Revolutions, Rebellions, and Modern Fantasy.

It is a pressure that builds, explodes, and then carries everyone along with it.

It is a pressure that builds, explodes, and then carries everyone along with it.

I am a big fan of the subject of Revolution. The modern era began with a series of political revolutions, from the enlightenment to the American and French revolutions. The rule of kings, despots, emperors, and Theocrats was wiped away — not completely, of course, but pretty convincingly.

For some time Fantasy seemed to shy away from the subject of Revolution. Rebellion, yes, but serious social upheaval, struggle, and reform? no bloody likely. There are several reason for this in my mind. The first is that revolution is generally associated with urbanization, which is something that the early authors of the genre either had trouble selling or simply shied away from (with notable exceptions). Another is that for a revolution to ring true it cannot be cast as a black and white events. A rebellion casting down a Dark Lord is not a revolution, it is a myth, an uprising, a tale of justice being done, and rebels fighting the good fight. A revolution is a bloody, ugly affair that pits the old guard against reformer and forces everyone to either takes sides or take shelter. A revolution is a brutal, deeply human affair that pits the followers of one paradigm against another, and often leads to great upheaval and tragedy even for the winners. The complexity and brutality of a revolution requires a writer to lovingly create a society, one that has merits as well as flaws, to ring true and then to add stresses to it until it explodes.

Recently, however, Fantasy authors have begun to tackle the idea of revolution. China Mieville’s Bas Lag series and Brian McLellans Powder Mage trilogy leap to mind, although there are many others. Personally, I think that much of this willingness to tackle mire difficult ideas comes from the broader readership that Fantasy has. With a more developed, larger readership, writers can afford to be more daring in seeking out their niche. We live in an age where Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and A Song of Ice and Fire have all seen huge success.

Here are a few ideas about revolution in fantasy.

  • The underprivileged against the privileged: Revolutions are about grievances. Generally this involves an underclass, or more likely underclasses, that are systematically underprivileged. Basically something about the society that they live in prevents them from enjoying and participating fully in that society. Racism and poverty are obvious examples, but they key word here is systematically. If a monarch is racist and is overthrown and replaced with a better monarch as a result, that is a rebellion. If the monarchy itself is based on a racist code, and the whole monarchy is thrown out it is a revolution.
  • Democracy, when it works, is a series of little revolutions: Currently in the West, we have a lot of democratic malaise. This has a fair bit to do with the machinery of politics, especially things like gerrymandering, lobbyists, and secret trade deals. These all help keep the powerful in power, even when the people think that they are doing a poor job of it. Democracy is always rough, but when it does work you can trace the ideas gaining and losing favour (and sometime gaining favour again) as a nation moves forward. These changes are like small revolutions in my mind.
  • The desire for reform is a pressure: Reform  and change are word that you often hear in politics. Even the establishment candidates pay lip service to change and reform. On the surface this just feeds cynicism, but on a deeper level when a real reform is needed that pressure will keep building. Some societies, like Democracies are able to deflate that pressure a little by piecing out reform and giving people a say, but when reform is resisted long enough that pressure builds to an explosive level.
  • Revolutions are causal, but unpredictable: While we can understand the pressure behind a revolution, no one really understands why they often coalesce around a single event, like the match thrown into a powderkeg. One minute everything is under control, at least on the surface, and then the next people are in the street and things are happening at a speed that people often cant quite grasp. How does a centuries old system of Feudalism disintegrate in less than a year?
  • Revolutions are about ideas and systems: We are all familiar with the Robespierres, the Georgre Washingtons, and the Che Gueveras; the great larger than life heroes and villains that are the faces of a Revolution. But the heart of every revolution is an idea. Unfortunately, ideas usually work very well on paper, but can fray a little when expose dto reality. Hence the need for a system to implement that idea — No taxation without representation thus gives way to a constitution which defines a Government, which can amend and interpret the laws of a nation and so on.
  • There are two sides in every Revolution: As a writer I think it is imperative to define both sides of the Revolution. The privileged and the strong have their own narratives and the system that supports them has to have some merit or it would not exist longer than the rule of one strong family.  Modern Fantasy loves a complex identifiable villain and heroes that are not especially clean cut. A proper revolution delivers this in spades as it quickly becomes an event with a life of its own, with characters we can understand and perhaps even sympathize with on both sides.It is a pressure that builds, explodes, and then carries everyone along with it.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.33

Tis Thursday, and that means it is time for some Shadow Wolf Saga. My ongoing serial about the trial and tribulations of Ragnar Grimfang, Exile, Twiceborn, Shadow Wolf.

