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Tag Archives: fantasy

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson, whose writing credits include Elantris, is the first book in the eponymous  epic fantasy/dark fantasy trilogy.

After reading it a single term comes to mind: Mirror Image. Specifically a mirror image to his first novel, Elantris. Both are set in cities full of despair ruled by barbarous leaders who care little or nothing for those who they lord over, the streets are covered in grime (whether liken or ash) and all around you the broken remnants of once proud humanity huddle in the corners waiting to die. But while Elantris focuses on the people on top (noblemen and  priests) Mistborn is told from the point of view of slaves, thieves and street urchins.

Both feature a well thought out magical system which is woven into the the plot line, so much so that Sanderson has become the master at turning his extensive world building into an key elements in his plots. Figuring how Allomancy (the use of certain allows and metals which are consumed in order to deploy certain magical powers) works is as crucial to Mistborn as figuring out how the Elantrians lost their power in Elantris. Just like his first book, Mistborn is choke full of interesting characters, especially strong female leads (in an interesting reversal, the main female character in Elantris doesn’t have any powers while her male counterpart does, in Mistborn it is the female lead, by the name of Vin who has powers that surpass all others). It also starts a bit slow only to pick up speed half way through the storyline and rush to the end (with a bit of deux machina thrown in at the last second) and the villain(s) doesn’t get as much development as they do in Elantris. Religion is also a noticeable element in the story, but not as crucial as it is in the first book.

Following the mirror image metaphor, Mistborn feels like a stand alone book (even though it is the first of a trilogy) while the ending of Elantris (which according to Word of God is a stand alone tome) feels like the precursor to a much larger story. That doesn’t make Mistborn a bad book, on the contrary, the twists are interesting, the characters are compelling and if you liked Elantris, then Mistborn is a must.

Well of Ascension and Hero of Ages are on my to buy/read list.

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Oh boy, I’m going straight to Hell, hand me that hand basket, okay, thanks!

Which just show you that writing about religion is hard. That’s why most speculative fiction writers, especially in the fantasy genre/sub-genres avoid it, at least when it comes to Abrahamic religions (it seems Wicca and other forms or paganism are fair game).

The reasons are multiple:

  • The writer doesn’t want to offend anyone.
  • The writer doesn’t want his book to be a dissertation on his religious beliefs.
  • The writer fears that he will get it wrong.
  • Most writers, even if they are agnostic or atheist still come from a religious background (mostly the above Abrahamic religions or sects/cults there in) and unconsciously anthropomorphize the Supreme Deity (God with a capital G for those keeping score t home).

My problem is that, considering the modern concept of what is God (yes, the capital G-man) makes him (or it) to be omniscient and omnipotent, ergo any but the most vague descriptions of the Almighty himself (does not include discussions on the theological/historical/social aspects of religion by the way) will fit the bill. If you turn Him into a character, then he is not longer, well, Him but a lesser copy, thus not worthy of having the title, unless you’re writing in the post-modern tradition of the “Jerk-God” (yes, with a capital…oh never mind).

So what is a writer to do?

  1. Polytheism: Although many fantasy stories are written in a High Middle Ages milieu (knights, stone castles, feudalism) the write creates a cosmology full of gods and goddesses. Most of these act like a combination of Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, or Greco-Roman pantheons, although it is not uncommon for these deities to have “churches”, “clerics” and other attributes of modern Christian (especially Catholicism) sects. Common in D&D and works inspired by it and previous authors, such as Robert E. Howard.
  2. Henotheism/Molotraism: Other gods exist but the story/characters focus on worshiping one above the others, either because it is the patron deity of a city, culture or nation or simply the belief that others are not worthy of worship. Does not preclude the existence of other deities, only the preference/worthiness of these vis-a-vis the chief deity. May be a step toward monotheism. In Urban Fantasy (American Gods by Neil Gaiman or DC Vertigo’s Lucifer) it serves as an explanation of why the old gods have faded from the world but not disappeared completely.  Also serves to establish that all myths are true.
  3. Distant God:  Deux Ex Machina, God is in the machine or at least he is IT, everything, the All or the supreme architect. He exists but for some reason he is either preoccupied with running the universe or he is everyone/everything and can not be reduced to one person/thing. Basically a cop out by the writer, as in “yeah, it’s there, I just don’t want to talk about it”. The world now belongs to Man and does not need a powerful deity mucking about and interfering with free will.
  4. The Absent/Uncaring/Malicious Deity: God has either moved on with creation, doesn’t care what happens to its creation or set up the whole thing as a great cosmic joke. Mostly a take that against organized religion (think Dogma or for that matter, anything by the late, great George Carlin). Many of these stories pit humanity against demons or the Devil, and the most it can expect from the Powers That Be are a few angels here or there and they may not be good guys or may not even know where their boss is. Supernatural is a great example of this.
  5. Christianity by Allegory: This comes in two forms, Christianity (or the chosen Abrahamic tradition) By Any Other Name or a Thickly Veiled Allegory with symbolic stand-ins for modern religion of the writers choice. The first is common in many computer RPGs like World of Warcraft. You have priest, churches, paladins and priests, and the worship a stand in for God (called The Light or some such). The second may use elements of other mythos or modern analogs to retell biblical stories or the like. C.S. Lewis was a master of this. Yes, the Lion was Jesus.

