There’s a kind of surrealism in the US these days. Our president is a fascist monster and hopeless incompetent, half our government are complicit toadies, the other half are arguing over the rulebook after the table has been flipped over. Then, in the fringes, you’ve got the revolutionaries who offer stirring visions of the future but no plan to achieve them that much of anybody really believes. Gangs of government-supported paramilitary groups shoot and gas unarmed civilians. Gangs of independent paramilitary groups parade around with assault weapons, threatening violence. Innocents are killed. Buildings burn. And then there’s the Plague: invisible, insidious, it sickens and kills tens of thousands all while the regional governments struggle to contain the damage and implore the ignorant and the selfish to stay home.
For those of us lucky enough to still have a job and to have thus-far avoided the violence and the disease, we sit at home and grip our coffee mugs a bit too hard as we listen to the news each day. “Damage Report, Mr. Scott” is the mood. One friend of mine observes: “I feel like I’m standing on a trap door every day, just waiting for it to open.”
Folks, we’re living inside a storybook. Maybe it’s a technothriller, maybe it’s a fantasy or a scifi epic, but it shouldn’t be lost on us that what is happening is the stuff epics are made of. Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones and a dozen other properties have imagined similar worlds, all of them based, at least loosely, off of reality.
I don’t say this to somehow trivialize our collective experiences, but only to contextualize how we understand these stories. The worlds depicted by these stories are terrifying. They are awful and chaotic and violent, and maybe we don’t notice it so much because of the heroes we follow along with. I mean, Han Solo’s adventures seem pretty romantic, right? Wouldn’t it be cool to live in the Star Wars world?
Well, now we know the answer: no. No, it would not.
Some of us out there – some special, courageous people – are rising to this occasion. They are fighting the disease and trying to fix the government and trying to stop the violence. They are putting their bodies in harm’s way or testing their endurance and their sanity by remaining engaged and active during this traumatic time.
For the rest of us? Well, we…aren’t. We feel useless, sidelined, helpless. We keep looking into the wings, awaiting Luke Skywalker’s entrance or the coming of Daenerys. But, we are reminded, this is the real world and things don’t really work that way, no matter what the storybooks say.
I, personally, feel paralyzed. I have three small children at home who need me, a wife who is working constantly to try and keep regional transportation systems working in a pandemic, and I’ve got a job that requires my constant attention. I can’t contribute in any way that feels meaningful. I donate what I can to the bail funds (which you should do, as well). I teach my students about social justice and ethics and help them hone their ability to express themselves. I share and I like and I read the articles. And yet it all erodes at my sense of equilibrium and undercuts my sense of self worth. I feel miserable and isolated, weak and afraid.
I have known for some time that I’m no hero, at least not in the Skywalker or Solo sense of the word. It’s quite a thing, though, to see the dramatic sweep of history happening and to watch it rumble by and find yourself powerless before it.
So I, and millions like me, sit here and try to stay calm and make lunch for my kids and help them with their homework and try and distract myself from that overwhelming sense that another shoe has yet to fall, and bring the remaining structure of my country down with it.
It’s quite a feeling, let me tell you.
When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:
Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.
This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.
Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.
I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false. I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.
Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.
Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).
This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.
So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.
I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.
Been kicking this around for a while. What has me posting it now is partly from a Q&A my publisher hosted on Twitter revolving around their open call, in which one person asked if there was room in fantasy beyond what is grim and dark and grimdark (Harper Voyager responded in the affirmative, and held up my book as an example of such). The other part is from my friend Teresa Frohock’s lovely post over on Tor.com regarding defining grimdark as opposed to horror (that post hasn’t much to do with this one other than the title; I just wanted to give Teresa a shout-out – buy her new book!).
When Shireen Baratheon was strapped to that stake, my stomach turned. I felt sick. All those memes shooting around on Facebook the week afterwards—the ones about how Stannis wasn’t going to win Father of the Year or whatever—were not funny. It was a horrible, horrible scene, gut-wrenching and soul-draining all at once. My compliments to the actors, the writers, and everybody involved with that scene. Holy crap, guys, did that ever work.
I find myself thinking a lot about Shireen Baratheon lately. She isn’t real and what happened to her didn’t really happen, but I find myself thinking about her anyway. I look at a horrible picture of a little boy drowned in the ocean, washed up on the beach, and my stomach turns. I see a picture of a Nazi soldier pointing his submachine gun at a Jewish family, the father throwing his body in front of his children, and I get sick inside. I feel just as horrible. And I think of Shireen.
