Reading Tad Williams: “The Witchwood Crown” (Book 1 of “The Last King of Osten Ard”)

Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

At long last, I have finished The Witchwood Crown and let me tell you, dear readers, this is one hell of a book.

The story takes place roughly thirty years after the end of To Green Angel Tower, and Simon and Miriamele have successfully ruled as the High King and High Queen of Osten Ard. However, not all is as peaceful for it seems, for there is unrest throughout the human kingdoms, and the Norns have also begun to re-emerge from a long period of dormancy. Beset with problems both domestic and political, and joined by numerous new characters, Simon and Miriamele must contend with yet another grave peril to their beloved kingdom.

There is something uniquely pleasurable about seeing the characters that we loved so much in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. All of them, of course, bear the burden of the intervening years, Miriamele and Simon most of all. They have governed well, but already there are disturbing signs that all is not as well as it might appear. Fortunately, there are still those that are able to aid them, such as the doughty but aging Count Eolair, as well as the lovable and eternally loyal troll Binabik. There is something equally sad about learning that some of our favourite characters–Rachel the Dragon, Father Strangeyeard, etc.–have already died. And if you don’t feel a tear come to your eye at the death of dear old Duke Isgrimnur, then I don’t think that you are really a human being.

While Simon and Miriamele were the central characters in the preceding series, it seems that now they are on the fringes of the narrative. Their actions are important, certainly, but it’s hard not to feel that events have begun to slip beyond their grasp. Having faced the death of their only son, they now have to contend with the fact that his son has become something of a wastrel. Williams does an excellent job conveying their maturity, as well as the sinister fact that even their most seemingly loyal councilors–such as Pasavalles–may have motivations that are not in the best interests of the monarchs.

As with The Heart of What Was Lost, one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was the portrait that we get of the inner workings of Norn society. This is a rigid culture that has very set ways of doing things, and while many of them believe that this is the way that it should be, there are significant nodes of resistance among even the highest of them. Viyeki, now a Magister, is one of these, and the parts of the book devoted to his viewpoint are always compelling, in no small part because he, perhaps more than any of his countrymen, realizes that the Queen and her chief adviser Akhenabi may not be as wise or as infallible as the Norns have come to believe.

Most of the new characters are likewise compelling, though Morgan, the grandson of the king and queen, is quite insufferable (for all that we sympathize with him in some ways). Nezeru, the daughter of Viyeki and the mortal Tzoja; Unver the Thrithing; and numerous others make appearances that show that this novel is comprised of a number of moving parts. Everyone has their own motivations, some noble and some not, and that is part of what makes The Witchwood Crown such an utterly consuming read.

At a deeper philosophical level (which is always one of my favourite things about Williams’s work), the novel forces us to confront one of the uncomfortable realities that simmers beneath the surface of a great deal of epic fantasy. While the endings of so many epics suggest that the evil has been banished once and for all, that is almost never the case in the real world. The story goes on, the cycle of history repeats itself, and those who are caught in the gears of it have to fend for themselves or learn to navigate as best they can. While Williams’ books tend to not be as ruthless as those of, say, George R.R. Martin, I am beginning to wonder if we might not see the end of some of our most beloved characters (after all, the series is titled “The Last King of Osten Ard”).

At this point, it’s still rather difficult to see the endgame of the series as a whole. Clearly Utuk’ku will stop at nothing to reclaim the world that she thinks has been stolen from her and her people by the mortals. What’s more, most of the humans seem to be so caught up in their own pettiness that they fail to see the forest for the trees. Even after the carnage and destruction of the Storm King’s War, humanity seems chronically unable to hold itself together long enough to be able to actually build a more just, stable world. This series seems like a slower burn than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and in that sense it seems to have more in common (pace-wise) with the Shadowmarch series. For someone like me who likes a plot that only gradually unfolds–with, of course, a tremendously satisfying conclusion–this is right up my alley. And, in my humble opinion, it is one of Williams’s greatest strengths.

