Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

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.

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Character Sketch: Talinissia

To understand Talinissia, it is important to understand her complicated family history. Her father Kleophanes IV was a tremendously successful Imperator, bringing order and stability to a realm that had been faced with a number of internal and external challenges during the reign of the previous Imperators. The Imperium had suffered a number of military setbacks against the Korrayin, and under the reign of Ioannes had seen the final one of the border forts abandoned. Meanwhile, the kings of the northern realms grew dangerously close to seceding from the Imperium altogether.

As a result of his history of shrewd diplomacy and effective war-making, it came as a surprise (and an unpleasant one) to many when Kleophanes proposed to marry the daughter of the Kidakaia of Eshkum, a rebellious kingdom in the southeast of Haranshar. The move was a shrewd one on his part, as it sowed the seeds of discord in the Imperium.

As a result of her mother’s ancestry, Talinissia has been known behind her back as Talinissia the Black, a sly dig on the part of the nobles of the Imperium to distance themselves from her rule. Indeed, her skin color sets her apart from many in her realms, and while her father never treated her differently, she couldn’t help but be aware of her difference from the majority of her subjects.

Kleophanes and his wife had 15 happy years, but she was stricken down by an outbreak of the plague that occurred. Kleophanes, seeing the need for another heir, took as his wife Gertrude of the duchy of Dūrken, who gave birth to his son, Gaius. Gertrude, as a member of the ducal house, also had Imperial Blood, and so there were many who saw in Gaius a purer heir than Talinissia.

Indeed, it was the restive nature of her nobility that allowed her younger brother Gaius to begin plotting against her. When she called for a full meeting of the Senate to officially grant her the offices and styles that were, according to tradition, her due as the heir to her father, there was no small amount of discontent and even a few nobles who outright refused to do so. This gave her brother the excuse he needed, and he led a revolt that soon involved both many tribes of the Korrayin but also Haranshar itself.

The war was a relatively short one as such things go, but it was bloody for all of that. Once the revolt collapsed and Gaius was taken into custody, Talinissia was forced to execute her brother. She was then granted the honors and titles she had been denied. Despite her victory, memories of that rebellion continue to haunt her even now, a decade after her brother’s death. She is regularly visited by visions of him, both alive and dead. And she struggles to fill the shoes of her larger-than-life father, as well as Dominika, the formidable Imperator of the past, known as The Deathless by subsequent historians.

Talinissia has formed a number of important alliances, but her most important and influential adviser is the Prefect Eulicia. The two share many characteristics, and each of them sees in the other an avenue to power. For Talinissia, the Prefect is one of the few people in the entire Imperium whom she can trust. In all of the ornate ritual that governs the court–the eunuchs, the ladies-in-waiting–Talinissia often feels as if she is losing part of herself, but Eulicia is always there.

However, there are others who are circling the throne, waiting for her to show the slightest sign of weakness. The people are still restive, especially since the freedoms they had earned as a result of the Plague have begun to be chipped away. Furthermore, many of the Great Houses are angling to take the throne for themselves, chief among them Duke Childerick, who still feels the bite of being passed over after the death of Gaius. Subsequent events will show that he is willing to do anything to gain the throne he believes is his.

However, Talinissia has also begun to be tormented by visions of a bleak future, one in which the armies of Haranshar once again bring all that they have against the Imperium. As the events of the novel will show, she does not want to go to war with the vast empire to the east, but she does want to make sure that the Imperium remains safe. She takes her duty as the Imperator very seriously, and she will do whatever it takes to make sure that it does not fall.

No matter what it takes.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 7)

It was on her second day out from the city that she encountered her first obstacle. She had thought that her natural sense of direction would lead her where she needed to go, but she had not anticipated the many twists and turns the road would take, and she certainly had not expected the rockfall that suddenly blocked their way forward.

