Tag Archives: Fantasy

Book Review: “The Last Tsar’s Dragons” (by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple)

Note: I would like to thank NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

I have to say that the title is what drew me to this strange but enjoyable little novella. How on earth, I thought, can one make dragons relevant to the Russian Revolution?

Somehow, mother and son team Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple weave together myth and history into a compelling tale of the last days of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, their relentless hatred of both the Jews and the peasants, and their eventual fall from power.

Several notable historical figures appear in the story, including the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, the tsarina Alexandra, the man who would later become Leon Trotsky, and a nameless functionary whose narration bookends the story as a whole.

Of these, arguably the most compelling–and repelling–character is certainly the nameless functionary whose point of view bookends the novella. He is ruthless, vicious, and utterly willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that he advances up the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy, even if that means betraying his own wife (or engage in the murder of Rasputin). He is the only character whose narration is in first person, and this provides us an uncomfortably intimate glimpse into a psyche that is fundamentally twisted and ruthless.

Though the novella is largely driven by such characters, the authors also have a gift for capturing a fascinating mix of the fantastic and the historical. One gets a sense of the political and social ferment affecting Russia on the eve of the Revolution, as various parties struggle to cope with a country–and a world–that seems to teeter on the brink of absolute collapse. Furthermore, they also manage to bring into the open the toxic antisemitism that was such a prominent part of Russia at the time (and since).

All in all, I found The Last Tsar’s Dragons to be an intriguing tale, and it was rather refreshing to see a story told successfully in the form of the novella. At the same time, however, I for one am left hungering for more, precisely because the central conceit begs so many questions. Where did the dragons come from? Were there other places that used them other than Russia? If not, why not?

Perhaps the authors will one day pursue these questions, but in the meantime, we can savour what they have provided us, a glimpse into how the real world of history might have been impacted had the mythical played a larger part in it.

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Novel Thoughts: The Savage Joys of Cutting

Since I’ve been struggling a bit with revision today, I figured I’d take a break and write about writing about writing a bit, particularly about cutting.

Unfortunately, I’ve always been one of those people who writes with a mind to length. My daily writing goals are typically focused on achieving a certain amount of words, and I still can’t quite take to hear the idea that concision is more effective than bloat. I’m getting there, but boy is it hard to shake the mind patterns of a lifetime.

So, unsurprisingly, when I compiled all of the separate chapters of my manuscript, I found out that it clocked in at a staggering 280k words. Even for an epic that’s a bit preposterous. In fact, I was convinced that something had gone wrong with Word’s counting mechanism. Nope. I’m just that wordy.

Commence the cutting.

One of the greatest joys of this round of revision has been the excision of superfluous words, phrases, paragraphs, even entire chapters. While the rewriting of entire chapters–and, in one case, an entire story arc–can be somewhat exhausting and dispiriting, cutting brings with it a savage sort of pleasure. I guess you could say that it’s a form of creative destruction, demolishing that which isn’t working so that something more beautiful and effective can emerge. When you absolutely have to cut things, you begin to realize, and sometimes re-evaluate, which parts of your narrative and which parts are a needless distraction.

I tend to be wordy, piling clause upon clause and rumination upon rumination, until I can imagine my reader shouting: Get to the point! So that part of the revision process has been a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated. It’s hard to describe, really, except to say that there’s something liberating about cutting away the dross and fluff to reveal the lean, muscular prose beneath.

This isn’t to say that complex syntax isn’t sometimes a good thing, but instead to say that I’ve learned that excess verbiage isn’t just confusing, it’s boring. It’s actually been very helpful to read through the entire manuscript as if I were a lay reader, trying to identify those places where the prose sagged, or where the plot began to meander in useless directions. Let me tell you, that has really opened my eyes to some serious bloat that I wasn’t even aware of while I was in the midst of writing it. Needless to say, in subsequent weeks a lot of that has ended up on the cutting-room floor.

As i move forward with the revision process (which is going quite well, thank you), I have to constantly remind myself of the value of being concise. Even now, when I’m drafting a new chapter or scene, I find myself slipping back into those troubling habits. The difference now is that I identify those tendencies a lot faster, so at least they’re not making it into the revised chapters.

There’s still a long load of revision ahead, but I’m increasingly confident that, with metaphorical scalpel in hand, I can whip this beast into shape.

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!

What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!

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.

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.

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 (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.

World Building (16): The Xhusts of Haranshar

Haranshar is a vast realm. In terms of size, it’s roughly the size of Asia, though perhaps slightly smaller. As a result, it encompasses a wide range of cultures, religions, and peoples, though they all obey theoretical allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith.

The administrative heart of this mighty empire is the xhust of Hamarkahn, which takes up most of the western part of Haranshar. It is here, on the banks of the River Fagrish, that the great city of the shahs has grown up, splendid Tysphan (sometimes spelled Tysfan or Tysvan by those in the west). It was founded by the mighty Shah Kavastar, roughly 300 years before the time of the novel. It is without question the largest city on the continent of Aridikh, and it is also the most cosmopolitan. Almost all of the great religions of the world can be found there, as well as libraries, gardens, hospitals, and academies.

This xhust is also the location of Kheldylon, one of the jewels of the entire land of Haranshar, fabled for its magnificent gardens (the origins of which are said to lie in the reign of the Old Ones). To the north of this province is located Karshasp, one of the great fire temples of the Ormazdhites.