Overall, this new adventure in Osten Ard seems a bit darker than its predecessors, a product, perhaps, of the very different sociocultural milieu in which Williams is now writing. There are even more grey areas than there were before, and even some of the characters whose minds we inhabit are far murkier than we might have thought possible. There are great forces at work, and it is entirely possible that the things that everyone has taken for granted in this world, perhaps even the very substance of the world itself, may come crashing down into ruin. I have already begun bracing myself for what’s coming next.

The only problem is…how long will I have to wait for the next volume?

Novel Weekends (6): Increments

Well, this weekend wasn’t quite as productive as I would have liked. I did publish a small piece of world-building, and I wrote around 1,000 words of the revised Chapter 1. However, I hope to at least write some bits and pieces this week, mostly focused on finishing up the outline for both the first volume and the subsequent ones.

Overall, I like how the entire trajectory is shaping up. There’s a lot going on in my vision of this series, and I have constructed the entire world in such a way that I see a lot of stories that I can tell that are set in it. Though I have other fantasy worlds that I’ve developed  during the years, this one feels like it has potential that the others don’t.

I know that some writers don’t like outlines, but when it comes to my fiction I like to have a strong sense of how the overall plot arcs are going to go. I don’t need to have every detail worked out, but I do like to see where all of the major characters are going to do and what’s going to happen. And, fortunately for me, I think I have all of those worked out. I’ve managed to give all of my characters, even the challenging ones, important things to do (which is harder than you might think, actually).

Speaking of the trajectory…ideally, I’d like to have a full draft of this book done by the end of the year. It’s ambitious, but I think it’s doable. Even more ideally, I’d like to start hunting for an agent sometime in the coming spring. But, given that the dissertation is also in the final stages of completion, this timeline may have to accommodate some adjustments.

But, it can be done!

World Building (5): The Art of Binding

At the very beginning days of the Church, when philosophers and theologians were still disputing about the nature of the material world, it became clear very early on that fire and air–as well as the more elusive aether–were the purer elements and that as such they should be viewed as infinitely superior to the baser elements of earth and water. Some of this was residual from the Church’s origins in the faith of the Haransharin, in which fire was held to be a purifying element. However, it also stemmed from the Church’s increasing desire to distance itself from the threads of the world, to assert its independence from the officials in the Ormazdh faith, and to provide a firm grounding upon which to build their new spiritual and political order.

In their efforts to access the transcendence offered by these purer elements, the men and women of the early Church uncovered several strange tracts written by obscure magicians and sorcerers among the Korrayin. These mysterious people, who some recorded had come from across the sea, had also brought with them the technology of Binding, one that they kept to themselves, locked behind walls. However, in the many skirmishes that had erupted in the lead-up to the revolution in which the Imperium gained independence, a number of these texts had fallen into the hands of those in the Imperium.

The practice itself involved a complex series of rituals. The base material to which the daimon would be bound had to be purified, usually through blood (it was rumoured that lifeblood was the most effective means, but that was strictly forbidden by the Church). It also required the use of an athame, a sacrificial knife, forged from a rare mineral found only in the Mountains of Korray. Through the carving of runes in the receptive material–which, incidentally, can include human flesh–the daimon is Bound, subject to the forces of the Binder’s will. The captured spirit can not only provide greater stability to building foundations (one of its most prominent uses), but also be used, albeit carefully, to produce weapons of often unimaginable destructiveness.

Foremost among those who espoused this new practice was the priest Xenoxes, who saw in it an opportunity to both attain the sort of transcendence that his fellow priests had aspired to and, just as importantly, to gain more than a little political power. He knew there were virtually no limits to this technology, and he spent a significant amount of time publishing many treatises about the ethics, practice, and philosophy around it. As a result, he gained an enormous following, and his thoughts on the matter came very close to being seen as the orthodox strain of the Church.

Such was the influence of Xenoxes that he managed to tremendously influence the other Church Elders, and there was a rush to perform Binding. Soon there arose a group of men and women who called themselves the Alchemists’ Guild, and they were determined to exploit this new magical technology to the utmost. The foundations–and many of the buildings–of the new imperial capital of Aïonis were reinforced with bound daimons. While there were some who raised questions about the ethics of doing so, the clear advantages managed to quell most of those. After all, how could it possibly be against the wishes of the Name for men and women to make the most of the accursed physical world to which they had been condemned? Was it not only right and fitting that the spirits that were the closest to the Name in substance should be used for the benefit of the fallen children of earth?

