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.

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!

Novel Thoughts (2): On Genre

Some time ago, I thought I would write something “literary,” some great family saga of an Appalachian family torn apart by dark family secrets and juicy gossip. It all seemed quite clever to me at the time, a neat little way of transferring the dynastic politics of the ancient world into the incongruous setting of small town America.

The problem was, I couldn’t quite get the story right. Something about the whole effort rang false, and no matter how hard I tried I simply could not get the narrative to cooperate.

Finally, I determined the problem: I wasn’t writing in the genre that I truly loved. In attempting to forge a “literary identity” for myself, I’d abandoned my efforts to write fantasy, the genre that has always had the strongest hold over my heart. That genre is, of course, epic fantasy.

(A close second has always been historical fiction, but I’m afraid that my efforts at that were also not terribly successful).

Indeed, it was only after I started reading the works of Guy Kavriel Kay that I began to see the ways in which one could combine these two seemingly disparate genres, taking history and turning it slightly to reveal the fantastic elements of it, could be done if you really tried. The more I mused on it, the more it seemed to me that here, at last, were the roots of something I could make my own.

Now, I won’t say that my writing talents are anything close to Kay’s (they aren’t), but I will say that I take him as one of my models. His work, along with that of Tad Williams and Terry Brooks, are probably my greatest influences in terms of fantasy and the creation of worlds that seem to live and breathe on the page. While Kay’s work is large in scope, it doesn’t have quite enough of the conventions of the epic for my own saga, and so I’m really trying to attain something of a mixture between these three authors. (And yes, I know how pretentious that sounds, so I hope you’ll forgive me).

Writing in the genre of epic fantasy allows me, I think, to explore some of the great issues and themes of history, while not necessarily being bound to the historical record that we know. Sometimes, I think, you can actually explore the issues of history–such as agency (or the lack thereof), epochal change, the underlying forces that move nations and peoples forward (or backward)–when you add in some element of the strange, the cosmological, or the magical. Rendering visible that which, in our world, remains largely a matter of faith can lead to some truly fascinating constellations.

So, as I move forward with this novel project, I hope to do some more thinking about what it is that I want to do with the genre that I have chosen to write in. There are certain things that are required, of course, but my hope is that my work, limited as it might be, might add a little something to the genre that I have always called home.

World Building (3): On Korray

There are many competing legends and myths about the origin of the Korray, certainly one of the most intractable groups to inhabit the continent of Aridikh. Some say that they began life in the searing sands of the regions east of the Zakrus Mountains (their current home), but fled into the mountains when the Shahs of Haran began to expand their empire. Others say that they came over the Encircling Ocean, fleeing some unnamed Cataclysm. Still others–among them the more mystical members of the Korrayin priestly castes–have gone so far as to suggest that they are not from this world at all, but are instead visitors from some other world that is beyond this one.

In any case, by the time they enter the histories compiled by those in both Haranshar and the Imperium, they had become so much a part of their mountain homeland that it is part of who they are. They have built a number of small cities and forts in the towering peaks, though some have also taken up residence in the fragrant and fertile mountain valleys as well, and it is there that one is likely to find their largest dwellings. Fiercely independent, they refuse to offer obeisance to any foreign power (and it is often a struggle to even get them to obey their tribal chieftains and kings).

In the wake of the rebellion that split the Imperium off from Haranshar, the tribes that comprised Korray have become a buffer zone. By that time, they were already known for being an independently-minded group, living as they did in the Zakrus Mountains, and so they were the perfect ally for both of the great hegemons that sought to own the world. Members of one tribe will frequently make raids on one or the other great powers and will also use their allegiance with one of the powers to justify their own wars against one another.

Culturally, the Korrayin are loosely united by a sense of identity, though ethnically there are many different divisions and groups that comprise them. Mostly, they are united by their independent streak and by their belief that, despite their differences, they are the true chosen of the god (whichever one that happens to be, as they are as divided in religious adherence as they are in most things).

