A desert, a palace, and a heroine
Just a few of the reasons why author Joyce Chua's Land of Sand and Song is a lyrical and thrilling read
If you want to travel to a faraway place without leaving your home, I know where you should go.
The place I have in mind has a desert; myths and legends; a mystical spring; emperors and princes; court intrigue; a strong heroine and an interesting cast of characters; and magic. If you were there, it’ll definitely test your mettle.
Of course, when I say “travel to a faraway place without leaving your home”, it can only mean one of four things: You’re watching a show; you’re playing a game; you’re reading a good book; or you’re using your imagination.
(Come to think of it, how can you travel and not leave at the same time…)
Well, I’m talking about the Asian-inspired fantasy book Land of Sand and Song, so the last two applies. I, for one, would want to journey to that world and experience everything in it.
Author Joyce Chua’s writing makes it possible. In Land of Sand and Song, we see through the eyes of 17-year-old Desert Rose, whose mission is clear: seek revenge for her father’s ousting as chieftain of their desert tribe, and take out Emperor Zhao. The ruler wants to find a magical spring that’s said to possess the elixir of life – waters that have since attracted mercenaries, and trouble and death, to their tribe.
But to achieve all that, she must pass a series of trials for entry into the Imperial Guard; deal with and survive palace politics; rely on a prince; and figure out her own magic.
(I told you I know where you should go.)
“The spark that ignited the story”
Joyce points to another book, actually – The Stone of Heaven by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark – which she came across in 2016.
“It traces the journey of jade all the way from Emperor Qianlong’s obsession with it during the Qing dynasty,” she shares. “Later as the tribes entered the picture, I read up on the nomadic tribes that reside in the Taklamakan desert, as well as the Bedouins, to learn about tribe politics, hierarchy, culture and practices.” This eventually led to her thinking about:
• Identifying the external conflict for Land of Sand and Song
“It was important for me to first understand what the external conflict was, and in turn how that would shake my protagonist’s world – and how this unrest would propel her into action and put her on this journey of self-discovery in the process. So you’ve got the Oasis Emperor and the clan leaders all vying for power and the upper hand, but where does Desert Rose fit into all this? That was what I set out to uncover.”
• Dealing with the challenges, hurdles, positive developments and surprises that go along with it
“Plotting was a challenge for me, as a pantser who had mostly written contemporary standalones prior to this. I had never written a series before, and I didn’t trust myself to go in completely blind, so it was important for me to have some sort of structure to guide me through. I had never outlined more elaborately than I had for this book! But even so, the outline I had set out with changed drastically by Chapter 5, when the story and characters began to really take shape. Hey, at least I tried! But seriously, having that initial outline still helped, even as the story evolved over the course of writing it.”
• Having to make tough decisions
“For every story I write, I try to make my characters drive the story. I need to know what their character arcs look like, where they begin and end, and how they get to the end state. So it can be a challenge to find out who exactly my characters are at the start of the process. But once I’ve figured out who my characters are and what their arcs look like, I know what kind of decisions they will make, and the story progresses more smoothly after that.”
Well, hello there
So how did Desert Rose and the rest of the characters “introduce” themselves to Joyce?
“Desert Rose came to me pretty much fully formed, first starting out as a girl running through the desert at night,” she recalls. “She is a Gryffindor through and through, with lots of passion and spirit and courage to fight for the people she loves.”
There’s more. Joyce also reveals how Desert Rose and the others evolved as the story developed in her mind, and as her writing process went on.
• Desert Rose
“Desert Rose’s journey is very much a heroine's journey in that she sets out from home and discovers herself, the world, and her place in it. Her growing powers are a representation of her coming into her own. Her arc is one of self-discovery.”
Wei is the prince Desert Rose needs to rely on. “Wei was always the rogue son right from the beginning,” she says.
“He came to me charging on a black horse through the palace gates, bloodstained cloak flying behind him. But there’s more beneath that rebellious façade, and that’s what I enjoyed uncovering about him.
“Unlike Desert Rose, he struggles to find his purpose after leaving home and is constantly worried that he made the wrong decision to leave his brother and mother behind in the palace. He gets the freedom and adventure he has craved for since young, but also feels unanchored to a cause. So his arc is to find his purpose, his home.”