In what what would be called by some historians the First Binding Revolution, the use of this technique would soon become so ubiquitous that it transformed the world. It was, in many ways, a golden age for the Imperium. Though the production of weapons was limited–again via mediation from the Church–the buildings that were made with it were far beyond the scope of anything the world had yet seen. There was even the possibility that the power generated by Binding (and its dreadful twin, Unbinding), could be used as a source of power analogous to electricity.

Unfortunately, the technology also contained the seeds of profound destruction. A century and a half into the Imperium’s existence–after a series of protracted conflicts that became known as the First Korrayin War–a disaffected Korrayin youth, goaded on by those who did not have his own interests at heart, made his way into the center of the Palace of Justice, the administrative heart of the city of Aïonis. Having been Bound to a daimon, he had become a formidable weapon. He essentially set off a chain reaction that brought the entire Palace tumbling into ruin, and a dreadful purge of the Korrayin swept through the city.

The two synods that were convened in the aftermath of the Blaze declared unequivocally, that Xenoxes and his followers were heretical and that the daimons and the Elohim were most definitely NOT to be Bound to the mortal plane. To do so was the gravest form of enslavement, since it was held that the daimons, while they did not have the same amount of consciousness and subjectivity as humanity, nevertheless could not be held in this way. And the Elohim, which were closest to the Name in their composition–and as the servants responsible for holding the Demiurge in bondage in the Outer Darkness–were even more strictly out of bounds.

Unbeknownst to the authorities in the Church, however, there were many in the Academy who continued to conduct research into these matters. A few of these rogue alchemists were eventually betrayed by one of their own kind, however, and a terrible purge swept through every level of the Academy. Anyone who was held to have indulged in these forbidden behaviours was subject to immediate trial and execution, and the road known as Traitor’s Way was soon flocked with the flayed corpses of the heretical.

Since that time, the Art has largely vanished. It was deemed far too powerful and dangerous a weapon, and all traces of it were sealed in the forbidden vaults of the Academy. Even the Korrayin, those who perfected the craft, swore off of its use, for they saw in it the potential for the great powers on their borders to exact even more damaging losses on their sovereignty.

In the era immediately preceding the actions of the novel, the Art has once again begun to be secretly practiced among both the Korrayin and among several rogue Alchemists in the Academy, the latter of whom have discovered in the deepest parts of the archives. The discoveries have the potential to change the course of both the Imperium and, even more importantly, to disrupt the fragile stalemate that has long existed between that nation and Haranshar. Now that there are so few who have actually been trained in its intricacies, it is hard to say what the consequences will be.

It is certain, however, that they will be disruptive and, quite possibly, destructive as well.

Film Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes” and the End of Humanity

Warning: Full spoilers follow.

As everyone who is even vaguely familiar with this blog knows quite well, I am an avid fan of all things Planet of the Apes. Needless to say, then, I have been waiting for the release of this film pretty much from the moment that the last film was finished. I watched the most recent entry as part of a triple feature, and I also watched it on its own (in 3-D in RPX, no less). I can say, as both a fan of the franchise and as someone who loves a well-made movie, that this is a stirring, magnificent conclusion.

The film begins two years after the conclusion of Dawn, as the forces of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attempt to utterly eradicate the sentient apes, who have retreated ever further into the forest in a desperate attempt to survive. When the Colonel assassinates Caesar’s wife and child, he sets out–with the orangutan Maurice, the gorilla Luca, and the chimpanzee Rocket–to gain revenge. Along the way, they meet Bad Ape, another sentient chimpanzee (who is not part of their tribe), before coming across the hideous concentration camp the Colonel has staffed with Caesar’s captured troop. The Colonel manages to capture Caesar and uses him as a means of motivating the other apes to continue building a wall around the camp. Ultimately, Caesar leads his troop to a promised land, though he gives his life to do so.