Despite their mind-boggling heterogeneity, they can be loosely identified along the lines of 4 different confederations, which are comprised of 15 different different tribes. The four confederations are listed below. These tribes are in turn divided into innumerable clans. It does not necessarily hold that members of the same confederacy will be ethnically related to others who are a part of it. Instead, they are usually bonded together through their adherence to one of the four major religious groups (the Faith, the Ormazhites, unaffiliated polytheism, and the Yishurim). However, it should be kept in mind that the first loyalty that any given Korrayin has is to his clan, then to his tribe, and then to his confederacy. There thus exists a complex network of alliances and allegiances that outsiders often find as bewildering as it is infuriating to deal with.

The following is list of the various Confederacies, as well as their constituencies. This list does not include the innumerable clans that make up each of the tribes.

Ivnu Khava Confederacy (The Faith)

Comprised of the following tribes: Harikh; Ghifar; Quarish; Ashakh

Ivnu Ghavaz Confederacy (Ormazhite)

Comprised of the following tribes: E’bash; Kharaj; Lakhim

Ivnu Lakrum Confederacy (various unaffiliated polytheisms)

Comprised of the following tribes: Ashath; Qu’uda; Shutayra

Ven Naftali Confederacy (Yishurim)

Comprised of the following tribes: Vishkar, Zabîr, Shimon, Davith; Bet’yamin

Though the Korrayin are well-known for their skills in warfare, they are also renowned for their devotion to scholarship and for their devotion to their various religions. Those seeking out the most ancient versions of given texts may hope to find them in the hilly fastnesses of the Korrayin. No matter what faith they adhere to, the Korrayin cling to a very conservative model, and they are certain in their belief that it is only in their mountains that the truest, purest form of their respective faiths can be found. While this has rankled no few feathers in the capitals of their larger neighbours, they seemingly do not care. The satisfaction of knowing that they are superior to anyone more than makes up for any political losses.

At the time of the novels, matters have been largely settled for over a century. No significant conflicts have emerged, either among the Korrayin or between the Korrayin and either Haranshar or the Imperium. However, there are already ominous signs that not all is well. Ibrahim, a relatively minor prince among the Vishkar Tribe, has begun to make a name for himself as the Poison King. Dosing himself with poisons, he has assured that he is proof against assassination, even as he has also begun to make designs on becoming the Great Chief of the Ven Naftali Confederacy. More ominously, there are disturbing rumours that some of the mystic priests of the Tribe of Ashath (who have always been known for their strange and unsettling affinity for the occult) have begun to seek out ancient scrolls regarding the lost Art of Binding. The wise know that it was precisely this weapon that almost destroyed the world in the Time Before, but it is not always wisdom that governs the affairs of men, particularly when there is power to be gained.

For real-world historical parallels, think of the status of the kingdom of Armenia as the pawn between the Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Parthian/Sassanid Empire or the similar relationship that existed between those empires and the various Arab tribes that they used in their proxy wars. However, there are also a lot of similarities between these groups and the various Semitic groups that inhabited and continue to inhabit the Middle East, including the various Arab groups, the Jewish people, and others.

Needless to say, the people of Korray will come to play a very significant, indeed a pivotal, part in the events about to unfold.

Book Review: “The Black Elfstone”(Book 1 of “The Fall of Shannara”) by Terry Brooks

It’s a rare thing that I finish a book in three days, but that is just what happened with fantasy maestro Terry Brooks’ most recent book The Black Elfstone, the first in a planned tetralogy titled The Fall of Shannara. Set roughly two hundred years after the loosely connected Defenders of Shannara series,  this novel sees the Four Lands under assault from a mysterious invader, one that possesses a form of magic that stymies even the Druids. These mysterious invaders, led by a powerful young woman, overcome anyone who stand in their path, including a Druid delegation. As a result, they threaten the very stability and order of the entire Four Lands.

The exiled Ard Rhys Drisker Arc, one of the story’s four protagonists, gradually finds himself drawn into this conflict. At the same time, he also takes on an apprentice in the form of Tarsha Kaynin, a young woman blessed (or cursed) with the power of the wishsong, who desperately wishes to tame its power so that she can save her afflicted elder brother Tavo. Meanwhile, the High Druid’s Blade Dar Leah has to contend with a Druid order that appears poised on the brink of chaos. All of them, in one way or another, will clearly be drawn into a conflict that might well bring to an end the entire world that they have so far taken for granted.