Fantasy has been getting pretty dark lately. Have you noticed that? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like picking up a fantasy novel these days is more likely going to bring you down than bring you up. George RR Martin has, of course, said that he draws much of his inspiration from history and, as it happens, history is pretty dark and miserable territory. No doubt, the darkness of Game of Thrones and other “grimdark” fantasy stories out there are more “realistic” in the sense that the things happening in them are not any more extreme or horrifying than the things that actually happen out here, in the real world.
In response to this assertion of realism, though, I am forced to ask a question: why am I reading a genre called fantasy, then?
My late father-in-law did not read fiction, as a rule. He didn’t understand why you would read anything made up when history was so stuffed with great stories that actually happened. He read biography after biography, history after history, and possessed a breadth and depth of historical knowledge that, frankly, blew me away (and I’m no slouch at my history, myself). His refusal to read fiction I found curious, but he had a good point. I mean, why read about something made up when you can have the same experience and learn about something real at the same time?
Those two questions: “why read fantasy if it’s going to be so realistic” and “why read fiction when history is full of interesting stories” are dovetailed. The answer to either question is the answer to both, and the answer is this:
We read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic.
That’s it. That’s the whole point of fiction—to believe that which is inherently false. Because my father-in-law had a really, really good point. If realism is what I’m after, then I read history. I watch the news. I study the facts. I wallow in the real world, with all its tragedies and imperfections and rough edges.
But fiction is something different. I’m not reading it because I want it to be real. I’m reading it to make the real into something transcendent. I want the unsolvable to be solved (at least partially), I want the evil to be vanquished (most of the time), I want my story to do what the real world can’t do for me—get me to believe in magic, get me to dream about faraway places and wonderful things and heroes and dragons and swords with names. In fantasy, there is no reason we have to be miserable. The world can do that for us.
Now I’m not saying I need pat, happy endings all the time, nor do I particularly enjoy the same thing over and over and over. What I wonder at is this wish to have our real-world cynicism encroach upon our fantastical playgrounds. So much these days seems to be another version of apocalypse, another bonfire of heroics. While George RR Martin’s brilliant work is perhaps the most obvious example of this mood, it is hardly exclusive to him.
“Heroes,” a friend of mine told me once, “must tread carefully in the world of Westeros.” That’s true. Jon Snow’s heroics got him nowhere, just like his brother and his father’s nobility doomed them. And, again, that is much the same as history—history doesn’t treat many of its heroes well. So, I suppose we can all nod sagely at Jon Snow’s untimely end and say “yeah—figures. What a dummy.”
See, the thing is, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to find myself scoffing the hero just to assuage my own pain over their fall. I don’t want to shake my head at (yet another) rape scene and say “that’s just how awful this place is.” This is fantasy, friends! We don’t have to make it that bleak and, even if we do, we can have our heroes win. We can have them overcome the horrible nature of their world and, by doing so, inspire us to do the same.
I guess you can call that naive if you want, but my response to you is that a little naiveté is good for us. Because, contrary to what so many of us believe, the world—the real, actual world—doesn’t have to be such an awful place. It can change. We have to believe that, don’t we? I worry when even our fantasies become grim, bleak landscapes of suffering and degradation. What does it say about us that we aren’t even willing to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil and the heroes save the day?
So that brings me back to how we read fiction to believe in the implausible and unrealistic. For us—for our society, our world—I think the most implausible and unrealistic thing we can imagine is the idea of redemption and the ability for people to change. In fantasy, we have a unique lens through which to view our own world and, yes, we can certainly make it dark and horrible if we want. Indeed, a utopian story of happiness and light would be difficult to connect with, I guess. That said, there is no reason that in the darkness and the horror someone can’t stand up and say “no.” Some guard who cuts the little girl free from the burning stake and runs off into the wilderness. Some man in a fishing boat defying fate to save some drowning child. And then—get this—that person gets away with it. They are the hero for that moment in time, when all hope seemed lost. They are the person we all hope we can be, doing the right thing when it is hard. Sounds crazy, right? Some of you are shaking your heads, maybe. Some of you think that sounds lame or that I’m a pie-in-the-sky crackpot.
But I’m not. And for me, that’s what fantasy and science fiction are there to prove—not how weak we are or how terrible, but how wonderful we can be and how noble, no matter how awful we were in the past. It’s our world, folks. Let’s make it a beautiful one for a change.