The vision of the world that War presents is the logical culmination of the narrative arc begun with Rise and continued with Dawn. In other words, it is a brutal, bleak world where both apes and humans have to contend with the darker parts of their natures. The spirit of vengefulness that Koba represented in the second film continues to haunt Caesar, a reminder that, for all of their advanced cognition and increased self-awareness, the apes are never far from sliding into violence. That this affects Caesar, just as much as it affects any other character, makes it all the more explicable and, to a degree at least, understandable. When the world has fallen apart and all you want to do is survive–and that is the one thing that humanity seems intent on preventing–it would be very difficult indeed to keep from slipping into barbarism.

A large part of Caesar’s continuing charisma stems from his portrayal by Andy Serkis. It’s not just that Serkis is the undoubted king of motion capture; it’s that Caesar is a character as complex and contradictory as any human character. He has seen so much in the course of his life–the best and the worst of humanity–and he has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He is also far from infallible; it is his decision to pursue vengeance that leads, however inadvertently, to the imprisonment and death of many of his beloved apes. Even the greatest of heroes, it seems, are as flawed as the rest of us.

While the Colonel gets a lot less screen time than I expected, he is also a man driven by a mission. Once it becomes clear that the virus that wiped out so much of humanity has begun to mutate and cause cognitive devolution, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone–including his own son–if it means that collective humanity will be saved. For it turns out that the virus that exterminated so much of humanity has once again begun to mutate, and its new form works to rob its victims of both speech and their upper cognitive capacities. Brutal, utterly convinced of his own sacred duty (he even believes that his sacrifice of his son is godlike), he represents mankind’s worst impulses, a willingness to destroy any individuals who pose a risk to the collective. Harrelson endows this creation with a certain charismatic cruelty, and that is the brilliance of the role.

If the Colonel represents the end of the emotional attachments that make us human, the mute girl Nova represents a possible new beginning. Having already survived the new form of the virus, she cannot speak, but she is fully capable of emotional attachments, and she becomes particularly bonded with Maurice. While she may not attain the same heights of intelligence as her human forbears, there is a measure of hope that she represents a new, possibly more innocent beginning for the human race.

In the end, War ends on an ambiguously uplifting note. The seeds have been sown for the ultimate decline of humanity into the mute primitives that were seen all the way back when the first film came out in 1969. The apes have at last found a place where they can build their world in safety. Maurice and Rocket, Caesar’s most devoted acolytes and disciples, will be able to train his son Cornelius so that he can take up the mantle of leadership that his father has left behind. Caesar has left the world, but his benevolent spirit, represented by the final glimpse of the sun, will continue to live on among his people.

Speaking of Maurice…I know that Caesar is the film’s star, and I have cheered for him from the beginning, but to my mind Maurice is one of the franchise’s most complicated characters. There is a richness and a depth to him that always shines through, particularly in his eyes. Like Nova, he represents the brighter, more optimistic part of the apes’ nature, a source of wisdom and serenity. Just as importantly, he will, it is hinted, form the foundation for the future of ape society.

Formally, the film is absolutely beautiful. Reeves has really matured as a director, and there are scenes that truly take your breath away: the moment when the gorilla Luca shares a bright pink flower with Nova; the bleakness of the Colonel’s camp; the sweeping vistas all combine to make this a truly astounding film. Michael Giacchino’s score, more subtly orchestrated than Dawn’s, contains allusions to the original film and also ably conveys the operatic grandness of the film’s narrative.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, a means of forcing 21st Century humans to confront the uncomfortable questions about what, indeed, makes us different from the other primates with which we share this planet. The films’ answer seems to be pretty unequivocal in many ways: not that much. War in many ways marks the definitive moment at which the planet has definitively turned aside from the path that humans once took. Given the amount of wanton cruelty that the humans have shown–both inside the film and outside of it–it’s hard not to feel that that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Dissertation Days (41): No Title Needed

Today was a moderately successful day. I only wrote 500 words, but they were good words (I think), so that means a lot (to me, at least). As I always say, any progress is good progress.

