Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Eye of the World” (Book 1)

So, in addition to all of the things I’m working on–dissertation, novel, short story, this blog–I’ve decided to undertake a truly mammoth project: the re-reading of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time from beginning to end. So, I began, as one should, with The Eye of the World.

Though I’ve read this novel countless times since I first started the series in around 1998, I always find something new to enjoy. In this case, it’s looking for clues that point the way to some of the plot developments that will unfold in future books. And, of course, I always enjoy revisiting one of my favourite characters in this universe: Moiraine, the cunning yet altruistic Aes Sedai (I almost said Bela the horse, but thought that would be disingenuous).

I’ve always been in awe of the way that Robert Jordan was able to craft a plot that really brings out the most exciting aspects of the epic genre. Sure, things start getting a little twisty and windy as the series progresses, but in The Eye of the World all of that is still in the future. It’s hard not to feel caught up in the breathless excitement that hurtles these young people from a backwater village into the maelstrom of cosmic events. True, it’s a plot that’s basically the definition of the epic, but somehow Jordan makes it feel fresh and exciting.

But if we’re being honest, the main characters of Robert’s books are truly insufferable and almost pathologically juvenile. While one might excuse this in the first book (I wouldn’t, but some might), that excuse starts to wear thin as you go on. The women tend to come out better in that equation than the men, which reveals a great deal about how Jordan seems to think about the world, and I will say that both Egwene and Nynaeve are both likable, particularly the latter’s tragic love affair with Lan. And of course there is Moiraine, who is arguably Jordan’s finest fantasy creation.

However, when it comes to world building there is no one who can compare to Robert Jordan. The sheer scope of the world that he has constructed is almost overwhelming in its vastness and its complexity. This is true not only of the various cultures that inhabit his world–which are less straightforwardly based on our own world’s history as, say, George R.R. Martin’s-but also the vast expanse of time that it encompasses. Rand and company are not just engaged in a fight for their world, but for time itself. Ultimately, if the Dark One is able to shatter the Wheel of Time, he might be able to remake the entire span of past, present, and future in his image.

There is, I think, something deeply horrifying about this threat. We are always encouraged to see the threats of epic fantasy as grand, certainly, but rarely are they about the destruction of time itself. That is truly an end from which there can be no redemption, for there is no escaping from the toils of time. I’m sure there’s a lot more that I want to say about the way in which the series engages with questions of temporality, but for now I’ll just say that this dramatically raises the stakes and it is this, in part, that makes this series stand out from the epic fantasy crowd.

I’ve always really enjoyed Jordan’s ability to weave in bits of horror into his epic fantasy. Both the Myrdraal and the Trollocs are truly travesties, and there is something viscerally unsettling about their presence in the novel. And while his villainous creatures are certainly the most horrifying part of this novel, there is something equally unsettling about Perrin’s newfound ability to communicate with wolves.

In the end, though, the novel is also tragic, in that it is undeniable that there is much that will be lost as these characters begin their journey toward their destiny. The death of the Green Man is just the first death of many that will afflict our heroes as they make their way through the world, confronting uncomfortable (and sometimes downright terrifying) truths about themselves in the process.

I’m going full-throttle through The Great Hunt, in which things begin to take a very grim, and even more horrifying turn, as the scope widens and the true epic quest begins. Stay tuned!

Cursory note: I have always thought that The Eye of the World has the best covers of the entire series, and I stick to that claim.

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Reading Tad Williams: “The War of the Flowers”

Having finally found a bit of breathing space in the midst of frantic Dissertation, I thought I’d pop in and write a quick review of Tad Williams’ excellent one-volume epic The War of the Flowers. 

In the tradition of other epic fantasy writers who turn to something a little more whimsical than is usually on offer with the genre of the epic, The War of the Flowers is narrated from the perspective of the 30-something, mostly-washed-up musician Theo Vilmos. One night, he finds himself attacked by an undead creature and is saved by the foul-mouthed sprite Applecore. Whisked into the realm of the Fairies, which exists alongside our own (and to some extent mirrors ours), he soon finds himself embroiled in a long-simmering war between the various great houses of this world, some of whom wish to co-exist with humans and others that want to obliterate them. In the process, he learns a great deal about himself and solves a troubling mystery about his own heritage.

It’s not everyone who can manage to write a single-volume epic fantasy, but as always Tad Williams shows himself a master of whatever genre he turns his hand to. The pacing is, for such a large novel, quite brisk, toggling effortlessly between brisk action set-pieces and the more arcane political machinations that one always expects from the best sorts of epic fantasy. There are characters from every walk of life in this mysterious fairy world, and there are family loyalties, class warfare, and all of the other trappings that make this genre one of the most complex and fascinating in contemporary literature.

