Former elite operative Merit Rafi suffered during her imprisonment at the end of a devastating war, but the ultimate torment is being forced to investigate a murder she would gladly have committed herself.
The year is 3324. In the region once known as Turkey, the Rasakans have attacked the technologically superior Oku. The war is a stalemate until the Oku commander, General Zane, abruptly surrenders.
Merit, a staunch member of the Oku resistance, fights on, but she and her comrades are soon captured. An uneasy peace ensues, but the Rasakans work secretly to gain control of the prized Oku time-travel technology. When Zane is murdered, the Rasakans exert their control over Merit, the last person on Earth capable of Forensic Retrospection.
Merit, though reinstated to her old job by the despised Rasakans, knows she is only a puppet. If she refuses to travel back in time to identify Zane’s killer, her family and colleagues will pay the price. But giving in to Rasakan coercion means giving them unimaginable power. She has only three days to make this morally wrenching choice; three days to change history.
As the preliminary investigation progresses, Merit uncovers evidence of a wider plot. How did the Rasakans defeat the technologically superior Oku? Why did the Oku surrender prematurely? How did the Rasakans discover her true identity? Merit realizes she will only find the answers by learning who killed the traitor, General Zane.
In Retrospect is a good old-fashioned whodunit set in a compelling post-apocalyptic future.
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Q: Thank you for this interview, Ellen. Can you tell us what your latest book, In Retrospect, is all about?
A: Set in the future, In Retrospect follows the story of Merit, once a member of an elite corps of Retrospectors, women who were attuned to travel in time, or “flex,” either for forensic or historic purposes. Quick-witted, principled, and a little prideful, Merit sees her world come to an end when the Rasakans invade and occupy her city state (Okucha). Knowing her attunement makes her a valuable prize, she hides her identity, even though that means facing execution alongside her resistance colleagues. But when her identity is discovered at the last minute, Merit is imprisoned and eventually forced to resume her old job as Forensic Retrospector—only this time she will be working for the Rasakans.
The book begins a year after the end of the war with the murder of Omari Zane, one time Oku General who betrayed his people by prematurely surrendering. The Rasakans are eager to use Retrospection to identify the murderer, but their motivations are divided: one faction, the occupying government, wanting to use the flex to show the Oku that normalcy is returning to their lives, while the other, the secretive Rasakan Authority, wants to use the Retrospection program as a took for spying. Either way, they need Merit, the sole Retrospector to survive the war, to cooperate.
Merit, haunted by demons of guilt and hopelessness, has been going through the motions since her capture. Now she must make a choice: to go against everything she believes in and flex for the Rasakans, or refuse and face the consequences—consequences that will be paid by her friends and family, not her. Complicating the situation is the reappearance of an ex-lover (Eric, a Rasakan physicist from happier days, now working for Authority) and an old rival (the Prioress, Zane’s partner and a failed Retrospector). Preparation for the flex will take three days; in that short time Merit must make the biggest decision of her life.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
A: Merit, though at the lowest point of her life, comes out in the first chapter spewing fire. Even when (as she notes herself) her verbal attacks are powerless or empty, it is clear she will rage against the world with her last breath. She believes herself to be broken and debased, yet still she struggles on the hook. Why is that? The answer is simple: It is who she is; her refusal to give up is what ultimately defines her.
And she has plenty of opportunities for battle, because all the major secondary characters are her antagonists—even those who may (or may not) be on her side. In her initial meeting with her new boss, the Marshall, who tells her about Zane’s murder and makes a good case for working together, she snipes and backbites. her interview with the Prioress is supposed to be about the crime, but it deteriorates into a string of accusations of broken loyalties and insults. She throws money at her impoverished mother and berates the skills of her current lover, Thad. Eric, no longer the idealistic student she fell for twelve years before, makes three attempts to get through to her—all of which are rebuffed with increasing violence. Only when she is with her psychoanalyst is she cowed—even apologizing for a random quip—for he has been in charge of her “rehabilitation.”
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
A: All but one of the characters in this book are figments of my imagination. Since this is Merit’s story, the plot is wholly focused on her and her search not only for the murderer of Omari Zane, but for a solution to her dilemma. All the other characters were likewise defined by their relationship with Merit. But that does not decrease their complexity; they serve the plot, and that was my focus when creating them, rather than borrowing traits from real people. As a result, they add to the forward momentum of the story: everyone is invested in Merit’s choice.