To the north and east is the xhust of Shakastan. It is a tundra-like landscape, though there are also several mountain ranges, which are the haunt of some of the fiercest warriors of Haranshar. There are relatively few major cities in the district, though Maraakh is one such. It is the home of one of the great families of the empire, who rule it as their own fief. The region is also known or its vast mineral wealth, which renders it both a very valuable commodity for Haranshar, as well as a possible source of trouble should any of their rulers decide to rebel. It is also, paradoxically, the site where it is believed that the great prophet Varagh received the illuminating word of Ormazdh.

The southern reaches comprise Pishapur, the highlands that are the traditional home of the reigning Haransharin. It is here that centuries ago, this seemingly disunited and fractious people united under their leader Xharyush and swept both east and west to conquer all before them. Within less than a decade, the entire continent would recognize his suzerainty. As a result, this province has frequently been paid more attention by the Shahs, and they have founded several major cities here.

The far eastern xhust is the wildest part of Haranshar, as well as the part that has least seen the power of the Shah. Only one of the Nine Great Clans hails from this region, and even their writ is restricted to the western edges of the district. The rest is a vast grassland inhabited by feuding tribes and chieftains. Though they supposedly have sworn allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith, the reality is very different, as most of them follow their own chieftains and worship their own gods. They are notoriously bloodthirsty and willing to attack any who come to their territory.

A vast mountain range separates the steppes and the desert from the relatively rich coastlands that are inhabited by a very strange people. No one knows much about them, and they have only rarely sent ambassadors or representatives to the court of the Shah. It is known, however, that they guard, fiercely, a treasure, though it is not known what it is.

Technically, the kingdom of Ashkum is administered as part of this far eastern xhust, but the reality is that the rule of the Haransharin there is quite tenuous. In fact, it was only within the last fifty years that they were forced to officially swear obeisance. Even now, their powerful ruler the Kidakaia foments rebellion, aiming to bring her people out from under the yoke of bondage and into a new era.

At the time that the novels are set, the Nine Great Families of Haranshar–not all of whom are pure Haransharin–have begun to foment rebellion and anger in the xhusts. The generals are restless, and the people are yearning for something more. It just might be that a young renegade cleric from the Imperium will be the spark to the tinder.

World Building (14): On Aspaña

The dukedom of Aspaña is known as one of the primary agricultural regions of the Imperium. A variety of grains are grown here, including wheat, barley, and rye, as well as more exotic products such as oranges, lemons, and peaches. The pomegranate is the official sigil of the current House, Trasteceré. There are also a number of gold mines located in the eastern regions (along the mountains known as the Pireña) as well as several veins of precious iron ore. The steel produced in this region is acknowledged as some of the finest in the Imperium (and indeed on the continent of Aridikh itself). The duchy is also renowned for its horse-flesh, and the stables of the various noble families are filled with thousands of steeds. The Dukes are thus some of the wealthiest landowners and most powerful of the Great Houses.

The current Duke is one Ferdinand IV who, through his marriage to his third cousin Leonara, managed to bring together two rival claims for the dukedom. As a result, they also brought stability to a very disturbed part of the Imperium. There were some whispers of the consequences of this union, especially since there was significant unrest among both of their adherents, as well as among the Yishurim, a prominent minority and frequently subject to exploitation and abuse from the powerful True Faith majority.

The two nobles have become quite renowned for their devotion to the True Faith, and the churches and universities in their domains have become the envy of the rest of the Imperium. Outside of Aïonis and the cities on the Peninsula, no one has a better collection of the foundational texts of the Imperium than Aspaña. There are even some texts in the great Library at Tholeto that can be found nowhere else.

In addition to Tholeto (the capital), there are seven other cities that form the primary administrative districts of the duchy. They are: Nadrith, Falona, Bhaleshia, Avietha, Sagrosa, Gorvotha, and Zeville. They are ruled by both secular and spiritual authorities. There are a total of three Archdeacons in the duchy (archdeacon being a step down from the Prefects, who are the ultimate authority in the Church).

The history of Aspaña reaches back into the darkest days before the founding of the Imperium. After the destructive war of the Old Ones that brought the entire continent to a nadir, there were many wandering tribes that struggled to make some semblance of order out of the chaos and death. The Valariks were the tribe that eventually carved out a state that roughly corresponds to the present Aspaña.

Once the Imperium was founded, Nestoria, the third daughter of the first two Imperators, went westward and married into one of the chief families among the Valariks. From that union was born the current ducal house, along with its numerous subsidiaries and cadet branches.

It is important to note that, periodically, heresies will bubble up in this most devout of duchies. Indeed, some of the most pernicious of heretical movements have found a home here, due in no small part to the historic tendency of the Valarik people to subscribe to the Iorian Heresy, which proclaimed that the Name was solely female rather than a duality.

There have also been a number of damaging feuds within the ducal family, which has led to several pronounced periods of unrest. The duchy also has contentious relationships with its neighbours, and its meddling in the affairs of Busquel has been particularly resented. Ferdinand and Leonara have also begun positioning their eldest daughter to marry the son of the current duke of Porçal.

Recent events have suggested that the two nobles might be angling for a more prominent part in the rule of the Imperium. While they have long been devout and devoted supporters of Talinissia, they have always had a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing, and like all of the ducal families of the Imperium they have a longstanding yearning for the throne. They are one of the few of the Great Houses that has not yet been able to seize it.

In fact, there are even some rumours that the Duke and Duchess have established contacts with certain Prefects of the Church, particularly a young man who hails from the district outside of Tholeto. It remains to be seen what fruits will come of this dynastic wrangling.