Start at the beginning [Link]

Read last week’s chapter [Link]

“Ragnar, we have a problem,” said Murith.

I frowned, Murith looked worried, I mean truly worried, as opposed to what-have-you-fools-got-me-into-worried, which was her usual expression as far as I was concerned.

“What is it Murith?” I asked. I tried to ignore the ugly possibilities that flocked to mind, like ravens to the doomed.

“You remember the elemental that killed Madrinpo?” said Murith. “It wasn’t the only incident. Reports have been flowing in from all over the city.”

“Are they all wearing the same rings?” asked Sildus.

“They wouldn’t let me look at them: apparently this is beyond a lowly watch Sargent,” Murith looked offended. Murith had always taken her duties very seriously, perhaps a little too seriously for the rest of the watch.

“I think it is fair to assume they are related,” I said. “What do these additional attacks tell us?”

“That we have stumbled onto something big,” said Sildus. “And that they are willing to, if you will forgive my language, liquidate a large part of their network to avoid compromise.”

I nodded.

“Their action also lack subtlety,” continued Sildus. “Which means that they feel either that they are close enough to their goal to race toward it or that we have spooked them enough for them to salt the earth and run.”

“Either way will have to flush them out quickly,” I said.

“Did you find out anything about the ring?” Murith asked Sildus.

“Yes,” said Sildus. “Have you ever been to the Undermarkets?”

<>

Myrrhn is a very old city, and space is at premium. On most the islands that make up the city proper, when residents ran out of room to build, they simply built over the ruins of derelict buildings, slums, or condemned sections of town. This, combined with the endless smuggler’s tunnels, bolt-holes, some ancient ruins, and the actual sewers mean that there is a large and thriving city beneath the city as it were. The Undermarkets are the most important part of that city, although the Necropolis and the rumours of lost pirate hordes do hold a certain attraction.

The Undermarkets are the source of the rumour than one can buy anything in Myrrhn. More that just a smuggler’s meet or a place to buy stolen goods and contraband, the Undermarkets are a place where unfettered commerce and barter are carried out over the most exotic items in the world. One never knows what one will find in the Undermarkets. Stolen goods, adventurers seeking to sell plundered wares, merchants who wish to avoid the lights of day, and practitioners of darker magical arts all frequent the place.

Sildus, through The Guild, traced our ring to one Stazz, an artificer who worked exclusively through the Undermarkets. Unlicensed magic made up a large part of the Undermarkets. Even I knew that.

The Watch tended to stay out of the Undermarkets. The Thieves Association and The Guild ensured that a modicum of peace was kept within the Undermarkets, since peace was good for business. Nonetheless few people went to the undermarkets under any illusions of safety.

<>

With Sildus as a guide we found our way down through a variety of tunnels, shafts, and staircases, all more accessible than they first seemed, and descended into the Undermarkets. Midnight was when the Undermarkets were busiest, mostly to avoid overlap with the other markets of Myrrhn, I supposed.

A bewildering variety of being shuffled through the tunnels, chambers, and levels of the Undermarkets. I personally spotted a squid-faced Octmori selling ink from an ornate coral kiosk, a man selling trained zombie servants, and a Yez’aven necro-dominatrix.

There was no telling exactly how large the Undermarkets wwere, or how it was organized. Sights, sounds, and strange odors waited me at every turn. We passed more than a few signs of violence and everyone was armed.

After what seemed like hours Sildus brought us to a guarded side chamber with a gaudy painted sign that read “Stazz and Sons: Exotic Goods and Enchantments.” The sign read closed, and the guards looked up as we approached. Sildus slid forward.

“I need to speak to Stazz,” said Sildus. “Guild business.”

