Category Archives: Alandar

Stories and documents pertaining to the fantasy world I have created.

Magic Systems: The Rules About the Rules

One of the central hallmarks of any fantasy series is how the author sets up the magic system. This includes a lot of things, obviously. You need to know how common magic is, how easy is it to access, how powerful it is, who has it, how is it used, and so on. All of those topics there are probably blog posts waiting to happen, but today I want to focus on one thing: how magic is supposed to work.

The common misconception about fantasy (and scifi, for that matter, which occasionally strays into the use of ‘magic,’ as well, though in different guises) is that you can “do whatever you want.” You want flying dragon balloons that spit orangutans? Done! You want it to rain fire every Tuesday afternoon? Go for it! You want people to have nipples on their back while being able to spit acid from their nostrils? That’s a-ok! The thing is, though, that there’s more to it that simply that.

Of course you can do any of those things, but you can’t just do them for the hell of it and expect it to work. You need to build the underlying rationale for these things so that we, the audience, accept them as plausible or at least believable. This goes for any aspect of a fantasy setting, but it applies to the magic system in particular. It is especially true when the magic system plays a crucial part in the lives of the characters. So, for instance, Jim Butcher’s magic system for the Dresden Files (which is probably the best one I know of, by the way) is painstakingly laid out because his main character (and only POV character) is an actual wizard. George RR Martin, on the other hand, has magic only existing on the fringes of his world and only barely hinted at, so at present it is rather vague and mysterious (which suits his setting just fine). That said, I am fairly certain GRRM has a pretty solid grasp of how sorcery works in his world – his world-building is deep and robust in every direction – so even in his case, what I’m about to say probably holds true.

In order for magic to make sense and work in your fantasy setting, it needs rules. Magic that can do anything at any time is problematic for a number of plot and conflict reasons, not the least of them being the constant and obvious temptation to allow your characters to escape any danger with the wave of a wand. That’s too easy and too easy is boring. It becomes “why don’t the eagles just fly Sam and Frodo to Mordor” over and over again.

So, rules.

Be honest: you read this book and walked around the house saying "Accio TV Remote!" and "Accio Popcorn!" for days, didn't you?

Be honest: you read this book and walked around the house saying “Accio TV Remote!” and “Accio Popcorn!” for days, didn’t you?

Good rules are clear enough to lay out the potential and guidelines of the powers available to those gifted with them. They should be set up to be exciting and also potentially dangerous. A good magic system, like a good superpower, is something that your readers might actively think would be fun and cool and interesting. Everybody wants to have the Force; everybody would love to have access to the Bene Gesserit’s Voice. Furthermore, a good magic system needs to be understandable enough to allow that kind of fantasizing to take place. We love the fact that Harry Potter can wave his wand and say “Accio Broom!” and his broom will shoot out from wherever it is and arrive in his hand. We love it in part because the power seems fun and interesting, but also because it seems understandable and logical: “If I, too, were a wizard and I, too, had a magic wand then I, too, would be able to reach my coffee without having to get up.”

There is, however, a balance to be struck. A system can be too vague, obviously, and this is problematic in the sense that the magic system soon becomes ignored or unimportant. Naturally, if this is your intention (e.g. Tolkien), then that’s all well and good. Nobody, though, goes walking around trying to imitate the magic of the Elves. It isn’t super clear that they have magic or, if they do, how it works. Like, in the movies did Arwen summon those white-water horses? What the hell did Elrond do to heal Frodo? If Gandalf can make flaming projectiles out of pine cones, why doesn’t he keep a bunch of pine cones in his backpack? No, magic, in the case of Tolkien anyway (and those like him), isn’t so much a system as it is a basic dramatic effect. It lacks detail and, therefore, while it gains mystery, it also loses a sense of concrete fascination for the audience. If that’s your intention, as I said, this is fine (there’s a lot of good low-magic fantasy out there), but if your intent is to create a world where the practice of magic is central to the plot somehow, you’re going to need detail.

Ah ha! The way to infiltrate the Black Gate is to hit up up, down down, left right, left right, B A, B A Start!

Ah ha! The way to infiltrate the Black Gate is to hit up up, down down, left right, left right, B A, B A Start!

Conversely (and perhaps paradoxically), magic systems can become too detailed and too concrete. You need rules, yes, but the rules (in my opinion) should remain sufficiently complex to prevent the audience from completely grasping them. Magic, in other words, shouldn’t seem easy. A system, even an interesting system, laid out with too much specificity starts to feel less like an eldritch code by which to manipulate the universe and more like a series of button-patterns to hit in a video game.

For my own part, in Alandar I’ve created a complex system laid out as the complex interactions of five naturally occurring energies of creation. They interact in a kind of pseudoscientific fashion and can (and have) been harnessed to create all manner of complex “technologies” based upon them. The system I hope is deep and interesting, and being a mage in this world should seem cool. In end, though, it should seem like the kind of thing you’d need to study years to master and the depths of which have yet to be fathomed by the reader and by the characters alike.

 

 

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Dreaming Up Fabulous Places: My Writing Journey

Picture me: I’m nine years old, lying on my back beneath the skylight in my bedroom, rough carpet biting into my shoulders. I’m reading The Hobbit, enthralled. It’s summer. My mom is somewhere downstairs, yelling for me to get outside and play. I pretend I don’t hear her. I’m not there, you see. I’m in Mirkwood, starving with the dwarves and stumbling after elfish feasts in the dark. The last thing I want to do is go outside and play.

When I was a kid, I started making up imaginary places. Even before I read Tolkien, I was constructing cosmologies for my He-Man figures and establishing a chain of command among my stuffed animals. At the beach, the sand castles I built each had a story to them. They got names: Rampartiste, Gondria, Trudéal. I was the kid who wondered at the economic structure of Candy Land—did they eat it? Was the candy in the landscape distinct from the candy that made up their bodies? Did anybody ever get eaten and, if so, what was the punishment?

I was a weird kid. I know.

Fast-forward to 1991. A friend of mine is telling me about this game called Dungeons and Dragons. “Is it like a video game?” I asked, trying to wrap my head around it.

“No! You just write up your character on a sheet of paper and then somebody is the Dungeon Master.”

That piqued my interest. “What’s the Dungeon Master do?”

“He makes up the world and the monsters and stuff. Then you go and fight them.”

Makes up the world, you say? At that point, I had notebooks full of video games I wanted to create, primarily because those were the only things I knew how to script (level-boss-level-boss—a pretty simple plot). I tossed them away and started writing my own Dungeons and Dragons world. My parents gave me a copy of the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook for my 13th birthday. That book changed my life.

Me in my office. Note that the Writers of the Future Anthology is #7 on the Publisher's Weekly Bestseller's list for SF/F.

Me in my office. Note that the Writers of the Future Anthology is #7 on the Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller’s list for SF/F.

Dungeons and Dragons carried me along my obsession with building worlds until I got old enough to realize I couldn’t make a living playing D&D (at least, I don’t think so. If anybody has any hot leads, let me know). So, how did a fellow make a living creating stories and worlds? After some trial and error (tried acting, directing, and a bunch of theater stuff), I settled on writing science fiction and fantasy. Mostly fantasy.

I have always thought of myself as more of a novelist. Novels were what I grew up reading, and novels were what I wanted to write. When I got out of college, I rejected the prospect of a stable career teaching high school English and, instead, flung myself into writing novels, figuring I could make a living at it after a few years.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. No, seriously. Cut it out.

Anyway, after getting my MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston, I started to figure out that short fiction could give me the ability to hone my craft more effectively. It also could give me the opportunity to submit more work and possibly get some publishing credits that might help me towards my eventual goal of being a novelist. I put the novels on hold for a bit and threw myself into short fiction. After a few years, I got a few sales, but nothing big.    

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This is an (older) map of Alandar. I’m pointing at Illin, the location for my award-winning story. If I move my finger three inches up, I’ll be in the general vicinity of where Tyvian is causing trouble in THE OLDEST TRICK.

“A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration” was probably my tenth entry into the Writers of the Future Contest (before my win, I got one Honorable Mention, two Semifinalists, and a Finalist finish). The story is set in a world I’ve been creating for years and is far, far bigger than just the city of Illin. The challenge for me was getting the giant, sweeping landscapes of my imagination to fit into a short story. Abe’s story is part of a larger tapestry, but the story also needs to stand on its own. That took some doing. When I sent it into the contest, I was on the verge of trunking it—I didn’t think it worked. Shows what I know.

Meanwhile, the week before I found out I won the Contest, I was offered a three-book deal through Harper Voyager. The last year has been a whirlwind of writing, deadlines, and learning the publishing industry in a very hands-on, no-holds-barred kind of way. The contest win has been a vital part of what success I have had thus far, and will continue to guide me in the future.

An omnibus of my first two novels, called The Oldest Trick, releases this Tuesday, August 11th  (in e-book form). I am currently working on the fourth book in the series and, in the photo, you can see the wall of index cards in my office I used in the final stages of editing the third book. I’m off and rolling and I don’t intend to stop, and the Writers of the Future Contest has given me an edge in the business that is frankly irreplaceable. For that, I am eternally grateful.


