The Oathbreaker’s Shadow & The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

I can’t really believe that next week THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW makes its US debut. Hello America! Flux have done an absolutely amazing job with the package – I love how atmospheric and intriguing it looks. They must be doing something right because The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is a Junior Library Guild Winter 2015 pick (yay!) and has had some awesome reviews stateside:

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The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is easy to dive into and will keep readers engaged… An excellent choice for those looking for a compelling and detailed fantasy novel.” – School Library Journal

“Middle-school readers looking to get lost in another world will enjoy this adventure-packed read.” – Booklist

“An intriguing start to McCulloch’s planned series” – Publisher’s Weekly

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow has always been inspired by my travels. It feels like so long ago now, but at the end of last year, L & I had the chance to visit the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, which I knew would just be full of inspiration for future books – but also would take me right back to all the research I did for Oathbreaker. In fact, I spent a lot of time looking at windows and doorways that could easily work on the front of my book cover!

Granada is one of those perfect city break destinations. Easily accessible from London, full of amazing sights, beautiful hotels, delicious food – and one of the cheapest cities we’ve visited by a mile. As it was partly to celebrate L’s 30th birthday, we splurged to stay in the Alhambra Palace hotel at the very top of the hill. It had the most glorious views and a balcony overlooking the city – not too shabby whatsoever.

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But let’s just take a moment to talk about tapas. Granada is one of the few Spanish cities that still offers free tapas with a drink, and we indulged. We wandered up and down the twisting side streets, stopping for a drink and to eat little plates of wonder. But it was only when we squeezed ourselves into the absolutely packed Restaurante Oliver that we understood the true meaning of tapas. I also fell deeply in love with ‘tinto de verano’ – the on tap red wine and lemonade combination. Take me back there right now!

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Tinto de Verano at Restaurante Olivier & One of the tapas streets

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Iberico ham, a must.

It wasn’t just about tapas, of course. We also strolled around the Albaicin – the old Arab quarter. The Albaicin feels like stepping back in time, to a different era. Market stalls pack the streets, tea houses offer up amazing Arab delights, and – of course – it offers incredible views of the Alhambra itself.

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A market stall in the Albaicin & Me inexpertly pouring tea

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Delicious mint tea

Now onto the Alhambra itself. I don’t think I really knew what to expect when I visited, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling complex we entered. We had pre-booked our tour slot a few months in advance (this is worth looking into so you don’t worry about not getting in – it’s very easy to do and tickets are picked up from local ATMs). We were then able to walk leisurely around the Generalife – a beautiful palace/villa with stunning grounds.

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A stunning pool inside the Nasrid Palace

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The Generalife and the Court of the Lions and Fountain

The visit to the Nasrid Palaces was the final item on our agenda. And it was everything I could have dreamed of and more. Walking through the highly decorative Moorish Palace, there were delights around every corner. The highlight was the wonderfully evocative Court of the Lions and Fountains. The sheer level of detail of the carvings on the walls made you appreciate just how much work went into building these luscious palaces. I encourage anyone to go and visit if you have the opportunity.

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These windows would fit right in on the cover of my book

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Incredible detail

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The walls of the Nasrid palaces are covered in script and mosaic

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More highly Oathbreaker-y windows

The perfect place to inspire more novels… and to remind me of upcoming ones!

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Welcome to Myanmar, tiger tiger… or is it?

I’m sitting here covered in cuts and bruises, every muscle aching and sore, having narrowly avoided an awkward interaction with a cobra and picked several leeches off my friend’s body.

No, our plane didn’t crash in the middle of the Myanmar jungle. Instead, I was talked into a 9km ‘Hash’ run with the Yangon Hash Harriers… but that isn’t even the start of our story!

The Myanmar mishaps (or is it Burma blunders?) began at Heathrow airport at 5.15am, where Tania (one half of the couple L and I are travelling with) was refused entry on to the plane. Her passport was only valid for the next 5 ½ months, as opposed to the 6 months “required”… thank goodness she has dual citizenship (and therefore a second passport) so she was able to rush back and get on the flight the next day.

We didn’t know that, however, as we unhappily said goodbye to Tania to go through security. Two six-hour flights later… we landed in Yangon, one person missing but happy to have heard that Tania had managed to secure a flight, which meant we could relax a bit into our journey.

