Tag Archives: epic fantasy

Novel Thoughts: Turning History into Fantasy

Some of my favourite fantasy series involve some measure of real history in their inner workings. This is true of such series as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and, of course, the many works of Guy Gavriel Kay (most notably those of his works set in the world of his duology The Sarantine Mosaic). All of these authors make explicit use of real world antecedents in their myth-making, which adds layers and textures that enhance the reading pleasure. Of course, even the great master himself, Tolkien, had a keen eye for the importance of history at all levels of his work. Middle-earth, obviously, has a history as deep and rich as any in all of literature. The actions of those in the distant past of his world, after all, continue to echo down through all the subsequent eras, for good and for ill.

And it’s not just that the best epic fantasy makes allusions to real-world history; it also asks the same sorts of questions as historical fiction and nonfiction history do. These include: How does it feel to live at the end of an age? What ability do individuals–the small and the weak–have to change the world around them? Is there such a thing as historical agency, or are we all merely subject to forces that we cannot name and certainly cannot control? Do those living in epochal change know that they are doing so?

So, when I set out to write my own epic, I knew that I wanted to bring my love of history into my favourite genre of literature. I read widely and voraciously, and as I did I began to realize that many of the periods of the past that interested me most would make a fine fantasy setting. Particularly influential for me was the British historian Tom Holland’s (no, not that Tom Holland’s) fiery history The Shadow of the Sword. Whatever its merits (and flaws) as a book about the origins of Islam in Late Antiquity, it is a rousingly good read, and he offers some great insight into the period. Indeed, it opened up my eyes to an entire way of thinking about what I wanted to do with my work. What if, I wondered, the two of great civilizations of Late Antiquity–the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persians–were instead rulers of a vast continent, with a subaltern group sandwiched between them that was destined for greatness in its own right? What if their perennial squabbling was also part of a vast cosmological drama?

I continued reading, pulling in bits and pieces, creating a nation known as Aïonis that was essentially the Byzantine Empire (with some Holy Roman Empire DNA thrown in). Its opponent is Haranshar, the vast entity that rules about 2/3 of the continent of Aridikhos (name subject to change), a Sassanid analogue. And sandwiched between these two vast superpowers are the Korrayin who, in their mountains, are divided into four confederacies and numerous tribes. They’re basically the Late Antique Arabs, except in the mountains rather than the desert.

With this as the backdrop, a tiny little story I was working on–about a young cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and is forced to flee for her life–suddenly began to take on ever-greater dimensions, until her action became the catalyst for a continent-spanning conflict that could literally remake her world.

The result? Well, at this point there are roughly four strands of the novel as it currently exists. The three, more grounded strands are the brewing conflict between the two superpowers, Aïonis and Haranshar; the rise of the Korrayin as an unstoppable conquering army; and the rediscovery of a banned magical technology that involves the binding, through blood magic, of spirits of fire, air, and aethyr into the body of a human host to create an immensely powerful weapon (an obvious analogue of the development of atomic technology). These all take place against the backdrop of a brewing conflict between two essential forces, the creator god (known as the Creator, Ormazdh, or simply “The God” to its worshipers, Demiurge to its detractors) and the god of transcendence (known as Kagal, the Black Destroyer or Murash, the Great Lie to detractors and as Adonai to worshipers).

Through these continent-spanning narratives, I’ve tried to ask the big questions. What does it feel like to live at the end of an era? What happens when great powers become so ossified that they are destroyed from within and from without? How do the seemingly inconsequential actions of small people bring empires to their knees? I’m not sure how effectively or compellingly I’ve answered these questions, but I like to think that my work combines a good story with deeper musings.

In that sense, I think that it is appropriate that I’ve chosen to write in the genre of the epic which, perhaps more than any other genre of fiction, is equipped to delve into these questions in nuanced and detailed ways. As I continue to write the stories of characters such as Theadra, the cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and must flee for her life; Ishaq, a “barbarian” who sets out to avenge his father and claim the High Kingship of the Korrayin; and Bahram, a vizir who is a mere figurehead but yearns to redeem his family; I hope to do justice both to their individual stories and to the larger issues that they embody.

As such, I view my work as working against the (still-dominant) tendency to view fantasy as a low genre, incapable of asking the same deep questions as more literary genres. To my mind, some of the best, and most enjoyable, fantasy series are those that really make us think, that try to transform how we think about the world, our place in it, and our relationship to what has come before us and what will come after. There is so very much that fantasy fiction can do for us, if we but open up our eyes to the possibilities.

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Novel Thoughts: On Finishing and Revising a Rough Draft

Well, since it’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the status of the novel, I thought I’d set out some thoughts on how the revision process is going. I have to say, I’m happy with the novel as a whole. I think it’s got good bones, though I do have to totally rewrite one character’s entire story arc. And let me quite honest: it’s just thrilling to have actually finished a rough draft of an epic fantasy novel. The only other creative project of this magnitude that I finished was an historical novel, and that was 8 years ago. So, yeah, I feel accomplished.

However, as I’ve reread the rough draft, I’ve noticed some aspects of my writing that I really want to work on curtailing as I compose more material. It’s always hard to take a good look at your own composition process, but it can also be very healthy.

First of all, I like to pile clause upon clause upon clause. I’m not sure why I do this, other than that it’s the way that my writing processes my complicated thoughts. This definitely hamstrung some parts of my dissertation, but it is even more distracting in fiction.