Publicity News

In that vein, let me entreat you all to pre-order The Oldest Trick! Below is the description and links to where you might buy it, currently only in e-book form. The print version, I have been told, will be coming “a few weeks later.”

Compiled for the first time, The Oldest Trick comprises The Iron Ring and Iron and Blood in the Saga of the Redeemed

Tyvian Reldamar gets betrayed by his longtime partner and left for dead in a freezing river. To add insult to injury, his mysterious rescuer took it upon himself to affix Tyvian with an iron ring that prevents the wearer from any evildoing.

Revenge just got complicated.

On his quest to get even, Tyvian navigates dark conspiracies, dodges midnight assassins, and uncovers the plans of the ruthless wizard Banric Sahand. Tyvian will need to use every dirty trick in the book to avoid a painful and ignominious end, even as he learns to work with—and rely on—his motley crew of accomplices, including an adolescent pickpocket, an obese secret-monger, and a fearsome gnoll.

Help a budding author out! My publicity footprint is fairly small, so if you like the book, tell your friends! Leave a review! Thanks so much for all your support so far!

Buy Links:

Amazon

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Harper Collins

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Alandar: The Barony of Veris

There is not a single nation in the West despised and mistrusted as much as the troublesome Barony of Veris (though Ihyn comes close). Home to some of the world’s finest sailors, Verisi ships can be found in almost every port in the West (and even a few in the South and East) engaged in their share of legal trade and more than their fair share of smuggling, theft, piracy, and general mischief. Veris itself denies responsibility for a ‘few criminals’ within their borders, though all it requires is a closer look at their society to realize that these criminals aren’t exactly hunted within the borders of their own country, but lauded as heroes of the people. If you like breaking the rules, if you like all the booze and loose women you can handle, if you like to steal for a living rather than earn it, then, my friend, Veris is the country for you.

Political Structure

 

According to legend, Veris had a political structure very much like Akral’s — the nation from which Veris seceded rather peaceably some fifteen-hundred years ago. In those days, Veris was ruled by its own King and attended by his own set of Lords, and so on. Those days, however, ended with the beginning of the Hannite Wars, four centuries after the nation’s founding. At the height of the war against Kalsaar, King Hymrek V, forever afterwards known as Hymrek the Betrayer, turned against his allies, Akral and Eddon, for a wealth of riches given by the Kalsaari Emperor. Enraged at the change of allegiance, Akral crushed Veris and put its nobility to the sword, assuming harsh authority over the land. This colonization lasted almost a century before Veris, with silent help from the Count of Ihyn, rose up against the Akrallian chavalier and regained control of their homeland.

Unfortunately for the Verisi, the time of the mighty Verisi noble class was long gone — executed decades ago. Those who were now in charge were rebels, criminals, slaves, and pirates, and the government they set up reflects that. When the first Baron ascended the throne in the 45th year of Keeper Issiril, it was immediately clear to all that Veris was a changed place forever.

The modern day structure of Verisi political life is little more than an absolute dictatorship headed by the Baron of Veris and enforced by the Red Hand—the Baron’s personal army. Essentially a thieves’ guild writ large, the Baron and his men have very little concern for the Verisi people, so long as they pay their taxes and obey their orders. Authority on a local level is handled by village elders, local mayors, or whatever other person or persons the locals choose to recognize, but none of it is considered ‘official’ by the Baron or his men, and, should the Red Hand wish it, such local leaders could be executed on a whim. Such an occurrence is rare, and only happens when the village or region is resisting the wishes of the Baron. In general, each area pays its taxes and whatever else the Red Hand chooses to extort from them every year, and in turn the Red Hand leaves them in peace.

Local commanders of Red Hand garrisons, known as ‘Marshals’ are the closest thing that Veris has to a noble class, and the word ‘noble’ is used here loosely. Unlike most nobility throughout the West, Marshals are not required to perform any sort of service for the people he or she rules. The people under their jurisdiction are permitted to live there in exchange for a sizeable quantity of their crops, goods, and monies—that’s all. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all Marshals simply ignore their people and are blind to their suffering. Some of these rulers are wise, kind, and beloved of their people, providing money to help the poor, protecting them from raiders and thieves, and doing all the things that a good ruler should. These kind of rulers are in the minority, but they form a powerful minority in that their people are more willing to help them out in times of trouble, making conscription that much easier. The politics of Veris only becomes complicated insofar as its marshals are forced to balance mercy with ruthlessness enough to maintain their own power base and seem dangerous enough to discourage revolt or a hostile takeover by a rival marshal.

Thanks to the almost complete lack of any organizing political structure outside of the Baron’s own personal guard, Veris is a very chaotic place. Every individual settlement is almost like a city-state unto itself, clustered together for defense, complete with its own history, unique customs, and mistrustful of outsiders. Bands of robbers, cutthroats, and raiders are common here, not to mention the ‘Volunteer Navy,’ which is little more than a bunch of legalized pirates that are granted Baronial protection in ports. Between all of these ne’er-do-wells and the Red Hand itself, the Verisi people are constantly watching out for attack, and trained militias can be found in almost every town, village, or city.

This concentration of armed people makes Veris a surprisingly effective military power. While not as organized or well-equipped as the armies of Eddon, Akral, or Galaspin, Veris has enormous numbers of trained personnel and a network of fortified settlements and castles that is unparalleled in the West. When Veris is attacked, the Red Hand has the authority to conscript as many of the local militias as possible to stave off the assault. Furthermore, should a war of aggression be underway, the conscripts are regularly supplemented by sellswords and mercenaries of every conceivable size and description. Such rabble flocks to the banner of Veris in droves thanks to its reputation of for treating mercenaries very well (just look at the Volunteer Navy!) and for the near complete and total lack of law and order maintained over the land. Many mercs travel here to attack Akrallian caravans and then stay to loot the countryside, resulting in a win-win situation for the morally challenged.

Though the Baron makes a point of creating very few laws designed to protect his citizens, knowing full well that his power base is near wholly comprised of thieves and murderers, the Baron does, nevertheless, come down harshly on those who go too far. Should a marshal start a murderous rampage that begins to send Verisi citizens fleeing into neighboring Rhond or Eddon, the Baron’ personal detachment of the Red Hand — the Knights of the Blood Gauntlet — ride out to destroy the offender and all of his progeny. Marshals know the price of stepping over the line, and only the brave and foolish few take that step. The Baron is not known for his mercy, particularly when your actions are putting a dent in his purse.

Lands and Points of Interest

 

Veris is a rough and rugged land, largely uncultivated and inhabited in great concentrations only along the nation’s coastline, which is extensive. Fully half of all the land area in Veris is comprised of a great peninsula that bears the name of the nation that rules it. Fishing villages, seaports, and naval fortresses line the coast from the Rhondian border, along the Syrin, and into the Dagger — a 350-mile inlet that separates Eddon from Veris.

The waters surrounding Veris are especially rocky and perilous, and only the shinn’har themselves know them better than the Verisi fishermen that sail them. These shoals and reefs form an imposing natural barrier that has kept Veris largely immune to Akrallian naval invasion throughout history, but also inhibit all but the boldest of foreign ships from entering Verisi ports, hurting the nation’s ability to trade, but making the area a prime spot for pirates to set up safe havens for themselves.

Inland, virtually the whole of Veris is covered with the thick woodlands of the Ahrn forest. Fur-trapping, hunting, and lumbering are primary occupations of most honest people who live here, as well as a fair number of fruit-tree and vegetable growers that are responsible for much of the nation’s food supply. Roads are infrequent and poorly maintained, as are bridges, but the Verisi forests supply amble hiding places for bandits, robbers, and fugitives to hide and survive for years if need be. It is a saying among the Defenders of the Balance (who are less than welcome in Verisi territory) that if a man has escaped you, sooner or later he’ll be living in a Verisi tree. Also indigenous to the forests are a fair number of monsters including dragonspawn such as gargoyles, firedrakes, and wyverns.

As stated earlier, virtually all settlements in Veris are designed to repel attack. From the smallest village to the biggest port, walls, stockades, towers, magical alarms, guard posts, or moats are all standard civil engineering projects. Rather than a wholly civilized country like Rhond or Eretheria, Veris is a wide wilderness punctuated by pockets of humanity from which the inhabitants never stray far. It is both the ideal place to hide and the ideal place to disappear against your will — be wary.

The City of Veris: From its perch atop the two-hundred foot tall Betrayer’s Cliffs, the city of Veris commands an incredible view of the surrounding oceans and coastline. Home to 43,000 criminals, pirates, thugs, thieves, and troublemakers, Veris is widely considered among the safest places in the world for an enterprising young outlaw to live, and among the most dangerous places for just about everybody else. The city of Veris is, in actuality, two cities — Veris itself, which rests atop the cliffs, and the Warrens, which is a network of caves and tunnels that snake through the cliffs themselves and acts as Veris’ seaport. Though connected by a number of hoists, wells, passages, and magical lifts, the Warrens and Veris hardly seem like the same place at all.

