I say to you, fiction writers, that you should read poetry. Of all genres and types of writing, poetry is its base medium. It is the ether through which the constructed orbs of our cosmos spin. Read it, I enjoin you.
But I Don’t Like Poetry!
Nonsense. You call yourself a writer? You claim to tell stories? How can you work in a medium you do not love? The carpenter knows wood – the grain and the shape of it, the taste of the dust on his lips, how it bends and how it cuts. So, too, does the writer know words – how they tumble from lips and collect in ears. How they take root.
I say to you: You already love poetry. You must. It is the purest form of words. There would be no engineers without Euclid and Pythagoras; there would be no writers without Homer.
Reading and Understanding Poetry is Difficult!
How is it a writer can fear challenge and yet still write? Where are the laurels for you to rest on, novelist? Few and far between, I say – a poor bed. You do not rest – you strive. You face rejection and heartache with every sunrise, yet still you go on. Can you tell me you quail at verse? Verse is as life is – a challenge, filled with rejection and heartache. Do not tell me that you fear it; I know that you do not. I have seen your grim resolve in the dark of night, pecking at a keyboard, singing in your head far away.
Poetry Doesn’t Do Anything For Me – I Like Things To Be Concrete!
Concrescence does not fall from the sky in lumps, God’s gift to writers. Stories congeal – a word here, a phrase there, a character’s face in a dream. How does this happen save in the subconscious? Are we not plumbers of dreams? I say this: in verse you will find your images unshakeable, defiant of story, for you to tame and shape. In verse we can be dreaming awake; we can note in the margins of nightmares.
I Only Like Poetry That Rhymes!
Philistine. Luddite. Fool. Do you still read Beverly Cleary? Are you enamored always with Hungry Caterpillars? Do you mark your days with bars of Twinkle Twinkle? There was a time when you thought the people in the television were real, when monsters would chase you in the basement, when Santa Claus watched. As we grow, our vision broadens. We learn. We taste the variety of the world. You would deny this opportunity to poetry, and why?
Fear, I say. Cowardice. Ignorance. Expect more from yourself.
I Don’t Know Anything About Poetry!
Education is the seed of all things. Go forth and read. Let the poets sing to you, let them curse you, let them bore you and chide you. Grow. There is no storyteller that didn’t go exploring in spite of fear. Swallow it down, and let the verse crash upon you.
Part of writing successfully is learning to be self-directed and self-motivated. A substantial portion of the rest of it is being stubborn and having an iron-clad self-esteem. Writing is a solitary endeavor, ultimately, no matter which online writers’ groups or communities you ascribe to. The act itself is performed alone – you and the blank screen, mano a mano. You spend a lot of time there, just you and that screen. You spend maybe even more time sending your stuff out into the world and having it rejected, over and over again. If you cannot rely on yourself to gird your loins and do it, over and over, in the face of universal rejection, you will never be a writer.
But let’s suppose, for a second, you do manage to pull it off. You get acceptances. Maybe you win an award or two. You score a book deal. You have editors sending you feedback. You’ve trusted your instincts and it got you this far.
How, then, do you take advice?
It’s a rather amazing problem, actually. You find yourself wondering where the heck was all this helpful advice when you were at rock-bottom and nobody would give you the time of day. Now everybody’s a critic, and you’re not sure what to do. You’ve spent a long time not listening to the peanut gallery since it was populated by peanuts at that point. Now there’s some fancy-pants pistachio nuts giving you a review, and you gotta wonder whether you listen or whether you stick with what you know: namely yourself.
Me, I want advice, but not just any advice. The two sentences of critique tossed off by an editorial assistant as they blaze through a slushpile certainly beats the advice you’re likely to get from your aunt, but that still doesn’t mean it’s gospel. So much of this business is opinion and taste anyway (once you get past a certain point). A metaphor about opinions and assholes comes to mind.
Then again, what kind of arrogant prick doesn’t take well-meaning advice and think about it, regardless of source? So maybe you don’t read those self-help guides and how-to books on how to write, but that doesn’t make their advice magically worthless. Maybe there’s wisdom to be had there. Maybe. Do you pass your story around for critique? Sure, I guess. Listen to what they have to say. But, then again, you have to be honest with yourself: if you don’t plan on listening to what other people think, isn’t it disingenuous to ask them for help?
For me, I usually only ask for help when I am genuinely unsure. Say I’ve written a thing and I know it can be better but I’m not sure what’s wrong – that’s when I ask for readers. If I read and am certain this is the story I wanted to write, I don’t always ask people to look it over. Perhaps this is bull-headed and foolish of me, but if there’s one thing I’ve seldom lacked in my life, it is self-confidence (for good or ill). Of course, I still need help – everybody does, after all – but where to get it and from whom to accept it isn’t always clear. When you’ve spent this long walking alone, it’s hard to evaluate new companions.
Ultimately, I come back to Aristotle, who once wrote:
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Listen to those who are trying to help you – all of them. Ask for help when you need it, but always remember that you don’t need to listen to the advice you don’t need. The trick is being able to tell that stuff from the stuff that is absolutely essential.
Hey, everybody! I’m back! Bad news first: I didn’t finish everything I wanted to in the summer. Good News: I have a short story out in Analog‘s November 2014 issue, available now! Check it out here!
Presumably, at some point there will be hard copies for sale somewhere (at least I *think* so), or maybe you need to buy a subscription, but whatever. If you have a Kindle or similar e-reader (which at this point includes everybody except my mom) go and read my story “Mercy, Killer” in there! You’ll like it, I promise (oh, and being one of the top scifi markets in the business, the other stories are pretty good, too).
Stay tuned for more actual content on this blog in the coming weeks. For now, you’ll have to settle for going out into the world and reading my fiction. Life is hard sometimes.
The common image of the famed pirate Wilfredo Guzman, or “One-Eyed Willie”, is that of a ruthless and cunning buccaneer, defying the English fleet and amassing a grand fortune only to be discovered centuries later in the caves near Astoria, Oregon. What history tells us about the man, however, paints a significantly different picture. As Willy’s ship, Inferno, flees up the California coast in 1632, pursued by a Spanish (not English) fleet sent to capture him, we come to understand that this fearsome pirate was a desperate man on the run and just barely in control of his crew. The acts that resulted in his death, made so famous by their sheer perversity, merely underscore this fact.