The characters are fully-drawn which means that they are often quite awful and difficult to like. This goes for Vilmos as much as it does any of the more magical creations, for Theo is the epitome of what might be called privileged white manhood. He sometimes can’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that he is not entitled to an easy answer to all of his questions, and that sometimes one is caught up in events that sweep us along. The fact that, as a rather entitled man, this lack of agency comes as a shock, reveals a great deal about how the men in our world think about the way that they inhabit social spaces. Williams has a keen eye for the insufferable nature of this sort of behaviour, and he’s not afraid to allow us as readers to get quite annoyed with Theo throughout the novel.

Of course, this being Tad Williams, there is more than a little social commentary going on throughout the novel. The higher forms of fairies are notoriously cruel, unthinking, and exploitative, and they care little (or nothing) for the lives and well-being of their fellows. They ruthlessly exploit them to power their scientific (magical) advancements, but in doing so they inadvertently sow the seeds of their own eventual downfall. The War of the Flower makes it quite clear that so many of things that many people take for granted, both in the fantasy world that Williams has created and in our own, are built, from the foundations, on the exploitation of others. It’s a troubling realization, but that is part of the brilliance of this novel.

Though it was written in the early aughts, The War of the Flowers feels even more relevant today. Button the Goblin could just as easily be a stand-in for the incendiary politics of Bernie Sanders, and the wanton cruelty of Thornapple and Hellebore bear a surprising resemblance to certain nefarious parts of the American political system of 2016 (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon). When, at the end of the novel, everything in the world seems to have fallen into ruin and chaos, there is still a glimmer that a new, more just political order might emerge from the ashes of the old. That, ultimately, is a very optimistic view of the world that it is nice to see in epic fantasy.

All in all, I enjoyed The War of the Flowers quite a lot. I’ve always admired Williams’ ability to combine thickly layered plots with lush description, and both of those tendencies are on full display here. He has definitely earned his place in the pantheon of great epic fantasy writers of our generation, and I very much look forward to my continuing journey through his oeuvre. 

Next, it’s on to the Bobby Dollar series, which I like to think of as film noir meets John Milton. Stay tuned!

World Building (12): The Legend of Xharyush

In all the annals of Haranshar’s long history, one figure towers above all the others: Xharyush the Great. From the moment that he founded the dynasty that would rule, in one form or another, over the vast domains of Haranshar, he became the idol toward which every Shah has aspired.

The birth of Xharyush is shrouded in mystery and legend. The most commonly believed myth states that he was born to a great king but that his birth was tainted by a prophecy that foretold that he would see his world brought to ruin. Fire and death would consume the entire continent, so the prophecy went, and so the king’s adviser had hired a midwife to smother the boy when he was born. However, she disobeyed these orders and not only saved the boy, but also determined to help him escape the city and the net that was set to ensnare him.

The midwife fled with her young charge into the wilds, desperate to escape the wrath of the vizier. Somehow, we are still not certain how, she managed to make her way through the encircling princes that had besieged the king, but she did, and she managed to make her way to the highlands of Pishapur, the homeland of the King’s queen. Her father took in the infant and and named him after his own father, and there he remained, while the civil war erupted and spread across the whole continent. Though his grandfather was of the nobility, he was not a powerful figure, but for all that he gave the boy all that he could wish for in his upbringing, training him in the arts of war and diplomacy.

From those beginnings, Xharyush was able to carve out an empire the likes of which his world had never seen. He began by solidifying his grandfather’s domains, becoming an able steward and a noteworthy soldier. Bit by bit he brought the surrounding tribes under his sway as well, until he had a formidable base from which to launch an all-out attack on the fertile plains to the east. Sweeping down from the highlands of Pishapur, he soon brought those lands under his control, forcing their rebellious princes to bend the knee. He also seized control of the several cities that had served his father as capitals, forging a chain of powerful bases from which he could, if he so chose, launch attacks against any who might wish to rebel against him. He also married several of his daughters to the most prominent of his former enemies, binding them to him with ties of marriage and blood (he also took many of their own daughters as his wives, contributing to a surfeit of sons and heirs).

The empire of Haranshar under his leadership became ever more powerful, rising to heights undreamed of. The rulers of all the lands of east and west came to pay tribute to the great Xharyush, and there were none who could deny that his was the power that now bestrode the world like a colossus. His rule extended from one ocean to the other, from north to south and east to west. It was a golden age, and to this day there can still be found statues erected to the majesty of Xharyush as far north as Svardö.

And at the Shah’s side was the man who would come to be known to future generations as Zarakh, the founder of the faith devoted to the god Ormazdh. Between the two of them, they forged an empire that was founded not just on the principle that all people were created equal (in the broadest sense), but also that all should be allowed to worship the supreme god, the one under whom all other gods were subservient.

Although the Haransharin would become known as benevolent overlords who were content to let their subject peoples continue with their own faiths unmolested, there were even in these early years signs of the discontent that would eventually sunder the continent into its eastern and western halves. Those in the west preferred to think of higher things, to devote themselves to the contemplation of things beyond this world, while the faith of the Haransharin stressed the beauties of the material. Xharyush proved this in word and deed, for her stressed that the only way to have a stable kingdom was to have effective rulers in all of its districts. Though he did not call for a radical redistribution of wealth–as some thought that he would–but he did do everything in his considerable power to make life easier for the commonfolk, and they loved him for it.