So, there you have it. Pick your poison. And if you end downstairs before I do, please save me a seat!

And to make sure I get there in style, here is a double dose of Eddie Izzard:

Just a quick update of sorts. Since I switched from fantasy to sci-fi as the basis for this year’s NaNo, I thought it fitting to switch to my sci-fi blog for the rest of the month (which won’t be long as I will be out of commission during  next week starting on Monday).

I hope to see you there soon.

Write what you know….

Or write what you like.

But what if I’m not comfortable with what I know or like?

I like fantasy and I know a bit about Medieval European history, so it seemed like a good idea.

Except I was not comfortable with it.

I love reading it and playing fantasy theme games (computer and tabletop).

But my real comfort zone exists somewhere between Today and Some Time in the Future.

With guns, politics, intrigue and travel (I like to put my characters on the road as soon as possible).

Doesn’t require a lot of world building or language manipulation (Ye Olde English gives me a headache).

So for now fantasy remains distant, while urban fantasy and science fiction are comfortable and easy.

So what (or where) is your comfort zone?

Race and ethnicity in fantasy settings/books basically boils down to the the old Good vs. Evil divide that we see in Tolkien/D&D inspired works.

One one hand you have the good races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves.

In the other hand you have the evil races: Orcs, Goblins,Trolls, ect.

Some stories even have exact evil counterparts for good races (especially those based on D&D) such as Light Elves vs. Dark Elves. Some authors like to subvert this by having a few characters distance themselves from the “norm” thus proving that not everyone in an entire race can be evil yet still maintaining the fiction that allows a convenient target(s) for the heroes to slaughter at will without any moral or personal repercussions. After all destroying evil is always a good thing, right?

As you probably guessed by now, I don’t like to go the simplistic route. Since my story is based on Dark Age Europe I like to play with this concept a bit. Yes you have good and evil, but no faceless evil races. In fact prejudice plays a big role in how each ethnic/social group views the other.

Akrosians/Republicans view the new nations of the Nordlands as barbarians. Both of these groups have reached a level of homogeneity which encourages this view of outsiders. In fact the word barbarian originally meant outsider with the twist that these foreigners were inferior to those who gave them the epitaph because they did not share the same culture or language as those who considered themselves civilized. The irony of course is that due to the destruction of Western Roman Empire the term change to mean “an individual reference to a brutal, cruel, warlike, insensitive person.” Yet to the modern observer the Roman gladiatorial games and their justice system looks as barbarous as the destruction brought by the Germanic invasions.

Things look different in the Nordlands where the distinction are largely on ethnic/religious lines. Due to the recent fall of Empire and transformation into the (New) Republic you have a mix and match of people living in former Imperial territory.

The rulers are, for the most part members of the military leadership that lead the tribes from beyond the “Three Rivers” and into Imperial territory. Funded by Republican silver they serve as a buffer between it (the Republic) and further barbarian invasions. They claimed vast kingdoms loosely allied with the Republic. While they are the ruling elite, their power is largely military and they lack the administrative skills or money to sustain these kingdoms intact. They seek to appeased the newly conquered by adopting Imperial ways and costumes and converting to the new religion of the Nine.  Yet they retain their language and legal traditions.