To understand Wilfredo Guzman, one also has to understand the Spain of the early 17th century. Despite the wealth of silver and gold crossing the Atlantic into royal coffers, Spain was a nation in significant debt, having taken on significant loans to pursue wars against both the English and Dutch. Though the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) bolstered Spanish confidence in their armies, the Castilian economy essentially collapsed under the weight of its debt in 1627. Many portions of the army (and navy) were forced to pay themselves, as tax collection was fruitless and the Spanish armies too far flung.
Here, we can see where Guzman fits. A Spanish naval officer by diction and evident training, he likely found himself without the means to maintain his ship or pay for his crew. Accordingly, driven by a bitterness that we can only speculate upon, he and his ship went rogue, turned to piracy, and began to raid Spain’s own treasure fleets. As has been extracted from Guzman’s own log, he was “taking his due” – payment for service that he had given the crown, but that the crown had refused to pay for.
Spanish captains in the 17th century possessed top secret knowledge, very much akin to naval captains of today. In the 17th century, before the development of longitude and good maps, crossing the Pacific Ocean could be a suicidal venture. The Spanish had discovered the ideal latitude for crossing the ocean without starving to death, and this latitude was a state secret entrusted only to its naval captains. This, along with working knowledge of how Spanish treasure fleets operated, their common routes, and the rest of it, was the primary factor in “One-Eyed Willy’s” success. He was a threat to the Spanish crown unlike any other – one of their own, turned against them – so it is hardly surprising that Phillip IV commissioned a fleet of five ships of the line to hunt Guzman down.
Guzman’s own log records how they finally caught him. Taking on stores in California prior to heading west to raid in the Philippines, the five Spanish vessels found Guzman and Inferno unprepared for a fight. That they escaped prior to being caught and destroyed at anchor is a testament to Guzman’s crew, but without sufficient stores to cross the Pacific and the Spanish approaching from the south, his direction of flight was clear – north, along the coast. He had to know where it would all end, as did his crew.
Any study of piracy during its heyday in the 17th and early 18th centuries shows how precarious it was to be a captain of a vessel of cutthroats and thieves. While Guzman may have begun his pirate adventures with a crew of loyal Spanish sailors, by 1632 the dynamic had changed. Loyal, God-fearing Spanish subjects had been largely replaced with the kind of mercenaries and reavers suited to this lifestyle. If Guzman set sail with a crew of loyal subjects, he now found himself the master of a crew of jackals. What’s more, Guzman was notoriously stingy with Spanish gold and silver, stating in his log that “I cannot bear to see this coin spent by so lowly an example of men as God has seen fit to inflict upon the Earth.” It may be that Guzman was hording the wealth scored from Spanish galleons for some grander purpose – perhaps even as a means of buying his way back into the good graces of the King – but his crew knew he was holding out on them, and they weren’t happy about it. At the prospect of facing a hopeless flight north, one can imagine their enthusiasm for Guzman and his leadership waned even further.
It was probably a demand of the crew, then, that Guzman attempt to take shelter in the cave near Astoria. It was a desperate tactic, to be sure – akin to backing oneself into an alley and pointing your lone gun at the entrance. Due to the comparatively shallow draft of Inferno, only it could negotiate the waters near the inlet, so any bombardment from the Spanish would have to be conducted over long range and Guzman’s crew, being the better gunners, might have stood a chance of outshooting them. There was an even better chance, of course, of the Spanish failing to see them at all and merely passing by. Again, Guzman’s log explains how it all came to pass:
August 9, 1632
No sooner have we dropped anchor than some portion of the men decide to abandon ship. Led by Marstrom and Diego. I will not permit the boats to be lowered, not in the face of the enemy who, even now, was less than a mile distant on the other side of the point. That fool Diego took a shot at me. Killed him and the rest, but it was too late. The report must have been heard by the Spanish. They came to finish us.
The Spanish, seeing Willie holed up in a cave on a distant and savage shore, saw a better solution than sinking the Inferno. They merely blew up the cave, collapsing it on top of him, and left him for dead.
Fate, though, had spared the ship actual damage. Guzman and his mutinous crew were simply trapped. This is where the legend really takes off. Long has it been supposed that One-Eyed Willy and his crew spent years thusly entombed, burrowing like moles in the earth. This, however, seems unlikely given the state of their provision and the onset of winter a few months after their capture. Likely, the actual story is more compact. The natural cave systems surrounding ‘Willie’s Inlet’ would have already been intact and escape would have been a mere matter of exploration and the occasional application of gunpowder (a substance they had no lack of). But even when gaining the surface, where to then? Orgeon was well beyond any European settlement or trading post. Guzman and his crew faced a wilderness full of savages and wild animals as well as a cold northwestern winter. They had no ship to escape with and very little likelihood of encountering any such ship in the near future. They were marooned, as surely as if they had been left on a desert island.
It was in the name of defense that Guzman convinced his crew to construct the elaborate series of booby traps that protected the way to his ship. Someone aboard – possibly Guzman, but more likely one of his more trustworthy officers – was an engineer by training, and so the great work began, probably taking some months and probably lasting through the winter. Exposure, disease, and starvation probably took its share of the crew, which likely suited Guzman just fine, as his plan was never survival. He writes in his log that he would rather die than be reduced to living ‘in a hut with savages’ and swears that he would ‘sail once more’. This, incidentally, was Guzman’s last entry in his log, dated in late March, 1633.
By this point, the map had been made, the key fashioned, and they had been allowed to escape from the tunnels of the pirates – and on purpose, mind you. Guzman wanted to be found, and nowhere is this more evident than in the quality of the map itself – a map drawn not in the scratchy hand of a buccaneer, but in the careful, meticulous detail of a naval officer. It included sounding depths of the surrounding waters, a near perfect representation of the Astoria coastline, and all the other indications that it was Guzman’s map to a treasure that he had no need to find himself, as he lived with it.
The winter must have made it clear to Guzman that he would never sail Inferno under his own direction again. Too many crew had either died or abandoned him and, very likely, the last few tried to make off with the treasure, and so Guzman and his inner circle killed them all. It is they that were found in the captain’s cabin, gathered around the table, piled with gold. These last vestiges of Spanish nobility, possibly his lieutenants from his naval days. Analysis of the cups on the table implies they may have drank poison together – one last drink. One wonders what they discussed. They must have been aware of Guzman’s plan at that point – his final laugh in the face of his royal Spanish enemies.