The pacing in this new novel is as breakneck as anything that Brooks has written, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the pace of the events unfolding. While we are only given tantalizing glimpses of the invaders that seem poised to conquer the entire Four Lands–and while the many schemes and plots, particularly those undertaken by the Druids, are still only half-glimpsed–that only makes the novel that much more tantalizing. Brooks has always been a master at plotting, and this novel proves to be no exception. While some might complain that he always ends his books on a cliffhanger, I personally find that that heightens the anticipation for the next novel (at least we don’t have to wait more than a year for the next installment).

Some have criticized Brooks’ recent work for being repetitive, but I tend to see this as a deliberate attempt on his part to show the ways in which history, and those caught up in it, often can’t help but repeat the mistakes that came before. This is most clear with the Druids, who once again seem so entangled in their internal squabbles and power-plays that they can’t see the larger threat that may sweep them away in its wake until it is too late. The ongoing tale of the Shannara bloodline reveals the brutally cyclical nature of history. Just as humankind seems to have lifted itself out of its own petty squabbles and achieved some measure of stability, its own folly and desire for destruction seems to plunge it right back into its darker nature.

While the Shannara books have always been marked by a fair measure of violence, Brooks looks to be striking out on some new territory here, showing us that the Four Lands have become an increasingly dangerous and unstable place. The Elves have retreated, once again, into their own enclaves, content to let the rest of the world succumb to its own folly. The border city of Varfleet is as seedy as ever, and there are entire guilds devoted to nothing but the taking of human life. This is not a world for the faint of heart.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that this kind of world produces some very broken and troubled characters, chief among them Tarsha’s brother Tavo. Unlike his sister, for whom the wishsong is a blessing, for him it is a curse, a titanic force that he cannot control and that slowly drives him mad with rage and bloodlust. While they are disturbing, the chapters devoted to his perspective are some of the most compelling in the entire novel. He is a person who is fundamentally shattered in his psychology, misunderstood by his parents and tormented by practically anyone else. Is it any wonder that, in his fractured state, he should see his sister as his enemy? We don’t know yet what his part will be in the climax, but my guess is it won’t be pretty. I do hope, though, that he is offered at least a measure of salvation or redemption.

The writing here is lean, and Brooks tends to not spend too much time describing meals or clothing (a foible that sometimes bogs down otherwise quite compelling works of fantasy). However, no one has quite the ability to describe a landscape as he does, and the Four Lands remains one of the most exquisitely described landscapes in the history of epic fantasy. These are lands that have outlasted many of the characters that we have grown to know and love, and so there is something both comfortingly familiar and yet strange about them.

While I’m sad that Shannara is coming to a chronological end, I’m glad that Brooks is doing it on his own terms, and I am supremely glad that it is off to such a strong and stirring start. As someone who has grown increasingly irritated with George R.R. Martin’s chronic inability to produce a volume in anything resembling a reliable manner (and as someone who has been disappointed with the declining quality), I find Brooks reliability to be a great boon. What’s more, he has also stated that this won’t be the end of Shannara altogether, as there are still several bits of history that he may flesh out. Presumably, this means that we may yet get to see the formation of the First Druid Council under the Elf Galaphile, along with a number of other stories.

Still, I know that I will be shedding more than a few tears as I make my way through this chronological end of one of epic fantasy’s greatest sagas.

World Building (2): A Brief Description of the Imperium and the Imperators

At the time in which my novels are set, the continent of Aridikh is divided into three political entities: the Imperium in the west, Korray (a patchwork of tribes) in the mountainous middle, and Haranshar in the east.

Founded roughly 2,000 years before the start of the tale described in the novels, the Imperium has remained surprisingly durable. Though the ruling House has changed several times in its long and venerable history, and while it has maintained a long and tense cold war with its eastern counterpart Haranshar, it has yet to fall or suffer any serious territorial losses.