I also tend to have my characters ask too many questions, either to one another or in their own minds. This is, of course, related to the clause issue, and again I’m not sure why I do it. As I’ve embarked on revision, I’ve tried to take the majority of those interrogatory sentences and convert them into declarative (when I don’t delete them outright).

Speaking of character thoughts…I tend to spend too much time in my character’s heads in third person. To try to correct this I’ve focused more on action. After all, while it’s good to let readers get to know your characters and what motivates them, excessive navel-gazing isn’t very interesting to read. Perhaps my tendency to spend so much time in my characters’ heads reflects my own introspective tendencies. Or maybe my characters just don’t have enough to do yet.

I have to say that working on this revision is both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting to be able to sculpt and craft the rough clay of a draft into something that really sparkles. But man, it takes so long, and it’s very alienating (and dispiriting) sometimes to see all of the mistakes that you made as you were floundering your way through the plot.

So, I’ve now made it through Chapter 6 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with how they look. There’s still a long way to go, though, given that the rough draft was almost 60 chapters. And then there’s that pesky character who finally decided to reveal his real plotline. Still, I’m going to really, really try to get a revised draft done by the end of March and thus be ready to start querying agents by April.

These goals are definitely ambitious, but I am nothing if not determined to see this book in print, come hell or high water.

So, onward we go!

Reading Tad Williams: “Shadowrise’ (Volume Two of “Shadowmarch”)

I know I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I’d just like to say again how much of a pleasure it is to read Tad Williams. The man simply has a command of language, plot, and character that really does surpass that of most other people writing in the genre. Somehow, he manages to make the familiar elements of epic fantasy and make them into something new. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s extraordinary enough to produce one fantasy epic that has become canonical (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”), but it’s even more so to write yet another popular fantasy cycle unconnected to that one.

Shadowrise opens with all of our beloved characters scattered to the winds. Briony is in exile from her beloved Southmarch, which is now under the control of her sadistic cousin Hendon Tolly. Barrick and his companion Ferris Vansen are now trapped behind the Shadowline, condemned on a mission to go to the Qar stronghold. And Qinnitan has found shelter of a sort in the vast city of Hierosol, though it seems that she is not safe even there, for she is hotly and doggedly pursued by the soldier Daikonas Vo.

Some reviews I have read have complained about how unlikeable characters are, but I personally found that to be true only of Barrick who, though he has a tortured soul, is often insufferable, cruel, self-pitying, and needlessly cruel. That aside, I find the other characters quite enjoyable, though it has to be said that Chert Blue Quartz, with his homely wisdom and his obvious love for both Flint and Opal, makes him one of the novel’s (and the series’) most relatable and enjoyable characters to read.

Indeed, it’s always the seemingly small and insignificant characters in this world who have the greatest impact on what is to come. The royal and powerful may seem to hold sway over the political realm, but as the action unfolds it becomes more and more clear that they are themselves but pawns in a much larger game, one that may have consequences so vast as to dwarf human understanding.

I have to say, though, that probably my favourite part of the novel was the appearance of the goddess Lisiya, who thankfully appears to help Briony just when all hope seems lost. Lisiya may once have been a powerful deity but she, like so many of the other gods, has found herself subjected to the forces of time, and though she is able to give Briony the aid she needs to survive her terrible time in the forest, it clearly costs her a great deal to do so. The gods have fallen very far from the world that they once ruled.

In an interesting parallel, Lisiya is not the only godlike being who continues to eke out a living among mortals. However, while she has devoted her life to helping the forest (and the occasional wanderer) the mutilated and mad demigod Jikuyin is something else entirely, a creature determined to gain power so that he may perpetuate cruelty on destruction on all those he believes have wronged him. If Lisiya represents what happens when a goddess commits her life to the service of others, Jikuyin  is the opposite: a creature who thinks only of himself.

Indeed, it is precisely this nuanced and unique cosmology that sets this series apart from its predecessor (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”). In this world, the gods were very much alive and part of human affairs, though they were (and are) so vast in power that they dwarf humanity’s ability to fully comprehend them. Because of that, they are far more frightening than they are beneficent, at least for those who live in the shadow of their departure. In that sense, they are very similar to the pantheon of the ancient Greeks, where the gods and goddesses (as well as their numerous offspring) were as corrupt, brutal, and petty as their mortal counterparts. And, as with the ancients, there is something both reassuring and terrifying about the idea of gods being fallible, for while that brings them closer to humankind, it also means that they bring wreck and ruin in their wake.

Of course, no discussion of this book would be complete without a mentioning of the raven Skurn. From his first appearance to Vansen and Barrick, Skurn threatens to steal the show, with his idiosyncratic speech and amusing commentary on the folly of humans. It’s very difficult (I think) to write nonhuman characters who don’t become caricatures, but somehow Williams does it with Skurn.

On the other edge of the spectrum is the warrior Gyir who, while denied a viewpoint of his own in the novel (our impressions of him are conveyed through Barrick and Ferris), nevertheless becomes one of the most heroic and tragic figures in the Williams’ oeuvre. While absolutely committed to his mistress, he begins to see that perhaps, after all, humans aren’t all that bad. In the end, he’s even willing to sacrifice his life so that the others may escape and find some measure of freedom.