Frowning, she wondered if perhaps she would be able to scale it, but decided almost at once that to do so would be the height of folly. Aside from the fact that she had not climbed anything since she was a girl stealing apples from her neighbor’s orchard, she also had the babe to think of. While he might be as calm as she could wish, he was still a weight that would drag her down to her death if she dared to try.

Just as she had decided that she had no choice but to scale or turn back, a shadow passed over the sun, and as she looked up she felt her heart skip a beat.

She knew all too well what the creature was that was above her, with that lion body and the wings of an eagle, and the eerily beautiful face. It was a sphinx.

Slowly and languidly it circled, as if it knew that she would not be able to escape but enjoyed toying with her.

She whimpered deep in her throat as the creature slowly approached, until it landed a few paces from her. For a moment it stood, but then it folded its legs until it lounged insolently, its eerily beautiful face holding her in its inscrutable gaze. She felt as if she were at the mercy of some great force, something so far beyond human understanding as to be terrifying.

“I seek passage beyond.” It was, she knew the customary thing to say to guardians of this sort. Besides, perhaps if she was lucky the creature would give her the means of getting across the rockfall.

“I can see that,” the spinx said, a trifle irritably. “Do you think that I am blind?” It narrowed its eyes. “Mortals are fools that will believe anything, ‘tis said. You may pass. But only when you have made me an offer that I accept.”

“Why should I offer you anything?” she demanded, her fear making her angry. “What right do you have to demand?”

The creature chuckled. “Because this is my domain. Did you think this fall happened on its own?” It laughed, an eerily beautiful sound. “

Siska knew that she had nothing to offer, so she said the only thing she thought might sway the heart of this creature.

“I carry a babe in arms. The laws of old say that I may pass.” It was well-known that the creatures of the hinterlands adhered to a set of laws that could not be transgressed, and that one of them was that a child should not be harmed.

Or so she had been told.

The creature laughed deep in its throat, its bronze eyes sparkling with vicious mirth. “Oh, little human woman, don’t try to use the old laws against me. The law only states that I cannot harm the child. It says nothing about you, and it certainly doesn’t say that I have to let you pass.

“You will have to do better than that, little mortal. I ask you again: what will you give me that will let you pass?”

For a paralyzing moment, Siska could think of nothing, and despair washed over her.

Then, in one of those moments of pure inspiration, it came to her.

She stepped forward, and made her offer.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 5)

Standing in the street just outside the palace, Siska looked to the heavens. She could already hear Xaryasha’s guards, the rattle of armor and saber that would certainly mean her death if they found her. She knew that she would be hunted and hounded through the streets, and that she would never know peace. The legacy that she had cultivated for so long would be thrown onto the ashheap, and there was nothing that she could do about it.

Even her daughter, she knew, would never be able to live down the shame of this incident. She had ruined everything for both herself and her descendants.

But still, she had done the right thing. She could not stand by and allow a child of the imperial family be slain, no matter what the Dashturi had told her. He might have an intimate connection with the great god Ormazdh—she supposed that anyone who had attained his rank must have that—but that did not mean that he was the final arbiter of what was right and wrong.

She shivered at that heretical thought.

Much as she was disturbed at the thought that she had given up some fundamental part of herself by daring to challenge the man who was second to the Shah in the Most Blessed Empire of Haranshar, she had to escape.

Pulling the hood of her cloak up over her head, she made her way through the streets of her beloved city. It was fortunate for her that, as a city that had only gradually sprung up, it was as full of twists and turns as a rabbit’s warren. As she made her way to the western wall—which she knew was the least defended—she offered a prayer of thanks to Ormazdh that her younger brother had dragged her out into the streets so many times when they were children.

Finally, she came in sight of the great wall that reared over the steepest side of the great mount upon which the city of Pasgardakh was perched. While the other three walls had their own gates—each named after the creatures that had been slain by the city’s founder: the sphinx, the manticore, and the dragon—this one had only a small gate that was only lightly guarded. Siska knew that her only hope was that it continued to be so, for otherwise she knew she would be trapped in the city. She would be crushed between the invading forces of the prince and the vengeful Dashturi.