Yangon/Rangoon is a beautiful city, much calmer than any other place in South-East Asia I’ve been in terms of traffic and people. It has the most number of colonial buildings of any city in SE Asia, which lends it a really gorgeous, lost city-type of vibe. We are so lucky to be staying with a friend who works for the British embassy in Myanmar, so we have lots of great local knowledge on our side!

We walked on a lovely boardwalk across Kandawgyi Lake in absolutely blazing heat, spotting some temples along the way. The three of us were very knackered during lunch, so it wasn’t long until we were ready to head back for nap.

At the start of the Yangon hash

At the start of the Yangon hash

Then began my real adventure. The boys were too tired (read: they wimped out) but I tagged along with Nick for my Hash Harrier adventure. ‘Hash’es are organized runs that happen throughout the world, led by ‘hares’ who mark the run with shredded paper. Hash runners are known as ‘runners with a drinking problem’ or ‘drinkers with a running problem’, depending on how you look at it! The runs can be any length and can take you through any part of town – ours was quite rural, which was lovely, and also quite long! I definitely didn’t expect to be running 9km, but I was already there so why not?

The first half of run felt like more of a bush walk. We headed straight out into fields and long grasses, filled with thorns and uncertain footpaths – not really your ideal running route! I quickly fell to the back of the group, and thought I was dead last – but it turned out I was just dead last of the people who managed to keep up and not get lost! I was determined not to get lost, so even if I felt tired, I wasn’t going to lose sight of the person in front.

Spot the runners...

Spot the runners…

We ran through some quite deep mud (about mid-shin – and it might not have been all mud, if you get my drift), which led to leeches! Thankfully I avoided them, but Nick wasn’t so lucky with three of the buggers latching on. I did spot the cobra though, slithering through the grass ahead of me, so I think I won! Nick jumped about a mile after I spotted it…! No picture, unfortunately, as it was moving too fast.

The second half of the run was much easier – through little villages where I could see a slice of country life. We finished the run in a brewery (natch) called Dagon beverages, where I collapsed – sweaty and exhausted – but actually feeling way more energetic before. Turns out maybe the best jet lag cure is a whole lot of exercise! I had my Hash induction – downing an entire beer in front of the 60-odd runners – and came back home, tired but happy.

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We were up early the next morning  to meet Tania, who finally made it to Myanmar! The group was complete!!

My legs and ankles were pretty sore from the run, but we had a jam-packed day ahead. We started out at Nagar glass factory, which had been completely destroyed by the cyclone in 2008. The family who runs it has been creating blown glass wonders for years, but not since the cyclone. While their kiln and buildings were ruined, the glass – which had always been stored outside – has remained, in a surreal jungle-like atmosphere. It’s like an Alice-in-Jungleland type glass menagerie, a forest floor that sparkles and glitters with coloured glass sculptures. They don’t have the money to restart the kiln again, but there are wonderful glass treasures to be found, which can be polished up to mirror shine. Needless to say, we spent plenty of kyat there, and spent an age chatting to the knowledgeable owner.

The 'natural warehouse', a glass wonderland

The ‘natural warehouse’, a glass wonderland

For lunch, we had our first taste of Burmese food – which was absolutely delicious. Where I would almost immediately turn my nose up at ‘salad’ (especially while on holiday!), Burmese salads are amazing, especially the tea leaf salad, tomato salad and aubergine salad. We also shared some curries and Bago coconut noodles – all scrumptious. Burmese food, thumbs up!

In the afternoon we wandered around downtown Yangon, looking at all the colonial buildings. Afternoon tea at The Strand filled us all up with amazing cakes and snacks, while feeling very posh despite our traveller wear.

Then came the absolute highlight of the entire trip (yes, even more than the 9km run!): Shwedagon Paya. This might be the most beautiful temple complex I have ever seen, shining like a golden crown above the city. We arrived just before sunset, watching the sky change from blue to indigo to black, and the temple change from bright gold to burning orange as the monks and worshippers lit candles that illuminated the riches all around. It is a full moon tonight, which meant the temple was packed with people. Even so, it was a magical place.

Shwedagon at sunset...

