It’s Me–Cha Boi, or, The Russian Soul Is a Dark Place

by Belle Waring on July 8, 2023

I did something both awesome and ill-timed. Well, first I should back up and remind you of something I told you before at some nebulous time in the past, and that is that I am an immersive daydreamer. I said that I was a maladaptive daydreamer but I didn’t even think that was right, because I was just having a great time. I have spent countless hours—wait, no, first I should back up further and say, remember the Belle Waring Unified Theory of American Political Life: Fuck You, It’s Racism Again? Looking pretty prescient now, hmm, isn’t it?

Plain People of Crooked Timber: Lovely to see you and everything, Belle, but haranguing us about racism with ever-more-extravagant uses of profanity is not actually the thing we miss about you.
Me: That’s hard cheese, brother.

Getting back to the plot, I have spent my life making up thrilling stories for an audience of one, usually; of two, for my brother starting when I was six and he three, and going up until I was thirteen and called it off, to his agony; of three, when I played “talking games” with the girls, the last round played when my elder was nineteen. My brother and I just called it “talking,” but with a significant accent, and it may have saved my life. We lived in Georgetown in D.C., in a narrow brick house. I was upstairs in my brother’s room having a sleepover so we could “talk,” for what would be the very last time, when someone broke in through the basement door into the room where I would have been sleeping. The fact that the man [makes unfair sexist generalization about burglary] was an idiot who only stole a lot of Indian-head nickels and was then scared away by the cockatiel is not evidence that he might not have hurt me, because people who commit that crime are desperate, violent morons.

I have often shared some daydreaming difficulty or triumph with John, only to have him say, if you’ve thought that carefully about the tengu that lives in the obsidian tower, or those aliens with their dim foggy planet and revolting cromatophores, why don’t you just write a book already! Me: naahhh. But why not? And so I had a thrilling, creepy dream maybe six years ago, and it gave me an excellent idea, and when I got home from dropping my younger daughter off at college last year I wrote an entire fantasy trilogy which I finished last month. It’s awesome. OK, but it has one trivial problem, namely, it’s largely Russian. It starts off with the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Who objects to them defending themselves at that point? But then things turn out rather differently, and–this is separate, actually–one of the important things is that people hate England. Yes, this is a fantasy novel in which everyone is like, they are colonialists loathsome beyond what is ordinary, impossibly rapacious, they will turn from the end of their hundred-years war with France, bloated with the riches of India, and become a juggernaut, they must be stopped at all costs. Sentimental appreciations of the English countryside are a thin veil for tedious Tories and for a more cold, appraising appreciation of the Irish countryside, not to say a painfully icy one that of the countryside of Bengal. I am veering off topic slightly here but I think that it is Very Important that at some point someone write a fantasy novel in which the Kingdom of Great Britain is just a bunch of bastards, and no amount of green and pleasant lands will help them get around it, morally speaking, even though on the practical side their military is superb, led by Wellington whom I have kind of an inappropriate thing for, and no trifling group of lads. Get. Rekt.

Yes, this is all very well and good, but what if Russia has magical weapons that allow it to overcome the obstacles it historically faced, such as Tsar Alexander? Does anyone want to get deeply invested in Prince Pyotr Bagration’s military triumphs right now? (Me. I love Bagration so much.) Will a sensible hostility towards actual Russia shade, at least in part, to a nonsensical hostility towards imaginary Russia? I mean, that would be super-dumb, but people are, on the whole, very like unto a battered shoebox of socket-wrenches in their intellectual capacity. It is my genuine sense that even if only fifteen percent of potential readers decided they didn’t want to think very hard about the fact that so much of nineteenth-century Russia’s irregular light native cavalry comes from, ah, glances about, well, Zaporzhzhia, it would make people not read the book. (If they’re not the sort of person who likes to read about irregular light cavalry to begin with—there’s actually lots of other entertaining things, such as magic, and people whom I can’t describe here, and even romance of the most chaste type conceivable. For I believe that this whole vast arena of human life, which some regard as the most important, should never be addressed in art in any detail ever, even once. People who write sex scenes should be defenestrated from the Taipei 101.) And if they won’t read the first one they’re never going to get around to the other ones, that’s just science.

I am…pretty bummed out, actually. I had brought this up as a problem earlier and John thought it not likely, but he’s come around. I mean, it’s unfair! Once I had started with what is now a separate story taking place in medieval Minsk, I couldn’t stop, really. I have had one thoughtful friend read them and address this issue, and his proposed solution was both impossible and would have amounted to one of those smallest bandaids you put on your pinky, except they slide off–fuck those band-aids, actually, but in any case, one of those, but applied to the crater left by an RPG that was unfortunately just maybe half a block away. In short, a problem.