The vast middle class is made up of assimilated (to the former Imperial ethnic identity) locals. While the lack military power, they still have money and a strong connection to the the Republic and by extension the Church. They are the equivalent to the Romanized Gauls. These are the people the new rulers want to accommodate because they still retain much of the wealth and they outnumber their conquerors. These former Imperial citizens support the new regimes in exchange for protection.

The lower class is made up of disenfranchised farmers, former slaves and isolated groups that retain some of the customs from the time before the Imperial conquest. To the new Church they are seen as threat undermining their vision of the cosmos, especially the shamans/druids that lead these groups. They have called on the new rulers to persecute them with varying degrees of success.

A fourth and fifth group include the Elves and Dwarves. The Elves that live within the Republic borders (i.e. the Peninsula) have integrated into that culture as have the Dwarves, although this last group numbers are small and their origins are shrouded in mystery. On the other hand Elves living in the Nordlands have turned xenophobic. They now hide from the rest of the world.

As you can see, this is a world where your ethnic loyalties determine who you consider a friend or foe  (with individual exceptions, of course).

In fact this might be a typical scene in my book.

And now for some music:

I already talked about the villain in fantasy, but what about the heroes?

Instead of focusing on the types of heroes I’ll talk about motivation(s). They come in different flavors, such as:

  1. Honor & Duty
  2. Can’t Fight Fate
  3. It’s Personal
  4. For the Greater Good

Honor and Duty means that it is the heroes job to be, well, heroic (or at least he thinks he is). Whether he is the Captain of the City Watch or the Crown Prince the hero call to adventure comes in the way of legal, familial or societal duty. Pretty mundane as motivations go and to the modern reader it may sound a bit thin but at least it gives a hero a reason to be in the story and a day job. Useful when you have a band of heroes and you need to inject some purpose to a secondary character.

Other heroes get their call via stone tablet or star sign. A long time ago (or last week on a Tuesday afternoon) somebody, somewhere predicted that The Chosen On will rise from the gibbering masses too save the day. Easy way to start your story. If anyone asks just show them the highlighted text. Usually the story then revolves around one of two things: can the hero live up to the hype (prophecy) or is that thing they said about him so many years ago is even worth listening too. Averted, subverted and play straight so many times, I’ve lost count.

Then there is the Mel Gibson favorite for when the hero refuses the call, make…it…personal! The villain razed the heroes village to the ground, killed his parents and kidnapped his significant other. Oh hells no! It’s on! Leads the hero onto a roaring rampage of revenge with the added bonus that the hero has nothing to hold him back.

And last but not least you have the true hero, the one that does what needs to be done, for the greater good. Restore Peace to the Land, usher an gleaming Utopia, that sort of thing. The hero is the epitome of altruism. Could be the way he was raised or that he is a fervent believer in a philosophy/religion that encourages that kind of thought. Paragons of absolute virtue seem a tad outdated in the cynical world we live in, but there is nothing stopping the author from playing up the darker side of this motivation.

So there you have it. Four common heroic motivations. I hope you found them useful.

Every story needs them, and in fantasy tales they come in two varieties:

The Complete Monster variety with no redeeming qualities who serve as the very definition of all things evil and destroyer of worlds (yes, plural, he/she/it/they is THAT evil).

or

The lying, scheming, conniving usurper type out to pervert, despoil and corrupt all that is good in the world from within.

If you want a foe that your heroes can slay without a second thought go with #1, but if you’re looking for some court intrigue and delicious backstabbing, #2 is the way to go.

Plot driven stories prefer the first option as well. You don’t have to worry about the motivations of the Big Bad who is a murdering fount of madness. Of course you have to be careful that you don’t stumble over unfortunate implications if your evil race shares too many cultural markers with real world religion or ethnicity.Easily avoided by making them monstrous or outerworldy.

Character driven stories rely on #2 because the villain’s motivation(s) lie at the heart of the conflict. The heroes must play a cat and mouse game to uncover the plotters plans before it is too late.

Of course the evil prince might turn into a complete monster once he gets the throne and the unspeakable horror might have a few words to say after all.