She strained her eyes, and she saw that indeed there were only two guards on duty. She fought down the feeling of disappointment. Deep down, she had hoped that the explosions that had rocked the palace would have drawn them away, but clearly they had been given their orders.

Just as she was steeling herself to move forward, the night in front of her exploded into a brightness more piercing than the noonday sun. A rush of heat and sound blasted her, and she thought for sure that she was going to die in that moment of incandescent beauty.

Ormazdh must have been looking down upon her, however, for when the light faded—leaving her vision spotty and her ears full of a dull ringing—she saw that what had been a solid section of wall with a gate was now a pile of rubble. She did not know what had happened, and she did not dare to question. Seeing that there were no invaders swarming into the city yet, she bolted toward the gap.

Already there were cries from all the other parts of the city. She did not have time.

When she reached the gap, she saw that indeed there was a steep drop to the plain far below. The only way down was a steep path that even goats would find hard to traverse.

Sighing deeply and taking one last wistful look at the city that had been her home, Siska started to make her way down.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”–Part 3

The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.

Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.

He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.

Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?

He narrowed his eyes and waited.

***

            Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?

Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?

She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.

At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.

It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.

“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”

When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.

“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”

She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”

Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.

She made up her mind.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Shadow Rising” (Book 4)

I have now finished The Shadow Rising, the fourth book of The Wheel of Time. This is the book where the real intricacies of the plot begin to take shape. Unlike the first 3 books, which are rather short (by epic fantasy standards), Shadow really expands the scope far beyond what we’ve seen before. One really does wonder if Jordan, having established that he could tell a good story and sell lots of books with the first three, was finally given the leave that he needed to really go to town on his plots. I, for one, am not complaining, since it is precisely the vast scope of his work that makes it such a pleasure.

However, I will say that the seeds of what goes on in the rest of the story, both good and bad, are quite thoroughly sown in this book. The many plots, counterplots, and counter-counterplots that will occur throughout the rest of the books can be squarely traced back to Shadow, and it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened had he chosen to keep a few of those threads snipped out rather than allowing them to grow an become ever more convoluted as the series continues.

That being said, it does contain some genuinely powerful moments, such as when Perrin goes home to Emond’s Field to find that the cruel Padan Fain, having manipulated the Whitecloacks, has had his family killed. Perrin’s breakdown in Faile’s arms is one of those rare moments when genuine emotion bubbles up in this series, and it’s hard not to weep. But it’s also uniquely satisfying to watch Perrin grow into his position as ruler of the Two Rivers, leading his people to a successful repulsion of the enormous army of Shadowspawn that have invaded his homeland.

In many ways, the most shocking thing about this novel is the deposing of Siuan and the election of the implacable Elaida as her successor as Amyrlin Seat. Up until this point, Elaida has mostly flown under the radar. She was there at the very beginning, when Rand made his appearance in Caemlyn, but she hadn’t really done anything of note until she decided that she needed to be the one to render the Dragon Reborn the tool of the Tower in its preparations for the Last Battle. But of course, any canny reader knows that a Red is in no position to do anything at all useful as far as the Dragon Reborn is concerned.

There is also the disturbing sequence in which Rand, having made his way to the Aiel city of Rhuidean, confronts the reality of  that people’s true history. Contrary to what they have always believed, they were not always a people devoted to war and death, but were instead serva […] We even get a glimpse of the very day when a misguided Aes Sedai–possibly Lanfear herself–drills a hole in the Dark One’s prison and unleashes the force that will come to have such a devastating effect on the entire world.