In that sense, Xharyush was indeed the one who brought about the end of the world, though not in the way that the vizier had thought. When he was at last brought before the Great King for judgment, he was spared death, but he was sent into exile. No one knows what became of him, though there are still stories told in Haranshar that he made his way to the lands across the ocean that even the Anukathi know nothing of. These, however, have never been proven.

Xharyush lived until the ripe old age of 92. When he died, the throne passed peacefully to his son. It was not long before his many other sons (and not a few of his daughters) began to plot and scheme with the disaffected nobles and priests, many of whom had grown resentful of their Shah’s continuing reforms and were even less friendly toward his son (who did attempt to impose a form of wealth redistribution). Indeed, his dynasty was to prove tragically short lived, for it came to an end under the reign of his granddaughter Veptish, who was deposed after only 5 years.

Still, his influence was vast and continues to be felt. His dynasty, though brief, is still remembered. It is enshrined even in the dating system used among the Haransharin, which measures all years from the date that Xharyush had himself declared Shahanshah (which is why everything is dated from 1 F.D., after the First Dynasty).

And, of course, there are always those who believe that Xharyush will one day return to return Haranshar to its previous greatness. And the tides may just be turning in their favour…

Film Review: “The Dark Tower” (2017)

I went into The Dark Tower feeling a great deal of trepidation. The reviews, as everyone knows, had been truly abominable, and its box office performance has been similarly lackluster. All told, I was afraid that the film adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series was going to be an epic disappointment.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. As both a fan of the series on which it is based and on the genre as a whole, I found the film uniquely satisfying. While it may be counterintuitive to say that an hour-and-forty-five-minute-long film can be epic, this more than fits the bill.

In brief, the film is about three central characters, all of whom bear a relationship with the Dark Tower, a structure that sits at the center of the universe and keeps the chaotic darkness, and the monsters that inhabit it, at bay. Roland (Idris Elba) is the last of a mystical race known as the gunslingers, and he is in relentless pursuit of Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic figure dressed in black who yearns to bring the Dark Tower crashing into ruin and to rule among the ruins. Lastly, Jake (Tom Taylor) is a boy in our world who finds himself a pawn in Walter’s efforts to bring down the Tower.

The plot is streamlined and tight, fitting into a typical feature film length of around 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is something of a reprieve from the narrative bloat that seems to have become de rigeur for Hollywood these days. I suspect that a great deal of the critical opprobrium has to do with this pared-down narrative, which I think actually works quite well for this iteration of King’s sprawling story. As anyone who has followed the books knows, things go sort of off the rails starting in the fifth book (Wolves of the Calla), and hit their nadir in Song of Sussanah. 

What’s more, the primary trio of the film–Roland (Idris Elba), Walter/The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Jake–really work well together. A lot of people have noted that McConaughey seems to chew the scenery with a sort of manic delight, but if they had read the books they would know that Walter is just that sort of character, one who delights in tearing things apart just to see how they work and who would just as soon see the world collapse into ruin than see it built up. Rather than seeing this as hammy, I see it as part of the manic energy that motivates Walter in some of his manifestations (he adopts different identities depending on which worlds he inhabits).

But the real core of the film is the relationship between Roland and Jake. Lots of shit hit the fan when it was revealed that the black Idris Elba would be playing the white Roland, but I find that the gruff, hulking figure of Elba fits quite well with the way that I have always imagined Roland to be. He evinces a world-weary strength that has always been a key part of the characterization of this seminal figure in the King legendarium, and Elba clearly has a great deal of screen chemistry with his young costar.

Is the film as rich and complex as the novels on which it is based? I would have to say: definitely not. But then, it doesn’t really have to be. What it is, and what it succeeds as, is an introduction to a wider universe that is one of the great works of modern fantasy. If you go into the film with that sort of realistic expectation, then it is quite enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; there is still much about the narrative and the spectacle that fit nicely into the conventions of the epic fantasy lexicon.

Furthermore, it’s also a telling that this film, with all of its attempts to keep at bay the darkness and chaos, ends up showing us precisely what the costs of that chaos might be. I don’t want to go so far as to say that the film is an allegory for our troubled times, but there can be no doubt that its narrative of a world that has declined (Roland’s world) and one that might (ours) that really speaks to how much some of us yearn for someone to rescue us from the chaos that seems ready to engulf everything we hold dear.

All in all, I think that The Dark Tower deserves more credit than the critics have been willing to extend it. It’s unfortunate that it was plagued with such a tortuous production history, and that it had the misfortune to debut during one of the worst box office summers in recent history. Let us hope that there is at least some possibility that the projected TV series will come to fruition and that at least a few glimmers of King’s magnum opus may yet see the screen, whether big or small.

Novel Weekends (11): Progress

The novel has taken a bit of a backseat this past week, as I’ve geared up to get some hardcore dissertation writing done, but I was bit by the writing bug this weekend and feeling a bit disenchanted with academia (a rejection from a journal will do that), so I wrote quite a lot in my little fictional universe.