The most noteworthy accomplishment today was that I have finally begun to pull the theoretical context together. For me, this is always both the most fun and the most difficult to write. On the one hand, it allows me to really get into the weeds on the theories that I’m working with–whether it’s narrative theory, color theory, or something else–and show how these theoretical models can help us understand the way that film works. It’s a site of play and opportunity, a means of shedding new light on a very dynamic group of films.

However, it’s also a very challenging section as well, in that it can be a place where my own exuberance gets a bit ahead of itself. As my Adviser once remarked, it’s like I try to cram everything I ever read into this tiny section. Again, that has to do with the fact that so much of theory that I’m bringing to bear is so exciting, and it’s quite easy to let it get ahead of me. So, I have to exercise caution.

The other challenge, of course, is making sure that I show how this section leads naturally and organically into the next. Again, it’s really hard to let it sort of spin out of control, so that it seems to float above the other two sections (the historicizing and the close readings themselves). For someone who loves to write, this can be quite the hurdle to overcome.

I also spent part of today’s session working  on the close reading of Cleopatra. Some bits of genuine light have begun to filter though, so I’m very excited about that. In some part of my mind, I’m still wrangling with the last film in the close reading section, but I’m confident that I will be able to fit it into the whole chapter.

The next few days are going to be a bit touch-and-go with Dissertation stuff. I have a conference paper due next week, and a lot of other stuff going on. Still, I hope to chip away at it and eke out a few words. Once next week is over, though, I’ll be back into full composition mode.

Book Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations” (Greg Keyes)

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reading Greg Keyes’ movie tie-in novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm, which detailed the efforts of the chimpanzee Caesar and his fellow apes to evade the attempts by humans to eradicate them. Now, Keyes is back with a novel that serves as a bridge between the events of Dawn and those of the forthcoming War, entitled War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations. 

The novel narrates the events that immediately precede those in the forthcoming film, in which the human forces (led by Colonel McCullough) come to San Francisco and have to confront the reality of the ape presence. Meanwhile, Caesar and his apes must contend with both the increasingly brutal human military force and dissent from within their own ranks.

The novel switches frequently between several viewpoint characters both major and minor, but it pays the most attention to Colonel McCullough, Ray the orangutan, and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s eldest son and putative heir. Other characters include Cornelia (Caesar’s wife and, in her brief time in the novel, a true badass), John (the Colonel’s son), and of course Caesar himself. All of them increasingly find themselves caught up in the increasingly large-scale conflict between the human survivors of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s apes.

Of course, nothing is easy for either side. Caesar must continue to deal with the fallout from Koba’s rebellion, including a number of apes who harbour resentment toward him, including both Red and Silver (the former of home will come to play a large part in the upcoming film). The Colonel, meanwhile, is depicted as a man of honour but also as a brutal military mastermind who is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his actions. Steeped in the military traditions of the past–he references The Iliad, Beowulf, and numerous other texts–he sees in the conflict the stage for both the salvation of humanity and, just possibly, his own chance at greatness.

One of the most fascinating things about this novel is the extent to which it shows us the gradually-evolving consciousness of its ape characters. Many of them still remember a time before the awakening, when apes still inhabited a consciousness that was powerful but qualitatively different than their human counterparts. Keyes has a remarkable ability to allow us to inhabit the minds of the non-human characters, particularly Ray and Blue Eyes. Ray has a desire to move beyond the limits of the corporeal, and he is clearly something of a mystic, someone who sees something that others do not. Likewise, Blue Eyes has the makings of a great leader, if he is able to overcome his own sense of inferiority and embrace his inner strength. Both must also contend with the fact that the world is not nearly as simple as they would like it to be, that there is much about politics, life, and death that they must contend with as they move inexorably into adulthood. The world that they inhabit is a dangerous one, and it is likely to grow more so as the years progress and humanity struggles (probably vainly) to rebuild its vanished civilization.