I was cast down for a little while but then I decided that the only way out was up and so on, and I’ve gone on to the next three which take place during the second Punic War. Even if I start rooting for Qart Hadasht (which the cool people know is the real name for Carthage) I don’t feel that anyone is really going to object except I guess for Romaboos, of which there are a lamentable number, but they’ll get over it. They won’t, at least, think they are taking an act of any moral significance by refusing to consider an alternate history of the fight on the Peninsula (Belle shakes fist at gens Cornelia “you leave my baby boy Hasdrubal alone!”) But then, there will be something odd about reading the later books first, even if it will appear to make temporal sense. So what do you think? Do I need to wait around for something non-terrible to happen in the history of Russia? I might…run out of ideas before then. It’s not so likely, as I have lots of ideas, but it’s possible. Because the Warring States period is pretty good, interesting-war-wise. But there are issues there I can’t explain right now. Do you think fantasy readers won’t care, because it’s the goddamn Napoleonic Wars? I say they’ll care, just in an atavistic refusal way, not an ‘I am too principled to read this book even though it has quite an excellent magic mechanic’ way. You guys will like the magic mechanic, it’s quite excellent, really.



CDT 07.08.23 at 12:28 pm

In no particular order: I’m fond of extravagant profanity, so no need to stop on my account. There will never not be a time when Russia is doing and suffering terrible things. Maybe after Putin dies would work. “Battered shoebox of socket wrenches” is the best description of American intelligence I’ve ever seen, and I’m going to steal it. Because, like, I’m not smart enough to come up with something on my own.


Phil 07.08.23 at 1:19 pm

I am veering off topic slightly here but I think that it is Very Important that at some point someone write a fantasy novel in which the Kingdom of Great Britain is just a bunch of bastards

I can recommend R.F. Kuang’s magical 19th-century alt-hist Babel (with some reservations, but it’s a strong enough recommendation to make me want to shut up about the reservations rather than put anyone off reading it).


Chris Pitchford 07.08.23 at 1:42 pm

I think that it is Very Important that at some point someone write a fantasy novel in which the Kingdom of Great Britain is just a bunch of bastards…

One novel, or several whole epics? Try the Hawkmoon, AKA History of the Runestaff, and Castle Brass series by Michael Moorcock, where the masked armies and flying ornithopters of Gran Bretan (Yes, we are definitely the baddies) have conquered Europe. The hero is a Duke of Köln, and Moorcock would further develop his steampunk concepts in the Nomads of the Time Streams novels.


George L. de Verges 07.08.23 at 1:52 pm

You cannot imagine my unalloyed pleasure when I randomly open Crooked Timber and found a missive from Ms. Waring. Too, too many issues crying out to address, but I, for one, have been hungering for a book, fictional or otherwise, about the cold and heartless English. My father was the only person I knew who curled his lip at the Royals, and while our (southern Louisiana’s) gripe with GB was just a bit of ethnic cleansing, it is enough for me. Should I send an advance deposit now?


Minivet 07.08.23 at 2:05 pm

I feel like it’s hard to gauge the issue from this description. Does the story mostly set up Russians as POV characters? Does it really come down to the valiant Russians vs the grasping, vainglorious English?

I’m about to verge a little to the Twitter mindset of “stories must clearly identify who the author judges the villain[s] to be”, but maybe give some time to the horrors of serfdom so a little more ambiguity is obvious? Maybe one of the viewpoint characters could come out of it, or have problems with it?

Another direction is, you could add some alternate characteristics to this universe’s English that otherizes them a tad. Like tea never took over as a drink and they’re always offering each other coffee or hot chocolate.


Belle Waring 07.08.23 at 2:19 pm

Yeah the Moorcock thing is fair, I haven’t read those books in like thirty years. I do love me some Michael Moorcock. I’m not saying there aren’t any, there’s just a strong bias. But don’t correct my obvious errors, beloved commenters; humor me by telling me either that alt-history fantasy readers will have a non-negligible bias against Russian fantasy novels or, conversely, not. And to be fair it’s the first that’s 100% in Russia, for the rest we have the Peninsular campaign and early-bird Great Game nonsense in various other locales. Finally I feel I have to note that however much of a thing I have for Wellington I have perhaps even more of a thing for the Emperor of France who, while less objectively hot than Wellington, is…you know. I mean. Jesus, just consider him.