This is how I imagine portions of the Warren to look like.  (click to find source)

This is how I imagine portions of the Warren to look like. (click to find source)

The Warrens are the poorer of the two, its inhabitants being forced to pay exorbitant takes to keep the wealthy topside well fed and furnished. Down here, people live in ramshackle homes built of as much driftwood as anything else, and are tucked into the hundreds of side tunnels that branch off of Underharbor — the massive ocean inlet that fills the largest cavern in the Warrens. The Underharbor is lined with docks and is constantly echoing with the sound of ships’ bells, sailors songs, and similar noise of the great ocean going vessels that are guided in here by keen-eyed old Verisi navigators to unload their goods, get restocked, and set back out to sea. As the commercial port of the nation’s capital, it is also through here that most foreign visitors get their first encounter with the Verisi, and the significance of this is not lost on the locals. The Warrens is home to some of the most debauched and morally bankrupt individuals in Alandar, and the sheer number of pubs, whorehouses, and black market shops that line the docks and fill the tunnels is a good indication of that fact. The Saldorian Ambassador here has oft commented in his reports to the Arcanostrum that he finds it ‘highly unusual’ when he doesn’t see someone killed in the streets of the Warren at least once a day. The Red Hand is largely absent here, and the various Volunteer Navy vessels docked along the wharves are the closest thing to government ‘officials’ to be found. A number of thieves’ guilds are in constant competition to control the Underharbor and, therefore, be able to skim as much off the top of the incoming commodities as possible. Given the proximity of the Baron and his Knights of the Blood Gauntlet, such turf wars have proven alarmingly fatal and largely unsuccessful in achieving their collective goal, but the various guilds are able to supply a modicum of security for the everyday workers and citizens forced to live here.

Two-hundred feet above the Underharbor and the Warrens that surround it is the city of Veris proper. Enclosed by a fifty-foot wall and built almost entirely out of heavy stone quarried from the very cliffs upon which it sits, Veris is an imposing place. Compared to the Warrens, Veris is civilized and almost clean, but when compared with anywhere else the comparison falls short. Those with the money can afford to maintain their neighborhoods and homes with fair success, but the poorer districts (i.e. those areas closest to the walls) are dirty, decaying, and fetid. Social order is rigidly maintained here, as there are a pair of Red Hand guards on almost every corner, ready to dispense ‘justice’ on anyone who looks at them the wrong way. Though willing to turn a blind eye to the behavior of the Warrens for the most part, the Baron will not tolerate rioting or mob violence in his own backyard. Those dissidents, criminals, and troublemakers who are not killed on the spot and cannot bribe their way out of their punishment are locked in a cage and dangled over the cliffs beneath the Lonely Keep itself. If they are lucky, they are fed occasionally. Most people are simply left to rot.

The Lonely Keep is the Baron’s own residence, and is a citadel as ancient as Veris itself. Built upon a promontory of rock stretching out from the cliffs, the black-walled castle stands forty feet away from the main bulk of Veris along its northwestern edge. Not particularly large, the keep’s highest tower is 100 feet high and all its the flat, round turrets are capped with iron spikes that give the whole thing a sinister look. Worn smooth by centuries of wind and rain, there are very few military commanders who would even consider laying siege to this unapproachable fortress — better to starve them out. Acting as the Baron’s personal home as well as the barracks for the Knights of the Blood Gauntlet, the Keep commands a wide view across the Sea of Syrin and can effectively attack any naval vessel that dares to negotiate the rocky waters in hopes of entering the Underharbor.

Far more important to the city’s defenses than even the Keep, however, is the Great Aqueduct. Carrying fresh water from miles inland, the huge aqueduct enters the city next to its great southern gatehouse and is among the most guarded structures in all of Veris. Patrols of thirty Red Hand soldiers ride its length every few hours, and anyone caught tampering with its waters in the least is immediately put to death. The Aqueduct represents the city’s only supply of fresh drinking water, and even the Warrens use it as the water tumbles down into the lower city’s public wells and basins. As defensible as Veris is, any hostile army that gets control of the aqueduct can capture the city inside of a month for certain.

Culture and People

 

Veris is a treacherous place, with all the facets and intricacies of human cruelty and greed laid bare for all to witness and suffer from. Given that, one might expect the people to be likewise treacherous, or at least grim. But this is not Ihyn, nor is it even Illin — this is Veris, and the people here are unlike any other. Known for their sense of humor, their hatred of authority, and their adaptable natures, the Verisi have a bad reputation among the rich and respectable of the world, and enjoy almost the opposite from all those who are poor, downtrodden, and without hope. To a Verisi, the key to life is to take what you can and enjoy it while you have it, and if you can make your enemies look foolish at the same time, all the better.

It is the assumption of most of the world and, indeed, it has been the implication of this description so far that all of Veris is inhabited by criminals and outlaws. This is not technically true, since one cannot be an outlaw if there aren’t any laws in the first place. Every Verisi, from the top on down, knows the system — if they’re stronger than you, they take what they like, and vice versa. The trick is, from a Verisi standpoint, to find ways to avoid the inevitable as long as possible. Towards this end, the Verisi people put almost no stock in personal honor, honesty, or loyalty, preferring instead to live long, carefree lives away from the harsh grip of the Red Hand. Almost all young people in Veris go through a period referred to as ‘the Kicks,’ where the recently grown man or woman goes out into the world for a lifetime of raising hell, having fun, and (as often as not) stealing things. This adventuring life lasts until the person is caught and killed, they leave Veris for good, or, having had their fill of adventure, journey back to their little hometown to settle down and raise a family.

This abandonment of home and hearth is not representative of a disrespect for one’s own family. The Verisi, as much as any other human beings, love their family and care what happens to them. It is, however, a taboo among those you care for to lay down discipline and order. “Life,” they say, “will tell you what to do better than anyone else.” Verisi families are convivial and jovial bunches, with parents being more like friends to their children than authority figures. Children grow up hearing their own parents’ stories of adventure and mischief, and aspire to emulate (or even top!) their ancestors. The Verisi are known for being brutal practical jokers, with some pranks even resulting in real physical harm. However, jokers should be cautious, for among the Verisi the phrase ‘what goes around, comes around’ has real philosophical weight. A man who only plays mild jokes on his neighbors will, in turn, have the same played on him. A violent prankster, however, will end up a victim of one of his own dangerous plots or, worse, he will end up dead at the end of what the Verisi term ‘the Final Joke’ — murder.

For all the trouble that afflicts the average Verisi throughout their lives, they are a people with a remarkable ability to find humor and happiness in even the darkest of events. To a Verisi, there is nothing that is sacred and no joke, no matter how inappropriate, that cannot be told. No people in the world have a larger collection of ribald stories and filthy limericks, and it is a common pastime for adults and children to try to come up with bigger, better, and even more offensive tales. Listeners who get offended at this peculiarly Verisi merriment are in for a rough time, as that only encourages the jokers to get even more extreme and disgusting.

It is not the practice of the Verisi to shelter people from what they see as the harsh realities of real life. Children are well aware of death, sex, and violence from a young age, and learn to cope just as their parents do. In Verisi society, denying the truth for the sake of ‘propriety’ is not only idiotic, but harmful to those who need to hear what you have to say. Verisi, when not lying to further their own aims, are straightforward and blunt with news, and especially so with bad news. There is no attempt to soften the blow of a family member’s death or similar tragedy—the afflicted will deal with it just as they all do or wither away and die, in which case they weren’t worth keeping around, anyway.

Veris is a land of rebels and devil-may-care rabble-rousers who live as best they can in an unfair world. They are not bitter towards the Red Hand or the Baron in particular — they’re just doing what they can get away with, after all — and would actually prefer a cruel ruler who leaves them alone most of the time rather than a just one that is always in their face. Personal freedom and responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions are important cultural mores, and therefore they tend to despise any kind of central authority that tells them what to do or how to act or (worse yet) provides ways for someone in trouble to find an easy way out. Veris is a land completely devoid of charities, hostile towards the Hannite Church, and has nothing but contempt for the Arcanostrum (though they realize the magi are far too powerful to meddle with). They do, however, enjoy a relationship with the shinn’har that is nothing short of brotherly, and selkies can be found aboard almost every Verisi ship in large groups.

The ocean is of paramount importance to the Verisi people, and the majority of the nation’s indigenous population are sailors or fishermen. Veris’s extensive coastline and ample harbors makes this nation home to more ocean-going vessels than any other nation in the Alliance. Though typically small and lightly armed, Verisi merchant ships and smuggling sloops are found all over the world, and the Verisi have made a name for themselves as the finest sailors short of the shinn’har themselves. Verisi Navigators – Arcanostrum trained sorcerers with their trademark all-seeing crystal eyes and golden chains of sworn service to the Baron – are the undisputed masters of navigation and weather prediction, and if there is anyone in the world who might be able to get a ship through the Needle in one piece, it is an officer born and raised in Veris.