I am now in the midst of Chapter 7. The preceding chapters are in various stages of completion, but I hope to get them into shape relatively soon. After that, I’m going to charge full-steam ahead.

So far, I’ve written chapters focused on the POVs of 5 of my principals (Theadra, Eulicia, Arshakh, Talinissia, and Antonius). I have one more major character to introduce and a couple of minor ones, and then the full cast will be there. I’m still not sure if any of them are villains in the typical sense, but I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one character who’s unpleasant, but that’s not quite the same thing.

I also really enjoyed getting to know my character Arhsakh this weekend. He’s a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. He’s a survivor, and a schemer, but he also has weaknesses and foibles, just like anyone, so we’ll see what happens to him. I see a bright future for him, but that could always change.

All in all, I’m happy with both the progress I’ve made and with the general trajectory of the plot. I think I have an interesting story to tell, and I think my story does and says something, so I think that’s a pretty good basis. It’s very easy to write shitty fantasy, but I like to think I’ve at least hit mediocre.

So, with that happy note, I’m off.

Until next week!

Character Sketch (4): Arshakh Nirhan

Born into the disgraced family of former Haransharin rulers known as the House of Nirhan, Arshakh is the current vizier to the Shah. As such, he is privy to the great councils of war, though he does sometimes wonder whether the Shah actually plans to keep him as involved as it appears at first glance. Relations between the two men have never been what one would call warm, given that the current Shah is a man not known for his human warmth but instead for a certain coldness toward almost everyone around him (with the notable exception of his favoured eunuch and lover Vagoash and his sister).

Arshakh is also the master of spies for the ruler, and he has a vast network of informants scattered throughout Haranshar, Korray, and the Imperium. As a result, he wields tremendous power, though not as much as previous viziers. His predecessor two times removed was one Nussahr, and it was upon his advice that the Shah Hivand III had gone to war against the Imperium, with a certain prince at the forefront of his warriors (this would be the brother of Talinissia, the current Imperator). This disastrous war led to the toppling of both the vizier and his master (and his master’s dynasty) and this fact, combined with Arhsakh’s dubious family history, has made his master reluctant to grant him the power that should rightfully be his.

Unfortunately for Arshakh, the Nirhan clan has a very dark place in the history of Haranshar. They were one of the most infamous dynasties to have sat the Sun Throne. They were cruel, rapacious, and brutal in their suppression of any who sought to challenge their might. However, they also ruled over the most splendid period of territorial advancement that the Haransharin had known since the Imperium split away. Large segments of Korray had fallen into the power of Haranshar, and there were even signs that the eastern provinces of the Imperium would fall. Through several generations, the Nirhan were able to solidify their place as one of the great dynasties of Haranshar.

Or so they thought.

The last Shah of that dynasty, Mivrash IV, was a complete and utter disaster. Weak-willed but vicious, he was unable to put down the revolts of the leading nobles, who toppled him. In the resultant chaos, the Korrayin broke away, the Imperium reasserted itself, and the Nirhan family fled to their much-reduced familial dominions.

Since that day over a century ago, the members of House Nirhan have lived in a period of disgrace, frequently derided at court and mocked by those who see in them a warning for all who would try to climb to high and who would ignore the needs and wants of the aristocracy and the nobility.

Despite his family’s shamed status, Arshakh has remained loyal to the royal house. His greatest loyalty, however, is to the Ormazdhian priests, who took him in when his own father, dismayed at the sad state into which the family had fallen, took his own life by throwing himself into the holy flames, and his mother took their other children and leapt from the tall tower of their ancestral home. Indeed, it was the kindly priest Nishua who took the young Arshakh in and inducted him into as many of the fire mysteries as one who was not actually of the priesthood could obtain. From that day to this, he has been their strongest advocate, and he has been a frequent mediator between the throne and the priesthood when conflicts have arisen (which they inevitably have).

When the chaos from the most recent botched war between Haranshar and the Imperium finally settled down and the young Rahzad IV (the current Shah) assumed the Sun Throne, the Arshakh (who was only slightly younger than the new ruler), was plucked from seeming obscurity because of some prophecy that Rahzad had heard that said he needed a member of one of the old families to ensure the strength and longevity of his own reign. While he did not entirely trust his new vizier, and often mocked him in private, the Shah nevertheless treated him with at least a modicum of respect, and Arshakh has carefully and delicately built upon a trusting relationship with his ruler.

Arshakh is still very uncertain on his feet, however, for he knows that there are many in the other great houses of the realm who would like nothing more than to see him and his line utterly destroyed. He has not yet taken a wife, though he has found himself dangerously attracted to the Shah’s sister Isriah, an attraction that could cause him significant trouble…but which could also lead to a very different set of political fortunes if he can put the pieces of his personal gameboard aright. He has sensed some signs that she might also be interested in him,

Now that the world has again begun to totter and the established order to crack under its own weight, Arshakh sees an opportunity to bring about a redemption of his family’s stained honour. Though he had not yet begun to aspire to the position of the Shah, there is still a very small part of him that knows that it would theoretically be possible. Thus, his attraction to Isriah is not just a romantic one, but also a political gambit that may pay off.