Shwedagon at sunset…

In Buddhist culture, it is best to pray to the specific animal which corresponds to the day of the week you were born on. Lofty, born on a Friday, is a guinea pig. Lucky him! Adam and Tania were both Hinta birds (or garruda birds). And what was I? A tiger, of course! I am also a year of a tiger in Chinese astrology, which makes me a Tiger Tiger. This, clearly, made my entire day.

After Shwedagon, Nick took us to a bar that must have one of the best views in the world: overlooking the golden temple at night. A few cocktails later, we agreed this was one of the best starts to a trip ever – missed flights and scratched up legs included.

View from the best bar in town...

View from the best bar in town…

Bring on more, Myanmar! We can take it…

 

 

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#Inspiration series… Travelling, part 2

Travel has always formed a big part of my life. My parents were not the sort to leave their children at home, or who avoided long travel until we got older, and we often went to distant places together as a family. They trained me well – even now, I can’t get on moving transport without falling asleep almost immediately (it makes it awkward on those long tube journeys home, though).

So two things were prevalent in my life: travel, and carpets. The latter won’t be a surprise if you’ve been following the blog, but for those of you who don’t know, my parents own an oriental carpet store in Ottawa, Canada, and when I was a child he worked as the carpet buyer for Harrods, and later Bentalls department stores. As a result, my sister and I spent a lot of time playing hide and seek through stacks of carpets. And, yes, dealing with all the requisite high school jokes later on.

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Me and my sister, hanging out at my parent’s store

There’s no doubt that accompanying my parents on trips while I was young shaped and influenced me as a writer. One of the most influential trips I went on came in 1995, when I was 9, and we had the privilege of being invited to a huge, 10-day wedding celebration in New Delhi, India.

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At a Hindu wedding in New Dehli, 1995

The wedding was lavish and spectacular, and my sister and I both loved dressing up for the occasion in our saris chosen especially for the colour of each particular day. But India also equalled enormous culture shock. It was the first time I can vividly remember witnessing extreme poverty: we were driving in the car from the hotel to the wedding venue, and when we were stopped in traffic, dozens of children surrounded the car, banging on the windows and begging. The driver just pulled away. After that I remember being shocked into stunned silence – partly fear, but also partly curiosity. I asked my parents why children had to live like that. Children ask the most difficult questions, I feel.

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All the bangles you could ask for!

But there were other abiding memories too – the wedding was also a riot of colour and ritual and amazing food. I wore bangles up to my elbows, and had henna designs drawn on my hands. I managed to irritate the woman doing mine, and so I was bestowed a (what I remember to be) hideous henna pattern, with thick blobs like a chessboard, where everyone else had delicate vines and flowers. The jealousy still stings.

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During the mendhi session, having henna painted on my hands

We managed to see some of Northern India too – taking the train down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. There, we spotted snake charmers lining the street up towards the beautiful marble building. I was obsessed with snakes at the time (so much so, that even now when it came to killing a snake in a scene in my book, I couldn’t do it!) and so I watched on, intrigued.

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Okay, maybe I look a little bit scared… But look at that rocking jumper

We also visited places like the Red Fort, which no doubt subtly planted the seeds in my mind of a vast, red castle, surrounded by heat and sand.

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My sister and me at the Red Fort, New Delhi

But no greater moment stayed with me longer than the main wedding day, where we walked alongside a procession of musicians, dancers and – wait for it – elephants, as the groom rode astride a beautiful white stallion covered in red and gold cloth. There were garlands of flowers everywhere, all in deep, rich colours: marigold, crimson and indigo. The bride was absolutely stunning, and both my sister and I watched with mouths agape throughout the entire ceremony.

When I look at the below picture, I can picture exactly a scene from The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, right near the end – so I won’t spoil it by saying too much more. It makes me wonder just how much I was influenced by what I had seen as a child, and why it was so natural for me to want to set my book in that particular environment. I’m going to be exploring this even more in a later post, but for now, I leave you with a painted elephant…

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Beautiful painted elephant during the Hindu wedding

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#Inspiration series… Travelling

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is out in the world now (well, the parts of the world where the rights have sold!), so I thought I’d continue my blogging tradition by talking about different things that inspire the book and my writing, and hopefully give some useful tips along the way.