And then there’s another prince, Meng. He’s Wei’s half-brother, who helps Desert Rose too. “As for Meng, I knew I wanted him to be more than what he seemed, but he only revealed himself to me as I was writing him. I wanted him to be the light to Wei’s darkness, the golden boy to Wei’s shunned son, someone who had everything handed to him all his life, but still isn’t happy. He arrived clad in a pristine light-blue robe with a book in his hand as he paces around the library.
“Meng is not necessarily a villain, but his agenda conflicts with Desert Rose and Wei’s, so he’s their antagonist. He is one character with a lot of growing to do as well, when he decides which side he’s on and what he truly desires. He’s torn between duty and the yearning for freedom, which is why he’s drawn to Desert Rose. She represents what he wants but can’t have.
“I found myself really enjoying writing from his POV, because there is so much inner conflict,” Joyce adds. “There’s a lot of room for him to grow as a result of his flaws, like indecisiveness and blind loyalty, leading him to make questionable choices. Sometimes, I worry about coddling my main characters too much, but with an antagonist like Meng, I get to let him be flawed.”
Like Desert Rose, Windshadow’s from the desert as well. “Windshadow remains partly a mystery to me, and I’m still learning more about her as I write the sequel (which includes her POV). She’s loyal to no one and comes and goes like the wind, but can be as lethal as a sandstorm if you cross her the wrong way.
“Windshadow was a tough nut to crack, I’ll admit. It’s easy to write her as a one-dimensional bad girl, the dangerous one who has little care for morality as long as she gets what she wants. But I wanted to humanise her as well, and I wanted to get to the core of who she is, why she is the way she is, and whether or not she can possibly find another – softer – way forward. So her arc is finding her humanness despite her rage.”
What’s more, “She’s not a heroine and has no interest in being one right from the start. She doesn’t care to make noble and selfless decisions; all she cares about is achieving her end goal. So there’s a lot of freedom in letting her just be herself instead of trying to be good and righteous like a typical heroine is expected to be.”
It’s the setting
They’re kind of partly to blame for the characters’ outlook and actions. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, so let me explain: Where we live and where we find ourselves in shapes who we are, and it’s no different for Desert Rose and the others. They almost feel like living, breathing beings that affect us, and how we move and think.
I mean, we have a desert and a palace in Land of Sand and Song, and I can only imagine the things these environments can do to someone.
“Absolutely! Setting is such a major part of the story,” Joyce states.
“In particular, I wanted to depict the desert and the palace as polar opposites of each other – one is rampant and wild and unpredictable, like an untamed beast, and the other is controlled and pristine with lots of rules in place but none less perilous. I had a blast curating my Pinterest board with images of Chinese palaces in winter (since that’s when Book 1 is set) and the Taklamakan desert (which is what the Khuzar desert in the story was modelled after).
“I think the setting can greatly influence the characters too, so I wanted the desert girls like Desert Rose and Windshadow to reflect that passion and spirit, while Meng is a rational thinker who is more in control of his emotions. Wei is sort of an in-between, having grown up both in the palace and also the wild, so you can see both the measuredness of Meng as well as the adventurous spirit of Desert Rose in him.”
It’s the words
Then again, the characters also happen to spout memorable lines in the book brought on by the aforementioned settings and the situations they’ve created, as well as by observation, calculation and emotion. These examples are Joyce’s favourites, and they’ll help us understand further where she – and the characters – are coming from.
(I love how they read and sound. The book is titled Land of Sand and Song, after all.)
#1 “The desert was a living beast, merciless and wild.”
“I really wanted to create a visceral sense of the setting, to the extent that it feels like a character on its own. I also tried to juxtapose the uninhibited nature of the desert with the controlled pristine palace, with its manicured gardens and million rules and regulations, and let that reflect the differences between Desert Rose and palace-bred Meng.”
#2 “His fate was written in the stars. He was an arrow launched at birth, and he could not miss his mark.”
“This line basically sums up Meng’s inner conflict. He is torn between his duty as his mother’s son to vie for the throne as well as his desire for universal things like freedom and love. He wants to shed his obligations and pursue a different life but is unable to, so his arc is particularly fun to depict!”