That final slap of defiance, however, seems to have come far later than Guzman probably suspected. It was not until 1985 that a few of my friends and I finally gave Willy that moment he wanted: the Inferno sailing out from its supposed tomb, proud and beautiful, in defiance of a Spanish king now several centuries dead.
~Professor Michael Walsh, PhD, Portland State University
I just finished reading Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. I really enjoyed the book (the pacing at the start was a bit frenetic, but I’m quibbling), but one of the best parts was a simply brilliant twist at the end of the novel that I genuinely didn’t see coming. As I usually see these things coming, I thought it was incredibly cool. I refuse to spoil it – go out and read the book. It’s about necromantic bankruptcy lawyers, but rather than resurrecting businesses, they resurrect dead gods. What I’ve just described is just the barest sliver of the originality of the book, so if that sounds intriguing, go and read the whole thing.
Anyway, back to twists:
A good plot twist or surprise ending has to fulfill two requirements:
- The audience must not see it coming.
- When it arrives, it should be obvious that it was there the whole time.
Think of that moment in The Shawshank Redemption – you know the one – and go back to that moment if you can. You’ve got this big, gaping, awestruck look on your face, because it’s been in front of you the whole time, and you never saw it. Now that you see it, you can’t un-see it. With a simple flourish, the author has changed the way you understand the entire work from now until forever. It’s a magic trick.
These tricks are hard to pull off, let me tell you. I’ve tried to do it a lot, and I’m uncertain if I’ve been truly successful yet. I mean, sure, anybody can put in a twist, but most of the time those are twists that alert readers see coming. That’s fine, of course – they’re still fun – but what we’re really going for is that completely, flabbergasting-ly amazing twist that catches us flat-footed. I think of it as a derivation of Chekhov’s Gun: not only must the gun go off in the second act, you must also make certain nobody pays any attention to the gun even though they can plainly see it. Sleight of hand (or word, if you will) is needed to make this happen.
This is very hard in a novel or a story. In order for your to tell someone something is present, you need to write about it in the text. If you’ve written about it, the audience, by definition, has looked at and thought about it (however briefly). Your job as the author is to get them to temporarily forget that they read about the thing (by misdirecting their attention elsewhere) but not have them forget about it so completely that, by the time the payoff comes, they won’t remember having read it. It’s a delicate balancing act of how much and in what context to mention a thing so that it sits there, just on the periphery of the audience’s mind, waiting to be summoned. Telegraph too much and they’ll see it coming, but not enough and they will forget all about it and your twist won’t seem earned.
Anybody who can do this to me has my admiration as a writer. I (and my wife) have a pretty incredible track record of predicting things will happen in shows and books and movies before they do. Character deaths are particularly easy to predict by using what I call plot calculus. It works for other things, too: add up all the story elements that need to fall into place and, by process of elimination, you can see what will happen next with alarming accuracy. Gladstone, in Three Parts Dead, though, does such a good job of involving so many different factors and interests that you won’t see the twist coming a mile away. That is very hard to manage and it is, to my mind, the difference between a writer who is merely good and one that is legitimately great at managing audience expectations. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m working at it. In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Max Gladstone, and so should you.
Ruling the better part of the fertile Trell River Valley, Galaspin is country of adventurers, entrepreneurs, explorers, and craftsmen who have forged for themselves and impressively stable, if somewhat corrupt, nation in an area coveted by everyone from nurlings to Dellorans to the distant arahk. While not as wealthy as Eretheria, powerful as Akral, large as Eddon, or influential as Saldor, Galaspin has established its reputation on its good relationship with the prickly Guilds of Freegate and its undying devotion to the Arcanostrum and the Alliance — two connections that have served it well over the centuries. Known as the “terriers of the West” Galaspin’s greatest export — heroes — has placed its name in the annals of every history book from Eddon to Obrinport.
Galaspin is not a feudal kingdom in the manner of Eretheria or Akral. The Duke of Galaspin is the supreme ruler of the territory—he makes the laws, he levies the army, he collects the taxes. There are no ‘noble’ houses here, and the title of ‘knight’ or ‘baron’ is simply an indication of a level of service to the Duke, bestowed upon whomsoever His Grace sees as fit to fulfill the position at hand. Barons serve as executive overseers of certain areas of country, usually working from a home base in a castle or small town with a series of knights underneath them as deputies, and act with the Duke’s full authority, though they are not allowed to supercede that authority in any way. The Duke is advised by the Parliament of Guilds—an association of guild leaders (called ‘Guild Lords’) that keeps the Duke appraised of the economic and social needs of the people. Though they have no actual power in Galaspin political life, the Guild Lords represent a large, wealthy, and influential group of people who, if angered, could cause serious trouble for a headstrong Duke and possibly even have him overthrown. This, in theory, keeps the Duke somewhat in check and makes sure that he pays attention to his people…that is, in theory anyway.
In practice, Galaspiner politics is far less cut-and-dry. Though the Duke does hold sway in all matters of state, the Dukes of Galaspin have been, by and large, great admirers of a laissez-faire philosophy of government. Though the Duke’s barons will keep the peace and ensure that life runs smoothly, all it takes for an enterprising individual to get the law to look the other way is to put a little money in the local baron’s coffers. Known as paying ‘right tribute,’ such bribes are perfectly legal in Galaspin, so long as the Duke gets his cut. Of course, Galaspiner law is designed to require as many of these bribes as possible, meaning that there are de facto rules and regulations governing just about every possible aspect of society. Want to build a house larger than 10’ x 10’? Pay right tribute. Want to sink a well on your farm deeper than 12’ 6”? Pay right tribute. Want to get married without a local knight coming to ‘inspect’ the bride? Pay right tribute. The size of these tributes is largely dependent on what the briber can afford, though being unfriendly with the local baron can cause a Galaspiner incredible headaches as they find the cost to own so much as a single horse and saddle is exorbitant.