The one character that I plucked from real life was the tea man, who appears in only one scene and is mentioned only twice (see excerpt below). I met many tea men in my years in Egypt, men who despite their obvious poverty were endlessly gracious and efficient—almost magically so. Wherever you go in Egypt, if you sit down long enough, someone will appear to serve you tea. For me, it was like a glimpse into the distant past and thus priceless. Where I grew up, we didn’t have tea men.
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
A: The answer to this question depends on how much time I have to write, and whether or not I’m looking for editorial approval to proceed in a certain direction. I am always aware of at least one major element of the plot. With In Retrospect, for example, I knew whodunit and I knew the suspects and the structure (particularly the structure, since I’m dealing with time travel, which notoriously involves some unexpected doubling-back. But in anything I write, the minor elements of the plot may be the very last things that are feathered in.
Q: Your book is set in Turkey in the future. Can you tell us why you chose this place in particular?
A: I chose Turkey, or Anatolia, as my futuristic setting for a number of reasons. First, it is in that corner of the world where I myself spent many happy years (I lived in Egypt for fifteen years, working as a writer and editor for USAID, the World Bank, and various NGOs). But that is not as important as it might be, given that the people living there in my fictional 3324 are presumed to be unrelated to those living there in 2014. So my second reason for choosing Anatolia was that I wanted a place with a natural barrier that would separate the Oku to the north from the Rasakans to the south, so that when the Rasakans invaded, readers would be able to visualize where they were—and maybe recognize that other armies in days-gone-by had also invaded in that same way. There is no more famous natural barrier than the Straits of Bosporus. And my third reason? I spent a very happy day, in celebration of my fortieth birthday, sailing up the Bosporus, then climbing to a castle in the hills overlooking both the Straits and the Black Sea. That was the day I decided to set In Retrospect in that locale.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
A: Yes, it certainly does. In Retrospect is set fifteen hundred years in the future—a thousand years after a great war known as the Annihilation (what we today would think of as World War III). In that great war, the face of the Earth itself was changed, and the Western Hemisphere largely obliterated. It is part of the premise of the book—and the world that I build—that major land masses have shifted and broken up, and that the weather patterns have changed, resulting in unfamiliar environmental conditions in familiar locales. This in effect freed me to arrange even the geography to serve the needs of the story.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
A: At the Priory, where the flex will occur, Merit finds herself alone with Eric for the first time. She continues to be sarcastic and cold, but he takes off his shield so that they are face to face. Her emotional barriers crack, but this scares her and she covers her panic with a fresh assault, accusing him of abandoning his beliefs and joining the revolutionaries in the first week of the war. When he asked how she knows this, she has to admit that she traveled to Rasaka at that time to be with him—and found him gone, having joined the Rasakan military.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
A: Here is the tea man scene.
Two years earlier
The cellar on the outskirts of Abydos was cold, but well-built and well-hidden. That was important, given the devastating losses they had sustained at Zagor’s Cross. With barely enough troops left to continue the fight, the captains were loathe to risk losing any more.
A kerosene lantern flickered in the middle of a table. Four men and four women, the most experienced of the remaining militia captains, huddled around it, talking in subdued voices. A gnarled old man with a scarf wrapped around his head measured tea from a paper sack into cups. A tiny coal fire burned under an ancient kettle. There was no other light.
Merit lay curled in the belly of a long-disused furnace, a wool blanket wrapped around her diminutive frame. Through the little doorway she watched the faces of the captains, so stern, so absorbed, yet so quick to joke and to praise. It was easy to follow their orders—to risk her life—for such as they.
The sound of vehicles approaching brought the cellar to life. Dark figures appeared as if out of the walls, crowding around the entrance. The table was cleared, more chairs brought forward. Merit left her nest and seated herself atop the furnace where she would be able to see the goings on.
“He’s here,” they whispered. “Get back. Make way.”
The crowd stepped back, making a corridor from the door to the table. A hush fell. Then a bright light flashed, and a tall man with a broad chest strode into the room. Others followed, but no one paid them any attention. All eyes were on Omari Zane.
He shook hands with the captains. His face flashed in and out of the light: large, handsome features, confident, the expression of one accustomed to taking the lead. He introduced his lieutenants, then gestured for the captains to sit.
