Deborah A. Wolf makes her epic fantasy debut with The Dragon’s Legacy, the first novel in an ambitious trilogy about the Zeeranim, a tribe of fierce female warriors determined to protect their desert homeland. One of the brave young warriors, Sulema, is stunned to learn of her long-hidden connection to the powerful Dragon King who rules in a neighboring land. The novel traverses the sands of the Zeera desert and beyond as readers encounter dream-shifting shamans and terrifying mythical creatures.
Wolf has personal experience with wild landscapes and ferocious creatures, since she grew up in an Alaskan wildlife refuge. We asked her for some insight into what she calls her childhood as a “barbarian warrior”—with all its bumps and bruises—and how those experiences translate onto the page in her thrilling new novel.
How did you decide to create a matriarchal society like that of the Zeeranim? These characters pack some serious girl power. Are there any women in your life who should be ruling the world?
One of the things I’m having fun with as I write The Dragon’s Legacy series is trope-flipping. Desert tribes are overwhelmingly portrayed as male dominated and repressive of women and women’s sexuality, so I wanted to write that backwards and see what emotional impact it might hold for my readers. Also, I grew up in the middle of Alaska, and the women in my village were for the most part powerful and admirable, whether for their skills at hunting and fishing, jobs on fishing boats and in the oil fields, or for their abilities in providing for and raising families in a dangerous and awesome environment. My Granny should have ruled the world. It would be a much kinder place today had she a voice in making policy.
The Dragon’s Legacy is filled with all sorts of strange (and scary) animals. How did you come up with the creatures in the novel? Are they combinations of your favorite animals, your least favorite, or just animals that you think would look interesting blended together?
I grew up on wildlife refuges, so the natural world informed my development from an early age. I enjoy worldbuilding as far as imagining ecosystems and the life forms one might find, especially on a world born of a dragon’s dreaming.
World building is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Can you tell us how your experience as an Arabic linguist and your love of different cultures contributed to your talent for creating new worlds?
I can’t imagine how much more of a struggle this would be if my upbringing and early adulthood had been more homogeneous. Exposure to and appreciation for cultures different from my own have imbued me with a fascination for the breadth of the human experience; we are so strange, so wonderful and odd and funny and frightening as a species. Sulema is an intriguing and unique character. She is brave to the point of recklessness, fierce and strong.
Is there a little of you in Sulema? In a perfect world, would you like to live your life like hers?
There is a lot of me in Sulema, which is probably why I’ve had knee surgery, cortisone shots and some hearing loss. I regret nothing. Sulema is a good kid, and people who knew me as a young soldier will recognize many of her personality traits. That being said, I’m probably more like Hafsa Azeina [Sulema's adoptive mother] at this stage of my life.
If you woke up tomorrow as any mythical creature—including ones of your own invention—which one would it be and why?
A dragon, of course. Even the least of dragons inspires us to awe.
Which came to you first, the plot or the concept for the world of The Dragon’s Legacy?
The concept came first, though it was in the beginning a much simpler story, meant to be a quick sword and sorcery in the desert tale of Sulema’s journey to meet her father and create her destiny. Writing is much like parenting; you conceive a child and love it immediately with all your heart, and then kind of sit back and watch in awe as that child defies all your preconceived notions and grows into something more wonderful than you could have imagined. The novel has so many unique castes and occupations, from dreamshifters to First Mothers to vashai.
Was there any real-world or historical inspiration for the hierarchy and cultural structures in place?
I am an avid reader of histories, biographies and faerie tales, and at any given time you might find me engrossed in a National Geographic magazine or BBC documentary. So the short answer to this question would have to be “Yes, all of it.” History, current events, and a big dose of ‘what if’. What if China had interfered with Roman expansion? What if Atlantis had sunk down into the earth instead of the ocean? What if the threat of earthquakes in California is actually a result of a restless dragon stirring in her sleep?
Elaborate a little about the connection between issues in the book regarding indigenous peoples and their struggles to find and keep their place in a violent world. What has been your real-life connection to this topic, and what do you hope the reader comes away with?
I grew up in a mostly Native village on the Kuskokwim River, and have seen firsthand the social issues that directly result from imperial expansion and cultural genocide. These observations were not from the viewpoint of a seasoned adult with preconceived ideas and a view of the Other, but as a child whose friends’ lives were (and are) directly impacted by forces outside any of our small spheres of influence. I hope that the reader might come away with the ability to see indigenous peoples as people, ordinary people, rather than as savages or museum displays or quaint, backwards societies in need of enlightenment.
How did growing up in Alaska influence your development as a writer?
Because I attended high school in McGrath, Alaska, I was blessed to have come under the tutelage of English teacher Deane O’Dell, who (because she has the patience of all the saints) was able to imbue the reluctant mind of a young barbarian with an unlikely love of culture and literature. Alaska is huge, it is limitless and ancient and powerful, and it is deadly. Alaska will put you in your place and teach you the meaning of insignificance. Alaska taught me to love this world, and hope for its continued existence.
Also, the fishing is superb.
Who inspires you as an author? Are you a longtime reader of epic fantasy, and if so, what are some of your favorites in the genre?
I grew up reading such greats as Katharine Kerr, Katherine Kurtz and of course Anne McCaffrey; I wanted to be a Dragonrider so bad, you have no idea. I used to hunt for fire lizard clutches on the beach. More recently, favorites and inspirations include Pat Rothfuss, Robin Hobb and George Martin. This is a short excerpt of a very long list. I feel fortunate to live in such times, and humbled to be published in such august company.
Can we have a few hints about the forthcoming books in the trilogy?
Keep an eye out for spiders, and trust no one—especially not the author.