Adam Roberts 07.08.23 at 3:45 pm

I have had one thoughtful friend read them and address this issue, and his proposed solution was both impossible and would have amounted to one of those smallest bandaids you put on your pinky

I’m curious as to what your thoughtful friend’s band-aid was. Not having read them, but having been fortunate enough to read the first vol of the three, a book not marked especially by its anti-Brit animus, I don’t see that you have anything dreadful to worry about. Wellington must be played by Stephen Fry in the movie adaptation, that’s all I’d insist upon.


Phil H 07.08.23 at 3:51 pm

I would like to join the chorus of Phils recommending Rebecca Kuang’s Babel, as a great historical fantasy with the British Empire as the bad guys.
As for your Russian books, I suggest that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The prominence of Russia in the news is actually more likely to make me pick up a Russia-related book than the opposite.


steven t johnson 07.08.23 at 6:26 pm

Strictly speaking, the villains in Babel are the senior faculty of Oxford University, who are terrible oppressors of POC graduate students. And the “empire” is stealing their intellectual property without proper compensation. In many ways the novel is a school shooter story written to support the shooter (well, bomber who destroys the magical tower named Babel in the title) with a conquering hero fantasy. Also in many ways, it may be a stealth transgender novel though this may be an accident of the author writing the ostensibly male protagonist as a vicarious wish fulfillment. On the plus side, the horny handed toiling masses of Oxford do get a spokesman to gratefully, gruffly apologize to the intellectuals/magicians and acknowledge their role as saviors.

It is very hard to make meaningful political fiction in a fantasy world that wishes away work and money with “real” magic. I get that the fun is a world without them, but still. And I get that working in an indictment of people you personally don’t like either can be very satisfying, even if the fictional premises load the dice for the hero and against the villain.

But yes, I own a copy of Babel. It’s like that Fox superhero TV show that had a fascist giving a speech where boasts “They will not replace us!” It sure seems to be about something, even if on reflection you’re not quite sure. Maybe the return of the repressed reality?


Martin 07.08.23 at 6:50 pm

At the risk of making you feel worse, have you seen the reporting of this from June. E.g.,
NEW YORK (AP) — Author Elizabeth Gilbert is delaying publication of a novel she had set in Russia, saying she had received an outpouring of “anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain” from Ukrainian readers. The head of PEN America, the free expression organization, called the decision “regrettable.”

Gilbert’s “The Snow Forest,” set in Siberia during the Soviet era and billed as “a dramatic story of one wild and mysterious girl in a pristine wilderness, and of the mystical connection between humans and the natural world,” had been scheduled to come out next February.

It has received hundreds of one-star reviews on the online reader site Goodreads. Many denounced the novel — which has yet to come out even in advance editions — as insensitive and a whitewash of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Books based in Russia have continued to be published, whether or not they’re issued in Russia. A mystery novel published last week, Paul Goldberg’s “The Dissident,” is set in Moscow in the 1970s.

Gilbert’s action is unusual because she went beyond boycotting Russia and withdrew the book altogether.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel issued a statement Monday saying Gilbert’s decision was “well-intended,” but also “wrongheaded.”


mjfgates 07.08.23 at 7:17 pm

OK, but it has one trivial problem, namely, it’s largely Russian.

Could work. Hell, Bear managed to make the Mongols sound like a beacon of freedom in the “Shattered Pillars” trilogy.

People who write sex scenes should be defenestrated from the Taipei 101.

The sex scene in “Harrow the Ninth” was utterly hilarious, and you cannot convince me otherwise.


Alan White 07.08.23 at 11:51 pm

Of all CT bloggers, you Belle have such a gift for turning yourself so eloquently inside out that Sirens by comparison are a cacophonous whistle. Keep writing; I won’t even think of lashing myself to the mast.


Dogen 07.09.23 at 12:03 am

Please publish your books. I’ll read them. And I’m 100% pro Ukraine, 100% anti-Putin.


Dave M 07.09.23 at 1:22 am

Lovely to see you, Belle, and no hard cheese either.


oldster 07.09.23 at 2:47 am

“…and even romance of the most chaste type conceivable. For I believe that this whole vast arena of human life, which some regard as the most important, should never be addressed in art in any detail ever, even once. People who write sex scenes should be defenestrated from the Taipei 101.”

