In most fantasy books the admirable hero struggles against incredible odds to ultimately prevail in a final showdown: persistent good against implacable evil.
This novel is not like that.
Califar is about greed, murder, demonic possession and moral choices, and follows the intertwining stories of Hiram, a sociopath who dreams of tyranny in a world that denies him political power, and Amara, a young woman whose growing ability to control minds proves a tempting route away from poverty and oppression. The novel takes place in the centuries-old monarchy of Califar, its capital city of Lecolline set in an early San Francisco as built by Turkish stonemasons. Califar is a country on the western edge of a sparsely populated New World, an east-meets-west melting pot where everyday magic forms the power grid.
Brilliant but dark Hiram bin Saar hides his growing skills as a fire wizard from his wealthy family as he weaves a dangerous path around the monarchy, guilds and secret societies. Hiram has a lot to hide: his stolen and banned artifacts, his greed for power, and his dangerous relationship with a fire demon that seeks to possess humankind. Hiram’s demon also guides the life of Amara, an orphaned girl growing up in a healer’s convent, who uses mind control to protect herself from the cruelty of others. When their stories merge and their schemes result in the burning of their city, Hiram and Amara must confront the malevolent demon that has orchestrated their lives.
With themes to appeal across genders and genres, and familiar places made new and strange, Califar will draw readers who enjoyed Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well as classics like 1001 Arabian Nights.
I’ve placed a few writing samples from Califar in Adobe Acrobat PDF format:
Here is the first page of the Prologue (one of a series of Arabian Nights-like stories within the story), followed by the first page of Chapter One:
Prologue: The Tale of the Scepter
It had no name, and no need of one. But humans, who have the need to label such things, would call it an Ifrit, a demon of fire and one of the races of jinn that live among mankind. It was born anew in each strike of lightning on the earth, and in the ozone sparks of electrical machines. It fanned out from plumes of smoke that wafted over the dead and dying on countless battlefields, and it danced in the yellow and blue flames of birthday candles and cooking fires. It wavered in the gun smoke and flashes at Gettysburg, and it flowed with streams of sluggish vapor over Byzantium, Carthage and Rome.
And it was hungry.
And always it watched and waited for an opportunity to become flesh, to invade a human host and for a time to clothe itself in mortal skin. This is the way of some demons: to fall in love with the wearing of a human body. So it was with this Ifrit, having tasted humanity.
The demon hovered over the face of the waters, just off the smoking bow of a large, wooden sailing ship. Wisps of oily smoke streamed out across the waves as men ran across the deck and worked to extinguish a blaze that had sprung up suddenly in the galley. If the demon heard their cries of alarm, it paid no heed.
Men shouted to one another, cursing the flames and the ill luck that could cost them their lives, but the Ifrit ignored the men’s cries as it peered below the lapping waves, past cobia, grouper and sole, to the oyster bed at the bottom of the shallow sea. Satisfied, the Ifrit pulled back to its perch in the heat of the galley stove as the sailors brought the blaze under control. But the ship had lanterns, and lanterns were eyes. It settled itself to wait and watch.
1. Hiram’s Obsessions
There would seem little reason for a demon to take notice of Hiram bin Saar. As a stoop-shouldered boy of fourteen, he was less likely to stand out from a crowd as to sulk behind it. And the party his parents were hosting held little attraction for him. It was the second one this month to celebrate his brother Malik’s nineteenth birthday. The perfect one, the handsome, the anointed Malik—always a party for the firstborn. Hiram grimaced, ignoring the sounds and smells that wafted through the kitchen as he crouched outside in the garden with his friends, concealed more by the tumult inside the manor house than by the blue shadows of late afternoon.
“Pass it back. You’ve had it long enough!”
“Shh! Half the guilds are in there. It’s my turn next, anyway.”
A boy retched and said in a choked voice, “Here, take it.”
“No, no—I just have a cough.” The others snickered. “Really! I ought to leave, though. My mother would kill me if she found me out here.”
“She won’t. Not unless she gets cosy with the help. Hey, Hiram! Here’s to your brother staying single, eh?”
“Yeah—if Malik doesn’t find a bride, we’ll be out here again next week!”
Music and laughter from inside wafted through the kitchen and mingled with strong cooking smells, continuing through casement windows that opened onto the back gardens above a group of adolescent boys that huddled around their leader.
And that’s where Hiram’s father found him: behind the servant’s pantry, passing among his friends a long-stemmed pipe full of deadweed that Hiram had bought from the family gardener.