All in all, Shadowrise has all of the good traits of a second novel in a series without the negative ones. Here we have characters scattered to the corners of the world, but rather than bogging us down, it allows them to really grow into themselves, to determine what it is that sets them apart and what makes them who they are. By the end, events have begun to move forward, and the final cataclysm that will forever change their world has been set into motion. All that remains to be seen is how each of these characters will manage to survive what is to come and, indeed, whether there will be anything left of the world that they have fought so hard to rescue.

Stay tuned as I finally catch up to the last two volumes in this magnificent series, before I head on into the territory of “Otherland.”

Reading Tad Williams: “Shadowmarch” (Volume 1 of Shadowmarch)

At long last, I’m finally getting back into the swing of blogging. It’s been a hectic month and a half (and even longer, actually), but I’m starting to feel like myself again, and the writing bug has well and truly bitten me.

Anyway, I’ve also gotten back into reading Tad Williams, who continues to be one of my primary fantasy inspirations as an aspiring author. I just finished the first volume of his “Shadowmarch” series, which I’ve actually read before but wanted to re-read. As always, I’m glad that I decided to plunge again into his works, as there is a distinct pleasure to be gained from reading books that you already know.

Though similar in some respects to his earlier fantasy epic series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” “Shadowmarch” is a different creature and asks different questions through its narrative and its characters. This is a world that lives in the shadow of the gods and must contend with their foibles and their legacies, even if the gods themselves exist in a world beyond the flesh (for the moment, anyway).

As the story begins, the royal twins Briony and Barrick Eddon, along with their elder brother Kendrick, struggle with the absence of their father Olin, who has been imprisoned by the robber-baron Lord Protector of Hierosol, Ludis Drakava. After the murder of their brother Kendrick, matters in the kingdom begin to unravel quite quickly, particularly since the Qar, the immortal enemies of humankind, launch an attack on the lands of humans. To the south, the Autarch takes the young woman Qinnitan as his wife, but she eventually escapes. By the end of the novel, all of the various characters have been cast to the winds.

Though sprawling, the novel has a strong pacing to it, alternating between periods of breathtaking action and quiet contemplation. As he always does, Williams imbues his narrative with several mysteries, some of which are resolved by the end but many of which (particularly the larger, cosmological ones) remain hovering in our consciousness until the very last page. It’s these enigmas that give even the novel’s quieter moments a peculiar energy that keeps the reader coming back for more.

However, there is also a darkness running beneath this series that wasn’t as obvious in “MST.” This is a world poised on the edge of absolute destruction, but not in the way that most epic settings are. There isn’t the sense that this catastrophe can (or should) be averted by the actions of mortals; instead, they must simply weather the storm as best they can and hope that at least some part of their world remains intact. Though many of the gods may have been banished from the world in a great theomachy, their influence is still felt among their feuding descendants and adherents, none of whom seem able to grasp the enormity of the cosmos in its totality.

What really makes this book shine, however, are the characters. Here are Chert Blue Quartz, a member of a race of miners and craftsmen known as the Funderlings. There are the royal twins Briony and Barrick, the former chafing at the restrictions placed on her sex and the latter tormented by the possibility that he may be afflicted by his family’s hereditary madness. There is Ferris Vansen, a guard captain devoted to a hopeless love for his princess. Lastly, there is Qinnitan, a lowly priestess in the great city of Xis who has the (mis)fortune to be chosen as a wife for the mad despot the Autarch. And there’s even a debauched musician and poet made Matty Tinwright.

All of these characters, both the high and the low, are drawn with depth and care. Though they are not always likable or sympathetic, and while their actions are sometimes infuriating, that’s precisely what makes them human. As he always does, Williams manages to capture how it feels to be caught up in events so large that they defy mortal understanding. It’s small wonder that they sometimes act in ways that defy logic and rationality. Who wouldn’t act in that way, when confronted with a world turned topsy-turvy?

Like all good initial entries in a series, this book ends in a state of suspended crisis. By the end, we’re not sure just how these characters will manage to extricate themselves, and we’re left with the unsettling sense that it just might be that there is no truly, unalloyed happy ending for them. And that is a very unsettling possibility indeed.

World Building: On the Founding of the Aionian Empire

The following is a summary from The Aionian Empire: A History, by Feas Mayoros, Court Historian to Imperator Konstantian IV. The full text of that book has been lost, though fragments (including this one) are found in Marike Stratenes’ Chronicles.

For a thousand years after the fall of the Old Ones, the continent of Aridikhos was in turmoil. Everywhere one looked there was violence and bloodshed, civil war and chaos. Within a decade there were none of the Old Ones left, their bloodlines scattered and diluted almost beyond recall.

At last, however, in desert lands of what is now the west of Haranshar, a child was born in the city of Pasargadakh, the mountaintop fortress-city of Kavash, the last of a long line of priest-kings. He sent his son, who would come to be known as Xharyush, to safety with his father-in-law before his own death at the hands of several rebellious princes. When the young prince learned of his legacy, he set out on a quest for vengeance that led him to not only kill his father’s murderers but also set him on a path of conquest that would end with the entire continent of Aridikos under his possession.

For another thousand years the Haransharin held sway over the entire continent, from the lands that are now known as the Western Duchies of the Imperium to the plains and mountains of the east. Admittedly, the east was always more firmly under the control of the shahs and their satraps than the west, but it was undeniable that even those barbarian men living in the north owed their allegiance to the shah in Tysfan.