Plus, you can have both in the same story. Either #1 plays the Dragon to #2 or #2 plays the role of the inside man for #1. The evil mastermind has someone to do their dirty work for them (and someone to blame if things go wrong) while the Unspeakable Horror has an agent on the inside easing their path to victory.

The specifics are left to each author, of course. But whatever Big Bad shows up will shape the character of your story. After all, it is the challenge that the Heroes must overcome.

Here is a trailer from Dragon Age to show you what I mean by Unspeakable Horror. Enjoy! 😀

I like prophecies (at least in fiction). They make for great story telling frames. They are an easy way to establish The Call to Adventure. Nothings beats a prophecy when it comes to raising the stakes. It’s not just a master less mercenary saving the snooty daughter of the local lord from the monster of the week.

Oh no!

Now it’s the whole kingdom that’s at stake.

Tempt Fate if you dare.

Become a plaything of the Gods.

Having a tough time believing that the local yokel is destined to save the Galaxy from the Overlord of all that is Eveil? Just check the prophecy, second stanza, third line. Aren’t you the man Man not born out of a Woman (whatever the hell that means)? Great! Now grab the shiny sword your father buried in that big honking rock in the backyard and off you go!

Sounds perfect, got prophecy will have fantasy blockbuster.

Or not.

Wait…

What?

Like I said, prophecies are great but there are so many ways to screw them up.

Let me counts ways:

The Forgotten Prophecy. The one you see early on in the story and completely disappears until the second to last paragraph of the book. If it’s that important you would think it would exert some pull on the characters who know about it. Otherwise why mention it.

The Retconned Prophecy, or the I happen to have prophecy that explains what otherwise defies the internal logic of the book. You know the type that crops up on page 315. Mr. Exposition every illogical twist and turn based on the prophecy and the reader is supposed to accept his explanation without question.  It’s the speculative fiction version of in-story CYA (coughBSGcoughbushitcoughsomemore), especially when he knows how baldy he screwed up the internal consistency of the narrative.

The Detail Free Prophecy. Everybody keeps talking about THE PROPHECY but NOBODY bothers to tell the hero or for that matter the reader what does it say let alone how it fits the story.

The Nonsense Prophecy.  Look it, we got a prophecy! And after reading it backwards and forwards it means absolutely nothing.  Bring Balance to the Force my left nut! Now, prophecies, by definition, are nebulous things, but c’mon!

The Pulled it out of my Rear Prophecy. The writer started with a few verses of the prophecy and it was good. Then he wanted to do something else, so he needed more prophetic words to justify that. And then some  more because he just sign a 6-book deal and now he needs to write more prophetic sounding crap because the reason the hero is doing the whole save the Universe bit is because Fate told him so. Now everything he does has been foretold and it will ALWAYS fit with whatever he does or fails to do.

The Ripped from the Ancient Headlines Prophecy.  I need a prophetic verse, stat! Oh, here is one:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles

Nobody with access to a computer and Google will figure that one out. Yeah, right. Now if your novel is an alternate history work, or some such, this would make a great shout out to the King of Sparta. Otherwise it’s pretty flimsy.

As cool as prophecies might be, they are not a cure all for what ails your story. So be careful how you use them, if you use them at all.

And now for another Nostromo AMV. Enjoy!

Yes, my vamps are different.

Please don’t hit me?

No hitting, good.

Mind you, I do agree that vamps have been domesticated to the point of absurdity. And my vampires do not share most of the weakness of “standard” vamps.  So much so, that I agonized over I should call them vampires at all. Then I proceeded to break down the vampire mythos to see if mine fit the bill, in their own way:

