night, and I set out to figure out how I could fit her into this whole plot that I had already cooked up.
How did you come up with the title Land of Sand and Song?
There is this running joke that a lot of fantasy books follow this structure, Something of Something and Something. So, that was my first go-to approach. But really it wasn’t like I was trying to fit into that mould in terms of titling the book, but the title just came to me.
I wanted to bring out the essence of the setting and I feel like the desert has its own song, its own rhythm, melody and movement. So I want to convey that expanse and the vast beauty of the desert. Sand obviously relates to the desert and song because of the language that the desert itself speaks.
How did you form your characters Desert Rose, Windshadow, Wei, and Meng?
I guess all of them kind of have a little aspect of me in them.
Desert Rose is more like a vision of myself that I want to be. She’s outgoing, brave, and outspoken. She doesn’t take any crap from anyone. She just kind of throws herself passionately into the things that she believes in. She’s also very close to her dad, which I am too. So I guess Desert Rose was an extension of myself, and also someone that I want to be.
Wei and Meng came to me at the same time. I wanted them to present a stark dichotomy. I wanted Wei to be the shadow to Meng’s light, the scorned son to Meng’s golden boy. I wanted Wei to be this misunderstood hero, or maybe an anti-hero, and for his journey to be finding his purpose, finding people that he’s willing to fight and die for.
As for Meng, it’s a lot more complicated because he is bound by duty. He has always been privileged, but he’s not happy. So his journey is to discover what he believes in, and which side he truly stands on.
Windshadow was actually a really fun character to write because she has no care for any morals or righteousness of any kind. She doesn’t care to be good, which makes it liberating to write in her POV. (I’m writing the sequel right now, which includes her POV). She’s someone who is very unpredictable, and I wanted someone like that to be the opposite of Desert Rose, who’s always been so sure of where she belongs, and her place in her tribe.
With Desert Rose, there seems to be a big element of the unknown. There is a discovery on her part of who she is, despite her confidence. I found the dichotomy between Desert Rose and Windshadow, Wei and Meng, very interesting. Readers can easily relate to those characters because they are opposites, and you go into their perspective.
As I read your novel, I greatly appreciated the structure of the story and how the reader gets to see situations from different perspectives through the eyes of Desert Rose, Wei and Meng—chapter by chapter. I’m so glad there’s a Book Two coming out because I want to know who Desert Rose really is! How could you end the story so quickly leaving the reader hanging?
There will be two more books in the pipeline, so plenty of time to develop the story and characters further! More will be revealed in the sequels, I promise.
Why did you choose to take this approach, of presenting a POV chapter by chapter, and will this continue in Book 2? Will Book 2 include the perspective of different characters?
I’ve always liked writing in multiple POVs. I think there’s something intimate about writing from different characters’ perspectives. The first book I read that presented this way of writing and structure was Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, which is told in dual POVs. It felt so intimate and so immediate, because of the way she played with pacing. So I decided to try my hand at that and fell in love with this form of storytelling.
When writing from multiple POVs, you get to see the story from different angles and really understand the psyche of each POV character, and you get a 360° view of the story that way. I’m definitely going to continue writing in multiple POVs for the sequels. As you know, the first book includes three POVs. But the second and third books will include Windshadow’s POV as well, which I’m having a total blast with!
The use of POVs reminded me of Margret Atwood’s writing. There’s no guessing; you get a clear view of what is going on. You feel the character differences in each perspective.
You also pick up on the irony between the chapters where you include verses and quotes. Every time I would read them, I would stop and think…oh, is this irony? Something is about to happen! For example, there was a verse from the Snow Wolf Sect teaching, “Guard your back against those who offer help too freely. The enemy is often disguised as a friend.”
And then you think, hmm, which POV does this quote apply to?
These quotes and verses added an element of wonder and suspense.
If you were to choose a theme song for your novel, what would it be?
I listen to a lot of drama original soundtracks while I write. I would pick “Gasoline” by Halsey (from her Badlands album), but I listen to the instrumental version. It just sets the tone for a battle. In fact, I write Windshadow’s chapters to that soundtrack on a loop in the background.
What are three words you would use to describe your book?
Lush, magical, adventurous.
In the acknowledgements of the novel you mentioned that your first novel was written at the age of 12. What was it about and how have you grown since then?
Well, it actually started with this novel-writing competition for primary school students. My English teacher encouraged me to give it a go, so I did. I wrote this really horrible Nancy Drew-esque mystery novel because I read a lot of Nancy Drew growing up and because I loved the plot and the pacing. I think mystery novels have a very predictable structure to follow, and when reading those books I subconsciously picked up a lot in terms of planning a story. I didn’t win anything in that competition, but I fell head over heels with the writing process. I loved plotting the story, I loved developing the characters, and I’ve never looked back since.
After my Nancy Drew phase ended, I read mostly YA contemporary fiction by Meg Cabot, Sarah Dessen, and Deb Caletti. It wasn’t until 2009 that I got hooked on YA fantasy, thanks to books like Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater and the Curseworkers series by Holly Black, and subsequently Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, and Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton. Those authors are my rock stars, the ones whose writing style I tried to emulate as an aspiring author learning and honing my craft. They’ve shown me that there are no limits to where your imagination can roam when it comes to writing YA fantasy, and I love the worldbuilding in these books. As a result, I wanted so badly to create my own unique world and characters, to tell my own stories.
As a writer of the fantasy YA genre, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
Believe in your story. When you write diverse fantasy, it’s sometimes hard to really persist or believe that someone out there is going to relate to your book or want to read your book. So believing in the story that you want to tell no matter who’s going to read it, or if anyone’s gonna read it, is important. If you feel like this is a story that you want to tell, and it excites you when you write it, then just go for it. Give it the best shot that you can.
I really enjoyed reading your blog, The Write of Passage. How do you use this platform for your writing?
To be honest, I never meant for it to be a platform in any way. I’ve had a blog since I was 14, and it was just a place for me to process or untangle my thoughts and get my emotions out.
I’m very aware that now it’s actually a public space, not just a few friends reading it. So I try not to get too emotionally leaky there. It’s now a way for me to connect with readers and fellow writers, and I love interacting with them there. The stuff that I write there is mostly book reviews, drama reviews, all the stuff that I am inspired by and love, so if anyone in the comments is willing to enthuse over something with me, I’m always happy to respond in kind.
What is a question you would like people to ask you more often?
For writers, it’s always fun to geek out over the writing process, like how I came up with the characters and what their arcs look like. Crafting the characters is where every story begins for me, so I love deep-diving into the process of developing and discovering them over the course of the story.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the audience of We Need Diverse Books?
It’s so heartening to see so many more diverse books—diverse fantasy, in particular—over the past five to ten years. When I first started reading fantasy, it was mostly written by white authors. I didn’t really see a lot of the stories that I grew up reading and watching. So to see so many debut authors—from different cultures, backgrounds, and communities—with their own unique stories coming up in recent years has made the whole reading experience so much richer. It’s also inspired me to tell my stories more authentically, and I hope that moving forward, this can only present more opportunities for diverse authors to share more of our stories.
I am glad that there are authors like yourself and many others who are taking that courage to present an authentic perspective. It’s so important to bring that authenticity to readers through your words. Thank you so much Joyce for your time, and all the best with your book Land of Sand and Song!