Current Events

It is often surprises people when they learn just how quickly Veris came to the aid of Rhond and Illin during the Illini Wars. One would not expect a nation of mercenaries and rebels to take up arms and go to war on behalf of their grim and theocratic neighbors, but they did, and in droves. Verisi mercenaries were involved in every front of the war and many such companies swore service to Mudboots Varner himself and were involved in everything from the Charge of Atrisia to the Sack of Tasis to the Battle of Calassa. Indeed, even regiments of the Red Hand were dispatched to assist the Duke of Galaspin in his struggles in the Illini peninsula and acquitted themselves well in the battles there.

Despite this record of service, however, Veris has not gained at all from the magical-industrial boom that has elevated so much of the West in terms of quality of life and material wealth. Veris is the disrespected stepchild of Western Politics, too remote to be a major trading player (despite its fleets), too poor to be a financial player, and too disorganized to throw its political weight around. The old Baron’s solution to this problem has been simple: he has signed charters (in secret) giving Verisi ships and the Volunteer Navy carte blanche to raid Akrallian, Ihynish, and even Saldorian shipping unless those captains of seized vessels can provide documentation of doing business with Veris. This outrageous practice has caused a lot of saber rattling on the part of the Akrallians, but they have done nothing about it yet. This may be because Veris’s practice of nautical blackmail is having the opposite of the desired effect – instead of encouraging ships to trade with Veris, it has shunted more and more traffic between the northern nations of the West to the spirit engine lines. This increase in traffic is leading to plans for more and more spirit engine tracks and more and more rapid trade among Akral, Eretheria, Saldor, and Galaspin. Veris grows more isolated every year, and joins its southern neighbors – Rhond, Illin, and Eddon – in bitterness towards the wealthier neighbors to the north.

The Origin of T’suul

T’suul is a fanciful game of skill and chance that exists in Alandar, the setting of The Saga of the Redeemed. It is played either between two or four players (though some variants allow for three people and some with five) and uses a table or board (sometimes with an orthogonal grid printed on it, but this is not essential) and a set of thirty-six square tiles. It is a gambling game popular from the Kalsaari Empire to the West and is said to have originated in Illin, where they take their t’suul playing more seriously than most and it is less a game for gambling money than it is a game of honor and, occasionally, used in lieu of a duel.

The inspiration for t’suul is dominoes, but with more of a poker feel and a certain gritty viciousness that dominoes tends to lack (or, at least around where I live). I wanted it to be something exotic and a little racy while keeping it close to something people could understand.

I basically wanted this...

I basically wanted this…

...but resulting in this.

…but resulting in this.

T’suul has existed in my world here for a long time, but I hadn’t drawn rules up for it. At least not until now, anyway. I find myself, however, writing a scene in which t’suul is being played and the game needs to be at least partially explained. I do not know if this would actually work as a game in the real world (perhaps I’ll get around to play-testing it at some point), but in brief it sort-of works like this:

  • The set contains 36 tiles–seven red, seven blue, seven black, seven white, and eight gray. They are distributed to the players in “clutches” of five.
  • Gameplay begins with four tiles in “the heart” – one blue, one white, one black, one red – and arranged so that the opposing tiles do not touch. If gambling, the ante for the round is placed atop one of each of the tiles.
  • Players take turns placing tiles (again, if gambling, coins are placed atop the tiles). A good t’suul player will slap the tiles down with a certain machismo, called dailiki in Illin. This is a very important part of the game in Illin, but merely considered good form elsewhere.
  • Red opposes Blue, White opposes Black, and Gray is inert. If two opposing tiles are placed beside one another, they “duel” and are removed from play into the player’s clutch (collection of tiles) held in a sakkidio, or “wallet.” They also pocket the money.
  • A player immediately to the left of a player who initiates a duel may “stack” by placing another tile of the same color atop the one placed by the initiator of the duel. If gambling, they must place a higher bid atop the tile they place. The next player may do the same, assuming they have the same color tile. And so on. If all players fail to stack a duel, whoever has the highest tile wins the duel, the tiles, and all coinage.
  • “Burning a Stack” is when, instead of stacking, they player opts to duel the other tile (the unstacked one) and claim it, thus invalidating the stack’s claim. This leaves a lot of money on the table for challenge, but it can be a way to prevent your opponents from claiming it if you are unable to match their bets. This pisses people off and can be a good way to get stabbed.
  • Gray tiles cannot be duels, but duels can be fought across them. So, a blue tile adjacent to a gray which has a red placed adjacent to *it* will be claimed as the duel is fought across it.
  •  A round ends when either one player controls all the tiles or a player “makes the serpent,”  which involves completing a chain of all four color tiles without any dueling any of the others. A player who makes the serpent claims all tiles on the board (along with all the money). A serpent cannot be stacked or burned.

Why Do This?

I mean, obviously apart from the reason that it’s lots of fun, this works as a way to help me with world-building which, in turn, helps me with character. Part of the trick of t’suul involves knowing what tiles your opponent has based upon their moves and the tiles they collect in duels. To be a good t’suul player, you need to be observant and also gutsy. It’s part strategy, part luck, and part smoking tooka in a dimly lit Undercity tavern in Illin, watching your back as you slap down a blue and make the serpent while some Ihynish creep is trying to slip a dagger between your ribs. It sets a mood. It creates a system by which behavior is modified and dictated. For me, I want to know more about that.

Now, unfortunately, I’m not really a game designer, so I don’t know if that framework up there would work as a fun game. I think it might. I might need to get myself a set of multicolored tiles, though, to try it out.

The Story Behind the Story: A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration

You may have all noticed that I won’t shut up about this story competition I won (preorder the anthology here! It’s awesome!). Well, for one thing that’s because the release date for the anthology is May 4th, which is also known as “this Monday,” and I’m working my little heart out here trying to make that launch a success, and this blog is probably the best way I have of doing that. That’s not all, though. I’m also trumpeting about this thing because I’m damned proud of myself and of my fellow winners, all of whom are spectacularly talented and all of whom deserve to get noticed by the reading public. This anthology is one of the best ways for our names to get “out there,” and I’m going to try and make the most of it.

However, you lovely people are probably tired of all the publicity yakkity yak, so I’m going to take a page from my friend, Martin Shoemaker, and have  substantive discussion about how my winning story, “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration,” came into existence.

First, listen to the dulcet tones of Mr. Scott Parkin reading the first few paragraphs:

Michelangelo once said that his sculptures weren’t things he made so much as uncovered – they had been there all along, hiding in the stone just waiting for him to chip the extra bits away. I feel that way about my story, too. I didn’t so much “tell” this story as “find” it.

Behold the Undercity of Illin (still blown away by Shuangjian Liu's illustration of my story!)

Behold the Undercity of Illin (still blown away by Shuangjian Liu’s illustration of my story!)

The world of Alandar and, most particularly, the West is a place I have fashioned slowly over the course of more than a decade of world-building. When I create a world (and I am always creating worlds, mind you), they begin as broad, historical narratives or epic mythology – they are unpopulated, as it were. I start with the big (How does magic work here? What are the dangers of this world? Who holds the power and why? What are the world’s religions and creation myths?) and narrow it down until I get so close that, suddenly, I find I need characters to have the place make any sense. That level is usually right about at the “what kind of jobs do people do here” and “what do people eat on a daily basis” point. All of that little stuff, you see, is informed by the bigger stuff. Think of it this way: why do you eat hot dogs at a baseball game? Here’s a food imported by Germans (and adapted for American tastes) being ritually consumed at a sport descended from cricket and made popular in the late 19th century. Seems odd, doesn’t it? Yet, you can trace those things back to large religious and political movements which are themselves side-effects of things like geography, climate, and biology.

So, here we have the city of Illin. You can read my full treatise on the city and its environs here, if you’re so inclined, but in brief, Illin is a city built on the tip of a swampy peninsula commanding the outlet of a major trade river. It was designed as a way to control and limit the access the Kalsaari Empire (political and religious rivals to the Western nations) had to Western trade routes. Gradually, this city and principality became more militarized. As it is poor in material resources and arable land, it remained a poor nation propped up by its neighbors as a kind of buffer state. It has been invaded many times over the centuries, but this past time was by far the most successful and destructive invasion the Kalsaaris ever implemented. To win, they used sorcery in a way unseen in millennia. To win it back, the West did the same. Who was caught in the middle? Illin and, most particularly, its poorest citizens (i.e. the people who always pay the highest price when wars are fought).

Now, that’s just the tip of it all – there’s a hell of a lot more, but most of that world-building stuff never makes it to the page. It just exists in the back of the author’s mind, ready to be accessed if needed, but mostly there to fill out the picture of the place in the author’s mind. I’ve been to Illin, to the extent that anyone has been. I’ve run role-playing games with my friends set there. I’ve written poetry about it (bad poetry, mind you). I like to think I know how it smells.

But that’s just a city, not a character and certainly not a story.

In our workshop out in LA, Dave Farland (aka Dave Wolverton) said something that really struck me. He talked about how setting makes character and story more than anything else, so he always starts with the setting. I realized that I, also, do that (I just didn’t fully realize it). It isn’t until I have world that I feel like I could live in that I figure out who actually lives there. This is where Abe comes from. What would a young man from the Undercity think of his world? What would he want? How would he try to get it? All of these questions can be answered if the world is well-developed enough. And they were.