This week’s inspiration theme is: Travel!

To start things off, one of the Totally Random Tour stops last week was with Sable Caught, a lovely vlogger who I met at the Random House UK blogger brunch. Karen, Emma and I all provided her with a list of the top 5 places which inspire us. Check out her vlog to see our answers:

Did any of those places resonate with you? Check back tomorrow for more travel-inspiration, where I will delve a bit deeper into how it helps my writing and why I love it! And not just for the sunshine!

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Sharm el Sheikh relaxing & chillaxing

My absolute favourite blogs to write are travel blogs – maybe because I kept one going for so long and it reminds me of my gap year (if you haven’t seen that blog, it’s still archived over on http://amytravels.wordpress.com). This holiday was much more of the ‘relax’ variety rather than the ‘adventure’ one, and ended up being the perfect antidote to the freezing cold winter weather we’ve been having in the UK right now. It also had the added benefit of kickstarting my writing routine and I wrote well over 12,000 words – clearly I need the occasional week in the sun to keep me productive!

We stayed at the Hilton Waterfalls all-inclusive in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, getting a great last-minute deal. Luckily Lofty had researched the hotels pretty thoroughly so we knew we’d be getting a decent place to stay. We both fell in love with Egypt on our trip there last year (check the Egypt tag for more trip reports) and the combination of decent price with guaranteed sunshine made it a good bet!

The hotel was lovely – but even better, it had its own funicular! So when we got a bit tired of all the walking… we could just hop in the glass elevator.

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Both L & I are keen divers (we did our Advanced PADIs in Dahab last year), so our first port of call was the diving school at the hotel. Unfortunately they were asking ludicrous amounts (clearly Hilton Hotel Guest prices) for four dives, and we left feeling very disappointed. We weren’t about to drop around £200 each for four dives when we’d expected to pay less than half that. Luckily, our holiday rep used a different dive company, which was much more reasonable. We went out to the local reef for our refresher dives, which was pretty interesting in itself, but then the next day ventured out to Tiran Island, which had some pretty amazing coral gardens. We saw lots of blue-spotted stingrays, lionfish, napoleon wrasse, grouper, Nemos and brightly coloured coral. The only downside was that it was very busy on the reef – lots of boats, lots of divers, lots of snorkelers. I know it is Easter hols, but Egypt is hardly at the height of tourism at the moment… so I can’t imagine what it would be like when it was really packed!

One of the things we loved most about Dahab was the relaxed vibe – just chilling out on cushions under fairy lights… and I was worried that we wouldn’t really feel that in Sharm el Sheikh. And while it’s true that it was definitely much more of a Tourist (capital T) destination – filled with Brits, but mostly Russians! – our hotel had one little spot on the roof which fulfilled our bohemian traveller dreams – Shish Bish, a little shisha bar out under the stars. Suffice to say that most evenings were spent with some mint tea and a shisha pipe and a brightly coloured blanket to ward away the pesky mosquitos! It was a very relaxing way to end our days.

We didn’t spend every night cooped up in our hotel though, and we ventured out into Old Sharm to dine on some delicious seafood. We’d had a recommendation from a French family to head to Fares – which was definitely a good call. For around £20 for the two of us, we gorged on seafood soup, lobster, crab, grouper, calamari, shrimp… the works. It was delish! We then wandered around the market for a bit, stopping at El Mawardy – a cafe which had been recommended to us by our waiter at Fares. The owner was lovely, even if I was the only woman in the entire place… naturally they positioned us out front, probably to try to attract more tourists! That being said, pretty much every Egyptian I met assumed that I was Egyptian… but then no one can EVER guess my background so I can’t really blame them. (Spot the odd one out in the picture below…)

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Ultimately though, the trip was an opportunity for me to get some writing done, which I thankfully managed to squeeze in between the sunbathing and the eating and the swimming and the diving and the shisha… but before you all think I had TOO much of a good time, I did end the trip with a not-so-pleasant case of Egypt Belly. And we were so good with the bottled water!

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We’re back home now, and there’s been lots of exciting writing stuff happening, but that’s a blog for another time! Bye Egypt, I’m sure we’ll see you again soon…

 

 

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