The history of Alandar is a difficult thing to record with any degree of precision, as few save the magi have kept anything close to reliable historical records, and the magi of Saldor are not known to share information willingly. Adding to this difficulty is the complexity and (some would say) foolishness of the various dating systems used by the common populations. In the west, years are denoted by Keeper of the Balance (as in the 23rd year of Polimeux II), which while useful within the average lifespan of a person, are basically useless as metrics of historical account. The calendar of the North is dated from the birth of the most recent High Saint (e.g. 150th year of Saint Udent), making them somewhat more useful in this regard while the Kalsaaris are by far the most useful, dating their calendar from the birth of their Empire (placing the Imperial Calendar in its 31st century). Many of the following dates should be understood as approximate. As much as can be reliably determined, however, is dated as follows, using the private notation of Arcanostrum scholars:
~6,000 BK (Before Kings): The Great Trek from the Hearth begins. Humanity abandons its ancestral homeland (its identity now lost to time), led by their god, Hann. The journey purportedly takes millennia to complete.
~2,000 BK: Hann fights with Ulor on the Taqar; Hann abandons the human race. Humanity is now on its own.
~2,000 BK—1 BK: “The Age of Chaos”—humanity begins to establish settlements around the Sea of Syrin. Tribal warfare common, very primitive social structures.
~500 BK: The First Sorcerers rise to power in tribal areas. Beings of mythical power, they are worshipped as gods. Sorcery is a crude practice at this time, and limited mostly to striking invocations and basic auguries.
The Age of Kings (AK)
1 AK (Age of Kings): The first Warlock King, Syrin the Mighty, establishes a kingdom stretching from modern day Akral along the southern coast to the Dragonspine. First strong government in human history. Ancient city of Burza founded.
250 AK: Syrin’s kingdom collapses into civil war. Three powerful Warlocks—Askar, Nurohn, and Shendrezail—conquer three largest pieces of the kingdom.
300 AK: City of Hurn founded by the request of Hann himself, who temporarily appears from exile; The Kings of Shendrezail fight the Dawn War against the God of Humanity and his crusaders. Hann’s armies surrender rather than see their god destroyed, Shendrezail claims victory. Church of Hann grows, but is forbidden by Warlock Kings.
~600 AK: The Arahk arrive in Alandar from the frigid polar regions north of the continent, settle in the unoccupied Fields of Oscillain in the northeast.
700 AK: Askar XII murders his wife, heir to the throne of the Nurohnar, and merges the two kingdoms. Jassaria V, Warlock Queen of Shendrezail, expands her kingdom to encompass modern day Kalsaar.
855 AK: Beginning of the First Mage War between Askaria and Shendrezail. The fires of Askar XIX create the Gods’ Divide. In retribution, and with the supposed aid of the god Ulor, Jassaria XI creates the Needle, causing the Sea of Syrin to flood, doubling its size. Burza destroyed, millions perish, war ends in stalemate.
~900 AK: Arahkan War of Fathers—the Great Torach drives the lesser arahk into the Eastern Sea. Lesser arahk migrate south to become what are now known as hobs.
990 AK: Askar XXVI’s sons murder him and fight over spoils. Askarian civil war leads to Second Mage War as Shendrezail pounces. Demons and fiends summoned to aid combatants, cataclysmic slaughter occurs. War lasts 115 years, ends with the kingdoms of Askaria and Shendrezail in complete ruins. During fighting, Kroth the Devourer reputably stirs in His bonds.
~1000 AK: Gnolls arrive in western Alandar. Remain outside of human affairs.
1120 AK: Warlock King Rahdnost rises to power. Most powerful Warlock King since Syrin. Kingdom spreads from modern day Saldor to Eddon. Many other Kings rule in the south, but all swear fealty to Rahdnost.
1125 AK: Rahdnost’s forces defeated at Daer Mahk by the arahk tribes. Expansion of his empire is never able to cross the Dragonspine, despite the creation of Trell’s Pass.
1190 AK: Rahdnost finds way to extend lifespan indefinitely. Becomes Rahdnost the Undying. Kingdom expands to encompass southern coast of the Sea of Syrin.
~1300 AK: Settlers fleeing Rahdnost’s tyranny migrate across the Dragonspine to live in the western reaches of Oscillain. Border disputes between arahk tribes and humans begin.