The lower-ranking officers remained on their feet, ringing the table, listening as the leaders talked. Laughter erupted at some joke or other. The tea man squeezed in and out of the circle, delivering his concoctions.
Merit watched their faces as they talked about how to best recover from the disaster at Zagor’s Cross; about how they must change their strategy to one of guerilla warfare. She didn’t need to hear the words—didn’t want to hear them. The less she knew the better, as long as she knew one thing: that they would fight together and never stop fighting til they won. But she never tired of seeing the belief in their eyes and their generous concern for one another. She wrapped the blanket closer around her shoulders. It had been a cold winter, and she had suffered a little. But she could endure anything, as long as she was with them.
After an hour, the meeting ended. The captains stood, and the soft buzz of voices filled the cellar. But Zane wasn’t quite ready to go. He went around the room, flanked by his lieutenants, shaking the hand of everyone there, exchanging with each a word and a nod of encouragement.
Her captain waved a hand at her. “Come down from your perch, little Sparrow.”
Sparrow. That’s what they called her; even her captain didn’t know her real name. It would only bring them under threat if it got out who she was.
Merit shed her blanket and dropped to the floor. Omari Zane held out his hand, and she gave him hers. He squeezed her fingers and looked into her eyes.
“Sparrow led the way on the armory raid last month,” said her captain. “Crept in right under their noses and cracked the doors so the troops could follow.”
Merit was filled with pride by his praise. Her ability to reason critically and to stay calm no matter what, both learned at the Conservatory, had served her well with the militia. That and her newfound skills at picking locks.
Zane smiled, still holding her hand. “Sometimes the smallest among us make the biggest difference.”
“She’s better than small,” said the captain. “She’s smart, and she’d give her life for anyone in this room.”
“And that’s why we’ll win,” said Zane. He patted her hand. “You have to be willing to die to change history.”
His words touched a place in her heart that had remained cold since she had last seen her father. Merit’s chest swelled with pride.
After he had gone, the company talked it over in soft whispers. His bearing and presence were like no one else’s. Why, he was half a head taller than the tallest among them! And when he spoke to a gathering it was with great authority, yet when he spoke to you it was as a friend. He was a great man, indeed.
Merit loved this kind of talk. It made the deprivation and the danger seem like nothing. Though she said the least, she was the last to give up and turn in, crawling back into the furnace with her blanket in the stillness of the night.
The blast was so loud it seemed to come from inside her head. She awoke into a hell-world of noise, blackness, and concussion. Her mouth and nose were filled with sand and dust, her body buffeted by the cascading explosions. She clawed for the blanket and pulled it over her face, then waited for death to come. The rumbling and tearing went on for what seemed like an hour, then faded away, leaving a silence that was worse.
Later, when the searchers shouted, she was the only one to answer. It took many hours to clear a path to the furnace and pull her out into the cold afternoon sun. She lay shivering beside a row of torn and broken bodies—the eight captains, the tea man, all her comrades, all dead. In a dream, she listened to the whispers of her rescuers: When he’d heard about the bombing, Zane had turned tail and run, headed for his camp at Byzantion. The cellar, the secret meeting—it had all been a set-up to get the captains together so that the Rasakans could take them out. It was true. A mechanic on Zane’s staff had seen a pair of Rasakans sneaking out of the General’s tent under cover of darkness a couple of days before and had told what he’d seen. Zane. He’d sold them out. Zane was a murderer. A traitor.
When the sun set, they took her to a safe house in the hills, and when she started to cry, a woman she did not know and never saw again held her and comforted her.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Ellen. We wish you much success!
A: Thank you! A very good series of questions indeed.
ABOUT ELLEN LARSON
Ellen Larson’s first story appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1971. She has sold stories to AHMM (Barry Award finalist) and Big Pulp and is the author of the NJ Mysteries, The Hatch and Brood of Time and Unfold the Evil, featuring a sleuthing reporter. Her current book is In Retrospect, a dystopian mystery (Carefully crafted whodunit -PW starred). Larson lived for seventeen years in Egypt, where she developed a love of different cultures. She is editor of the Poisoned Pencil, the YA mystery imprint. These days she lives in an off-grid cabin in upstate New York, enjoying the solitude.
Visit her at http://www.inretrospectbook.com