Despite the inherent corruption in the system, rare are the instances when a baron is able to abuse or exploit those beneath him without repercussions. Repercussions take the form of the guilds that blanket every facet of common life in Galaspin. Just about anybody a baron seeks tribute from is likely a member of one guild or another (or is relatives with someone who is), be it the Bakers’ Guild, the Smiths’ Guild, or even the Thieves’ Guild. If a guild finds that a local baron is abusing his power or being needlessly harsh to a guild member, the local Guild Lord will often loan the victim the money to pay off the baron, place sanctions on the baron’s household, or, in rare instances, hire private mercenaries to intimidate or even kill the troublesome lord. At least once every few years there is an instance where a headstrong or foolish knight crosses the wrong guild and winds up being challenged to a duel with a scarred old mercenary and *poof!* , no more knight. As if this set of checks and balances weren’t enough, the Duke himself keeps a corps of professional soldiers on retainer. Should any civil unrest get out of hand, the Ducal Guard are quickly on the scene to put a stop to it in a bloody confrontation. Usually Guild Lords and barons do everything in their power to avoid this kind of trouble, settling their differences as peaceably as possible to evade the Duke’s attention.
Much of how smoothly the Galaspiner government runs is dependent on the capabilities of the Duke (or Duchess) him/herself. Galaspin’s history is filled with tales of both wise and cruel Dukes who have brought the country both to the heights of prosperity or the depths of famine and war. Succession in Galaspin is hereditary, and the closest to a ‘noble’ class that Galaspin has is in how closely one’s family is related to the Duke’s. Should a Duke die with no heirs, the ducal historians will search the birth records until such time as they can find the next closest relative, who will then become Duke. Succession has proceeded in this manner without interruption since the nation’s founding some 1200 years ago, and, barring any unforeseen catastrophe, it will likely continue in this vein, as well. The current Duke, Umbar Greathand II, has four sons, all in great health, and Umbar’s direct line has been in power for better than three centuries. They have ruled wisely, and are respected, if not liked, by their people.
Diplomatically speaking, Galaspin is one of the most important nations in the Alliance. Through Galaspin, the Alliance has the ear of one of the most cantankerous governments in the world: the Free City of Freegate. The relationship between Freegate and the Galaspin predates the founding of the Duchy itself, during the First Arahkan War, where refugees from both Galaspin and the Dragonspine were fleeing the Arahk. Much is written about how the Galaspiners helped the mountain people survive outside of their beloved mountains and how the mountainfolk, in turn, sold their lives defending Galaspiner civilians that had given them shelter. Following the end of the war, where Galaspin soldiers and mountain chieftains had fought side by side, the Great Mountain King granted a rare audience with the Chieftain of the Valley, where the two rulers, it is reported, struck up a grand friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Since that time, the mountain folk (and the Freegaters that descended from them) and the Galaspiners have gained a lot from one another. The guilds of Freegate sell the humans raw iron ore and worked metal goods while, in turn, the Galaspiners give Freegate access to such lowland fineries as steak, wine, grain, and a magical assistance (should they need it). Galaspin’s famed bodyguards have been known to work for traveling Freegate merchants just as a pair of veteran Freegate advisors always attend the Duke in matters of finance or diplomacy. Also, the close relationship between the two peoples through the years has led to the intermingling of cultures. It is not by chance that the Guild Lords hold such sway over Galaspin, nor is it an accident that native Freegaters model their military training and education after Galaspiner models.
Finally, though it is important to mention the Galaspiner relationship with Freegate, one must remember that it isn’t to the Guilds but to Saldor that Galaspin owes its allegiance. As the first nation to pledge its support the Arcanostrum, Galaspin has been its most stalwart defender since time immemorial. It was Galaspin’s ancestors that bled to defend Saldor from the arahk of the First Arahkan War, Galaspin that marched against the Nurlings when Oodnar the Goblin King ravaged the land, and Galaspin that guarded the Aranostrum from Ihynish occupation during the Akrallian Wars. Where Saldor goes, so too goes Galaspin. This, of course, has its benefits. Mage Towers (Arcanostrum-accredited magical institutions) can be found scattered across the Duchy, magical items tend to be cheaper there than elsewhere, and Galaspiners are very popular in Saldor as a rule. Also, more Galaspin natives have ascended to the office of Keeper than any other single nationality—a fact that drives Akral crazy.
Land and Points of Interest
Galaspin is almost wholly located in the Trell River Valley, the city itself perched at the split of the Trell and Magis Rivers in the heart of this fertile area. Like Eretheria to its west, southern Galaspin’s climate is mild and its growing season long, and Galaspin farms grow a variety of crops—everything from wheat in the heartlands to cranberries in the south, apple orchards in the northwest to sheep and goats on the slopes of the Dragonspine in the east. Though less densely populated than Eretheria, Galaspin is a highly civilized nation, with good roads, frequent taverns and villages along the major highways. Its network of defensive towers and forts, however, were mostly destroyed when the Mad Prince Sahand invaded the country during the Illini/Delloran wars and have yet to be entirely rebuilt due to a variety of political reasons.
Due to this under-build defensive infrastructure Galaspin is nowhere near as safe and secure as its western neighbors. The Duchy is tied with Illin as the second most dangerous place in the Alliance (the first being Eddon, of course), as Galaspin’s borders are teeming with all manner of dangers. To the north lies the region of wilderness between the Dragonspine and the Great Forest that stretches north all the way to Dellor. This has long been a haven for bandits, raiders, trolls, nurlings, and others who strike south to attack the trade routes headed for Trell’s Pass and Freegate. Furthermore, the mountains are a constant source of nurling threat. Finally, thanks to its status as a sort of crossroads for everyone heading from West to North or vice versa, Galaspin is a haven for mercenary bands of all sizes and descriptions. While some of these bands are legitimate and behave themselves, many more cause as much civil unrest and pose as great a threat to the Duchy as they do bolster the Duchy’s defenses. The Ducal Guard, assisted by local knights, are constantly attempting to regulate and reign in these sometimes dangerous groups, but attacks on villages and towns occur nevertheless. Because of this, it is unusual to find a Galaspiner who does not go about armed with at least a quarterstaff, dagger, or poniard to aid in his or her defense should a nurling pop out of a hole or a mercenary challenge him to a duel.