More importantly, it also suggests that the war that is about to unfold between the brutal colonel and Caesar and his allies is one that will determine not just the fate of the two species, but also the future trajectory of history itself. Both leaders, in their different ways, recognize the stakes of what are about to unfold, but they have very different outlooks on what the future will be like. The Colonel, in keeping with his repeated references to the wars and soldiers of the past–the heroes at Troy, his ancestors who fought in America’s conflicts, etc.–sees life as a brutal battlefield with winners and losers. Caesar, while recognizing the need for battle, is deeply wounded by the knowledge that such battle will mean the death of many of his apes. He bears the scars of leadership, and he knows that the confrontation with the Colonel will be the one that determines the future of his people, possibly for decades to come.

Despite the fact that the outcome of the larger conflict is, to some degree already known, what remains to be seen is just how many tribes of apes will eventually split off from Caesar’s original founding colony. There is no question that there are many who still see their first leader as ultimately a failed effort to co-exist with humans. Perhaps there will be a series of peaceful revolutions, but it is far more likely–given the path that many apes have already taken–that there will be as many violent confrontations between apes and others apes as there are between apes and humans. These apes are very different from humans in some ways, but in others they are far too much like us for comfort.

Revelations gives us a sense not only of the brewing conflicts that will probably take generations to resolve but also the various tribes of apes that are already taking shape at this early stage. While the chimpanzees and bonobos emerge as the clear leaders in this universe, the orangutans (as characters such as Maurice and Ray make clear) are the philosophers and the gorillas, for better or worse, are the muscle (they even refer to themselves as the wall that protects the village). I greatly appreciated the fact that Keyes had clearly done his research into ape behaviour, and it is this level of research that gives all of his ape characters such a profound sense of depth and individuality. Each of them represents a possible path forward for the heterogeneous ape culture, and it will clearly be a struggle–though a worthwhile one–for them to find unity in their difference. As Caesar himself would say, “Apes together, strong!”

I don’t know if Keyes plans on continuing to write books within the Apes universe, but is my fervent hope that he does so. He is one of those rare authors of tie-in fiction who actually knows how to write a taut, compelling story that nevertheless breathes and sighs with at-times lyrical beauty. If anyone is capable of ensuring that the stories of Caesar and his descendants are given the justice they deserve, it is surely Greg Keyes.

Novel Weekends (5): World Building and a New Prologue

Two major accomplishments to report today.

First, I published a blog post (which you can see here), that is a bit of world building. As I’ve said before, that is one of the most exciting–and most challenging–parts of writing epic fantasy, but I think at last that the pieces are coming together. It’s surprisingly difficult to build a religion from the ground up, but luckily some actual faiths from the history of our world have provided at least something of a skeleton.

Second, I also managed to write over 2,500 of a new prologue for the first book.

This prologue looks significantly different than its earlier iteration. There are now two viewpoints rather than one, reflecting a pretty substantial plot development I discovered during yesterday’s outlining. The prologue narrates the meeting of the enigmatic Conclave of the Nameless, particularly two of its members, the Stranger and the High Queen of the Anukathi Y’Narra, both of whom are given tasks by their master the Demiurge (who appears as male to one and female to the other). While we know the Stranger’s task (at least in broad outline), I’m leaving Y’Narra’s a mystery (which probably won’t be revealed until Book 2).

I probably won’t have a lot of time to work on the Novel this week, since I want to finish up a novelette I’m working on and a short story (the latter of which will debut here!) Still, I hope to chip away at some outlines, just so I have an idea of how the larger series is going to work out.

Ultimately, I hope to make this two quartets, with the second taking place some years after the first.

The first quarter will be titled The Heretic’s War, while the first volume will be The Blooded Sword. 

I feel really good.

World Building (4): The Theology and Cosmology of the (Western) Church–Part One

Much has been written of the beliefs of the Church, which has exercised such complete and unrivaled authority over the rulers and people of the Imperium. Entire books have been written on the matter, and the original set of 29 books has come to be known as the Kalatheia, which translates roughly into “The Good Truth.”

Many of the foremost theologians of the new religion came (and continue to come) from the intellectual powerhouse of Helleniea. Unlike its sister provinces in the region known as the Peninsula, the men and women of this region cared more for the pursuits of the mind than for money and power. They preserved among themselves the traditions of a land that had long ago vanished beneath the angry sea, of a faith that was founded upon the pursuit of transcendence, of an aspiration to escape from the toils of time and the flesh. Through this contemplation of the world beyond, these theologians argued, one could get in touch with the transcendent power of the Name and could evade, if only temporarily, the prison of time and the body.

