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!

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Dissertation Days (55): Where We Are Now

Well, it’s been a hot minute since I posted an update. I guess I got caught up in, you know, actually writing my Dissertation. Imagine that! So, I thought I’d give everyone an update that’s a little longer than usual, in order to tell you how things are going and how they stand now.

Fortunately, the revisions for Chapter 3 are moving along at a brisk pace. I’m actually enjoying slicing out the bits of extraneous material that don’t move my argument forward. For someone who is as word-conscious as I am, that can be quite a liberating experience. Hopefully, by the end of this week (or next week at the latest), the contextualization sections–both historical and theoretical–will be ready for resubmission. Then it’s on to the close readings. Luckily, I think those are in pretty solid condition, though of course a little pruning won’t hurt. That should be done by the end of the month (at the very latest).

Chapter 4 is also coming along surprisingly well, considering this has been the chapter that has given me the most conceptual trouble. Right at the moment I’m sort of toggling between the historical context section and the close reading of the film Cleopatra. I hope to continue making some solid progress on that for the rest of this week. I had to start yet another document that is misleadingly titled “Final Version of Chapter 4,” but hopefully this time it’ll actually turn out to be true (at least until the revisions from the Adviser are handed back).

I had a bit of a panic moment last week, when I sort of forgot what it was that I was saying about Fall of the Roman Empire that set my own interpretation apart from what’s come before, but I think I overcame that little struggle. If I maintain the focus of my chapter on the tensions that I am locating, and on the affect that such tensions seem intended to create, I think I can push the existing discourse in some new and interesting directions.

My Dissertation Days posts may be a bit more sporadic than normal this month, since I’ve basically got my head down trying to finish all of this. Still, I’m going to try to remain at least somewhat consistent, since it does help me keep to my writing schedule if I know that other people are also keeping tabs on me.

So, basically, we’re holding steady. Had some productive conversations with my Adviser about both the Dissertation and the job search, and I feel at least somewhat confident about both of those (as confident as one can be about the job market, anyway). I just have to make sure that I stay disciplined, and that I also learn the necessity (and value!) of pruning my very wordy prose, and I think I might actually have a career ahead of me.

This week is going to be a busy one, but I’m confident that I can meet the goals I’ve set for myself. It just takes a bit of determination.

So, onward we go. Much to be done, but it CAN be done.

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.

Dissertation Days (54): Cut, Cut, Cut

Note: This is yesterday’s post. Today’s post is forthcoming.

Having received more feedback on Chapter 3, I’m charging full-steam ahead into revision mode, while continuing to keep up my forward momentum on Chapter 4.

In terms of Chapter 3, the fundamentals are there, but now it’s time to do that thing I always hate.

Yes, cutting. 

I know, I know. That’s just part of the process of writing, but it’s always difficult. Not just the cutting, but the deciding. I always find it a challenge to figure out which quotes and bits of scholarship/theory are the ones that are the necessary ones, rather than the ones that I like the most (and yes, there is often a very big difference between those two things). It was really challenging at first, but I think I am slowly getting a handle on it.

Still, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on it now, and I can see with the advantage of hindsight that there are some major branches of my argument in need of pruning.

Chapter 4, meanwhile is…coming. Today was a word vomit kind of day, as I started grappling again with what I want to say about Fall of the Roman Empire. I’m slowly groping my way forward, weeding through all of the things that have been said about it before that I want to draw upon. I know in my gut that I have something significant to say about the film, a layer of nuance that I think hasn’t been appreciated before, but it’s taking a hell of a long time to get there.

But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m really making sure that I keep this chapter lean and punchy, so hopefully that will help. I will say that, toward the end today, everything threatened to fall apart, so I knew it was time to stop working on it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back at it tomorrow in full-throttle mode.

And, much as I hate to say it, it may take a new draft (another one!) to weed out the clutter. Ugh. Oh well. Better to recognize this at the beginning of September than at the end of it.

So, tomorrow is another full day of work. However, I’ve got a plan. Now I just need to make sure that I stick to it.

I can can do this. I’ve got this.

Right?