It is precisely these little bits of himself that renders him vulnerable to those who have bigger plans for the world than even he can encompass. There are many, many noble houses in Haranshar, both great and small, and all have ambitions, and sacrificing the scion of a disgraced house is a small price to pay for these nobles who only want to see one of their own sitting in the Sun Throne.

All of these are dangers that the vizier must traverse if he hopes to attain his own ambitions, and time will tell whether he will be rewarded or if he will be merely another withered branch on the family tree.

World Building (11): The Old Ones

The following is a synopsis of a segment of The Chronicles, a book of history compiled by Varassed, the Chronicler to Shah Yamin IV (compiled around F.D. 2500).* 

In all the legends and lore that surround the origins of Haranshar, none occupy as privileged a place as the Old Ones, according to legends the first humans who were able to build a civilization on the vast continent of Aridikh. Though their origins are in truth unknown, the priests of Ormazdh and the other tenders of knowledge have taken to calling them the Old Ones. The oldest records state that they came from across the Eastern Sea, from the fabled Middle Kingdom.

Regardless of from whence they came, the Old Ones soon conquered the various tribes that had been living on Aridikh, bringing them under the rule of what would become known as the Hegemony. From Hamarkhan in the furthest west of the continent to what would become Aspaña in the west, the Old Ones ruled supreme, their many powerful lords, kings, and princes existing in peace and harmony with one another.

Under the Old Ones, the world was reportedly full of technological achievements the like of which had never been seen before and which have not been matched since. They were able to make the arid lands of the western parts of Haranshar blood, reputedly even forming the great rivers that would nestle the most fertile lands in the world between them. They planted seeds and cities alike, and there were rumours that the greatest among them, the Shahs (of which there were reportedly 30) could communicate with one another across vast distances. Their courts and cities were full of singers and craftsmen, priests and sorcerers, beautiful women and men and others who were neither or both, and all lived in harmony.

Their faith was one based on a celebration of the material world and all of the pleasures that it offered. The world was divinely ordered, so their priest said, and there was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by looking beyond it. There was in this theology no concept of an afterlife or a spiritual realm, which may in part explain the events that would soon bring this halcyon world crumbling into ruin.

For, as with all pinnacles, it was only a matter of time before the Old Ones fell prey to the desires of each other to conquer the others. They started the Great War, in which each mighty house was turned against its neighbour, and each and every one thought that it had been given the sole right to rule unchallenged all over the continent. The Shahs declared war one upon the other, even as their own lords and vassals declared war on them in turn. Rebellions and revolutions erupted in every province and kingdom, and even the common folk rose up, led by a series of wandering priests who declared the ways of the Old Ones to be hopelessly corrupt. The world, they said, needed to be purged by flame, and in this rebellion was sown the seeds of the faith that would eventually become known as Ormazdhism, though at this early stage it was merely part of the fires of chaos.

The conflagration soon spread out of all control, and the great civilization that the Old Ones had built collapsed into utter oblivion. Their wars raged across the entire continent. Civilization began to collapse into barbarism and cruelty, as neighbour was turned against neighbour and even families were torn asunder as their loyalties switched between various sides of the conflict.

There are no accurate records of what happened after the great culture of the Old Ones collapsed into anarchy and barbarism, for the great libraries that they had built to preserve their knowledge for the future were one of the first casualties. There is much that even now, with all that we have managed to achieve, that we do not understand about how they build their world and how they were able to stay in power for so long. All that is known is that there are still great towers and ruins scattered across Haranshar and the Imperium, testaments to their achievements. And we have a few tattered parchments and the legends of the singers that emerged after the Fall, when the world at last began to knit itself back together.

There was no recapturing the past glories of the Old Ones, however, and there were none of the great Shahs left after the collapse of their hegemony. It would be many centuries before the people of Aridikh began to pull themselves back together, and it would take one who claimed to be of the proud blood of the Old Ones (though the veracity of that claim was disputed then and is still questioned) to finally reunite them all. He would be the one who was known as Kharyush, the first of the Shahs whose reign over Haranshar (including the domains that would later become the Imperium) was complete.

Most provocatively for the present, however, there is a belief among the Korrayin, handed down from these dark days, that it was at the Pillar of Creation, the great mountain that stands at the center of Korray, that the Old Ones first came to be enlightened. The Pillar is said to be riddled with caverns and secret parts that no man has fully explored,

Furthermore, it is believed by some among the Alchemists that it was the Old Ones who first perfected the Art of Binding, and that it was through their use of the Bound spirits that they were able to bring about the great culture that was their accomplishment, and there are some among the priests of Ormazdh that believe that through recapturing that technology those who live in the present can regain their past glories. That, however, remains to be seen.

*The Haransharin follow a different dating system from their counterparts in the West. They date everything from F.D., which is short for First Dynasty, after the original dynasty to rise after the fall of the Old Ones.