Along with the political domination, the Haransharin overlords brought their powerful faith known as Ormazhdism, which they enforced with a brutal efficiency wherever they could. Fire temples were erected from one corner of the west to the other and, when the populace resisted, they were often given to the flames.

It remained a troubling inconvenience for the shahs that the three regions of the west that were hidden behind mountains–what we now know as the Northern Kingdoms, the Western Duchies, and the Peninsula–remained stubbornly resistant to their attempts to enforce at least a measure of political and cultural hegemony. The shahs, particularly those that preceded the unfortunate Artashuar X (the reigning shah during the secession), had decided to invest their financial resources elsewhere. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that the rebellion started in the Peninsula, particularly in the city of Alusium and in the feuding city-states of Helleneia. The Shahs in Tysfan would have cause to regret that they had let these troublesome territories have so much control over their own affairs.

The seeds for the rebellion were actually sewn in the academies of the city-states of Helleneia, where a school of philosophy began emerge that argued that the material world was hopelessly and irretrievably corrupted. Though this began as a mere philosophy, it very quickly morphed into a religious doctrine, since a religion, particularly one so at odds with the dominant Ormazhdian Faith. Politics and religion are always intertwined with one another.

According to these new thinkers, there were two opposed forces that governed the cosmos. On the one side was the Name, two essences–one male and one female–conjoined in eternity. Theirs was the essence of pure spirit, and in the tenets laid down by the coalescing faith, they were to be associated with the purer elements of fire and air and, especially, of the mysterious fifth element of aether. On the other side was the creature known as the Demiurge, the monstrous, twisted creator god who had fashioned the physical cosmos from the corrupted elements of water and earth, using his own share of aether to endow with a terrible vitality.

Unsurprisingly, the Archons of many of these city-states (for so the rulers were called), saw in this new faith a means of establishing independence from their Haransharin overlords. Likewise, did the Imperator of Alusium, the strongest power in the Peninsula, declare his support for this nascent faith. As such things go, it didn’t take long for the True Faith–as it now proclaimed itself–to begin to organize itself into a Universal Church. It was decided that each city-state and the cities of Alusium, Millani, and Enniccio would be granted a Prefect, bringing the total number to 13, a number that continues to this day.

Immediately thereafter, however, fights and disagreements began to break out, since it was not at all clear who would now lead this growing coalition, and indeed whether the other countries of the west would join them. At last, it was agreed that Honorius of House Aelius (the Imperator of Alusium) and Eurydike of House Paiolos (Archon of the city-state of Athenais) would lead. With these two formidable personalities in charge, it was only a matter of time before the rebellion began to spread outwards, as first the rich grainlands (now known as the Central Duchies) joined and then everyone else did as well. Soon it had even spread to the lands of Korray.

In these years, the satraps were thrown down, the fire temples destroyed or converted into churches, and the people flocked to this new faith that promised them an escape from the world through an attaining of the ecstasy of the spirit. The shah responded with brutal absolutely brutal repression, sending army after army to bring these rebellious provinces back under the suzerainty of Tysfan. However, the territories were too far-flung, the armies of Haranshar too stretched out, for their efforts to be successful. Still, the death toll on both sides was tremendous.

At last, after almost a decade of war, the Aionian Empire was founded. Honorius and Eurydike were crowned by one of the Prefects, Koriana, in the new Citadel of the Universal Church, which was itself located in the newly-founded city of Aïonis. Also in attendance were all of the numerous members of the new Royal Family, as well as representatives from every corner of the new Aionian Empire. In those days, the territory of that new entity encompassed even vast parts of Korray, though subsequent events would prove that those territories would gain their own independence.

For its part, the city was a truly magnificent structure. It was comprised of two parts: the Mount, upon which are located the numerous palaces belonging to the Imperator, the extended members of the Royal family, the various dukes, counts, and other nobles, the Academy of the Alchemists’ Guild, and religious authorities, as well as the Citadel and the Prefectal Palace; and, spreading out on both sides the rest of the City. Within a few years it had become one of the two greatest cities in the world, rivaled only by Tysfan in terms of size, influence, and wealth.

As has been recorded elsewhere, in those days the Art of Binding was still practiced everywhere in the Empire, and indeed it was used to construct the great land walls that surrounded the city, as well as all of the major buildings just described. The same was true of all of the other major cities of the Empire. Even after Binding was suppressed, its influence was still felt from one end to the other.

Though Haranshar finally had to accept defeat, for the entire thousand years of its existence the Empire has had to fend off attacks from the east, these two titans locked in eternal conflict, with Korray in between. And so things remain, to this very day…

Book Review: “The Fall of Shannara: The Skaar Invasion” (Terry Brooks)

The release of a new book by Terry Brooks is always a cause for celebration in my house even if, as is the case here, it’s the second volume of what is intended to be the concluding tetralogy of the Shannara saga. I have yet to be disappointed by an entry in this series.