A great deal of this stability has to do with the structure of the state. Though it is an empire with a strong central government, headed by the Imperator, the actual administration of the various provinces falls to the members of the nobility. At the top of this pyramid are the Dukes, most of whom share a portion of the Blood Imperial, and most can trace with exacting precision their descent from the first Imperators. Then come the Counts who, while most do not have imperial blood, nevertheless possess significant territorial holdings and political power, particularly in the south. Together, the various dukes and counts, along with the leaders of a few independent city-states, represent the Senate of Nobles, who serve as an advisory body on the unlimited power of the monarch.

The territory covered by the Imperium is quite vast, though it is still significantly smaller than the territory occupied by Haranshar. To the north are situated the the kingdoms of Svardö, Varsaïs, and Karthûn, while the far west are the dukedoms of Aspaña, Porçal, and Busqel. The southern parts are comprised of the counties of Ferizi, Eniccio, Melita, Sperezo, and Heleniea. The eastern parts of the Imperium (and the administrative center) are centered around seven duchies: Dūrken, Rhoshk, Maïrin, Colïes, Dérange, Ioliérs, and Aïonis, which contains the capital city of the same name (the Imperator is traditionally also accorded the title of Duke of Aïonis). There are a number of other, smaller city-states that have at various times attempted to assert independence but have so far been unsuccessful.

For a real-world analogue, think of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian and his immediate predecessors and successors, combined with Europe in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (something akin to the first iteration of the Holy Roman Empire ruled by Charlemagne, though with a far greater geographic extent). The Imperator is acknowledged as the supreme representative of the Name in matters temporal, but s/he is also forced to accept the judgment of the Council of Prefects on all matters spiritual. This has, of course, caused significant strife in the past, but it has also led to a gradual hardening of the ways of doing things, with the Church in particular emphasizing a rigid adherence to orthodoxy and the Imperator maintaining unlimited power in the body of the ruler.

At this point, there is an almost-constant jockeying for position among the nobles for access to the Imperator, as even the weakest noble realizes that the structures of the Imperium have become ossified over the course of two millennia, and some have even begun to scheme for an opportunity to shatter those ways and carve out a new world. In the years preceding the events of the novels, there have been an increased number of heresies springing up, along with other, less religiously-oriented revolts. The common people have grown dissatisfied with their rulers, and it remains to be seen how far they will go to assert their renewed sense of sovereignty.

The same designation is used for the ruler of the Imperium, regardless of sex. Unlike Haranshar, which allows women political agency but not direct rule, the Imperium practices strict primogeniture, so that the diadem (in theory) passes directly to the eldest child of the current monarch. This has not always been true for a variety of reasons–there have been no fewer than five coups, six childless Imperators, and seven changes of House–but it is the one rule that tends to unite even the most fractious and scheming members of the Senate. Everyone recognizes, at some primal level, that the overthrowing of a monarch by someone not of the Blood (and even by someone of the Blood) poses an enormous challenge to the stability of the state and, by extension, the cosmos itself).

In the time since its founding, there have been 213 Imperators of both sexes. Through careful cultivation and tending to the imperial bloodline, each of the Imperators could trace their bloodlines, no matter how faintly, back to Yishadra and Herakleios, the very first two to don the diadem. That being said, there are now over 300 individuals who can claim mainline descent, spread across five of the Great Houses (and there are rumoured to be several hundred more with far more diluted blood spread among the more numerous Lesser Houses). Not all of them are brave enough to attempt to seek the diadem for themselves, but the continuing childlessness of the current Imperator, combined with their inborn penchant for scheming, means that it is only a matter of time before they turn their avaricious gaze on the throne.

At the time of the novels, the reigning Imperator is Talinissia. Behind her back, she is known as Talinissia the Black due to her father’s unlikely (and unapproved) marriage to a daughter from one of the kingdoms in Haranshar. Her accession to the throne was far from uncontested, for her younger half-brother, the product of her father’s second marriage to a distant cousin, one who was officially part of the Blood Imperial, decided to rebel. He even did the unthinkable, going to the Shah to ask for material and spiritual assistance, even going so far as to promise toleration of the Faith of the Flames in the capital city itself. Though the revolt was ultimately put down, the damage to the prestige of Talinissia’s throne remains, and her brother’s allies still scheme for her overthrow.

The world is poised for great changes. A

And perhaps even greater chaos.