~1500 AK: Rebels exiled to deserts of south found Kalsaar and manage to live in relative peace with hob population. (Beginning of Kalsaari calendar)
1648 AK: Rahdnost invades the Great Forest and attacks the Vale. Known as the Fey War, the free and wild peoples known as the Vel’jahai war with Rahdnost across the northwest. Ends with the last recorded invocation of a Cataclysm, as Rahdnost’s Eternal Tower is struck down and the city of Ghola is swallowed by the ocean. Ruins rest on an island supposedly near Ihyn.
1661 AK: Lesser Warlock Kings rise up to claim the Undying’s Kingdom. Third Mage Wars begin, lasts fifty years.
1750 AK: Warlock Kings Vorn the Terrible and Spidrahk rise to power, controlling the southern and northern shores of the Sea of Syrin, respectively. Spidrahk’s palace rests on the location of present-day Saldor. With access to Rahdnost’s Elixir of Immortality, the two kings are able to war periodically over three centuries, neither gaining the upper hand.
2063 AK: Vorn calls down unholy plague upon world in an effort to kill ailing King Spidrahk. Spidrahk releases ‘the Seeking Dark’ to destroy Vorn. Both weakened, the Vel’jahai, aided by friendly human sorcerers, rise up to topple both kingdoms and destroy every vestige of the Warlock King epoch. Afterwards, the Vel’jahai retire to their Forest, declaring it their own, and forbid any foreigners from entering it.
The Age of Balance (AB)
1 AB (Age of Balance): First Keeper of the Balance, Ethorim, takes the Seat in Saldor. Political chaos reigns in wake of the Warlock Kings’ fall.
32 AB: Akral established as stable kingdom by Tolion the Uniter, begins to expand borders.
112 AB: Church of Hann gains home in fledgling city of Rhond, establishes it as headquarters.
125 AB: Arcanostrum declares Church of Hann as ‘official’ religion of humanity. Hordes develop in Oscillain under Warlord Khazakain.
130 AB: First Arahkan War begins. Arahk sweep through unprepared kingdoms of the north
and attack Trell’s Pass and secure it. Arahk attack Galaspin, Eretheria, and
Saldor—nearly conquer all. Hill tribesmen cut off Arahkan supplies and the Vel’jahai
come to the Arcanostrum’s aid, though nothing is enough to completely win.
144 AB: Veris, Ihyn founded.
177 AB: Ezeliar defeats Khazakain at Battle of Sh’goth, First Arahkan War Ends.
180 AB: Kingdom of Benethor/Knights of Benethor founded by Ezeliar’s lieutenants.
183 AB: Galaspin founded, swears itself as Saldor’s protector.
200 AB: Freegate founded by hill tribesmen and Galaspiner dissidents.
220 AB: Kalsaari Empire established, expands to include Emirates of Tharce, Azgar.
224 AB: Wars of Retribution begun—arahk pushed back to the borders of Roon. Ramisett annexed into Kingdom.
354 AB: Wars of Retribution end.
368 AB: King of Benethor’s feuding sons split the massive kingdom into two entities. Kingdom of Ridderhof founded, treaties for mutual defense against the arahk are immediately signed, but relations remain cool between two nations for several centuries.
400 AB: Eddon breaks away from Akral in peaceful accord, Eddon becomes Kingdom. Maintains close relationship with Akral.
434 AB: Kalsaar makes forays beyond the Century Desert, captures Tasis, Illini peninsula.
438—464 AB: Kalsaari Wars of Expansion: Kalsaar makes war on fledgling western nations. Captures Rhond, lays siege to Veris, Ihyn, Akral, and Hurn. Kalsaari Armies finally defeated after a grueling campaign in Eddon, known afterwards as the Cold March. Arcanostrum brokers peace accord; Kalsaar retains Rhond, Hurn. General outrage at treaty.
~530 AB: First caravans from the Far West appear in Ju’el, Eddon.
562 AB: The Hannite Wars begin. Akral, Eddon, Veris declare war on Kalsaar. Attempt to liberate Rhond, Hurn. King Hymrek V of Veris betrays coalition after offered riches by Kalsaari Emperor. War lasts five years, Eddon defeats Kalsaar at Battle of Illin Bridge. Akral lays siege to and destroys Veris, occupies territory. Hurn and Rhond rescinded to Hannite clergy.
578 AB: Illin founded as buffer state between West and Kalsaari. Partitions of Illin formed by Arcanostrum magi.
620 AB: Veris, with tacit help of Ihyn, rises up against Akral, gaining independence. Akral attempts to regain lost territory. Wars and border disputes last throughout 7th century.