As The Skaar Invasion begins, the Four Lands are reeling from an assault by an advance force of a mysterious people known as the Skaar, adventurers from across the ocean who have come bent on conquest. The Druids–except for Drisker Arc and his nemesis Clizia Porse–have been eradicated. Dar Leah sets out to do what he can to save Drisker and find Tarsha Kaynin, who remains tortured because of the madness of her brother Tavo. And Ajin d’Amphere, the captain of the Skaar, struggles to prove her mettle to her father across the ocean. Meanwhile, the street urchin Shea Ohmsford finds himself drawn into the orbit of a stranger who reveals to him the existence of a machine that could change the very world they live in, a machine that can control and change the weather.

Brooks, perhaps more than any of the other premier fantasy writers out there, knows how to keep things moving along a brisk clip. There is never a moment when the action lets up in this book, never an instant when the action lags long enough for us to feel bored. We move from set-piece to set-piece in this lean, tautly woven yarn, as the Four Lands move toward the cataclysm that will utterly reshape the destiny of all of the Races. The reader, like the characters, finds herself caught up in the course of events that are impossible to slow down, and there is something more than a little terrifying about that.

If anything, sometimes I feel a bit breathless when I finish one of his books, as if I’ve just sprinted through some terrifying yet exhilarating adventure. If I have one complaint, it’s that we don’t always get as much development–either in terms of character or plot–as I might like to see in an epic fantasy of this scope. The political machinations, particularly of the Federation, feel a little rushed in comparison to the adventure components, almost as if Brooks gets a little bored when bogged down in the minutiae of politics. Still, these sequences are effective in demonstrating how sundered the peoples of the Four Lands remain, despite their many years of shared struggle. Indeed, it might be their inability (or unwillingness) to join together as a united front that could spell their doom. The Federation and the Elves continue to squabble, and even the Druids, who should be the one entity that can bind the peoples together, remain as splintered and fractious as always.

Indeed, what I particularly enjoyed about this novel was the ways in which the centuries-long history of the Four Lands has begun to bear down on those living in the present. The Ohmsford legacy hangs on by a bare thread, embodied in the tortured siblings Tarsha and Tavo and in the street urchin Shea, who struggles to make a life for himself in a world that cares little for the small and the insignificant. Just as importantly, it’s something that they find it almost impossible to live up to, so diluted has it become in these waning days.

The real star of the novel, though is the Druid Drisker Arc. Though he may not attain the levels of depth and greatness attained by such High Druids as Walker Boh and Grianne Ohmsford, Drisker is still a fascinating character. He, like so many others, feels a tremendous sense of responsibility and even guilt, his time trapped in limbo giving him the opportunity to look at his choices and finally agree to shoulder his responsibility to both the Druid Order and the Four Lands. He eventually recognizes that he cannot run away from the burdens of history; he must shoulder the burden of being the High Druid and do whatever it takes to preserve all of the people from the conquest that is about to fall upon them.

Speaking of those conquerors, I also enjoyed the ways in which Brooks shows the Skaar as not merely a faceless, abstract force but a people desperate to save themselves from what is clearly described as climate change. Ajin takes her place among the many compelling female hero/villains that Brooks has created over the years, women such as Grianne Ohmsford, Brin Ohmsford, and so forth. She is driven by a desire to prove herself to her father and, just as importantly, to save her people from the destruction that is clearly bearing down upon them. The sequence where Drisker has to confront the reality of his duty is one of best in the entire novel, elevating it to the heights of earlier entries in the series.

Lastly, can we talk about the appearance of the renegade Druid Cogline, one of the best characters Brooks has ever created? While many of the other Druids have completely disappeared, it would seem that part of that crusty old rascal remains a part of Paranor, not content to go quietly into that good night. As he always does, Cogline is a bit of a conscience to a reluctant Druid, telling Drisker just enough to keep him moving on his journey of self-discovery.

All in all, I think that this quartet is shaping up to a great finale of a series that has been going now for over 40 years. The final confrontation between magic and science that has been brewing for the past several installments of the series is getting ready to explode, and one gets the sense that the development of a machine that can control the weather will be the thing that sets it all off. One can only hope that, regardless of which side comes out as the ultimate victor, that the Four Lands might at last know a measure of peace.

World Building: On the Steppes

Far to the east in Haranshar there are the steppes, arguably the most inhospitable and dangerous of the four xhusts. While the deserts of the west are known for their arid climate and unruly natives, the steppes are known for their sweeping grasslands, the vast herds of bison, horse, and deer, and the fiercely independent clans.

Fortunately for the rest of Haranshar, the steppes are separated from the rest of the continent by a mountain chain that has rendered it difficult (and often impossible) for even the most ambitious of chiefs to launch an all-out invasion or conquest. Known simply as the Spine, these are some of the most inhospitable mountains on the entire continent of Aridikh, with peaks thrusting up to a mile into the sky.

The Shah’s writ runs only thinly here, and indeed there is only one of the Great Clans that has taken it upon itself to attempt to force any sort of adherence to the governance of Haranshar, and even that was a relatively recent development, having been undertaken at the same time that Tysfan was built and the rule of Haranshar consolidated. Up until that point, the steppes had been a part of the vast eastern empire largely as a matter of form, since their obedience was mostly in the form of tribute. This would typically take the form of horses, and to this day many of the finest herds to be found in Haranshar can trace their roots to the steppes.

As with the similarly tribal Korrayin, the tribes of the steppes are in an almost constant state of war and conflict. In the time before they were brought under the official jurisdiction of Haranshar, there were times when a Great Chief would emerge from his fellows to command the loyalty of everyone else, but those times are now nothing more than a distant memory, a shadow that is related around the campfires. Still, there exists in the heart of every member of the tribes–whether eagle, hawk, lion, or stallion–the belief that one day they will be able to reclaim their lost heritage and restore the power that has been lost.