World Building (10): The Tragedy of the Zervan Dynasty

In the annals of the Imperators, there is one dynasty whose fortunes have never recovered from their time upon the throne. While the Zervan Dynasty was, in origin, from the lands of Haranshar (the province of Eshurya, to be precise), they had moved to the West in the hopes that they could establish their fortunes by hitching themselves to the wagon of the first Imperators.

As a result, they were able to marry themselves into the powerful first dynasty, with the favoured daughter Dominysa marrying Kavaros, the fifth son of the first two Imperators. They would go on to have two sons, Karaktus and Gratian. Meanwhile, Dominysa’s sister Martinya was consolidating the family’s wealth, building a powerful base of support that, she thought, would ensure that her family remained enthroned for a thousand years.

Kavaros, at his wife’s insistence, managed to displace the children of his elder four brothers. Their Houses would come to have a significant part to play in the downfall of Kavaros’ descendants and successors, but at the time of his accession they were far too busy squabbling amongst themselves to really do much to prevent his seizure of power, and still less so when it became obvious that this stern man and his equally indomitable wife (to say nothing of her ruthless sister) was in fact a very capable ruler in his own right.

Under Kavaros, the Imperium was able to exert its sphere of influence over larger portions of Korray, and there were even a few successful incursions into the territory of Haranshar. Unfortunately, Kavaros was stricken down while he was still in his prime, a man whose reign would for several generations come to be seen as the height of imperial accomplishment. While it might have seemed to many that the throne should pass to either the children of his elder brothers or to one of his sisters who were still living, that would not be the case. Such was his popularity among both the other Great Houses and among the commons that the throne was passed peacefully to his twin sons.

They, unfortunately, were not cut from the same mold. Karaktus and Gratian were notorious for their mutual loathing, and they went at each other with a vengeance as soon as the diadems were placed upon their heads. Though their mother Dominysa tried to broker a peace, she was unsuccessful, and Karaktus, always the more ruthless brother, had his brother assassinated in his mother’s arms. Dominysa threatened to go into seclusion and take the veil of a nun, but her son threatened her with further reprisals if she dared to do so, and so she was forced to become an unwilling partner in her son’s reign. In fact, it was largely as a result of her still-sterling reputation that he was able to hold onto the reigns of power at all.

Karaktus was not a well-loved ruler, however, and despite the fact that he offered full citizenship in the Imperium to the conquered territories, he was roundly repudiated and the Korrayin declared their renewed independence. As a result, the commons and the nobles began to turn against him, and it was only a matter of time before he was assassinated, reputedly while he was relieving himself at the side of the road.

There was a brief interregnum, when a brutal commoner known as Sokophanes seized the throne for both himself and his son. He had failed to reckon with the remaining dynasts, however, and both Dominysa and her sister Martinya rallied the troops to their cause. Though Dominysa would die in the midst of this, Martinya would continue on her younger sister’s mission, and with the aid of the legions and the Church she was able to elevate her eldest grandson to the throne. Though he had, technically, no connection to the blood of Kavaros, she was able to convince enough people of the lie that the youth, Varyus was in fact the product of a liaison between Karaktus and her daughter Vassiana.

Things at last seemed to be going well for thedynasty. The family matriarch, Martinya, was a canny strategist, and she had averted catastrophe by elevating her grandson Varyus to the throne. Her daughter, Vassiana, was now the most powerful woman in the Imperium. She even had another daughter and grandson lined up, should some unforeseen illness strike the first two.

Then, things began to go horribly wrong.

Varyus, seduced by a sun-priest from the lands of Korray, decided that it was time for the old Church to be thrown down from its lofty perch. He declared that the faith of El-Garvel be the law of the land and, to demonstrate his scorn for the Church, he forcibly took a Prefect as his wife. He then embarked on an orgy of unrivaled scope, taking both men and women to bed and caring nothing for the strictures and cycles of celibacy that were a key part of the Church.

His mother Vassiana was a willful and often spiteful child, and she had spoiled her son to an extraordinary degree. She did nothing to rein him in, and in many cases she was even seen to encourage him. She wanted to be the one wielding all of the power in the Imperium, and she did everything in her power to sideline her mother and to delegitimize her younger sister and her son Exkandros, who she rightly saw as a threat to her own hegemony.

Ultimately, Varyus’ own grandmother turned against her grandson and her daughter, neither of whom were capable of ruling and who would clearly destroy the dynasty if they were not stopped. She bribed the Imperial Guard to betray their charges and, in the orgy of bloodshed that followed her daughter and grandson were brutally killed, their bodies thrown into the river and never recovered. Though this may not have been what Martinya intended, it was the unfortunate fruit of her own sowing.

All was seemingly not lost, for she ensured that her other grandson Exkandros came to the throne, though once again it was mother, Yvita, who wielded most of the power. Though he restored the Church and was, seemingly, a corrective to his cousin, he was still seen as less than brave on the field of battle, and the death of his grandmother early in his reign removed a potential source of strength and stability.