I agree with this. I agree that the extant sex scenes are bad, and that more bad sex scenes will not contribute to human welfare.
And yet it seems odd that there should be this exception to the general rule about representing the whole of human experience in art.
Are there other exceptions? (“Never write sex scenes, or scenes about playing chess. Never describe what it’s like to take a bath, or to repot nasturtiums.Depicting the cultivation of roses is permissible, but nasturtiums you shall not repot, for it is unclean.”) Is there a rationale that can be given for why sex scenes are excluded from depiction, when all other human activity (it seems) is fair game?


Belle Waring 07.09.23 at 3:11 am

Yes the horrors of serfdom are very important and our heroine is indeed an escaped serf, but yes also there are valiant Russians invading places successfully and in general employing their vast natural magical resources even as the other nations use actual technology; the Russians are just throwing magic and doomed serfs around in ways that are comparatively crude but nonetheless effective. Does Poland fare well? I think we all know the answer there. Does the Orthodox Church militant have low-key powers as well? Yeeessss. Does one of our main characters harbor a child-like, pure devotion to the house of Romanov and the Russian imperium? Absolutely and he is an adorable baby boy in a way I can’t explain. We constantly hear about how awful most Russian institutions are while rooting for them as the good guys in a straightforward way. All of this is important and none of it can be changed. Finally, Wellington has to be portrayed by someone who is a total smokeshow; he has a splendid aquiline nose and an adorable little mouth and a supercilious mein, combining light brown hair and blue grey eyes with the heaviest beard in the world which his valet Kendall shaved twice a day in almost every circumstance, such that he always looked perfect. Now, he and his brother also got suspiciously rich in India, and while he was very stern on his troops not looting and committing war crimes, things did get away from him on a number of occasions, and the general English belief that the tropics make English soldiers all war-crimy was well borne out. There was an occasion on which after the sack of a city ordinary soldiers were said to have exchanged emeralds worth 300 pounds for a single bottle of brandy; one imagines an intelligent man might have…ANYWAY he did return from India quite a bit richer than when he left Ireland. My point is generally that you have to be willing to accept at least in a fatalistic way if not a cheerful one that Russia will, say, roll over part of Poland, because—they can! And if they could, they absolutely would! I feel this is not a situation people will be inclined to go for at this actual moment.


Chris M. 07.09.23 at 5:15 am

Belle Waring! As I live and breathe!

As a veteran of over 30 years writing for the showbiz, my strong instinct is to tell you not to give a shit about the imagined preferences of your theoretical audience. Because it seems like making that cut strikes at the heart of what you love about this, so you could easily find yourself in the position of trying a sell a corpse.

In general, experience has taught me not to preemptively capitulate. In other words, don’t give yourself a note you might get from an agent/executive/actual buyer, wait for them to give it to you and then decide. Because they might not even care! You got worked up over nothing!

My own career selling specs went much better once I got too old to really care if it would sell or not: you can’t kill someone who’s already dead, etc. (Not that anything ever got made, but that’s sometimes just a detail, out here; the checks cleared when I needed them to, is my point.)

Maybe it works differently in fantasy, I wouldn’t know. But you were one of my favorite bloggers to read when you used to post here (you and Spencer Hall, the college football writer), and I hate to think that you’re doing something against your better judgement when you maybe don’t have to.


Doctor Memory 07.09.23 at 3:04 pm

Belle! What a delightful and unexpected surprise for a slow Sunday morning. (And perfectly timed: my partner literally asked me yesterday if I had any idea how you and John were doing.) As it happens, being harangued about racism with ever-more-extravagant uses of profanity is exactly what I think CT has been largely missing for the last few years; please feel encouraged to bring it back.

With regard to your actual problem: well wait. How did we all get this far into the comment threads without realizing that you’d left a golden opportunity for a “Waring States” pun go by untouched? For shame, everyone.

Anyway: oof. I’m a little torn because “actually, the English were the unalloyed villains of most of the 17th through 20th century right up until WW2 and we would all have been quite a bit better off if Wellington had snuffed it at Waterloo” is one of my favorite bore-people-to-death-at-parties takes so I am in theory 100% your target audience here, but I think your instinct that now is a somewhat difficult time to throw your weight behind a narrative of Russia’s pluck and persistence against hostile external forces is basically correct. Like, what is your exit strategy from a glowingly positive review by Russia Today?