 

It Ain’t Easy to be a Bottom in Porn

If you spend just a little bit of time poking about the comment threads on porn sites, you’ll learn something pretty quickly: no one likes a bottom. In fact, the bottom in many gay porn videos is sure to become, sooner or later, the object of scorn and ridicule, the abject that has to be cast out of the collective gay male conscious (as epitomized by the online community) in order for that community to still pride itself on its masculine credentials.

This might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, it takes both a top and a bottom to make porn work, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the message boards. Any time a particular model or individual starts to stake out some territory as primarily a bottom, the comments begin. “Throwing a hot dog down a hallway,” “is there anyone he hasn’t fucked?,” “I wonder how much adult diapers cost?” and so on. It’s really quite insidious at some points, to such a degree that one comes to wonder why it is that people watch porn at all, or why the stars themselves would continue to offer themselves up for the derision of others (besides, of course, the obvious inducement of money). You would also be led to wonder why it is that people bother watching gay porn if all they are going to do is complain about someone having too much sex.

However, it’s not all that unexpected to see so much vitriol poured on the bottoms in gay porn. After all, if pornography is a form of spectatorial fantasy and if, likewise, it is a reflection of the social milieu that produces it, it only makes sense that people would find the bottoms in gay porn to be both the object of desire and derision. When it comes to the food chain in the world of gay men, bottoms frequently occupy the lowest rung, the subject of scorn and often pity. There is a bit of a joke among us queer men that a top that shows up on Grindr is guaranteed a success rate, since bottoms on most dating sites are seemingly a dime a dozen. Another joke is that, once you get on Grindr, you basically have to switch from bottom to versatile if you hope to get laid. It’s something of a myth, but even the most far-fetched myths have more than a bit of truth to them.

Queer theorists from Leo Bersani to David Halperin have remarked on the ambivalent relationship that many gay men have to the sex act that makes them, well, gay. It’s all well and good, in the logic of many, to be a top, for that is behaving like a man. Being all masculine and sticking your dick into things is par for the course for the average man. To be a bottom is, as everyone knows, something of a necessary evil, but it’s hardly something that one should seek out. And if you do, you had best be sure that at least your gender performance matches up with the perceived ideals of male behaviour, even if your position in the boudoir does not. No one likes a flaming faggy queen, after all (one need look no further than the many profiles that say something about “masc seeking masc” or “regular guy seeks same” or “looking for a workout buddy” to see what I mean). And heaven forbid you like musicals, or handbags, or anything else that smacks of acting like a woman.

To embrace one’s identity as a bottom in the world of gay porn is to embrace that abject position, the penetrated. It’s one thing if you are able to evince displeasure at doing it (see also: all the “Gay for Pay” actors out there who look like every moment of gay sex is an agony). But if you dare to show that you enjoy it, and if you spend a lot of time bottoming in front of the camera, then you have unforgivably and irrevocably surrendered your male card. Do not pass go, do not collect $200; you’re going straight to the adult diapers section (and can we talk about the infantilizing rhetoric for a minute. Seriously. There is little to no evidence that lots of sex, sex with big dicks, and even fisting leads to incontinence. This is just another example of gay men internalizing the pernicious logic of homophobia).

(An amusing, if irritating aside: some time ago, a friend of mine remarked that men only bottomed out of service to their partner, not because it actually felt good. At the time I was still a virgin, and I felt this clawing fear that maybe my friend was right. Maybe I was fated to never enjoy sex as a bottom! Naturally, that proved to not be the case, and I very much embrace my identity as a bottom. I tell this story because it reflects the misunderstanding that there is something shameful, painful, and/or innately more disgusting about anal sex. Let’s be real. Penetrative sex is a rather disgusting act in all of its forms, but there is much pleasure to be had, so we should let go of our hangups and not force our own assumptions on other’s behaviours).

And of course it goes without saying that porn bottoms who dare to do the unthinkable and get into topping are setting themselves up for all sorts of vitriol and dismissal. After all, how could na avowed bottom, one who is good at what he does, possibly be…versatile? It’s almost as if people are something more than just the positions that they occupy in the bedroom. There are boat loads of specific examples I could cite that have been subjected to this sort of scrutiny, but among the most prominent are Johnny Rapid (a very prolific performer who never fails to draw the ire of many commenters, despite his twinkish beauty and reasonably good performances), Armond Rizzo (don’t get me started on the number of jokes that have been made about his sphincter), and Travis of Corbin Fisher (everyone loves to hate on him when he attempts to top). Unless you’re very very lucky in gay porn world, once you become a bottom, you’re basically a bottom for the rest of your professional life. I mean, you can try to switch off and on, but chances are you’ll be met with hostility.