What’s interesting about the end of this story, though, is that I put the story down – trunked it, basically – for almost a year without an ending. I just couldn’t think of one. I’d painted Abe into such a corner that he was basically doomed (this, incidentally, was something Tim Powers told us was a good way to go, so, again, I was accidentally doing something right!). I had to put it down and walk away. When I (finally) came back, the end was as clear as day. Just goes to show you how fickle the imagination can be sometimes.

As a final note: for fans of The Saga of the Redeemed, this story is set about 12 years or so prior to Tyvian’s day and, obviously, in Illin and not Galaspin/Freegate. Yes, the man in the tooka den is Carlo diCarlo (a younger, thinner Carlo, though). Yes, that does mean young Tyvian (about twenty years old) is somewhere in Illin at that exact moment, doing something untoward. Yes, I do think of these things. Maybe, someday, I’ll tell that story too. Illin, though, does not give up its secrets easily.

Pre-order THE IRON RING now!

That's 100% official cover art, right there.

That’s 100% official cover art, right there.

Tyvian Reldamar—criminal mastermind, rogue mage, and smuggler of sorcerous goods—has just been betrayed by his longtime partner and left for dead in a freezing river. To add insult to injury, his mysterious rescuer took it upon himself to affix Tyvian with an iron ring that prevents the wearer from any evildoing.

Revenge just got complicated.

On his quest to get even, Tyvian navigates dark international conspiracies, dodges midnight assassins, and uncovers the plans of the ruthless warlord Banric Sahand—all while running from a Mage-Defender determined to lock him up. Tyvian will need to use every dirty trick in the book to avoid a painful and ignominious end, even as he discovers that sometimes even the world’s most devious man needs a shoulder to lean on.

…and so it begins! THE IRON RING, my debut novel and first book in the Saga of the Redeemed, is an epic fantasy that should, with any luck, rock your face. It is now available via pre-order from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Go forth and purchase it, if you are so inclined. Or even if you are not so inclined – do it anyway, because I am a nice person and this is important to me and I will totally be your bestest friend forevers, all Samwise Gamgee style. For serious.

Also, if you’re curious about the setting of the novel and about Tyvian’s world, I recommend searching through the blog about the world Alandar. I’m going to set up a tab up top, too, that will hold the various world building materials I’ve posted here, just for fun and games. I might also go to town on putting together a better map than the one I have, showing you the breadth of the West and the intricacies of its geography.

THE IRON RING releases on February 10th – less than a month away! Keep an eye on this space for more news, coming your way soon, I’m sure. Thanks, everybody, for all your support!

 

 

Hey, Look: Cover Art!

Hello, Friends! Happy New Year!

My, my, but I have been a busy little bee. When last we spoke, I told you I had writing to do. Well, over this break I have revised/rewritten some 100,000 words or so. Yes, I know. I am only about two and half chapters or so (not counting the Epilogue) away from finishing the fourth draft and third complete draft of All That Glitters – my sequel to The Iron Ring and Blood and Iron. It rocks. When this draft is done (ideally tomorrow), I will be sending it off to beta readers just to make sure my assessment of its quality isn’t some elaborate fever dream of my overtaxed imagination.

Speaking of The Iron Ring (release date is February 10th, 2015, so…a little over a month away!), I got to see some of the preliminary cover art a few weeks back. I’ve been sitting on it all this time, waiting for the finalized cover art to be confirmed, but I’m tired of waiting and I need something quick and simple to post on this blog to bring it back to life. So, without further ado, here is what the cover of my debut novel may look like:

The other versions had this same image, just varying type and font layouts.

Now, this is very exciting. I wasn’t sure what to expect for a cover, and this isn’t what I expected, to be honest (I had in my mind some Charlie’s Angels-

Behold! Thumbnail version!

Behold! Thumbnail version!

esque tableau of my main characters engaged in various acts of derring-do), but I do like this. It’s very striking and simple and I just love the font. Of note, as this is an e-book release, the simple elemental design makes a lot of sense. Everybody is going to see this thing as a thumbnail, which means an intricate art style would be wasted – this grabs the attention and displays a key plot element (Tyvian’s infernal, behavior-modifying iron ring).

Anyway, when the really super-official title art is released, I’ll be sure to let everybody know. For now, this post is just to say I’m back, I missed you all, and I’ve got a lot more stuff to do. Be seeing you around!

Debut Novel Updates

Much has come to pass these last weeks.

As (most of you) probably know, the first part of my debut novel is to be released this February by Harper Voyager. If you haven’t heard about this, check out this post explaining it all.

Now, things have changed a little since then. In particular, the way the books will be released and titled has changed. Initially, the first two books in my series (now titled The Saga of the Redeemed) were to be released as The Oldest Trick, Part 1 and The Oldest Trick, Part 2. This is because the first two books are really just two halves of the same book and the publisher wanted to keep the price point low for the initial offering (I assume).

Some time later, it was decided that this seemed confusing (two parts to one book that is part one of a longer series? Whhhaaaa?), so they decided to title them separately and sell them as parts 1 and 2. To this, I pointed out that this might be misleading, since readers would think they were buying a whole story when, in fact, it was only half of one. My editor concurred and Harper agreed, and so now it goes like this: the initial electronic release of the books will have a different title for each part, but they will be marketed as part 1 and 2 of the larger work, The Oldest Trick. Then, when the print release happens (by the way: THERE WILL BE A PRINT RELEASE!!), they will put part 1 and 2 together into one omnibus with my original title and, likewise, this will be available online.

Yes, there is a Magic Ring. No, it isn't like that Other magic ring.

Yes, there is a Magic Ring. No, it isn’t like that Other Magic Ring.

Therefore, Coming Soon:

The Iron Ring (Part 1 of The Oldest Trick), February 2015

Blood and Iron (Part 2 of The Oldest Trick), June 2015

All That Glitters (Book 2 of The Saga of the Redeemed), Fall 2015

Hopefully any confusion will be overcome by the sheer awesomeness of my work.

As for the process itself, here’s where I am: I’m waiting for the final copyedit of The Iron Ring and will begin working with my editor on Blood and Iron sometime in the next month. Also within the next month, I will be getting another 1-2 drafts of All That Glitters in the can so that it is at the polishing stage and I can tinker with it until the deadline on May 1st. All of this can happen just as soon as I get clear of my workload for the Fall semester (lousy day job!) and before the workload for the Spring Semester ramps up.

So, yeah, a ton of writing and editing needs to happen over the next month. Accordingly, there may very well be another blog hiatus coming up. I will let you know and keep you posted, as doing so makes me imagine that what I’m doing here is of some kind of value to somebody rather than just the protracted ravings of a cubicle-bound narcissist.

Alandar: The Domain of Saldor

Saldor—city of the Arcanostrum and center of the human universe, or so the Saldorians would have everyone believe. Known for their magical aptitude, their far-reaching power, and their educated population, Saldor is the cultural and intellectual heart of the West, and the seat of arguably the most powerful human in the world — the Keeper of the Balance. Though territorially small, no other place has made such a significant impact on the face of the human world. Its agents topple governments, its magi teach the West the High Arts, and its currency has become the global standard, accepted even in the hostile streets of the Kalsaari Empire. Seated at the helm of the Syrinian Alliance, the Saldorians see themselves as humanity’s best hope for the salvation of the world from the fires of the Devourer. They just might be right.

 

Political Structure

Saldor is technically a loose affiliation of petty nobility who make up a ruling body called the Saldorian Council, which is presided over by the Lord Mayor of Saldor. This body, which consists of representatives from each fiefdom (or the ruler of the fiefdom itself) as well as from the population of Saldor itself, passes the laws that govern the entire domain and acts as a neutral body when settling inter-fiefdom disputes. This is, technically, the governmental system that has been in place since the time of the First Arahkan War. If one were to ask any Saldorian on the street where the power in Saldor lies, however, they would say one thing: the Arcanostrum.

The magi of the Arcanostrum, though not officially the ‘rulers’ of Saldor, are firmly in control of every single thing that transpires within the borders of this tiny domain. Every duke, earl, knight, and council member from the Lord Mayor on down are all retired magi, and though they are not bound to obey the counsel given by the Archmagi and the Keeper above them, they tend to adhere to their wishes almost to the letter. They are the real power in Saldor, and nobody forgets it. The Lord Mayor, while he does handle the day-to-day administration of the city of Saldor itself, rarely countermands a request made by the Keeper or any other high-ranking mage — they are, after all, his old friends and the ones who got him his job in the first place. Essentially, the aristocracy of Saldor exist for a few reasons, and none of them have anything to do with actual political power. They serve as a place where magi may retire in comfort, they act as a way to keep the magi from having direct or official control over any political body (an ancient taboo among the magi), and they serve as the primary representatives of civic authority in individual Saldorian communities. They collect the taxes, organize the constabulary, oversee the schools and hospitals, but they do not decide policy, make laws, or wage wars—all of those things are the province of their mage ‘advisor.’