Back in the 90s I somewhat apprehensively enjoyed “The Desert Peach”, which was a comic book fantasia about pacifist gay nazis (no really) trying to avoid combat in the sahara during WW2 so it’s not like it’s impossible to do this sort of thing well, but I think the all-seeing and occasionally all-broadcasting eye of social media has raised the stakes significantly. Maybe you’ll get lucky and there’ll be a massive anti-Putin uprising that overthrows the government just in time for you to go to press, but in the meantime I’ll look forward to your Punic Wars saga.


steven t johnson 07.09.23 at 5:24 pm

Doctor Memory@18 claims “…the English were the unalloyed villains of most of the 17th…” century. This would be an astonishing endorsement of, say, the Spanish Inquisition, Louis XIV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Barbary states, the Ottoman empire, the Medici dukes, the Polish liberum veto, the Thirty Years’ War (which was conspicuously not an English war, despite James VI and I having his own daughter as a target!) etc. The endorsement of the Counter-Reformation over the Reformation is implicit, though not spelled out.

To my eyes, this seems like a prima facie case for reflexive nonsense prompted by ideological commitments. The notion the world went bad with the Reformation and the Dutch Revolution and the Puritan Revolution is just the same case that de Maistre and Burke and others explained to us about how the French Revolution ruined everything, I think. At a guess the need to condemn revolution is overwhelming.

We can pretend that “we” enlightened few have reformed the wicked ways of the English et al. without the evils of revolution. I can only say, democracy then was no more perfect than it is now. Condemning the revolutionary past of democracy in the name of an imaginary ideal in the present serves useful political functions, though.


Fake Dave 07.12.23 at 10:47 pm

“Unalloyed villains” struck me as facetious hyperbole entirely fitting with the stated purpose of starting arguments at (bad?) parties. In other words, it’s bait. It’s not on a hook in the wild either, but in a bucket clearly marked “bait.” I’m not biting. Reducing whole populations and various governments across time to a single national “character” has always been a mug’s game.

As for the topic at hand, Stephen Fry is possibly too old for Wellington at Waterloo these days, but might do a creditable job as Wellington the inept reactionary prime minister. I’d watch thay, though our author might still object to marring Wellesly’s elegant profile with Fry’s fistfighter’s nose.


hipparchia 07.13.23 at 3:01 am

delurking to say (a) chris m is 100% correct here: my strong instinct is to tell you not to give a shit about the imagined preferences of your theoretical audience and experience has taught me not to preemptively capitulate, and (b) no, you 100% do not have to wait for something non-terrible to happen in russia, and (c) i skip over the sex scenes, feel free to leave them out entirely.


Peter T 07.13.23 at 7:24 am

Put me down for a copy.


steven t johnson 07.13.23 at 3:44 pm

Fake Dave@20 tells us “bore-people-to-death-at-parties”=”starting arguments at (bad?) parties”

The LLM output labeled “steven t johnson” is adding this correction.


Stephen 07.13.23 at 7:01 pm

Fake Dave @20: “Wellington the reactionary Prime Minister”.

This would be the same Wellington who in 1829, as PM, brought in the Roman Catholic Relief Act, and in 1832 in opposition wrote to Tory peers telling them not to oppose the Parliamentary Reform Bill.


steven t johnson 07.13.23 at 10:22 pm

The Iron Duke “oversaw Catholic Emancipation in 1829, but courted unpopularity by opposing the 1832 Reform Act.”

But yes, the nickname “Iron Duke” really does say “squishy liberal” to me.


Peter T 07.15.23 at 2:14 am

Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon is great read. He lays out how Tsar Alexander (supported by his Scots/German/Latvian commander Barclay de Tolly) was the driver of the decision to go on to Paris after 1812, in the conviction that there could be no lasting peace in Europe while Napoleon remained in power. It was a sound judgement. Kutuzov argued for stopping the pursuit at the German border, as French downfall would only open the door to the British – as was also true.

Incidentally, Lieven is a descendant of Prince Lieven, Russian ambassador to Britain in the period, and husband of Princess Lieven, familiar to readers of Regency romances as one of the patronesses of Almack’s.


Doctor Memory 07.18.23 at 12:20 am

Fake Dave@20: in fairness I should confess that I am definitely willing to bait people at good parties as well, although how good a party can be that has me on the invite list is of course a judgment I would be ill-equipped to make.


Michael Feltes 07.18.23 at 12:58 am

I’m very late to the party, but as regards Wellington, David Troughton’s performance in the first two Sharpe movies is way out in the lead.


James Camien 07.18.23 at 12:42 pm

Regardless of what Russia is doing, I’ll be queueing up overnight for a novel by Belle Waring.

Comments on this entry are closed.