As they grew in power and as their theology became ever more refined, the men from Helleneia preached a message that was truly anathema to established faith centered on the god Ormazh held by their Haransharin overlords. Unlike the priests of Ormazh, who held that the material world was the site of the good life, that it was the duty of any good servant of the great deity to bring forth the earth’s plenty and to enjoy all aspects of its beauty, the mystics of Helletheia denounced that as at best a delusion at worst a monstrous lie. Their central tenet, which has remained to this day the core of the Faith, is that the material world is hopelessly ensnared in the corruption of the flesh and that it was to the state of the daimons, those spirits of air and fire, that was the goal, for these beings were held to dwell in the innermost sphere, in a state of harmony with the Name. All of humanity, so the Faithful believe, are likewise made of fire, air, and æther that has been sullied and trapped in the world of earth and water, yearning to escape and return to a state of grace with the divine.

Their founding myth is the belief that the Name, the union of the male and female divine principles, had once ruled over all the cosmos, an ethereal, boundless, eternal realm beyond the limits of time and the chains of the material world. They were surrounded by their creations made of the pure elements of æther, air, and fire, the daimons and the Elohim. However, they were not alone, for in their darkest thoughts they had inadvertently conjured up their twin, the befouled creator god, the Demiurge, who grew dissatisfied with the world of light and flame and yearned for something else.

Drawing on the lesser elements, those of earth and water, this entity crafted a a new layer of reality, and slowly it grew, and as it did so the the Demiurge saw the need for companions to populate this realm. For while the Name yearned above all things for solitude and eternal contemplation, the Demiurge craved the art of making and binding and yearned for companions in its relentless solitude. From the beginning, so the Church tells, the fallen children of the Demiurge had within them the pure elements of fire, aid, and æther, but they were dragged down by the trappings of matter, for the Demiurge in its madness believed that it had the power to turn the pure elements to its own ends.

In this blasphemous act of creation were sewn the seeds of a cosmic conflict, for it transpired that renegade Elohim, abandoning their service to the Name, lay with humans and produced a monstrous race, the Anukathi. The Name, in its righteous wrath, prepared to destroy this hideous progeny, but the Demiurge leapt to their defense, igniting a terrible war.

At last, upon the great mountain known as Thell-Megitho–but which was known to many by another name, the Pillar of Creation–The Name and the Demiurge did battle and the latter was vanquished, imprisoned in the Outer Darkness and guarded by the Elohim. The beauty of the world, however, was irreparably splintered, and from one world there were produced many. The Name, along with the daimons and the Elohim, withdrew into the Chamber where, the Church believes, the dead are at last granted solace and sanctuary, the inner pure elements at last freed.

Now, whether this is in reality what actually happened in the earliest days of the cosmos is up for dispute, and indeed the followers of Ormazh in the East and the Anukathi in the far southern continent hold that it is the Demiurge that is entity that is worthy of worship, and that the one known as the Name is the one who ignited the war that ultimately shattered the great unity that once held the spheres together. Indeed, among the Ormazhians the Name is known as the Great Evil, Ehrimakh, the destroyer of worlds. Their sacred texts claim that fire is in particular the special domain of Ormazh, who uses it in an everlasting quest to purify the world but not, as the Faithful would have it, to bring about its destruction.

Whatever, the truth, these two systems of religious thought became, in their respective homelands, so bound up in the identity of their peoples that to think of the Imperium and the Church is to think of one and the same entity, fused and devoted to the  All those who choose to serve in the Church vow to abstain from reproduction, for it is held that those who would seek the purity of the soul by continuing to bring other matter into the world are doing a grave sin.

There is some disagreement even within the Church as to whether the laity should likewise abandon the reproductive cycle, but by and large the consensus has been among several Synods that not everyone is suited to the rigours required of the Prefects and other of the higher orders, and there has been some marked disagreement about whether the lower orders of the clergy should be permitted the same laxity. At the time of this story, however, the vast majority of Church elders believe that reproduction is a necessary evil but that it is necessary for ascent into union with the Name that those who are nigh on to death symbolically disavow their progeny and apologize to them for bringing them into the world.