  • Undeath/Immortality: My vamps are not dead, their very much alive. However due to their “condition” they are immortal (or very long lived). Only an accident or a deliberate act can kill them.  Since the mark of both of these conditions is that the monster in question is very hard to kill it fits.
  • It’s in the Blood: My Vamps, being alive can reproduce, problem is that the survival rate of a woman impregnated by a vampire is extremely low (1-5 or 20%) which makes it hard for them to reproduce in large numbers. Also a condition of their demonic bloodline so it is transmitted from parent to child even if one of the parents is not a vampire. The type of blood line determines which type of vampire it is (Lust or Wrath).
  • The Hunger: Most vampires feed on blood (and to a lesser extent sex). Mine are a bit different. Their bloodlines dictate that they have to indulge in their ancestral demonic impulses. Those of Lust must engage in sexual acts which tend to be destructive to their victims (rape, pedophilia, sadism, torture and sexual slavery) while the children of Wrath seek to destroy/kill (murder, cannibalism, arson to name a few ways). In a sense they are consumed by their need to feed this hunger for destruction and failure to do so makes the impulse stronger until it drives them mad, not unlike an addiction.
  • Aversion to Sunlight: These vamps are not afraid of the warm rays of Sol but they do shun the spotlight. Secrecy is key to their survival, or as one character explains “we put power in the service of secrecy”.  They prefer to exist in a criminal/political underworld trafficking in weapons, wars and lives.  After all somebody who needs to murder another human being every few weeks/months needs a way to cover his tracks. After all even they can’t dodge a torrent of incendiary rounds flowing from a mini-gun at 3,000+ rounds per minute.
  • Other Weaknesses: Their immortality is based on their ability to regenerate, which means that while bullets will hurt nothing short of immolation or decapitation will finish them for good. A stake through the heart will leave a bruise and hurt like hell, but it is also a good way to piss them off.
  • Inhuman abilities: These vamps are at least 3-5 faster and stronger than your top Olympic athletes.  It would take a platoon of well armed me to take down a single vampire or somebody with magic sword. Somebody who is crazy prepared may, just may, stand a chance.
  • Vampires as Parasites: These vampires, like most vampires are also parasites of human society. They “feed” on human victims (those who are destroyed physically/emotionally by the Hunger) as well as human society as a whole. They lie,cheat and steal to get what they want. The foment wars, exploit conflicts, and play on addictions to gain power. They wrap themselves into the fold of humanity’s flesh like a leech and they are very hard to pry off.
  • True Monsters: They are not cuddly or cute (as if all the rape, murder and mayhem didn’t clue you in). They wear expensive suits, live in prime real estate and have just enough money to make Scrooge McDuck look like a pauper, they may even seduce the panties off a pornstar with a single look, but you don’t want to know what happens behind close doors once the Hunger hits, unless you’re into snuff flicks. They can’t be redeemed for it is in their blood.

So, do they fit the mold or break it? I betting that yes they do, although your mileage may vary.

And as a peace offering to the wild vampire fan spirits I offed this humble offering:

Indeed I have. Not one but two books which every aspiring fantasy writer should have in their reference library:

A word of caution, these are reference books, the stuff that they professor’s back in college warned you were second tier sources. If your looking for in depth studies of myth cycles, ancient history and the like you might want to start with The Hero with a  Thousand Faces and go from there. Or grab copies of El Cid, The Odyssey and Le Morte d’Arthur.

But if your looking for a quick answer and don’t want to spend the next 6 hours in a wiki walk then these books are the answer.

The first, as the title suggest, is an encyclopedia of myths and legends from around the world. It concentrates on Ancient Europe but it does cover the rest of the globe in some details. It also tends to cram a wide series of subjects under certain meta-headings which works most of the time although I found that dropping the Arthurian Mythology under the Celtic setting heading was inaccurate to say the least (Arthur has its own mythos created in Post-Roman Western Europe). Plus a few errors and false assumptions creep here and there but as a well research reference guide to all things mythological you could do far worse. Especially if you pick it up under $10 in the bargain bin, as I did.

The second book is a collection of essays geared for the fantasy writer searching for research material on medieval settings. Like the first it concentrates largely on medieval Western Europe (500 CE to 1600 CE with some material extending to the modern era). It has some fascinating essays on magic, sources and uses as well as handy list of terms.  Again, it does not make the claim to be the end all and be all of sources for writers but it is a compact enough to sit on your desk while you work on your latest WIP.

I recommend both books as excellent places to start your research and as handy guides to all thing ancient, fantasy and fantastic. See if you can snatch them in your local book store (search the bargain bins first) or ask for them in your local library.

If you have any books to recomend, please do so. I’ll like to check them out.

That’s all for now folks, see you around.

Oh and before I forget, here is a video for ya!