681 AB: Knights of Benethor detect the formation of Hordes in Roon, request aid from kingdoms of the West. No help is sent.
687 AB: Nurlings surge out of the Dragonspine, drawn out by increased mining activity. Nurlings declare a Oodnar their King, overwhelm and capture Galaspin, Freegate, and attack Saldor. Eretherian forces exterminate the Nurling menace. War lasts seven years, known as the War of the Goblin King.
699 AB: The Second Arahkan War begins. The arahk, under warlord Ushkazail, eventually crush the Knights of Benethor and sweep through Ridderhof, raping, pillaging, and destroying everything. Long and bloody campaign against Benethoran partisans begins. War lasts 185 years.
713 AB: The Nine Queens of Kalsaar reveal their magical power, declaring the Empire the realm of the new Warlock Queens. Emperor is little more than a political figurehead. Defenders of the Balance are ejected from the Empire.
717 AB: War begins, as Kalsaar attempts once again to invade the West. War is brief, as the Kalsaari armies cannot take Illin before the siege is broken by Verisi reinforcements.
730 AB: The Builder’s Method of the Arcane Arts is founded in Eretheria.
750 AB: Akral fights a number of territorial wars with Eddon, Eretheria, and Veris that flare up and wane over the next thirty years. Ends with massive naval engagement in the Gulf of Eddon that sees the King of Akral, Tolion XI, sunk to the bottom by Verisi pirates.
884 AB: Handras kills Ushkazail in mighty duel, arahk thrown into chaos. Benethoran remnants push arahk back into Roon. Second Arahkan War ends.
1115 AB: Hordes develop in Roon. Benethor/Ridderhof begin unprecedented military expansion. Reinforcements sent from as far away as Eddon.
1117 AB: Third Arahkan War begins—unparalleled in brutality. Arahk under Ashkazain smash into fortified Benethor and Ridderhof. War grinds on for fifty years—bloodiest war since Second Mage Wars. Ridderhof falters, Benethor is surrounded.
1122 AB: Hadrigal Varner leads Knights of Benethor in cunning attack on Ashkazain’s main force, routing the army. Enraged by the defeat, Ashkazain’s lieutenants kill him while he sleeps. Resulting chaos allows Benethor to drive arahk back into Roon. Sorcerous Order of Medicine founded by Caddavain Ustair to attempt to relieve suffering of people and soldiers.
1156 AB: Galaspin colony of Dellor founded. Settlers attracted to the mineral rich hills.
1224 AB: Second Queens War begins. Kalsaar invades utilizing new floating ‘war bastions’. Manage to lay waste to much of Illin, Rhond before defeat. All War Bastions toppled from sky; flying vessels declared ‘impractical’ by sorcerous scholars. War ends after three years.
1300 AB: Revolt in Dellor. Galaspiner troops driven out. Region declares independence.
1377 AB: War College of Ramisett founded, first Battlemagi trained. Benethor and Ridderhof experiment with airships as troop transports.
1382 AB: After centuries of cold aggression, Akral attacks Veris. Ihyn declares its support for Akral, event touches off the Akrallian Wars. Ihyn and Akral join forces against Veris, Eretheria, and Eddon. Akral seeks to expand its borders to encompass Eretheria and Veris. Eventually, Galaspin and Illin are encompassed in the war. Only Saldor and Rhond remain neutral. War lasts for six years.
1388 AB: After years of stalemate, warring nations meet in Eretheria and sign the Treaty of Syrin, establishing the Syrinian Alliance. First centralized governmental structure in West since fall of the Warlock Kings.
1403 AB: Hobgoblin Gurgbossaht Thark raises massive army to conquer the ‘soft’ lands of the west. Called “The Arahkann War that Wasn’t,” fighting lasts for ten years before finally the hobs are defeated at the Battle of Whistler Bridge. Battle is won by the Arcanostrum Archmage Estrina, early disciple of the Vetan’nir school. She later becomes Keeper of the Balance.
1509 AB: Hordes begin to form in Roon. Benethor, grown complacent behind its new defenses, fails to act. Udent of Semhoth begins training militias and is accused of starting an uprising.