Much as I love many things about The Wheel of Time, the endings of most of the books always seem a little rushed to me (which is ironic, considering the vast scale of the story as a whole). Such is the case here, where it is quickly revealed that a seemingly innocuous and unimportant character is actually the Forsaken Asmodean, who is then forced by Lanfear to serve as a tutor to Rand so that he will at last learn how to use his powers to their full extent. This all happens very quickly, and one does wish that there was a bit more action spread more evenly throughout the book (at least as far as the Rand storyline is concerned). Still, the conflict between Rand and the Forsaken is one of the most momentous events to happen in the series so far, and it brings to an end the period when Rhuidan was separated from the rest of the world.

So, The Shadow Rising is where shit really starts to get real, and I’ve already finished The Fires of Heaven. If I keep on at this rate, I might just finish these books by early 2018. We shall see if I can meet that ambitious goal.

Reading Tad Williams: “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” (Book 1 of Bobby Dollar)

Having made my way through some of Tad Willims’s heavier work, I turned to his lighter fare, in the form of the Bobby Dollar novels. I started at the beginning, The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Once again (as always) Williams shows that he has the uncanny ability excel in whatever genre he chooses to write.

If I were to summarize this novel, it would be to say that it is basically a cross between film noir and Paradise Lost. The entire story is told from the first-person viewpoint of the angel Doloriel, who goes by the name Bobby Dollar in his earthly guise. In the angelic hierarchy he is what is known as an advocate, an angel who spars with the demons of Hell over the spirits of the dead, and the outcome of their legal battle determines whether the spirit goes to Heaven or Hell. When the spirit of one of the departed isn’t where he is supposed to be, it sets off Bobby’s exploration of a conspiracy that goes far deeper than he had ever thought possible. In the process, he meets a lovely she-demon from Hell, who gives new meaning to the phrase femme fatale. Despite his best efforts–and despite what we are led to want–he is never quite able to bring his relationship to meaningful fruition. Her master/lover Eligor has simply too much power for her to break free, and it remains unclear at the end of the novel whether the asshole angel and the doomed demon will ever find their happily-ever-after.

Though he is very good at what he does, Bobby is a bit of a smartass, the type who is willing to buck authority when he thinks it’s the right thing to do. This leads him further and further astray from his official duties as an advocate, and through him we meet quite the variety of characters, including ghosts, other angel advocates, and a terrible demon that is seemingly determined to destroy our own beloved advocate. Through it all, though, he keeps up his steady stream of commentary about the bullshit that he has to endure, both at the hands of the demons of Hell (who are even more powerful than our worst fears had imagined) and at the hands of those in Heaven who may have it out for him as much as they do for their enemies.

Beneath the bitter, jaded viewpoint of Bobby, however, the novel does wrestle with some of the fundamental questions that always plague those who subscribe to religion. How is it possible that God, all-seeing, all-knowing, and benevolent, is willing to send his own creations to suffer an eternity of punishment in Hell? Is it possible to do awful things and yet still be a fundamentally good person? Is anyone, even one of the demons that have made Hell their home, truly beyond redemption? Heady stuff for an urban fantasy, huh?

Bobby, like all good noir antiheroes, has a great many character flaws, but the brilliance of the novel is that we learn to like him anyway. His seemingly-doomed love for the Countess of Cold Hands–the mistress of one of Hell’s most prominent lords–is oddly touching. Their emotional connection seems to provide both of them something that they lack in their respective roles, and it makes one wonder whether there can truly be anything in common between an angel who serves The Highest and one who serves the Adversary.

What’s more, we learn that Bobby does genuinely cares about the people around him, particularly Sam, one of his fellow advocates. As we learn more about the two of them, it’s hard not to feel Bobby’s sense of betrayal–deep and abiding–when he realizes that Sam has far more secrets than he is willing to let on, even to the person who is supposed to be his best friend.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dirty Streets of Heaven. It’s a quick read, but that’s a product of both the brisk pacing and the snappy dialogue. Somehow, Williams managed to bring together a complex skein of political allegiances with a tautly-woven narrative that never lets up.

My review of the book’s sequel, Happy Hour in Hell, should be along shortly. Stay tuned!

World Building (11): The Old Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, things began to go horribly wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter words, indeed.