While chattel slavery is forbidden by both sacred and common law throughout Haranshar, that does not pertain to those living on the steppes, where it is common practice to seize slaves from opposing tribes. However, under the conditions by which the tribes were incorporated into the rule of greater Haranshar, they are forbidden from taking slaves from anyone other than the tribes themselves. Needless to say, this has been the source of significant consternation for those living in these later days, and there are many who wish to see a return to the era when the weak westerners cowered behind their city walls as the titanic wave of mounted tribesman plundered their lands.

There are at least seven great tribes that have organized themselves, each adopting the name of one of the sacred animals: Eagle, Fox, Wolf, Hawk, Stallion, and Bison. The tribes are constantly feuding with one another, forming and fragmenting alliances depending on the circumstances in any given moment. It is generally accepted that no alliance between any given tribes is only as secure as the men who comprise it and, given the ambition and warrior spirit that seems endemic to their culture, they usually do not last very long.

If there is one thing that unites the tribes, it is their awe of and reverence for the shamans who dwell in the lands by the sea. These men (and a few women), are understood to have a closer relationship to the blood-soaked gods than the common run of mortal. They do not write any of their lore down, and so any information that those in the western regions of Haranshar (or the Imperium, for that matter) are able to solidly identify has come from those few souls brave enough to hazard a journey into the these lands. One such was an explorer from the Peninsula, known to history as Josepe Azules, though since so much of his account comes from his last days–when he was stricken by a fever–it is hard to say how much of it can be considered reliable.

According to Azules, those destined to become shamans are plucked from their parents while still babies, taken over the mountains, and raised among the shamans in the caves above the beaches (which are of black sand). They are then inducted into the Sacred Mysteries, the intricacies of which remain unclear to even the most well-traveled scholar. What we do know is that their rites typically involve blood sacrifice, and every year they choose a man from among the Tribes to fulfill the role of the Sacred King. This man is then sacrificed, along with his ceremonial steed, to show the gods that the tribes have maintained their faith. The shamans are also the guardians of the old prophecies of the tribes, which proclaim that a Sacred King will one day emerge to take ownership of a nameless object, whose presence is known but whose exact nature remains a subject of some dispute among the learned scholars of the west.

It is unclear to those living in the west whether the shamans were originally ethnically distinct from the rest of the tribes or whether they sprang organically out of the tribes in their need for religious leaders. Whichever it is, however, there is no question that they now appear to be almost as different from their fellows as the men of the tribes are from the rest of the Haransharin. Though they have yet to play a significant role in the workings of the wider world, there are rumblings that that may be about to change.

As the events of the novels will make clear, there will come a day when the tribes will become a force to be reckoned with, for both the Shah in his mighty city of Tysfan and for those even further west.

Dark days lie ahead.

Character Sketch: Childerick

Childerick Merovais is the foremost duke in the Imperium. His bloodlines are impeccable, and for many of the Great Houses his claim to the throne is greater than that of the current Imperator Talinissia, whose mother was a foreigner. His own mother was the younger sister of Talinissia’s father, and while relations were always cordial between the siblings, the same could never be said of their children.

He was born roughly a three years before Talinissia, and when it was in doubt whether her father would produce an heir, there was much discussion among the Great Houses whether the aging Imperator would declare that his sister’s son would inherit. Precocious for his age, the young Childerick had picked up on those possibilities, aided and abetted by his mother, who was very ambitious for her son’s future. When, at last, the aging Imperator produced not one but two heirs, it appeared that these ambitions would come to naught.

When Talinissia’s brother rebelled against her (roughly ten years before the begin of the events of the novel), Childerick stayed strategically neutral. It was only when the rebel had come to the very gates of Ainonis itself and had rendered himself vulnerable that he led his forces at a breakneck pace and fell upon his rear. This allowed Talinissia’s forces to ride out from the city and catch the rebellious prince and utterly destroy his army.

Despite Childerick’s pivotal role in the salvation of her throne (or perhaps because of it), Talinissia has never entirely trusted her cousin. She has known him since he was a child, and she knows all too well the dark humours that haunt the recesses of his mind. He once had a servant thrown out of a window in a fit of pique, and in another instance he stabbed a secretary in the eye with a pen for an imagined slight. However, she is also well-aware of his closeness to the throne in terms of inheritance, and so she has deliberately attempted to shut him out of politics.

As a result of all of these dynastic complexities and ambiguities, Childerick has spent his entire life stewing in bitterness. From his point of view, he was passed over twice, once when his uncle gave the throne to his (possibly illegitimate) daughter and again when she refused to acknowledge him her heir after he saved her from utter oblivion at the hands of her brother. Having been denied his rightful place, he holds Talinissia in nothing but contempt, and is in general not shy about making his feelings as public as possible.

From his youth Childerick was groomed for leadership, especially since he was his parents’ only child. Though the noticed his cruel streak, he was also seen as brilliant and was left in no illusions about his abilities. However, it was also recognized that he was incurably lazy, and that it took a great deal to motivate him to do even the barest amount of his school work. His tutors despaired of him, but none were foolish enough to reprimand him, both for fear of his own wrath and the reprisal from his parents, who would hear no ill said of their son, no matter how well-deserved it might be.