There are many who see this thinly-veiled shadow government run by the Arcanostrum to be both hypocritical and corrupt, but such people are seldom natives to Saldor. Every Saldorian knows that the Arcanostrum is in control and most are very glad they are. Furthermore, they realize (or have been taught to believe, depending on your perspective) that the illusion of the Saldorian civic authorities is less illusory than one might imagine. There is no edict stating that an aristocrat cannot ignore his advisor or make his own laws and, in the rare cases where a mage has tried to get an aristocrat to do something that aristocrat considers immoral or unjust, they have the power to resist and call down the ire of the Defenders, quickly quenching the crooked plot before it hatches. Of course, this reliance upon non- or ex-magi for the implementation of laws and edicts creates an immensely convoluted and devious network of plots and counter-plots within the Arcanostrum itself, as rival factions compete for patrons among the nobility, which is really another way of saying the young and up-and-coming magi constantly compete for the attention and favor of the retired masters.

Accordingly, the political structure of the Arcanostrum itself is far more relevant to Saldorian politics than any single group of nobles. It is important to note that the primary purpose of the Arcanostrum is to educate individuals in the High Arts and control the use of said Arts; therefore its structure is more like that of a university than a political body. The Arcanostrum is split into five colleges. The first four — the White College, Red College, Blue College, and Black College — are where most of the students and full magi within the Arcanostrum spend the majority of their time teaching, studying, experimenting, and practicing their art. The Fifth College, known as the Gray Tower or the Great Tower, acts as the administrative body of the Arcanostrum and also serves as the training ground for the Defenders of the Balance. All students entering the Arcanostrum as initiates (the lowest level of student) spend their first years learning basic magic in the Gray Tower before choosing one of the four Colleges as the place where they will complete their professional careers. Those who choose to remain in the Tower become Defenders or take up posts as administrators, groundskeepers, or other support roles.

The Arcanostrum will accept anyone from anywhere as a student, so long as they are no younger than fifteen and can pass the Test of Power, which is administered by the five Archmagi once a year on Ozdai’s Feast. The form of the test is always changing, and the title is misleading. Many young hopefuls come to show off their great power in one kind of sorcery or another, but this is not the purpose of the test. The Test of Power is administered to see whether or not the student is responsible enough to understand that power must be used sparingly and with intelligence, and many a show-off is sent home wondering why his magnificent fireworks display failed to awe the gray-haired old magi even in the least. Once accepted, students spend a number of years as initiates (usually about three, but there is no set upper limit), where they are taught the rudiments of magical instruction as well as history, etiquette, and oratory. In addition to their school work, initiates are required to do a fair amount of manual labor as well, designed to both humble and toughen up the spoiled and the dainty. Most (about 75%) of those accepted to the Arcanostrum fail to make it out of the initiate stage.

Finally, when they have excelled in their studies and shown both maturity and diligence, initiates are taken to the Chamber of Testing and asked to pass the First Mark. The exact nature of this test is kept secret, but if the initiate passes, he is promoted to the rank of apprentice and, after choosing their College, are assigned to a full mage to serve as his or her personal assistant. Again, there is no upper limit to how long a student will remain an apprentice and, indeed, very many leave the Arcanostrum at this stage and go on to lucrative careers in the ‘private sector’, as it were. For however long they stay, they are given the best magical education in the world as they stick close to their master and experience the full range of what a mage can expect to encounter in the field. Finally, when their master thinks them ready, the apprentice returns to the Chamber of Testing and attempts to pass the Second Mark. If successful, they are given their own magestaff and given the title of ‘mage.’ If they fail, they leave the Arcanostrum with the rank of apprentice and the privilege of calling themselves “sorcerer.”

Most magi never advance past the level of mage, for here is where they do the most work and take part in the most exciting missions. Magi are sent all over the world, fulfilling all manner of tasks, from mediating negotiations between rival nomad tribes in the Taqar to advising Western rulers to hunting down long-lost artifacts in the Eastern Sea. The magestaff of the Arcanostrum is a symbol known throughout the world, and it bears with it great responsibility and power.

For some magi, after years of adventuring, they choose to retire to Saldor or another magetower elsewhere in Alandar to serve as a Master. Masters have certified mastery of the school of their choice and have passed the Third Mark in the Chamber of Testing. They act primarily as teachers and armchair scholars, guiding the younger magi and instructing apprentices and initiates in the ways of the Arcanostrum. Those who become Master Defenders are essentially field commanders – administrating and guiding distant Mage Towers and their cadre of Defenders of the Balance in the missions considered crucial to the security of the West. Masters of all stripes are greatly respected among magical circles. Still, for the ambitious, there are two ranks higher than even the Master—the Archmage and the Keeper of the Balance.

There are only five Archmagi at any one time (one for each Great Energy), and only one Keeper. It has been this way for more than fifteen-hundred years, and it shows no sign of ever changing. Archmagi must have mastered at least two schools of magic and have managed to pass the Fourth Mark—a feat which few have attempted and even fewer have survived. Four serve as the chairman of each of the four Colleges and the fifth is the Lord Defender of the Balance. Together, they form the Council of the Archmagi, which meets in Saldor to attend the Keeper and advice he or she in matters of Arcanostrum policy. The post of Archmage is the most intensely political of the ranks within the Arcanostrum, as they are routinely in contact with foreign rulers, magi in the field, and political entities of all varieties, always seeking to further the goals of the Arcanostrum as well as the goals of their individual College. Just as the Four Dragons are in constant opposition, so too are the Archmagi, as each College pursues its own aims at the expense of its fellows. By way of example, the Archmage of the Ether and Chairman of the Black College, Xahlven, has long been a proponent of the Vetan’nir Sorcery School as a method of controlling the Balance more directly. This is vehemently opposed by both the Lord Defender of the Balance and the Archmage of the Lumin, and they have long plotted and schemed to limit Xahlven’s ability to authorize dealings with the creatures of the Outer Realms. It is important to note that, while the Archmagi are both intelligent and ruthless, they are seldom trying to destroy one another. They recognize, like any good mage, the importance of the Balance and, therefore, the importance of there being someone to contradict them to keep everything equal. Nevertheless, they can go very far to get what they want, even to the point of forcing rivals into retirement or framing them for crimes they didn’t commit.

Sitting in judgment over this boisterous and dissembling bunch of master wizards is the Keeper of the Balance himself, who is both supreme ruler of the Arcanostrum and, by extension, Saldor itself. The Keeper is selected from among the Archmagi by the Archmagi themselves and, if the preceding Keeper lives long enough to contribute to the discussion, he or she receives a vote as well. Upon the preceding Keeper’s death (assuming it hasn’t already happened) the prospective Keeper then attempts to journey to the far end of the Chamber of Testing, where the Fifth Mark stands. If worthy, he will acquire the collective wisdom of every Keeper before him and become the most powerful mage in the world. If he is found unworthy, he will never be seen again and a new candidate must be selected. The Keeper is in complete command of the Defenders of the Balance, with the Lord Commander acting as his representative, but other than that the Archmagi retain independent control of their Colleges. The Keeper is able to issue decrees that must be adhered to by all magi, but other than that he does not interfere with the day-to-day functioning of each College. The Keeper of the Balance is just that—a keeper. He, using ancient artifacts inherent to the Arcanostrum that were created in the age of the Warlock Kings, monitors the mystical energies of the world that make up the Balance and, should they be disturbed, he sends and order to the Archmagi to find a way to remedy the problem. He is in charge of setting regional policies and overall goals for the Arcanostrum, and gives the organization its long-term goals and philosophical coherence, but he seldom is needed for such mundane affairs as diplomatic meetings or legal proceedings. Though many have sought to gain audience with the Keeper throughout the years, few are the rulers and aristocrats who have been able to meet directly with the Keeper, keeping this office shrouded in both mystery and awe. Those who ascend to Keeper are changed persons, aloof and contemplative. It is for this reason that they take new names upon their ascension, and they are rarely seen by anyone but the archmagi.

From day to day, the most obvious influence of the Keeper is seen in Saldor in the form of the Defenders of the Balance. Forming the whole of Saldor’s armed forces, the Defenders are a small but superbly trained and equipped force of warrior-wizards that patrol the borders of Saldor’s small territory and man the walls of the city itself. Famed for their mirrored helmets of silver-lined mageglass, the prospect of going into battle against this magically potent force is enough to make even arahk blanch, though historically speaking the Defenders had not been in a major war for 400 years until the Kalsaari invasion of Illin of 27 years ago (see below). In general, the Defenders serve as a deterrent more than anything else, being sent to one place or another in an attempt to discourage a belligerent group from starting any war at all. This tactic had been quite successful, but the Illini Wars shook the Arcanostrum’s faith in that policy significantly.

