22 July 2014

The Importance of Villainy

Looking for a little Arabian Nights to go with your Steampunk, have we got the story for you! Today's guest blogger, writer/editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail talks about the challenges she and co-writer (and fellow editor) Day Al-Mohamed faced in re-imagining Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves for the Victorian Age--and our own.  Take it away, Danielle:

Stories are about conflict. Internal, external….it does not matter, as long as there is a something for our hero to overcome. Nowhere in fiction is this more prevalent than in faerie tales. Above all else, in faerie tales, there must be a villain. Why, you ask? Because as cautionary tales, these stories are about overcoming danger—or falling victim to it. Without true risk there is no payoff in a faerie tale. No happily ever after without the chance that the prize will slip through the hero’s grasp.

In my recent novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, co-written with Day Al-Mohamed, villainy abounds as is only fitting for a novel based on the tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. You remember the tale, don’t you? The humble and poor man who finds a cavern of treasure hidden by a band of thieves is one most of us have heard as children in one form or another. Our version is a steampunk envisioning steeped in the magic of the original and honest in the threat to our Ali, a faithful tinkerer’s apprentice who finds himself guardian to a shah’s treasure trove.

Inheriting a sacred charge from his father, Ali must find a way to thwart the band of thieves who have taken control of the cavern where these riches have lain protected for many years. Our challenge? How to transform a tale everyone knows? How do we achieve the risk…the tension sprung from the danger of our thieves, when virtually everyone knows how the story plays out?

The key is in the villains. With so many in this tale we needed to wake fear in the readers’ hearts by capturing the very essence of evil. A sorcerer who cannot die, who will not be freed until he completes his task: capturing the treasure and delivering it to his master. A powerful man. A ruthless man. One with no respect for anything beyond his own desires. One like Rassul Maroun…

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn
by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed (Palomino Press, 2014)

Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined… 

In the Nejd there is nothing at all…except secrets. A band of thieves wish such secrets to remain hidden. 

In England, far from his desert home, Ali bin-Massoud serves as apprentice to the famed Charles Babbage. One night a mysterious box is delivered by a clockwork falcon and Ali’s world is never the same again. Heartache, danger, and thieves mark his journey as Ali is summoned home at the death of his father. 

It will take faith, knowledge, and yes, love to realize his destiny, and more than a little skill with steam-driven technology. Can he unravel the mystery of the puzzle box and the clockwork djinn before it is too late? An ancient legacy and Ali's very life depend on his success. 

Hear you the tale of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn...


In silence the riders galloped across the desert, their tack silenced and their horses’ hooves covered in cloth. Moonlight limned them like specters gliding over the sands. Dread clung to their robes. Swinging down before their mounts had fully stopped, they hurried into their lair, a cavern whose stone roof rose above the desert, a deeper shadow in the darkness.

 Handing the reins to others of their band, the men strode to their leader, Rassul Maroun, who sat at a marble table ignoring them as he studied a scrap of parchment. The returning men knelt before him, heads bowed and the backs of their right hands pressed to their foreheads in tight fists. Torchlight flickered over thick silver bands engraved with identical markings visible across their inner wrists: a coiled viper poised to strike emblazoned over crossed khanjars. They knelt there on aching knees for long silent moments as their leader finally let his gaze rise from the parchment.

“Tell me of your success,” Rassul ordered, his voice rumbling low, like the threat of a pending storm. He stood slowly, aware of the impression he made as his lean, well-muscled body unfolded from the chair to tower above all present. He walked toward the prostrate men, his steps whisper soft. Stopping in front of one, Rassul traced the symbol on the man’s wrist before shoving the hand aside to grip the man’s chin tight, forcing his gaze upward until their eyes locked.

 The man trembled, blinking furiously as he swallowed hard. “The horse fled too swiftly, master,” the unfortunate man answered. “We followed but could not draw near enough before it reached the gates of Wadi Al-Nejd. The guards took the beast in and closed the gates.” He gulped again, sharp, as if swallowing a plump date. “We could follow no further.”

Rassul tightened his grip, almost pulling the man up by his jaw. “Your orders were to follow that beast and learn from where it came, that we might ensure no other knows the secret of our lair.”

“Yes, master.”

Rassul dragged the man to the table and tapped the surface. “Allah has blessed you with two eyes, that you might see the world. Do you see this?”

“Yes, master.”

“Are you certain? Because with the sanctity of our cache at risk it is important to be absolutely certain. Would you swear by Allah?” As he spoke Rassul moved his hand to the back of the man’s neck in a lighter grip. Beneath his fingers the thief trembled. “What is it you see?” Rassul asked.

“A m-ma…ma…” The man could not finish.

Rassul tsked. “I think you are not certain at all,” he said after a moment of the man’s stammering. Locking his grip hard on the man’s neck, his hand took on the glow of power as he slammed him forward into the table’s surface. Bone crunched against unyielding marble and the body went slack. Rassul let go and it slid to the floor, trailing crimson streaks from the edge of the parchment to the rim of the table.

“It is a map,” Rassul said as he spat on the corpse. “May Allah forgive you your foolishness…and your failure.”

He snapped his eyes upward and locked gazes with every one of his men, including the corpse’s partner, who still knelt, as yellow piss slowly pooled around him.

“Learn from this, in case any of you are uncertain.”

Casually, Rassul stepped over the body and once more perused the map. “Wipe out all knowledge of this map. Destroy any copies. Do this before all other things.”


Award-winning author and editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for longer than she cares to admit. Her published works include Yesterday's Dreams, Tomorrow's Memories, Today’s Promise, The Halfling’s Court, The Redcaps’ Queen, and, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, written with Day Al-Mohamed. She can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). To learn more visit www.sidhenadaire.com. 

Day Al-Mohamed is author of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, co-written with Danielle Ackley-McPhail. Day hosts the blog Unleaded: Fuel for Writers. Her work is available in Daily Science Fiction, Oomph, and GrayHaven Comics' You Are Not Alone. She is a member of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia Writing Group, Women in Film and Video, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. She can be found online at www.DayAlMohamed.com and @DayAlMohamed. 





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