As a result of this spoiled upbringing, Childerick has grown into great power but is also prone to self-indulgence and, occasionally, truly terrifying fits of rage. When he slips into one of these fits, even his children know that the wiser course of action is to leave him alone and wait for it to pass.

From his marriage to Zenosia–herself a well-blooded descendent of at least fourteen Imperators–he has three children. His eldest is his heir Cuthbert, followed by Frederika (without a doubt the brains of the family) and Guillame. The latter has already been promised to the Church and is, arguably, the most normal of all of the children. Cuthbert takes after his father in temperament, though his father’s laziness has here been coupled with a cruelty devoid of the leavening influence of a sharp wit and cunning mind. He has just enough wit to serve the father’s purpose, but not enough to be a truly contributing memory of the family. Thus, there is no question that it is Frederika who is the apple of her father’s eye, and he entrusts most of his important affairs to her.

In recent year, Childerick has largely stayed out of the inner circle of Imperial politics, preferring to hole up in his vast estates. He has been aided in this effort by his chief ally and assistant, Count Pepin. Because Childerick is his liege-lord, Pepin has always accepted his subordinate position, and it is his subservience that has allowed him to survive the service of one of the most capricious nobleman in the Imperium. Despite his divorcement from the affairs of the Imperator, Childerick has still managed to quietly suborn many nobles and Prefects to his cause, and it is well-known that the Deacons of his own duchy support his cause and have even taken to deferring to his wishes in all matters.

At the start of The Heretic’s War, he has once again moved back to his palace in Aionis, for he senses that there is a great deal of unrest in the Imperium of which he can take advantage. His ultimate hope is to unseat his cousin and rival Talinissia and claim the throne for his own. Beside him, Pepin encourages him in these machinations, for the wily count sees in his liege an opportunity to both further his own political ambitions and, just as if not more importantly, fortify his alliance with Holy Church. Between the two of them, they pose the gravest threat to Talinissia’s throne since her brother sought to overthrow her.

It remains to be seen what new alliances will be brokered between the Duke, the Count, and the many starving nobles and clerics all seeking advancement in the Imperium.

World Building: “The Song of Princes” and the Fall of Old Korray

The following is an extract from Alexias Korenas’ A History of the Korrayin People, Their Customs, and Legends. Compiled roughly 200 years ago, it remains the definitive work on the Korrayin people.

Among the Korrayin, there is no tale more sacred nor terrifying than the Fall of Old Korray. It is related in full in an epic text known as the Song of Princes, and while no complete copy has survived to be investigated by either Imperial or Haransharin authorities (that we know of), enough pieces have been recovered that we can relate the events that took place in at least some detail.

It is said that Old Korray was a land such as had never been seen since the dawn of the world. Larger by far than the distant Middle Kingdom, more lush and verdant than the continent upon which the Anukathi dwell, and far more civilized than any culture in Aridikh, Old Korray was the envy of the world. Indeed, dignitaries from the world’s powers came to the court of their High King–the Melkh, as they called him–to offer their alliances, their daughters, and their riches. Old Korray was, then, the center of the world, the axis around which the other great powers of the world revolved.

The first sign that all was not well began, the Song asserts, when the 29th king of the Uzurite House, Shavid, died in a tragic accident, leaving his numerous sons to squabble over the inheritance. Four of them quickly rose to the top: Kilab, Ethream, Elishua, and Avnon. They at first attempted to divide the kingdom among them, but it was inevitable that they should start to feud among themselves, each seeking to reclaim all of the patrimony for himself. Soon all of Old Korray was torn apart by war.

That war was arguably the most terrible event the world had seen, not to be rivaled until the civil war that brought down the reign of the Old Ones here on Aridikh. There were many great and terrible deeds committed by all sides during those dreadful years, but the end result was that Old Korray was soon an irreparably fragmented kingdom. No House, no matter how small, was able to avoid being pulled into the orbit of one of the Princes. Nor, for that matter, was the royal family, whose ranks were decimated as assassinations and battles flourished.

In the seventh year of the conflict, so the chronicle tells us, the Darkness fell. Perhaps, had the Korrayin not been involved in a feckless war with one another, they might have been able to resist the tide that swept them away, but as it was it took each army one by one. Finally, pushed to the sea, the four brothers–the last of their House–decided to set aside their feuding for the good of their people (a bit too little, too late, it must be said). They commandeered the great ships at the harbour city of Kivala and set sail with their followers. It is hard to say now how many perished as the Darkness overtook Korray, but it is clear from the Song that far more were left behind than were able to be taken in the ships. Truly, it was a dark day, and it haunts the Korrayin to this day.

Some speculate that it was an invading army from either the Middle Kingdom or the Old Ones of Aridikh that were responsible for the collapse of that mighty kingdom and the flight of the Korrayin. It is possible that such a strong attack might have been transformed by the myths and legends of a people into an abstract concept. However, it would have taken a truly mighty army to overcome the Korrayin, even divided as they were.

In my own professional opinion as a trained historian, it is far more likely to have been some sort of natural disaster. The lands to the west, what little we know of them, are reputed to be extraordinarily volatile, and so it seems to me likely that a great volcanic eruption is the source of the myth of the Darkness.