1512 AB: Arahk under Ogramair start the Fourth Arahkan War. Caught off guard, the Twin Kingdoms panic. Knights of Benethor are slaughtered, Benethor is sacked, Ramisett is besieged. Udent’s militas hold the southern shores of the Harvendy from attack, defend Ridderhof and Obrinport, gradually drive disorganized hordes back. Ogramair dies due to freak accident, war ends in under eight years with comparatively minimal destruction.
1520-1575 AB: The Arcanostrum relaxes certain key prohibitions upon sorcerous practice, leading to tentative spread of sorcerous artifacts to the common people. Defenders of the Balance deployed more widely to combat misuse of sorcery. Saldor gains economic power.
1582 AB: Perwynnon, self-proclaimed Heir to the Falcon Throne, begins to consolidate power in Eretheria, becoming that nation’s first King in 1500 years.
1583 AB: Kalsaar invades Illin in bloodiest West/South conflict yet. Conrad Varner, High General of the West (and Prince of Benethor), turns the tide at the Charge of Atrisia and leads the Glorious March, ending with the Sack of Tasis. Kalsaaris surrender, but with key provisions. War lasts 3 years.
1584 AB: Banric Sahand, Mad Prince of Dellor, invades Galaspin while the Galaspin Army is fighting in Illin and Rhond. Conquers most of the Trell Valley. His invasion of Saldor is stopped at Calassa by the combined efforts of Conrad Varner’s armies and those of Perwynnon. Sahand is routed and driven back to Dellor.
1585 AB: Called “The Fall of Kings” – Perwynnon is assassinated and Prince Landar the Holy of Illin vanishes. Regions plunged into political turmoil.
1587 AB: Delkatar ascends the Seat in Saldor, becoming Keeper Polimeux II. Seriously relaxes controls on magecraft. West enjoys economic and technological boom.
1590 AB: First Spirit Engine tracks laid from Saldor to Galaspin. Network eventually expands to link Akral to Freegate and back.
1612 AB: Present Day.
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
First of all, if you’ve got some time on your hands, listen to this interview with David Brin (and thanks to my friend, David, who drew my attention to it). There is more stuff to talk about in that interview that I could possibly stuff into a single blog post (or, at least, not if I wanted anybody to ever read it all), but I want to explore and correlate a couple things he talks about there which I find both fascinating and very true.
Speaking broadly, Brin differentiates between our ‘romantic’ selves and our ‘rational’ selves. The first is the thing that makes you cry at the end of Old Yeller and the second is the thing that makes you understand that the end of Old Yeller makes perfect sense and was the right thing to do. Brin associates our romantic selves with a lot of what has happened in human history, much of it bad, ranging from the Dark Ages to our love affair with Star Wars. The rational part of us he attributes to the proliferation and success of modern democracy, the creation of our current civilization, and the scientific Enlightenment.
Interestingly enough, I bet you find Dark Age barbarians and Star Wars much more fun than democratic reforms and scientific studies and that, right there, is exactly what Brin is getting at: our default state, the state we prefer, is the romantic one. It makes for better stories, higher adventure, and the glorious conservative myth of a golden age long past. There are a lot of different places I can dig in here, but let’s start with this one: This theory of the ‘romantic self’ is the underpinning of a vast majority of fantasy literature and religious and cultural mythology.
Take kings or the idea of monarchy, for example. Every fantasy has ’em, pretty much, and if they don’t, they often have wizards, demigods, noble houses, emperors, or ruling demi-human species as a fill-in. These kings are also often heroic figures or, if they aren’t, they are waiting to be deposed so the ‘true’ king can be installed. Aragorn needs to take command of the Armies of Men to defeat Sauron; Daenerys is rightfully the heir to the Iron Throne; Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn and would everyone please stop getting in his way and listen to him for once! History, likewise, is awash in kings, both heroic and villainous, and, indeed, the majority of history has been under the thumb of some kind of absolute ruler.
Our enchantment with them, however, supposes that there is such a thing as a ‘good king’ or that monarchy itself is a wise or workable system. This is our Romantic selves talking, not our rational ones. As Brin points out, it took the weakening of top-down authoritarian systems to bring about the technological and social advances that have created our current civilization. A top-down system discourages competition, while a more egalitarian system encourages the kind of competition and innovation needed to improve and advance, since the genesis of those things comes from dissent from popular opinion, something that doesn’t happen under the rule of a Robert Baretheon or even an Aragorn.