Matters came to a head when he offered humiliating peace terms to a rebellious tribe of Korrayin, who had made incursions into the western borders of the Imperium. It was no secret that they had been funded and encouraged by Haranshar, and the Imperator’s caving to their demands was seen as the worst sort of weakness. The soldiers with whom he had surrounded himself rebelled, and he was assassinated, along with his mother.

With the death of Eskandros, the dynasty came to an ignominious end. His body and that of his mother were thrown in the River Tiver, as had been the case with his aunt and cousin. His successor, the usurper Maxhimos, had all vestiges of his predecessors utterly obliterated, before he too was overthrown and one of the legitimate heirs of Kavaros’ elder brothers claimed the throne as Claudianus I, the first of the Claudian Dynasty.

The Chronicler Arodius, one of the chief sources for this troubled period of Imperial history, had this to say of the Zervan Dynasty: “Never has a dynasty so quickly risen to power, and never has a dynasty flared so brightly. Yet with such glory comes great despair, and so it proved to be for the Zervani. Let them be a warning to all who would let greed and avarice cloud their judgment.”

Bitter words, indeed.

World Building (9): The Great Houses of the Imperium–House Terrasi

The lords and ladies of House Terrasi are the hereditary rulers of the city-state of Sperezo. As such, they have many financial dealings that have given them the ability to buy influence where they could not otherwise attain it. They are all descended from the third son of Yishandra, Johannes, who changed his name to Joachuim in order to better fit in with the local nobility of the city to which he moved. He would take to wife the daughter of the local Caracci House, one Giovana. All current members of House Terrasi are descended from them.

Like all of the Great Houses, the Terrasi have been able to seize the position of Imperator at several points in the history of the country. In all, there have been 8 members of the dynasty, none of whom have been particularly well-regarded by subsequent historians, who largely view them as a grasping, avaricious dynasty that cared more about its own aggrandizement than about the well-being of the Imperium.

The 5 Imperators of the first instantiation House Terrasi were as follows: Frederico I, Frederico II, Joaquim, Iago, and Frederico III, followed by a period of 15 years in which several usurpers held the city of Aïonis and the entire province and thus could be said to control the Imperium as a whole. The last of them, Gratian, was eventually defeated on the field of battle and the last 3 Imperators from Terrasi ruled. They were: Frederico IV, Giovana I, and her daughter Giovana II. The last of their House, Giovana, was overthrown by her distant cousin Daniel I of House Vananov of Rhoshk.

Frederico was one of the most infamous of plotters and schemers, and he managed to make himself the Chamberlain to the last Imperator of House Zigurd. There were rumours at the time that he was responsible for the death of his predecessor, though when the diadem was placed upon his brow there were very few who would have been willing to challenge him. After his death the throne passed two two of his sons, Frederico II and Joaquim, only the latter of whom produced an heir, Iago, who was the father of Frederico III, who was deposed and died in prison, leaving it to his young son Frederico (later the IV) to scheme to regain the throne.

House Terrasi has proven to be a remarkably fecund house, and they have managed to plant their own members in most of the great cities of the Imperium. As a result, the former head of the House, Sofia, was known as the Grandmother of the Imperium (there are even connections between House Terrasi and House Rendakis). Sofia was known for playing a very long and complex game, the contours of which are as of yet not fully known.

Their sign is a golden hawk in flight, a symbol (they claim) of their prominence in the succession. There are still members of the House to scheme and plot to regain the throne that they feel was rightfully theirs. The fact that their dynasty was so short-lived and so unsuccessful has left a substantial chip on their collective shoulder, and they yearn for a chance to regain their family’s lost prestige.

They have been known for their extremely contentious relationship with the Archbishop of Sperezo, one of the foremost primates of the realm. As with so many other powerful figures in the Imperium, there is an eternal conflict between the powers spiritual and temporal. The current Archbishop Sergio, however, has begun to scheme with the current leaders of House Terrasi, seeing in them the opportunity to attain the position that he yearns for the most: that of Prefect. It remains to be seen whether their scheming will bear fruit or whether it will meet the ignominious fate that has so often greeted their efforts.

The current head of their House is one Irisa who, upon the death of her husband Cesare, has come into an even larger amount of money, with which she continues to amass an army of mercenaries and others that she thinks will be useful for her in the conflict that she sees seething on the horizon. With her two sons, Juan and Alexander, she seeks to gain advantage in whatever way she can. She is known by her enemies as the Eternal Widow, given her penchant for marrying rich men who die under mysterious circumstances and leave her a great deal of money (her last husband was her fourth).

Juan and Alexander are both the best and the worst of the house, for while they are both handsome, charming, and artistic, they are also infamous for their malice and their cruelty, and there are dark rumours of the evils that they perpetrate on the younger members of their own House, to say nothing of the common folk of the city.