It is also unclear just how much time the Exiles spent on the seas, but it was probably no more than a matter of months. They soon spotted land, and when they came ashore they found a continent almost as prosperous as their own: Aridikh. They landed in the north of what is now Haranshar, very near the border of what is currently called Korray. They quickly found, however, that the mountains just to the west (what we now call the Mountains of Korray) were more hospitable for them, and they began their colonization efforts there. Some few, however, did move southward into the desert regions of Haranshar, where they remain to day.

Thus, as uncertain as many of the facts are surrounding the fall of Old Korray, it is certain that the incursion of the Korrayin onto Aridikh triggered the titanic series of conflicts that brought about the demise of the Old Ones. They landed in their great boat -and immediately set about marrying and conquering the various kings and queens of the Old Ones. Some of these had already established contacts with the Korrayin in their own country, and so the solidification of such alliances was only natural. Of course, by the time of the landing, the first cracks in the Hegemony of the Old Ones had already begun to show, so it was to be expected that a sudden influx of new peoples would exacerbate existing conflicts. And so it proved. Within a generation the Old Ones were mostly gone, and it would not be until the rise of Karyush the Great that the continent of Aridikh would once more find unity.

Since the subsequent history of the Korrayin is recounted elsewhere, I shall end by noting that the priests of Korray, regardless of what faith they follow, continue to hold the Song out as a warning and a promise. An entire body of prophecy has also sprung up, proclaiming that one day a Meschach, a saviour, will arise to unite them and lead them to conquer the continent of Aridikh, restoring them to the greatness that was once theirs.

Such things are, of course, laughable, considering how divided the Korrayin remain and how few of them there are compared to either the Imperials to the west or the Haransharin to their east. Still, one cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to those myths.

But since such things are better left to the Alchemists and their stargazing, I shall end this part of my chronicle here.

World Building (17): On Tysfan

The mightiest city in the world, home to almost a million souls, the great Tysfan has been the capital of Haranshar for almost three centuries. It is accounted one of the most beautiful and graceful cities in the world, a true marvel. The airs there are sweet and fresh, the gardens as verdant as anyone could wish, and the streets are marvelously clean. It is thus a fitting capital for the greatest superpower on the continent.

It was founded by the powerful Shah Kavastar, who wished, after a century of almost constant strife and the rise of over a dozen different shahs, to restore stability to a nation that seemed on the brink of collapse. While the site he chose was not in the center of the vast domains that he ruled–something that caused his advisers to fret–it was nevertheless a symbolic gesture. By situating Tysfan in the rough middle region of the continent of Aridikh as a whole, he hoped to send the message that he was determined to bring the rebellious lands of the Imperium under the control of Haranshar once more.

Though he did not succeed, his imperial patronage ensured that the city grew quickly, and within the first twenty years of its existence it had utterly overtaken any of the other cities in Haranshar. And, though those in the Imperium would be loathe to say it, it has also become recognized in the West as the chief seat of learning, one of the few places where a substantial number of texts from the period after the dominance of the Old Ones can be found.

The city is formed roughly of a grid, given that the Shah had been inspired by the very regular and orderly cities he had heard described by a certain adventurer who had made his way to the island of the Anukathi. It is also well-drained, and has led the way in ensuring that all buildings in the city possess indoor plumbing. As a result, disease is relatively uncommon, except in the poorer districts, and even the poorest of the city are guaranteed a daily dole of bread, and there are other measures in the city that keep them peaceful (for the most part).

There are three architectural wonders that set the city apart from others in Haranshar (and indeed from any other cities in the continent). One is, of course, the great palace of the Shah, which rears above the flat city. With its soaring arches, its walls studded with jewels, and its great dome, it is truly a wonder of the world. No other noble family is allowed to have a palace that outshines that of the Shah, and if any leader attempts to do so, they are instantly sentenced to death and a tenth of their total wealth is appropriated by the crown (in addition to the offending building).

The Great Fire Temple of Ormazdh is one of the city’s other architectural wonders. Those who visit it report being overcome with the power of the spirit that is present there, as if the great god himself had stepped into the midst of lived reality. Though it is not the holiest site for the faith–that honour belongs to another fire temple in the north–it is nevertheless the bureaucratic center of the vast Ormazdh priesthood and the seat of its foremost rulers.

The third major location in the city of the Great Library. It is here that the most ancient wisdom from ages past is stored. No location in the Imperium, even in the vaunted Peninsula, can compare to its holdings. There are books here that have been forgotten almost everywhere else in the world, including a few precious pages that date from the time of the Old Ones themselves (though, so far, they remain largely untranslated). Even sages from the Imperium are known to travel to partake in the great holdings of the Library.

The city serves as the ceremonial, political, and religious center of the entire empire, and it is the responsibility of the various great families in the realms to send representatives at least once a year.

Tysfan is notable for two other features. The first is a prominent community of Yeshurites, who are a mixture of Korrayin and others who have converted to the faith. This group is responsible for the collection of the great books of that faith, and this community of elders is acknowledged as the spiritually superior to anything in Korray (though that is hotly disputed by some). The other is a community of those who call themselves the Church of the East but are roundly and heatedly condemned by those in the West as nothing more than the worst sorts of heretics. They are seen by many in Haranshar as a potential source of unrest, as well as a potential weapon against those in the West.

This city will prove crucial in the great battles to come.