Fantasy, though, is primarily under the influence of this romantic notion that there is some single golden-child who is the right person to tell everyone what to do. Everyone from Star Wars’ Jedi Knights to the Mistborn of Sanderson to Harry Potter perpetuate the idea of ‘specialness as societal cure,’ even when mitigated by apparently liberal ideals that the heroes happen to support (because, after all, no good king would forbid free speech, obviously). Such stories and their appeal is, on some level, powered by a direct connection to that basic human romantic notion that there is a person out there who can tell you what to do and be right all the time, absolving you from your own troublesome duties of thinking for yourself, making your own decisions, and taking ownership of your failures and successes. If you don’t think that’s a thing, you need only read a history book – everyone has been doing that since forever.
Fantasy, then, is ultimately a conservative genre in its most literal sense – the conservation of old modes of order and old modes of doing things (based often off the fuzzy logic of metaphysical powers and spiritual manifestations) for the purpose of retaining what our romantic brains tells us is more fun and interesting. There is no law that says it must be so, however; I like to flatter myself that my own work in the fantasy genre breaks this mold, if only a little bit. After listening to David Brin, I may just up that from ‘a little bit’ to ‘a lot’. Magic in Alandar is already egalitarian (you needn’t be born with power to use it – anybody with discipline and a good teacher can do it) and Tyvian Reldamar is already an iconoclast, but I can go further. I should go further.
Fantasy should join the best work of its speculative cousin, Science Fiction, and show us where we ought to go rather than making us miss where we’ve been.
Do you ever wonder why the ancients always seem to have crazy secret stuff hidden away in holes? I do. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I think ancient ruins and the history of ancient peoples is really cool, and am often impressed with the innovations they developed – but there’s a notable trend in scifi and fantasy to show the ancient world as superior, more advanced, wiser, and better than the society shown as contemporary. If you think about it, it’s almost hard to think of a fantasy book that doesn’t do this. Everybody from Tolkien to Howard to Martin to Jordan to, gosh, everybody seems to get a piece of this. Science Fiction has its fair share, too – from Star Wars’ Old Republic to Asimov’s Galactic Empire and even Mass Effect has a lot of that ‘faded glory of ages past’ thing going on. What the hell?
To some extent this is all because of the Romans or, maybe more accurately, the Dark Ages. Humanity hit a peak with the Pax Romana and then, after a lot of bad decisions and slow erosion, it slumped into the Dark Ages, which is definitely a low. Oh, and let’s not give Europe all the blame, either. Similar stuff happened to the Islamic world after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate and to the Chinese after the fall of the Ming Dynasty. No doubt there are descendants of the Aztecs in Mexico who pine for the glory days of Tenochtitlan and Egyptians who look with wonder back on the works of the Pharaohs. History is littered with the corpses of great civilizations that preceded long periods of unimpressive or downright barbaric culture, so tendencies to look at the ancients (who got it ‘right’) for guidance are, to some extent, culturally ingrained in us.
Let’s not get carried away, though. Ancient Rome might have been neat, but to suggest that their civilization was ‘better’ or ‘more advanced’ than our own is a clear exaggeration. We do lots and lots and lots of things better than the Romans ever did. Did they achieve some things we haven’t? Well, maybe, but it wasn’t ‘ancient laser beams’ or ‘the secret to immortality.’ They probably had a slightly better way to, I don’t know, make a canoe paddle or organize a mail system without vehicles. Fascinating, but not the kind of thing you dig up out of an ancient ruin and then proceed to use in the conquest of the Earth. Our civilization is at its own little peak, and it is currently producing the kind of tricks that the next Dark Age might marvel at, but the civilized peak after that one will look at and say ‘my, weren’t they so clever without the use of moldable nanotechnology and germline genetic engineering!’ Nobody’s going to dig up a Harrier jet and fight off an alien invasion. That would be silly.
I am the first person to say that technological progress isn’t strictly linear (if you want a real-world example, take a look at this article), but I also don’t think humanity is prone to being total boneheads. We are more advanced today because, in large part, we have learned from those who have come before us. The cleverness of ages past is not evidence that they were somehow smarter than us, but rather that they were just as smart. They figured some stuff out we didn’t, wound up not using it so much, and the rest of the world sort of forgot. Later on, some other guy figured the same thing out and did it again, but then an archaeologist says ‘the Romans could do this, you know’ and then a bunch of people run around saying the Romans were the most brilliant folks who ever lived because they thought of ‘x’ thousands of years before anyone else. Then somebody points out the Chinese/Egyptians/Persians/whoever actually thought of it before them, and tout this as some kind of evidence of humanity’s escalating intelligence the further back we go. This simply isn’t true; what it is evidence for is that humanity has always been pretty smart and periodically hits upon the same ideas and accomplishes them in whatever way necessity dictates they must.