Finally, though they share only a short border with Isara’Nyil, Galaspin has no more cordial a relationship with the woodkin than do the Eretherians. Unlike the Eretherians, however, Galaspin is always attempting to rectify this situation, hoping in their eternally optimistic and determined way, that they might be granted logging rights to portions of the forest. Their overtures have gone unanswered for at least the last 1000 years, but who knows? As they say here: By tomorrow, today will be yesterday, and that changes everything.
The City of Galaspin: Resting astride the great Trell River, the city of Galaspin is a bustling hub of trade and commerce that is populated by some 56,000 people. Split as it is by the river, the city is segmented into two regions—Eastbank and Westbank. The majority of the indigenous population makes its home in Eastbank, where the government offices, guild halls, and local Magetower can be found, as well as the Freegate Embassy (also known as the Freegate Exchange). Westbank is the haven for most people just passing through the territory, and is home to most of the inns, stables, marketplaces, and is also where the heaviest fortifications are to be found.
Though technically part of the same city, the two parts of Galaspin are entirely capable of existing independently of one another in the case of a siege. Each has its own walls and guardhouses as well as their own barracks, though the barracks of Westbank are the larger of the two. The four bridges that span the Trell River are constructed to be not only sturdy but also easily destroyed in case one half is taken by an invading army, as happened during the nurling wars (to this day Westbank is still referred to as ‘Goblintown’ by Eastbankers). The stonework of these bridges, as well as the walls themselves, have all been constructed by the best civil engineers the Guilds can produce, and are therefore considered among the most imposing battlements in the west. The streets are designed to wind and a turn, making it difficult for an attacking force to advance, and every ten houses in both halves of the city are made of fortified stone. These houses are built at strategic points throughout the city’s design and could be used as a guard post or small keep in times of trouble. These houses, known as ‘keystones,’ are quite large and are usually owned by wealthy merchants, guild members, or occasionally are used as official buildings like hospitals, libraries, courthouses, temples, or schools. Most impressive among Galaspin’s defenses, however, is the Duke’s keep, known as the Stonewatch. Built on a stone promontory jutting out from the center of the Trell itself, the Stonewatch is a relatively small but intensely vertical fortress of stone battlements and grim turrets. Perhaps only 100 yards across at its base, the keep reaches 650 feet into the sky, towering over the rest of the city. Connected by only a small dock to receive riverboats, the Stonewatch rests a full 300 yards from either bank of the river and is considered un-assailable by most military commanders—a fact the nurlings discovered to their intense dismay during the Wars of the Goblin King.
Beyond its defensible nature, Galaspin has much more to offer a casual visitor. Though many complain about how crowded the city can get within its imposing walls, the bright side of this is that there is always something happening in Galaspin. Westbank is a constant bustle of traffic either from the river or the two highways that meet here. Fighting halls hold exhibitions all night, the taverns never close, and it is said that the brothels of Galaspin have no equal. This is truly a traveler’s town, and most of the people here are only passing through. Across the river in Eastbank is one of the few places in the world where people can witness Thostering mercenaries patrolling the streets in force and the guild halls are among the best places in the world for a mercenary to find work. Every morning, scores of sellswords cross the river to peruse the posting boards outside of all the major guildhalls as well as a few permanent kiosks where wealthy members of Galaspin society seek to hire adventurous men and women for various purposes. Those who can’t read are advised to hire a scribe once over the river for the low cost of 1 Mark a day (or 3m for one who tells the truth).
All those who travel to Galaspin should plan to have money on-hand. Taxes and surcharges are everywhere for the foreign visitor—charges to enter the gates, charges to travel the river, charges to cross the bridges, charges to wear a weapon, and so on and so forth. The Ducal Guard is quite efficient at exacting these taxes, and those who refuse to pay are usually ejected from the city and not re-admitted. Of course, even if one does manage to pay all the official charges, the cost of things in Westbank like lodging and food is often exorbitant when compared to cities like Akral or even Saldor. Finally, there is the local Thieves’ Guild, the Whisperers, to deal with. Known for having some of the most skilled pick-pockets in the world, the Whisperers exact a tax of their own on most travelers coming to Galaspin and make sure to pay right tribute to the Duke for the privilege. In the end, many foreigners are content to leave Galaspin as soon as they can, thinking it a den of thieves and corruption, but to the natives it is a city of plenty and the safest place for thousands of miles. They are both right.
Culture and People
If there is one trait that has come to define Galaspiners over the years, it is tenacity. Attributed to their mountain folk heritage, Galaspiners are never ones to give up, even if something seems impossible. They are incurable optimists and plucky souls, constantly challenging the accepted limits of what ‘can’ and ‘should’ be done. To a Galaspiner, the only thing between you and an impossible task is the conception that it is impossible. In this way, Galaspiners can be both encouraging and annoying to others, who really don’t want to hear about how if they ‘put their heads together’ they can defeat that encroaching arahk band with a pair of shovels and a bedroll.
The people of Galaspin believe very strongly in the idea of the ‘team-player.’ Intensely competitive, Galaspiners recognize the need to stay on top of the competition and, in their view, the best way to do that is to get together with your friends and family and work together to overcome obstacles. In a way, the whole of Galaspin politics is a version of this tactic. The Duke runs the show by recruiting the best and brightest to levy his taxes and police his borders. The Guild Lords do much the same thing, only in competition with the Duke—looking out for their own, keeping the Duke out of their business, and so on. Each side works together to keep the upper hand over the other side, and in this way the whole thing stays fairly balanced. Galaspiners are game players and competitors, not conquerors. Though the Guilds might conspire to have a knight discredited or even killed, they rarely act towards the knight with rancor—he’s just doing his job, and they’re just doing theirs. While this may seem cold-blooded, Galaspiners just think of it as the way the world works. If he didn’t want to accept the risks of being a knight, then he shouldn’t have gotten into the whole knighthood racket in the first place.
This competitive aspect to Galaspiner society works on every level. Every village is a web of inter-village rivalries—who is the best baker, who is the strongest man, who is the best mother, etc., etc.. Village and even regional competitions are common, and most people throw themselves into them with gusto. By competing to the best of their ability, Galaspiners see themselves as not only improving their skills but also showing respect for one’s opponents whom, again, the Galaspiner does not see as an enemy, but rather a fellow competitor in the great game of life. Everybody remember that, even though you may have lost the smithing competition today, tomorrow you may be asked to stand next to your rival and protect the village from marauders and the day after that you might need to work with the marauders to stave off a nurling invasion. Every Galaspiner has multiple levels of allegiance—first to the family, then to the village, then to the guild or Duke, and then to humanity in general. Competition is fine, but when trouble comes knocking, Galaspiners are the first to cast aside petty disputes and attack the new problem head on as a unified whole.