In general, political life in Saldor is relatively calm, since most of the more important and more devious members of the Arcanostrum have their eyes and talents focused elsewhere in the world. There is enough money in this territory to keep virtually all of its citizens well-fed if not well-educated, and punishments for crimes committed are harsh enough to keep even the most hard-boiled criminals under-wraps. There are no prisons in Saldor, and punishment takes only three forms. First is the stocks, where minor offenders are sent to be rebuked, jeered, and pelted with rotten fruit for anywhere from an afternoon to several days. Second is petrification, where offenders are turned to stone and left in public gardens as decoration for the duration of their sentence. Unlike normal petrification, the spell used in this punishment is tailored to allow the convict the ability to think over his crime and his sentence before being returned to normal. Finally, Saldorians use banishment as their most serious punishment. Rather than killing the most hardened criminals, they are dropped through a portal set to land them somewhere tens of thousands of miles distant. They are given a bow, a few arrows, a blanket, and some water and told never to return. None of the criminals thus punished ever have. Citizens of Saldor, however, take solace in the fact that there is an established and fair court system in place here that presumes innocence and even assigns an advocate to defend the accused at trial. Presided over by five magi with legal experience as judges, it is the contention of most Saldorians that the innocent are never convicted within their borders. Of course, the innocent are too busy being a statue to protest, so this belief must be held somewhat suspect.

Perhaps one of the biggest factors in Saldorian prosperity and peace is the fact that, unlike almost anywhere else, advancement in society is theoretically based off of one’s wisdom and skill rather than bloodline or heredity. Even the lowliest street peddler’s daughter can one day ascend to the rank of Keeper of the Balance or, at the least, become a mage of the Arcanostrum. Thanks to the fact that those who rule Saldor come from all walks of life and all social states, the laws of the domain are considered among the most fair and balanced to be found anywhere in the world. It is, in many ways, a utopian system to be envied by many, and it is for these reasons that Saldor finds itself host to thousands upon thousands of immigrants every year.

 

Lands and Points of Interest

 

Saldorian swamps can be quite beautiful, if soggy.

Saldorian swamps can be quite beautiful, if soggy.

Saldor occupies a narrow finger of land between the Trell and Mage’s Rivers. Though wet and plagued with bogs and marshes, the land is temperate and green with enough arable land to sustain the most profitable vineyards in the world. Known far and wide as the finest to be had, Saldorian wine is demands the highest prices at markets worldwide.

Aside from grapes, however, the only thing Saldor really seems to grow is cities. Though only twenty-five miles wide and 300 miles long, Saldor has the highest concentration of urban centers to be found anywhere in the world. Feeding off the trade traveling down the Trell River as well as off the lucrative talisman and other magical item traffic moving across Saldor’s borders, the cities and towns of Saldor are a bustle of culture, commerce, and crowds. Thanks to Saldor’s reputation as a place of plentiful wealth and fair-minded rulers, people from all over the world are constantly relocating themselves here to try for a better life for themselves and their children. Consequently, housing and food supplies are at a premium in this tiny country, despite the overall wealth of the inhabitants. Tons upon tons of grain, meat, fruit, and vegetables need to be shipped into Saldor everyday from the farms of Eretheria and Galaspin as well as from some places as far away as Eddon and Benethor, and still the population continues to grow. Though some in the Arcanostrum have theorized that, unless this population growth is checked, a social catastrophe awaits the region, the government, at the Keeper’s wish, ensures that Saldor’s borders remain open to any who wish to come there.

As a center of learning and education, Saldor’s cities are all home to a variety of universities, schools, libraries, and other cultural institutions that are maintained by the local nobility and are all open to the public! As a result, the majority of Saldorians can read (rather exceptional in Alandar) and the sheer concentration of educated people has given rise to a burgeoning population of playwrights, poets, writers, and philosophers that hawk on street corners, distribute their manuscripts in marketplaces, and put on shows in fancy new playhouses. Painters and sculptors have also found themselves a home in Saldor, where there is a wealth of aristocratic patrons who are not only willing to pay for their art but also have the culture to appreciate it.

Defensively speaking, Saldor is well-protected, though the casual observer might not recognize it. The banks of the two rivers that form the nation’s borders are lined with small towers and keeps that, while they might not seem imposing, are heavily enchanted and capable of fending off armies up to ten times larger than a defending force. Furthermore, the Defenders of the Balance maintain an elite corps of griffon cavalry that has bases both in Saldor proper and in the northern regions of the country, and they patrol regularly, keeping an eye out for trouble. These protections, however, proved insufficient to prevent Banric Sahand and his Delloran armies from smashing into the northern portions of the country and laying waste to the Defenders sent against him until the pivotal siege of Calassa. Since that time, there has been a concerted effort to strengthen the domain’s defenses and much of Saldor’s wealth has been devoted to that task.

Finally, while most of Saldor is populated, there are regions that are virtually uninhabitable thanks to bogs, marshes, and swamps. These areas are known to be havens of dark creatures, bandits, and long-lost tombs of long-dead warlocks. Usually patrolled and almost entirely picked over by the Defenders of the Balance or the magi, these areas are nevertheless avoided, and often serve as pathways for smugglers, spies, and worse things to get into and out of the country.

 

The City of Saldor: Easily the largest city in the West and possibly even the world, Saldor is home to eight-hundred thousand souls and the heart of magical power in the human world. Built at the juncture of four ley lines, the city’s location at the mouth of the Trell River is hardly by accident. Every since the time of Rahdnost the Undying, this area has been prime real-estate for the magical elite, and Saldor is a city built upon ruins which are, in turn, built upon more ruins. The depths to which one might journey beneath the cobblestone streets and what one might find there are subjects of great speculation and wild tales among the winding streets and crowded, smoky buildings, but few, if any, have ever bothered to find out – there’s enough excitement on top of the Saldor streets as it is.

Saldor is made up of five separate districts. The first three — the Merchant Quarter, Dock Quarter, and Magic Quarters — lie within the city’s ancient, ivy-covered walls. The fourth and fifth, Crosstown and it’s rougher cousin, New Crosstown, are located on the western banks of the Trell and have no walls to speak of at all. New Crosstown is the newest and most crude area, with new houses and businesses being added every day as the hopeful and ambitious move closer to the Arcanostrum. It is there that the city’s primary criminal syndicate, known as the Mute Prophets, runs a variety of gambling and real estate rackets as well as organizing a sizable number of pick pockets, highwaymen, and talented cat burglars that give the Prophets their fame. After all, anyone who can rob a mage’s house and not get caught is a master of his trade. The Crosstown districts are usually the first place those coming to Saldor by land or river see, and its rows and rows of houses crammed tightly together across cobblestoned streets only serve as the barest glimpse of what is a most incredible city.

Once within the city walls, a new visitor is almost always astounded at the sheer number of people to be found in Saldor. They come from everywhere — Akral, Eretheria, Ihyn, Illin, Hurn, Larcin, Benethor, Obrinport, Tharce, and on and on and on. The streets are full of people at almost all hours of the day and, at the center of the Merchant’s Quarter, the Grand Bazaar is lit twenty-four hours by hundreds of illumite lanterns. The open-air market is a maze of tents and carts selling everything from Kalsaari silks to Far Western talismans and Eddonish clocks, and the roar of hagglers and criers never dies. The Dock Quarter is home to most of the inns, taverns, and public houses inside the city walls as well as innumerable warehouses, granaries, and stockyards built to store the flood of goods brought in every day from both the river and the sea. The Dock Quarter is but a thin band around the Merchant’s Quarter, which houses the Grand Bazaar, most of the businessmen and artisans of the city, as well as the Hannite Cathedral and the Saldorian Exchange—the first and single largest commodities and stock market in the West. Though the Dock Quarter does get rough after dark, the Defenders of the Balance are always nearby to contain anything that gets out of hand and crime within the Merchant’s Quarter is very uncommon, thanks to the vigilance of not only the Defenders but thousands of private security forces hired by the wealthy to safeguard both businesses and their assets. More importantly than numbers, though, is the fact that the Defenders employ a great many augurs who can predict crimes before they occur with remarkable skill and, even if they can’t prevent it from happening, they are very likely to catch the culprit. Saldor is a city full of wonders and swindlers, but very few cutpurses, the Prophets excepted.

When finally one passes out of the Merchant’s Quarter into the Magic Quarter, it feels as though you have entered another city entirely. Occupying the center of the city and stretching across two large hills, the Magic Quarter is beautiful and serene in the same way that the rest of Saldor is noisy and exciting. Here the streets, while narrow and winding in the rest of the city, widen out and are paved with white limestone, running in broad, straight avenues to the gates of the Arcanostrum itself. Public gardens and reflecting pools line the broad streets along with the palatial estates of the most respected magi in the world as well as the public library, many artifactories, a number of private universities, and the White Hospital — an enormous and well-equipped hospital funded by the White College of the Arcanostrum. At the heart of it all, of course, is the Arcanostrum itself. Built across several acres of land at the very center of the city and atop the ancient ruins of the Warlock King Spidrahk’s old fortress, the Arcanostrum is a bewildering array of parapets, towers, spires, arches and halls. Originally consisting of nothing but the enormous gray expanse of the Gray Tower, which reaches a mind-boggling eight-hundred feet into the air and is nearly 100 yards in diameter, the complex has been added to and renovated innumerable times throughout history, leaving a place more labyrinth than living area, filled with secret passages, magical portals, illusions, and long-forgotten booby traps. Many apprentices joke that the hardest part about the training here isn’t in the classrooms but in the corridors. This is not far from the truth, as a handful of initiates and apprentices and even a full mage, from time to time, disappear into the shadows of the Arcanostrum, never to be seen again. What makes the Arcanostrum even more imposing is the sheer magical nature to its structure. Built out of both mageglass, enchanted stone, and even more obscure mystical materials, the walls shimmer, the arches seem impossibly high, the spires are smooth as glass, and the gargoyles actually watch as you pass. From a distance, the Arcanostrum never seems to look the same way twice. Access to the Arcanostrum is restricted to those accepted into its halls as a student, and visitors are never permitted. Though only a ten-foot iron fence stands between the would-be trespasser and the grounds, few are brazen enough to wander into this intimidating structure to be among its even more intimidating inhabitants.