To bring this back to the specfic genres, I feel it would be refreshing to find more fantasy novels that weren’t so obsessed with the whole sic transit et gloria mundi theme. I’d like to see cultures on the rise, surpassing their forebears, blazing new ground, showing how silly the old conservatives are to stick to their old ways. We get plenty of this in science fiction, to be fair, but fantasy could use that same spirit. Maybe I’m expecting something out of the genre that isn’t under it’s purview–maybe fantasy is a genre designed for those who long for the past and see nothing but peril in the present. I don’t think so, though. I’d like to think our wildest dreams can lead us forward, not just backward.
I’ve always loved history; the story of our species’ activities, decisions and beliefs over the vast span of time and continent is riveting, compelling, and wonderful to know. Understanding history is essential to understanding art, literature, culture, and human beings in general. No artist, in my opinion, can be ignorant of history and successfully depict human societies in any real or convincing way. This is as true of the science fiction and fantasy author as it is of anyone else, perhaps more so, as they must frequently invent new history that, in their world, serves all the same functions as real history does in ours.
Few understand this or use it better than Tolkien. When Rohan rides to help Gondor, it’s a nice story; if you know of the relationship between Rohan and Gondor, their shared history, and their challenges, it becomes an even better story. If you know that Aragorn is the heir to Isildur, that’s fine; if you understand the significance of Aragorn as the last of a thinning bloodline that traces all the way back to the doomed kingdom of Numenor, the pathos of his duty and quest becomes that much more powerful. The Silmarilion, while not a read for everyone, establishes a mythic and historic baseline that colors the whole of Middle Earth; it has resonance in every song the elves sing, in every major conflict that develops, and in every cultural behavior of every people in that world. Even if you haven’t and don’t plan to learn about the history of Middle Earth, you are experiencing its power from the moment Thorin and company sing “Far Over Misty Mountains.”
For the rest of us writing fantasy or science fiction, we can take a lesson from Tolkien that is important to remember: Your world should be bigger than what happens on the pages. Just like you should know your characters like they’re real people, you should also know the history of your setting. All of this falls under David Eddings famous quote about writing 1000 pages about a world before you can write a story set there. This sounds like work, and it is, but if you’re a lover of history, it’s great fun, too. It’s an instance where you can take your understanding of history and try to apply some of those same concepts or, if you like, mess with them. It’s the most thorough kind of ‘what-if’ building you can do.
Take, for instance, the existence and study of magic – elemental forces contained within the fingertips of a special few. How does that change the course of history? What kinds of things does it result in or not result in? What kind of world is one where magic exists? I consider this pretty closely in my world of Alandar, which grows and changes with each passing year as I continue to flesh it out and establish its history. In The Iron Ring, my first novel set in the world, we visit the world almost three decades after the ages-long prohibition of free sorcerous study began to be relaxed. What was once a medieval world of simple people ruled over by the magical elite is beginning to shift. A middle class is being born. Sorcery is being used by the common people with greater frequency. Businessmen and entrepreneurs are taking the once-restricted arts of alchemy and thaumaturgy to new heights, a Reniassance of sorts is developing, and all of it goes back to a war. In this war there were pivotal historic figures (Landar Marik the Holy, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner, the Mad Prince Banric Sahand), famous battles (Atrisia, the Sack of Tasis, the Siege of Calassa), and events of contention still debated into the modern day (Who really killed Perwynnon? Why did Landar Marik abdicate? Did Banric Sahand really sign the Treaty of Calassa?). This, I hope, should give my world a sense of presence, of legitimacy, and of gravity. It lets me understand my characters better, and hopefully lets the readers understand them better, too.
The trick is, of course, finding a way to tell them about all this without boring them to tears. Some people, as you know, don’t really like history all that much. That, of course, is the ultimate challenge of the fantasist – to bring someone into a world without barraging them with facts like they’re studying for an exam. It is a challenge I believe I have done well at, but I could always do better. For inspiration, I need only gaze at the great world-builders: Tolkien, Martin, Herbert, Jordan. They are the framers of my own personal history, the teachers of myth that shaped my own understanding of the art, and beside whom I hope one day to be mentioned without sarcasm or irony.