The end result of all this guild competition is that Galaspin produces some of the finest manufactured goods in all of the world. While Akrallian woodwork might be more fashionable or even more beautiful, a piece of Galaspin furniture will last you a lifetime and never break, warp, or rot. Galaspin blades are the finest in the West, Galaspin artists are the most acclaimed, and Galaspin stonemasons are sought after by all the noble houses of the Alliance. While the things they make may not be as flashy or expensive as those made in other places, anything bearing the stamp of a Galaspin guild is sure to be of the highest quality. By that same token, Galaspin mercenaries and bodyguards are regarded as some of the best to be had anywhere. Their intense natures and never-say-die attitude as well as their willingness to work in a team means that they are both effective and professional soldiers. Finally, Galaspiner diplomats and traders are known for their terrier-like fortitude when negotiating either treaties or prices and, while not necessarily as shrewd their Illinian or Ihynish counterparts, are well known and respected by their peers worldwide.
In their private lives, Galaspiners are usually jovial and outgoing, always trying to organize some kind of contest, wager, or game. Great lovers of tests of skill in all arenas, Galaspin is known for the popularity of its physical sporting events (like ring fighting or spirited contact sports like charger or baffle-ball) and games of intellect (magestones, sel’narn, bastions, etc.). Honor in contest is stressed in all these situations, and most Galaspiners are both gracious in victory and dignified in defeat. “You can judge a loser by the color of his face” is a common saying in this nation, where it is considered bad form to hold grudges against someone who beat you fair-and-square. Cheating is the ultimate sin in Galaspin, and anyone who would think to accuse someone of this vile act had best be prepared to duel to the death. Also taboo is giving up—to forfeit a contest is the ultimate sign of weakness and cowardice here, and anyone who does so endangers losing the respect of everyone he or she knows. In the end, the only way to repair such damage is to cheer up, get your act together, and come out swinging next time even if there is no way you can win.
Finally, another prominent facet of Galaspin society, though hardly exclusive to this realm, is the duel. Though, in a perfect world, Galaspin would be a land or good-natured competition and rivalry without rancor, exceptions are not uncommon. Many a heated game of charger has ended with one team or the other feeling as though their honor was insulted or, worse, they were cheated out of victory. Though laws do exist to police such incidents, it is far more likely that the matter will be settled by dueling. Though cheating necessitates a duel to the death, most duels are simply fought until one party can no longer stand. Dueling may be done with any weapons (or even magic) that the two parties agree upon, and, should one of the parties die during the fight, the winner is expected to pay the loser’s funeral expenses. Furthermore, it is technically required that an officer of the Duke be on hand to officiate, though in practice this is just so the officer can demand right tribute on the Duke’s behalf. This is accepted as both an attempt to discourage the duel and an aspect of the great game the Duke and his citizens play every day.
Galaspin was hit hard by the Illini Wars. Arguably nowhere besides Illin suffered so much as a result of the war that rocked the west a little over a quarter century ago. When Illin and Rhond were attacked by the Kalsaari Empire, the Duke of Galaspin was the first to offer his support. No levy was issued – when news spread of their ally under attack, Galaspiners young and old flocked to their local barons, volunteering for service in the army. Galaspiner mercenary companies also set sail across the Syrin to fight for the Alliance (and earn some coin in the process). Galaspiner infantry was of crucial importance in every major engagement in Illin, from the defense of the Dreaming City itself, to the pivotal Charge of Atrisia. Conrad Varner, High General of the West, said of his Galaspiner regiments: I’ll take one Galaspin footman walking in worn boots over any five Eretherian gentlemen in pretty saddles on any day of the week. He meant it – when Varner went to battle, he went on foot among the Galaspiners who bled for him. No Galaspiner has ever forgotten this. To speak ill of “The General” (as Varner is known) in this land is to find oneself in a fight before you finish your sentence.
There is a reason for their reverence that goes beyond Illin and Rhond. Whilst the flower of Galaspin youth and the balance of its military might fought for the Alliance across the sea, the Mad Prince Banric Sahand of Dellor invaded Galaspin from the north. He sacked towns. He put men to the sword. He burned villages. The whole of the Duchy fell beneath his merciless bootheel; he managed to claim the Stonewatch by treachery, and held the old Duke’s children and grandchildren hostage. He threatened the Galaspin bannermen that, should any of them set foot in their home country again, he would strap Duke Umbar I’s infanty granddaughter, Maya, to a trebuchet and “see how far she sails.” For this reason, even after the end of the war in Illin, most of Galaspin’s soldiers could find no one willing to return to lead them in their fight against Sahand.
No one but Varner.
Varner’s reconquest of Galaspin was somehow bloodier than all his fighting in Rhond or Illin, though it was briefer. In a campaign that raged throughout an uncharacteristically harsh winter, Varner at last routed Sahand at the Siege of Calassa. After his victory, it is said that he offered his neck to old Duke Umbar I, on account that his granddaughter had been killed by Sahand just as he had promised. Umbar spared him, but asked that Varner leave his country, never to return. So he did – returning to the North to assist his brother, King of Benethor – but no one in Galaspin has forgotten what he did for them.
Today, Galaspin is the industrial engine behind Saldor’s sorcerous renaissance. Galaspiner artisans and sorcerers labor to invent and create the new sorcerous materials that drive much of the Western economy. The Spirit Engine network has one of it’s major hubs in Galaspin, and Galaspiner guild members travel across the continent, sharing knowledge and expanding the wealth and modernization of the West. It is still, however, a nation scarred by war, though those scars are fading. Few, however, will forget the courage and loyalty of its armies – the Terriers of the West, who very probably saved the Western world from destruction.
Is there anyone outside the great Union, you ask? Why, naturally – though vast, the Union contains a miniscule volume of our galaxy. No doubt, assuming the rest of the galaxy is as densely populated as our one section, there are hundreds of thousands of other intelligent species out there, patiently awaiting the day when the Dryth warfleets appear in orbit and demand…
…no? That’s not what you want to hear? Well what then?