All of this is not to say that the tops in gay porn don’t come in for their share of criticism from the “fans.” For tops, though, the question involves less shame and more impatience if they refuse to bottom, or if they do that they don’t enjoy it, or that they can’t keep a hard-on. It is only the last of these complaints that’s truly comparable to the sort of shame that’s loaded onto the bottoms in gay porn, who are made to be the scapegoats (in the classical sense) for all of the shame that gay men seem to collectively feel for their desire to bottom.

I would go so far as to suggest that it is precisely this collective shame that explains why so many commenters on message boards reserve their greatest vitriol for bottoms. If, as Leo Bersani said some time ago, there is a certain suicidal ecstasy of embracing the role of the penetrated, then there is also a deep and almost frenzied fear of that position. Small wonder that that so many gay men continue to project that shame and sense of collective abjection onto those who most visibly and publicly give in to that suicidal ecstasy. The fact that a similar discourse does not (and perhaps cannot) surround the prominent tops in gay porn suggests, to me at least, that it is the innate vulnerability of the bottoms that render them so prone to this sort of dismissal.

As a bottom myself, I find all of this tremendously frustrating and hypocritical, just as I find it infuriating to see so many gay men disavow any traces of femininity. Heaven forbid, after all, that we show any trace of anything that doesn’t fit into the dominant model of hegemonic masculinity, that we embrace a certain measure of vulnerability. And perish the thought that we try to think outside of the box that automatically equates bottoming with passivity or misery or try to find other ways of thinking about the sexual positions we occupy.

What’s to be done about all of this, you’re probably asking right about now? Well, to start with, gay men can get over their fixation with appropriate gender behaviour. Dispense with the “straight acting” gay bullshit. It’s so 2004. We can also stop projecting our anxiety about our own sex positions onto porn performers. There are already enough problems in the world, without unloading them onto men who are, when all is said and done, just trying to make a living.

And, finally, in porn as in sex, sometimes we just need to relax, enjoy the ride, and embrace the pleasure.

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.

Dissertation Days (53): A New Day, A New Office

Well, I finally moved into my new office at the Humanities Center here at Syracuse, and I have to say: I LOVE IT. It’s really quite a nice space, and it makes me feel like a genuine academic.

In that spirit, I was able to get quite a lot of work done during the hours I was there today, including 1,000 good words of Chapter 4, some perusal of Chapter 3, and a submitted SCMS proposal. I also started (finally) working on a book chapter that needs revision.

Chapter 4 continues apace. I’m now at the point where my momentum keeps me moving forward. There are still a few gaps that will need filling, but I see no reason why I can’t have a draft of this to the Adviser by the end of September, if not sooner. I have to say, this chapter is coming along much more smoothly than the previous one, ad I’m not sure yet whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopefully it just means that I’ve finally hit my stride and the whole project is finally starting to gel.

Sometime soon, I’m going to have to both get down to brass tacks in terms of revising Chapters 1 and 2 and start working on my Introduction and Conclusion. Now that I’ve got a firmer grasp on what Chapter 4 is doing, I think that sounds like a good idea. Some parts of Chapter 4 may get bumped into the Conclusion, but that remains to be seen (as it depends on how the rest of Chapter 4 shapes up).

I may not have a chance to get much done tomorrow, but I am going to come in to the office on Saturday to carve out a bit more writing. I also have a book chapter due Monday, and I have to make sure my job materials are in order. It’s gonna be a bit of a working weekend, but that’s okay. I’ve had enough fun time in the past couple of weeks. It’s time to really buckle down.

Today, in other words, is one of those days where I feel really good about life, about writing, and about my scholarship. I’m sure there will be some rough days ahead, but I have to remember my motivation. I want to finish, get a TT-job, and start building a life with my Beloved Aaron.

I can do this. I know I can.