Militarily speaking, most of Saldor is protected by an ancient, fifty-foot tall stone wall without towers or gatehouses. Covered over by ivy and apparently overgrown, the ancient look of the wall belies its defensive power. Anyone scrying for sorcery near the wall will certainly remark how brightly they glow, and the stories of the people bear the evidence out. Legends speak of how the wall can grow to five times its height or that its ivy comes to life and strangles the attacking armies with poisonous thorns and terrible speed. Still others speak of a ghostly army entombed within the wall since the time of the First Arahkan War which, should the Keeper call upon them, will rise from the grave to strike down the Arcanostrum’s foes. As Saldor has not been under siege for nearly 700 years, no one but the Keeper might know for sure.

 

Culture and People

Saldorians are among the most cosmopolitan and well-educated people in Alandar, and they aren’t shy about showing it. Since this is the only place in the human world where anyone can be schooled for free, the citizens of this small, powerful nation are very often thought of as arrogant, meddling know-it-alls who keep trying to tell everybody how to live their lives. Foreigners see Saldor as a utopia that produces the worst kind of naïve social activists, self-righteous thinkers, and intellectual trouble-makers who don’t understand the very problems they keep trying to fix. On the plus side, Saldorians tend to be intelligent and morally forthright individuals with a strong sense of ethics and a willingness to help people that is not common in other cultures around the world. Perhaps it has something to do with their relative wealth, but it is also thanks to the kind of person who is drawn to Saldor in the first place.

Saldor is a country of pioneers. It may sound ridiculous to say that, given how the nation is nestled in the very bosom of one of the most ancient homelands of humanity, but being a pioneer doesn’t necessarily mean living in a cabin on the outskirts of civilization and fighting bears with pokk knives. Saldor is an environment that fostered intellectual pioneers. Free thought, free expression, and the freedom to improve oneself are all hallmarks of the Saldorian mindset and, as it happens, quite alien to just about everywhere else. Whereas Galaspiners, Illini, or Eddoners might follow orders, obey the law, or uphold tradition without thought, a Saldorian would almost certainly ask the questions ‘why obey these orders?’ or ‘is this law just?’ or ‘what purpose do these traditions serve?’ Saldorians believe very strongly that the best way to preserve the Balance is to be aware of the repercussions of one’s actions or the actions of a group in general. Every Saldorian schoolchild learns the lessons of the Warlock Kings’ hubris, the madness of renegade wizards, and the danger of a ruthless tyrant. These parables point out the danger of doing things without thought to consequences and the terrible price to be paid for trying to attain absolute power. No one is perfect, no single person is ultimately wise, and no one has the right to wield absolute power over another. To do these things endangers the Balance and, therefore, the world. The side-effect of this philosophy is that Saldorians are willing to do or try just about anything in the interest of learning more about the world and about the way in which is functions. It is their responsibility to know as much as they can about the world so that they may become responsible citizens in it. To them, there is no absolute evil or good in the world — all things have their place and their purposes, and no one really thinks they are evil or does things for the purpose of being bad. A naïve point of view in the human world, perhaps, but one that the Saldorians cling to.

Most Saldorians live in cities or large towns, with only the barest part of their population working the vineyards and farms that exist in the heartland of the country. They are a city people, and as such are very cosmopolitan, very clever, but very soft. Many have joked about how Saldorian armies never take the field because they are worried about getting muddy or how you can tell Saldorians on the trail by the number of them it takes to pitch a tent. Still, they are a people very willing to try new things and understand that which is foreign to them, and though they might fail a good amount at first, they are fast learners and appreciative students of the world. This irrepressible curiosity has served their people well throughout the centuries, and it is one of the few things that all those who come to Saldor share. After all, why would one move to Saldor from hundreds or even thousands of miles away if one weren’t the curious or adventuresome type?

Much to the disorientation of many who move to Saldor, Saldorian culture has very little in the way of unifying customs, celebrations, or traditions. Saldor is, instead, a mish-mash of foreign cultures fused together in one great societal morass. While one family might follow the Eddoner tradition of the massive dinner meal, they might also have the Illini’s faith in the Hannite Church and the Galaspiner love of sport. The home next door, on the other hand, might speak Southron among themselves, worship the Saints of the Northon Church, and possess the fierce nationalism of the Akrallians. Every Saldorian is a hereditary hybrid of any number of peoples from around the world, and every Saldorian family celebrates its own mix of these cultures. The only unifying factor in this is the Saldorian acceptance of all who are different and the respect for those who do not follow their own way. Anyone claiming to be a ‘native’ Saldorian is a liar — everyone, at some point, was a transplant.

 

Recent Events

It has never been a better time to be a Saldorian. Though Sahand’s armies cut a fiery swathe through the north of the country and its armed forces were largely decimated by the wars, the aftermath of said wars has benefited the tiny nation more than any other. The changes to how sorcery was to be made available to the general population has made Saldor the primary trading partner in the West – its economy is the hub of all western commerce. The amount of gold flowing through its streets coupled with its largely non-hierarchical government and economy has grown its population and brought the best (and the greediest) to its shores. This has caused some conflict with the old guard – those wealthy families that trace their lineage through centuries of Saldorian history – it has benefited the place in the long run. Ihyn and Freegate have, thanks to their reliance on trade, become virtual satellite states to Saldor’s almighty Exchange, where king’s ransoms are lost and made every day. There are those who say that there can only be so long that the country can ride so high, but if that is so, no Saldorian augur is willing to say so. The future is bright and increasingly gilded with gold.

A Full Count for the Elevator Pitcher

Arghhh!

Arghhh!

Attempt #1

My book is called The Oldest Trick. It’s about Tyvian Reldamar, criminal mastermind, who is betrayed by his partner and then has this ring put on his finger that makes him do only good things. Then he needs to get revenge doing only good things.

God, that’s awful – nobody will think I’m a competent writer with a mealy pile of words like that. Try again.

Attempt #2

The Oldest Trick is about Tyvian Reldamar, criminal mastermind and smuggler of the arcane. He’s been betrayed  by his partner and afflicted with a magic ring that won’t let him misbehave. Now he wants revenge, but how do you get revenge without misbehavior?

Not bad, I guess. Too long, though. I’ve lost my theoretical ‘standing in an elevator making small talk’ audience. Of course, one wonders how someone with so sharply curtailed an attention span is going to read a book serialized into two parts, anyway. Hrmmm…

Attempt #3

The Oldest Trick is about a criminal mastermind, Tyvian Reldamar, and his quest for revenge while being cursed by a magic ring that only lets him do good things.

Meh. It’s okay. Succinct, anyway. Straightforward.

It occurs to me that I haven’t mentioned the genre. Dammit.

Attempt #4

The Oldest Trick is an epic fantasy about criminal mastermind Tyvian Reldamar and his quest to secure revenge against his former partner all while under the curse of a magic ring that won’t let him do bad things.

Yeah, that’s not bad. Wait…isn’t there other stuff I need to mention here? Like the publisher and the release date and stuff? Dammit!

Attempt #5

My debut novel, The Oldest Trick, is an epic fantasy about Tyvian Reldamar, criminal mastermind, and his quest for revenge while afflicted with a magic ring that won’t let him do bad things. It will be released in February 2015 from Harper Voyager.

Hmmmm…that’s pretty good. Still, I can streamline a bit.

Attempt #6

My debut novel, The Oldest Trick, is an epic fantasy about criminal mastermind Tyvian Reldamar and his quest for revenge while cursed with a magic ring that won’t let him do bad things. It will be released in February 2015 from Harper Voyager.

Yeah…yeah, I like it. Not too bad. Now I just need to memorize this thing for the next time somebody asks what my book is about. What I usually do is sputter for a while about how it’s fantasy but not like Game of Thrones except kind of only not really.

And let’s not even get into the part where I try to explain how the first book is serialized into two volumes (Part 1 to be released in February, Part 2 to be released in June 2015) but is really a single story and that it’s true sequel (All That Glitters) is scheduled for release sometime in Fall 2015.

Really, all this would be easier if I could just hand people a USB drive with a five minute powerpoint presentation on it. Or themed buttons. Or business cards with all of this printed in very, very small type.

Deep breaths, Auston. Deep breaths.