Ah. Ghost stories. I know those, too.
Many ages ago, before the Union was even a glimmer, before even the Dryth and the Lhassae and the Lorca and all the Great Races had even come to exist (even we Thraad), there was a great species. This species has no name – it needs none, as you will soon see. It had mighty technology at its command, but the secret of slipdrive eluded it; they were planet-bound, destined to strip their homeworld of resources, dwindle, and perish at the whims of nature. On this planet, scientists labored for many ages to develop some means of escape. They devised a series of machines – self-replicating machines with a collective intelligence that could be dispatched throughout the galaxy in slowships and, therefore, seed the stars with this species’ knowledge and bring back with them knowledge of the stars around them.
I see from your grim expression that you know what comes next, eh? Yes, these poor fools had unwittingly invented nano-weapons before they had the means to control them. What is worse, they dispatched these weapons randomly throughout the galaxy, assuming that the nano-probes would serve their needs. It was not to be. The probes were dispatched and centuries passed. The hopes of the people dwindled – their probes had failed, they thought.
They were wrong.
One by one, the suns surrounding the home system of the Creators began to dwindle and die – not collapse, not explode, but merely perished, withering in space like flowers in winter. The nanites, now known as the Vore, had spend the centuries travelling and replicating, as was their duty. They collected data, but had little use for it. Instead, they simply grew and multiplied, gaining intellect as well as numbers. They consumed whole planets and then, when the planetary matter of use had been expended, they consumed the stars, as well. They were a great cloud, larger than nebulas, and for all their wandering at the slow pace of starlight, they saw nothing of worth. They were, the Vore concluded, alone.
So it was that the Vore returned home. The scientists of the Creators, panicking at their invention gone wild, did not welcome their children home. First they tried to shackle the Vore, then to contain it (for it was really a single entity, not a community of individuals), and then at last to destroy it. The war was brief. The Creators were consumed by their creations. No one survived, or so it is said.
Considering themselves alone and having no need to grow further, the Vore went into dormancy, asleep on the surface of their now-dead planet. There they wait still, sleeping the aeons away until some rash adventurer awakens them. Then, it will arise and go forth, seeking new challenges and new information, consuming all in its wake.
Frightened yet? Sneer all you like, but I saw how your tentacles curled. Are they real? Well, it is hard to say – there is much in the story to doubt, not the least of which would be how we could possibly come to know it. What is important, however, is that the Vore teaches us wisdom and caution. Technology is not a game, nor is it a race – it is an act of nature, fickle and dangerous. As we seek more, as we learn more, we must always remember to chain the beast. Rare is the wild animal that will not, once freed of its shackles, turn upon its master.
Now, to sleep with you.
“History,” say the Dryth, “is made in victory and erased by defeat.” So it is that our history is a Dryth one, and seems to remain so. We Thraad have purchased our existence with our service to the task of maintaining the Dryth’s narrative of themselves and, therefore, of all of us. I say this in my capacity as historian. Let no Dryth Aigythi come to destroy me – I speak the truth, which is protected by the Law. This I swear.
To business, then.
Once there was no Law. There was no Union. This time, by the reckoning of my people, was between six and six-point-five centuries ago (sidereal). Few records of that time remain, though whether this is by accident or the design of some faction or other is beyond my purview to speculate. Suffice to say that this cluster of star systems now known as the Union was in no way unified. We were many peoples – some say over a dozen developed races – just branching into the stars. Making contact with one another, fighting small wars and forging small alliances. We were each a species apart, each proud in our ways.
It is hard to say where the Unification began. It is evident that the great Dryth Houses were mightiest, conquering as they could, absorbing where they could not. The texts of the ancient Dryth epics attests to their courage, their bravado, their pride. There was Harita Khesimett and his Companions; Doorga Wyrm-slayer, the first Solon; Kashima Yan, Great Queen of Stars. Their technology was great, even then. They were the first to develop slipdrive, the first to master quasi-organics, the first to deploy nano-weapons. It is a wonder that they did not simply destroy us all. It seems as though few were able to fight them; those that were perished.
Wars of conquest among the stars were unrestricted things then. The creatures we now call Marshalls were not bound to serve – they roamed freely, preyed on what they wished (even one another), and they were objects of chaos, not order. Invasion via slow-ship was a long process. Such wars happened across generations and took centuries to prosecute. That they happened at all is an indication of our world before the civilizing influence of the Law and its Union; we were ravenous peoples. We devoured our worlds, boiled over the boundaries set by nature. We had to spread or perish. By all accounts, many species did perish, their names and civilizations lost beneath a blaze of thermonuclear fire or a plague of ravenous nanites.
At the center of this were the Dryth Houses – as greedy as the rest, but tempered in fires other civilizations had not borne. It was there that the Unification began – among the Great Houses, whose wars dwarfed those of the ‘lesser’ races. The first Judge, Harongi Hatto, began to teach the virtues of peace and cooperation to a small group of followers on the Crimson Plateau on Odryss, the Dryth homeworld. The Archon of House Fleer, Ghestar, had him executed for cowardice, but others took his place. As is written in the Preamble, Ghestar’s own daughter, then a young Solon named Jaegai, became an adherent of the Law and cast down her father in single combat. House Fleer was no more; all of Fleer’s Housed converted to the Law and fashioned themselves into what we now call the Temphri. Those who refused were forced to commit suicide, via Dryth custom.
The Temphri, led by Jaegai, called for unity among the Dryth, but found no takers. The other Houses saw no advantage in their conversion. Fleer’s ancient holdings were seized, their vassals subsumed, their fleets laid to ruin. Jaegai was forced to find allies outside of her own species. So it was that she set out for sixteen years, travelling from world to world, from people to people, speaking the virtues of the Law. She made many enemies, but more friends. She called them to her cause, and they joined together. Even many of the great star-beasts we know as Marshalls heeded her call. At last, massing at Carthade, the Union was struck, and the time to force the remainder to submit or join was entered.
The Unification Wars were terrible, but incredibly brief by most standards. Battles raged for four years (or so the tales say) on almost every world in what is now the Union (and more besides, no doubt). Billions perished, but from it emerged a new order. The Law was transcendent – each member species was required to adhere, and it was adapted to fit with their gods and their ancestors. Those who would not sign were cast out, their worlds claimed in the name of the Law and given over to the Union’s use. Exhausted by centuries of rapacious slaughter and warfare, the Law set out the Cycles – sixteen sidereal years of enforced peace, lest the wrath of the Marshalls be incurred, four sidereal years of circumscribed war. So it has subsisted, for these 23 cycles and 11 years. So it seems likely to remain.