#3 “In him, she caught a whiff of home again, and the ache in her chest grew so large it could have cracked her open then.”
“Can you tell that I love writing scenes with romantic tension? The alley scene with Desert Rose and this male character (I won’t say who – find out by reading the book!) was one of my favourite scenes to write. I actually developed it even before writing the first draft and couldn’t wait to get to it. I like the idea that something as subtle as smell can evoke feelings – even homesickness – in someone. It’s my way of introducing attraction and, beyond that, a more profound kinship between the two characters.”
That’ll surely get many readers excited. Romantic tension is a crowd-pleaser and it does get people’s attention.
But although it’s true that romance, attraction and kinship are important, the following elements also made me dream and want to know more. I think Joyce uses them in Land of Sand and Song to great effect, so let’s not forget about them. (Hehehe.) They do a good job of moving the story forward.
Joyce also includes some terms and pieces of information that’ll pique your curiosity – that is, if you haven’t read the book yet. So what are you waiting for?
• Asian folklore, myths and legends
“I absolutely love Asian folklore, myths and legends. It’s so fascinating, and there are so many more interesting characters to explore and stories to retell! I’ve got a few more ideas brewing and hopefully I might do them justice someday.”
• Being 17 (as Desert Rose is 17 in the book)
“It’s such a pivotal period in one’s life. You are on the cusp of adulthood but still figuring out yourself. It’s one of the reasons why I love writing YA. There’s so much to discover and unpack, so much raw emotions to deal with, as you search for your identity and are shaped by the people you meet and the experiences you go through. And while adults have mostly become cynical or jaded, a 17-year-old remains passionate and curious like a child. So it’s the best age to explore the whole gamut of emotions, and it’s also just exciting to see how a character grows.”
• Rebellion and revenge
“As a Libra, I never choose revenge. It just doesn’t make sense to me to devote so much energy into something that destroys you in the end. But for dramatic purposes, vengeance is loads of fun to write. It’s one heck of a motivating factor, and can really give a story momentum and propel it forward quickly.
“Rebellion can be messy in terms of organisation. Everyone has their own agenda, their own cause, and it’s hard to get everyone aligned. I wanted to explore that with the book, through the shouren and the clan leaders and Meng and the Oasis Emperor. Everyone has their own reasons to ally with someone or betray someone, and loyalties are always shifting. You need to rally people to one common cause for a rebellion to succeed, and that’s usually not the case.”
• Power and immortality
“It’s a pipe dream to have both – that was what I wanted to convey through the story. How obsession with immortality can be your downfall. How your lust for power can be your dream or motivator but it’s also what kills you in the end. How men can go to the edge of the world in search of those, but their pursuit is futile in the end.”
“Nuanced, complex, and ever shifting. Take the relationship between Wei and Meng, in particular. These two have no real reason to hate each other or become rivals, other than the fact that they were born to different mothers and therefore are viewed as threats to each other – and other than the fact that they’re both born under the same star and have vastly different fates. There’s envy, jealousy and resentment involved, but underneath that is a sort of wistfulness for what might have been if their fates weren’t laid out right from the moment they were born.”
• Going through a series of trials and being tested (as Desert Rose had to prove herself)
“I see the trials as a direct representation of all the trials and tribulations Desert Rose has to go through in order to find out who she is, powers aside. And it’s also a reflection of the rigid structure and hierarchy within the palace, where one has to constantly prove themselves worthy and shrewd enough to stay in the game.”
• Leadership and heroism
“The true heroes and leaders are the ones with the most empathy and humanity. They aim to serve their people instead of their ego.”
• Being female (as her female characters are strong and determined)
“Hoo boy, where do I begin with this? I think being female means very different things in the desert tribe and in the palace. Many tribes are matriarchal and confer a lot of power to the women, the matriarch.
“For my story, I wanted both men and women to be equally important and powerful. The men (clan leaders and the chieftain Scarbrow) govern geopolitically; they negotiate territory; barter goods on behalf of the tribe; physically protect the tribe; and focus on ‘hard power’. Women (e.g. matriarchs like Anar Zel) hold ‘soft power’, i.e. knowledge, expertise, experience. They teach the natural arts (how to harness the elements and use them to empower and heal), etiquette and social skills; they pass down knowledge and information through storytelling; and they govern the tribe internally (or domestically, if you will).