The Church, in keeping with its origins in Helleneia, has also decreed that the love between those of the same sex is permitted, though only in very specifically defined forms. Though it is sanctioned, and often encouraged, for young men and women to seek out a partner of the same sex as they make their way through the training to become a cleric, the physicality must eventually give way to a deeper, more spiritual love. This is in accordance with the dictates of Quintinos, one of the most famous and prolific theologians and philosophers of the early Church.

The desire to escape from the limits of mortality, time, and the flesh remains key to the Church. It is the hope of every Prefect and devout worshiper that, at some point in the future, the Demiurge and all the earthly world that is its creation will one day be brought to an end in a conflagration that will not only bring the worlds back together but also, and more importantly, abolish time itself.

*Note: This faith is very broadly based on both Gnosticism and Manichaeism (with a bit of Byzantine Hesychasm thrown in), just as the faith of Ormazh is based loosely on Zoroastrianism.

Novel Weekends (4): An Outline Emerges

While I wanted to work this weekend on producing new material, I decided that I needed to sketch out an outline, at both the macro and the micro level, so that I would have a good idea of the overall canvas as well as the role that my various characters would have in it. Luckily, I had at least some measure of guidance (given that the novel is a retelling of the Sassanid/Byzantine conflict), but I have a larger canvass to deal with, so that opens up many opportunities.

That has really occupied almost the entire day, to be quite honest. At the end of it, however, I think I have a pretty strong idea of how the four volumes (it’s expanded from a trilogy) will play out. I’m pretty happy with the way that the action is resolved at the end of the first volume, which has a nice cliff-hanger but still sees all the characters where they need to be and sets the stage nicely for the next volume.

At the heart of the thing is the cosmological conflict between spirit (called æther in this world) and matter and the concomitant strife between the Name and the Demiurge, the divine manifestations of these two principles. I think that there will be a climactic battle between them, since part of my intention is to show what it actually means when deities, not just their avatars, fight for the future of the world they seek to control.

I’m also making a point of including not one, not two, but three LGBTQ+ characters, and at least two of my characters are people of colour. Indeed, I think that the romance between two of my leads will actually prove fundamental to the conflicts that arise in books 3 and 4.

Making progress!

Dissertation Days (40): This is Progress, Right?

Despite the title, today was actually a good day, in terms of progress. As I said I would do yesterday, I switched to a bit of the close readings, focusing today on Cleopatra. I think the bare bones of how that section is going to look are almost there, but it will take another few days of composing to make sure that my close reading is both internally consistent and flows naturally from the contexts.

Speaking of which. I actually wrote at least half of today’s word count (a bit over 1,000, thank you very much), specifically in the theoretical context. To be quite honest, I don’t think this section is as theoretically rich as the earlier ones, but I do think that the sources I’m drawing on–particularly David Quint and his theory of epic narrative and Tom Brown and his theory of the “historical gaze”–are useful for thinking through the tension between spectacle and narrative that exists at the heart of the genre of the historico-biblical epic. Well, perhaps tension isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should say that it helps us to think of the relationship between those two seemingly opposing cinematic principles.

Overall, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on this chapter. I also can’t believe that I’ve already written 40 of these entries! However, I do believe that they have really made this whole progress infinitely less lonely. Just knowing  that there are others out there reading these (or even just skimming them), makes me feel that there just may be an audience for the type of work that we do in academia. As a writer, it’s easy to lose track of that, particularly with everything else going on in the world.

I will, as always, be taking a bit of a break this weekend. I want to focus a bit on the novel, and on cleaning my house. Both of those things take a bit of a backseat when you’re really buried under the chapter that seems to press in on your every waking thoughts. I’ve also got a conference paper set to be delivered in a little under two weeks, so I have to make sure that that is in presentable condition.

Rest assured, though. On Monday I’ll be right back at it, and this time I fully plan on getting back into Chapters 1 and 2.

Don’t quote me on that, though. 😉