There is justice here in the Union – that I know – but it is not justice for everyone. Each wartime cycle sees the Dryth Houses conquer more, dominate more widely. There is no resisting them for long. The Marshalls, now massive and unstoppable, treat the assembled races as nothing more than a tantalizing buffet, prepared for their enjoyment at the slightest slip in protocol. And, of course, there are those lesser races, absorbed into the Union in ages past against their will, never fully integrated, who live beneath us as slaves or worse.
But, ah, I grow irritable. It is late and I am old, my great foot aches and my tentacles waver in the glow of the lamp. Perhaps, as the ancient Thraad thinker Kophis theorized, there is a way to fashion a more perfect world. I cannot say that I know how. I count the blessings the Union has given my people, and I choose to be deaf to the cries of those it has stolen from. What more can I do? Who would rip down the world in blood and fire, only to build anew that which cannot be achieved? Not I, not I.
That is a game for the youth, and I am no longer young.
Author’s Note: This is some primer text for a science fiction setting I am currently developing. I hope you enjoyed it.
Never mind looking around for me; I’m currently invisible. No, no, I’m not doing it to impress you or frighten you or any of that nonsense – it’s part of an experiment. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Just sit down, will you? Not there, thank you very much – that’s where I’m sitting – try over there. On the books.
To begin with, let me make one thing abundantly clear: You aren’t special. Well…perhaps that’s not entirely true; allow me to rephrase. There is nothing genetically or mystically unique to your person that indicates that you can become a mage. It is a common misconception among the common folk that magi (or wizards or sorcerers or warlocks or what-have-you) are somehow ‘born’ with a special gift that sets them apart. That, at least, is the clap-trap peddled in the Twin Kingdoms and in Kalsaar. We live in the West, we are civilized and intelligent beings, and we ought not believe a word of that nonsense.
Please look over here where I’m sitting. I despise speaking to someone who is looking elsewhere. No, not there – a little higher. Yes, quite right. Thank you.
Anyway, as I was saying, what you refer to as ‘magic’ (but what we refer to as the High Arts) is accessible to anyone with a studious disposition, a strong work ethic, and other things that make people good students. It is, at its heart, an academic discipline (well, barring those brutes who focus on channeling the Fey, but that’s a topic for a different time). The point is that anyone with a good head on their shoulders and a good teacher can learn sorcery. This, historically, has been a troubling fact to many rulers, as the prospect that any number of ornery peasants might learn how to conjure demonfire or toss lode-bolts around was enough to give them permanent indigestion. Indeed, that is where the whole ‘wizards are born, not made’ myth originated, no doubt. Better to convince the populace that they have no hope than allow them the knowledge that they might re-make the world as they see fit if only they hit the books hard enough.
Am I still invisible? Good. Be certain to let me know if I start to appear. It might be a bit grisly, mind you – the digestive tract is usually the first thing to show up. If you must, there’s a basin beside you. Make certain not to vomit on any of the books, or I’ll turn you into a frog.
Just kidding. That’s enormously difficult to do and it wouldn’t be worth the effort. I’d probably just Shroud you so you looked like a frog to everyone else. Just as frustrating for you, but much less likely to freeze my lungs solid as I channel that much of the Dweomer.
Now, where was I? Ah, yes, wizards. Well, the first thing you ought to know is that I can’t, technically, train you to be a mage. It’s something of a semantic distinction, unfortunately. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but such is the world we live in. There are three ‘titles’ affixed to practitioners of the High Arts. The first, most common, and lowest is ‘wizard’. A wizard is anyone who can utilize some aspect of the High Arts, no matter how meager. It’s a catchall term. Call an alchemist a ‘wizard’ and he’ll be pretty flattered, since he probably only knows how to use the Low Arts. Call a staff-bearing mage a ‘wizard’, and he’ll react as if you spat in her soup. Fair warning.
The next up the chain is a ‘sorcerer’. A sorcerer is any wizard with some degree of formal training; a conjurer who can only conjure up water is a wizard, a conjurer who’s studied the Art of Ilticaci, a Kalsaari sorcerous art dedicated to desert survival, itself a derivative of the arts practiced by the Salasi Sandmagi of the Century Desert, can rightfully be called a sorcerer. It is a serious term for serious practitioners, not dabblers, and it is that which I could promise to teach you to become, should you pass my tests.
Finally, of course, is the title of ‘mage’, bestowed only upon those sorcerers trained in the ancient halls of the Arcanostrum of Saldor and who have achieved their second mark and, thus, earned their staff. I did this myself, and I have the staff to prove it. It is a unique and special distinction and, should you show talent, I might suggest you tender your application to the Arcanostrum yourself, that, however, is for another time.
In any event, what is most important to remember is this: the High Arts, and the profession of sorcerer, is the most important profession in the world. One man with vision can reshape society, history, and even the land itself using these arts, and this is not to be taken lightly. No, we are the safeguards of the future and it is our purpose, more than any priest, to shepherd humanity to a brighter tomorrow. To become a sorcerer, you must cast off your personal concerns, your lusts for power, your ambitions for wealth, your…AGH! Kroth dammit!
The cat jumped on me again! Stupid animal! Did you let it back in the room? Hann’s Boots, boy! I’ve totally lost my concentration! You can see me, can’t you? You can! I can tell by the way you’re making eye-contact. Dammit all to bloody hell! I was on my way to a record, too. I spent the past three weeks without being able to see my own hands. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get dressed? Kroth, Kroth, and bloody goddamned Kroth. I knew I should have sent the cat to stay with my brother. Dammit.
A real brief post today:
My friend, Gina Damico, has her debut novel dropping today in bookstores all over the US. It’s called Croak, and it’s a YA Fantasy about teenage grim reapers…and it’s funny. It sounds marvellous, and I’ll be buying my copy today. You should too, if you happen to like fantasy, humor, and snarky teenage protagonists.
You can learn more here, at Gina’s website.
Also: Congratulations Gina, and good luck!