World Building (8): The Faith of the Blessed Ascendant (Known by Some as the Arkadian Heresy)

It probably seemed to many that the man who would become known to his followers as the Blessed Ascendant was the most unlikely sort imaginable. He did not come from the great or noble Houses, and he did not have any particularly great skills as a leader or even an orator. He merely wandered the streets of various cities of the duchy of D’Erange, asking questions of those he encountered and forcing them to examine their own biases and blind spots when it came to the faith.

Hailing from the poorer regions of that province, history has forgotten what his actual name and most of his biography has been similarly erased by the passage of time and the efforts of the authorities to expunge him from the record. To those who subscribed to his beliefs, though, he was to become the most important person to walk the mortal world.

Ultimately, as he wandered and questioned those he encountered, he began to postulate a theology. Unlike those who had already established the Faith, he did not believe that the world was fundamentally and irrevocably corrupted, only that it was contaminated because of its increased distance from the Name. Human beings, enfleshed as they were, were not totally lost, for they were surrounded by

Note, however, that the Blessed Ascendant still believed that it was the attainment of union with the Name that was the ultimate goal of the devout. Where he differed from his colleagues in the upper echelons of power was in his belief that one could enjoy the world, that it was indeed through the perfection of it and in the creation of future generations that humanity could itself could achieve the closeness to the divine that was the purpose of all life. In his schema, the fiery spirits that inhabited humankind would be reunited with the Name at death, but it was possible to bring humanity itself closer and closer to the transcendent fire nature that was its fundamental nature.

This, of course, went against everything that the Faith had proposed, as it seemed to suggest that the material world could be perfected and, even worse, that it was through the awful act of sexual reproduction that humanity could be saved. The authorities were horrified, not least because they recognized that it was possible that this theology, with its encouragement of sex, would certainly prove to be more palatable to both the common people as well as the nobility and even, in the worst-cast scenario, the clergy themselves.

While the Ascendant preached a message of peace and prosperity for all and disavowed arms of any kind, the authorities in the Imperium, both secular and spiritual, saw him as the gravest sort of threat, and they immediately planned to remove him. However, they were somewhat stymied in their efforts, for they realized all too well that his popularity among the masses would make it exceedingly dangerous to try to take immediate armed action against him.

Eventually, however, they were able to infiltrate the close set of men and women who surrounded him–they called themselves the Acolytes–and had one of them betray him. He was then taken to Aïonis, put on trial before both the first two Imperators and the newly-seated Council of Prefects, and sentenced to death. At this time, it was still customary for the people of the Imperium to gather to witness these executions in a public arena, where the condemned would be torn asunder by wild beasts. So it proved with the Blessed Ascendant, who was subjected to flaying before being thrown, alive and screaming, to the embrace of the beasts.

What happened next would be a source of conflict and confusion for centuries to come. While the Imperial authorities would claim that the Ascendant died an ignominious death, the followers of the Ascendant claimed that he was instead purified and returned to the bosom of his eternal parents, the Name. From this claim would also come the key part of their theology, which claims that the Name were the actual parents of the Ascendant.

After the Ascendant was killed, the Imperium swept through all of the Imperium and even into Korray (many of whom had converted to the Ascendants way of thinking) and stamped out the heresy with a cruelty and ruthlessness that would echo down the centuries. They consigned many people and books to the flames, determined that they would be forgotten. They saved their particular ire for one called Arkadios, who was the Ascendant’s chief Acolyte and, at the end, the one who survived the longest. His death was similar to that of his master’s, as he was thrown to the beasts for the delectation of the masses.

Since his death at the hands of the Imperators and the ruthless persecution of the Arkadian Heresy, the only pocket of those who espouse that faith is in the lands of the Haransharin, particularly in the capital Tafshin. There, they continue to produce their own theological tracts, working from the bits and pieces of the past that they have been able to cobble together. They still believe that the Ascendant was the trueborn son of the Name, and that it is through an embrace of the material world that one can attain closeness to transcendence.

As a result of the steadfast mission of the Imperium to eradicate all traces of the heresy, there are very few documents left from the earliest days of the faith. All copies of the Gospel of Arkadios were destroyed, with the only bits left being those scraps that were mentioned by orthodox theologians in their resolute effort to refute the (admittedly quite popular) teachings. While some of Arkadios’ disciples and their work managed to escape, the Imperium is prone to sending agents into Haranshar to sabotage the libraries known to contain these heretical tracts and even to conduct assassinations of the leaders of the Church in the East.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the men and women of the Church of the East see themselves as the One True Faith rather than their companions in the west. They have their own hierarchy, headed by the Episkopos, the titular leader of their faith. She is advised by her own council, comprised of Prelates.

The Shahs have long understood that they can use the splinter of heretics that live in their nation to stir trouble for the West. While they are forbidden to proselytize, and while they have been at times persecuted by both the Ormazdhian priesthood and the Shahs, as a rule they are too valuable to be swept away.

At the time when this story takes place, the Church in the East has begun to shrink, as the upheavals of the last three decades in both Haranshar and the Imperium. However, there is still great potential for them to seize power, and so it may well prove with the discovery of a palimpsest in the very heart of the Imperium…