“So both genders have distinct roles that are equally essential for the tribe to flourish. Desert Rose and Windshadow are very much products of such an environment, and are thus more uninhibited than the Capital girls.
“In the Oasis Capital, women have much less power. They are much more bound by social norms dictated by men and are generally more limited in terms of social mobility and opportunities. Which is why entering the House of Night is such a major thing for characters like Shuang, who has trained her whole life for it because she wants to amount to something most women never get the chance to be. In the Capital, a woman’s future is determined by whom she marries, not her skills or abilities or knowledge.
“Can you tell I really want to drill home the idea that the desert and the palace are two diametrically opposing environments?” Joyce smiles.
One era is now over
And another’s about to begin. Land of Sand and Song is the first book in Joyce’s series; but from what I’ve gathered, she was toying with the idea of a duology instead of a trilogy as originally planned. I think that’s interesting, because you’re left wondering about how the story will develop and end. I’m sure her readers can’t wait.
She has the experience, the talent and the skill to make it happen. In fact, if we were to follow in her footsteps, Joyce has a few tips about staying centred, grounded and on track as an author and a storyteller, especially when you’re:
• dreaming of your writing project or book
“This is the part where you don’t have to be centred. This is where you can be as porous and scattered as you’d like to be because you’re a sponge, receptive to ideas. Be open to anything. Let your curiosity lead you to new places. Collect ideas, research, read widely because you never know when something might stick.”
• about to embark on it
“Once you’ve committed to the key elements and ideas for the story, it helps to write a synopsis or a blurb. I typically write a 250-word blurb (like what you see on the back cover of the book), and then the synopsis before I start properly outlining. It keeps me focused on the big picture before I zero in on the beats and chapters and start arranging the scenes by POVs.”
• in the middle of it
“Ah, the dreaded middle. I’m terrified of the sagging middle, and always make sure to include a turning point there when I’m plotting. It could be anything – a character making a momentous decision, a pivotal revelation that changes the situation – as long as it keeps up the momentum of the story and doesn’t allow the reader to put down the book.”
• at the end of it
“I often find that a book’s ending comes to me before or as I write the climax. The scene will come to me fully formed. It’s as though arriving at the peak of the story brings answers as to how it will end. And that gives me better focus as I power through the last 100 pages of the book.”
• after it’s done and dusted and published
“Once a book is published, there is little you can do to change the narrative. What I like to do is provide more backstory about the world and the characters, anything that can help to enhance the reader’s experience with the story. For instance, I’ll share some tidbit on the meaning of character names (see below), the history of a place, tribe hierarchy, etc.”
So is it really over?
Land of Sand and Song is out, but it still lives with Joyce in some ways.
“I’m currently working on the sequel, so it definitely hasn’t ended yet! And beyond this trilogy, I have ideas for a potential spinoff within this world involving a whole new cast, so there’s still lots to explore,” she says.
“I guess one thing I love about writing a fantasy series – as opposed to, say, a contemporary standalone – is that you don’t have to leave the world until you’re ready to!” We agree, because we’re not ready to, either. And yes, it’s a trilogy!
Before Land of Sand and Song, which Asian-inspired fantasy titles and series did Joyce read and love, and kept her thirst for the genre alive?
#1 Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
#2 Empire of Shadows by Miriam Forster
#3 The Girl King by Mimi Yu
#4 Descendant of the Crane by Joan He
#5 Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
Joyce is also excited about:
#5 Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan
#6 Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan
#7 The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
#8 The Book of Tea Duology by Judy I Lin
“YA has seen such a boom in Asian-inspired fantasy in recent years, and it’s so heartening to see these stories being told and embraced,” she adds.
Joyce is also the author of the YA contemporary romance Lambs for Dinner. She is a sub-editor, lifestyle editor and writer, and runs the short-story blog Muse in Pocket, Pen in Hand. Find her here and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Buy Land of Sand and Song from Amazon, Book Depository, Kinokuniya, Epigram and more.