“He isn’t here, bugger off nightblade,” said the guard, a tall man covered in strange tattoos. I exchanged glances with Murith.

“I know he is in there,” said Sildus. “Let us in, or we will carve our way in.”

“You won’t leave here alive,” said the tattooed man, drawing his blade. The other guards followed his lead and two more came out of the shop. These were armoured in ornate plate armour and carried brutal looking swords — a pair of devout warriors.

“Ragnar, there are some behind us,” said Murith. I heard Renoit mutter something under his breath as he turned.

“Last chance,” said Sildus, sounding far more confident than I felt.

The tattooed man leapt forward. Sildus threw something and the lights went out. There was a scream and then the fight began.

Thoughts on evil in fantasy fiction

“Great People talk about ideas, small people talk about other people.” Tobias S Gibson, paraphrasing an old saying attributed Eleanor Roosevelt (Ideas > Events > People) or maybe even Socrates.

The days when Fantasy fiction limited its portrayal of villains and heroes to purely black and white are long gone. While unfathomable evil still has its place, and we all love our elder gods and zombies, these are rarely the enemies that take centre stage in modern works. Instead we might focus on the high priest who dooms the world by re-awakening great Cthulhu or the compound of survivors who do unspeakable things to others after the undead uprising. Partly this is the maturation of the genre: the language has solidified to and extent that it no longer needs lengthy exposition (one barely needs to define what a zombie, and orc, or a spell are any more). Perhaps more importantly, modern entertainment is fixated on characters over story and setting, arguably more than ever before. We like complex, rich, interesting characters, and while the elder gods and zombies are awesome and very popular they do not have the greatest “voice” when thrust centre stage as main characters (though some books do just that).

Of course the best works of modern fantasy manage to layer a more complex set of ideology and commentary above the character level. The clash of ideas is truly elevating and interesting, and can work with almost any tale in the hand of a skilled writer. Of course, some writers have no desire to move beyond Jersey Shore Fantasy, focusing entirely on characters who have little meaning behind the interactions. Myself, I like putting characters in situations where grand, crumbling systems and powerful influences lurking behind the action act as the true villains. Evil still has a place in even the most down to earth Fantasy fiction, even if it is only a shade darker than the protagonist.

Here are a few of the better versions of evil in modern Fantasy and my thoughts on them:

  • Evil is the unknowable outsider: It used to be that the outsider as evil was uncomfortably close to racism. Orcs, savages, and barbarians raiding civilized peoples occasionally strayed uncomfortably toward certain world views about closed borders and nationalism. Now the Orcs and Barbarians are more often the hero and the outsider is presented as something well beyond our understanding or ability to communicate with, such as zombies. The Zerg from Starcraft and the Tyranids from 40k, are other favoured examples of unknowable evils — these are forces more akin to sentient natural disasters than understandable beings. This trope works well, but as I noted above an evil that is unknowable is best used as a background element, since it is by definition hard to characterize in a compelling fashion. Its not a bad trope, as long as one does not stray into xenophobia.
  • Evil is what is at the bottom of the slippery slope that begins with selfishness: Extreme selfishness, the hoarding of vital resources, the taking of what belongs to others, disregard for life and freedom, and so on harkens back to the a more traditional view of evil. This view of evil is fairly simplistic, but still capable of nuance. A thief that steals bread, for example, is far better than a rich man who takes food from others to control them. Again, if well done, this sort of evil can avoid entering mustache twirling land, but I think the author would have to work in some views of how the society and systems create the conditions for this kind of selfishness for it to catch my interest.
  • Evil is the apathy/indifference of good men: Apathy is one of the great modern evils. In societies where everything is compartmentalized it is easy for everyone to deny personal responsibility. After all, if someone is being murdered, that is a matter for the police, right? Of course, the denial of responsibility was used as a defence for people who ran the death camps in the Holocaust. “Just following orders,” turned out to be a poor defence when complicit in genocide. This is one of my favourite evils, but understandably it is very, very hard to work this into a character driven fantasy narrative. For one, apathy and indifference are usually boring qualities for a protagonist and not exactly exiting as forces to fight against. More power to those who can actually make this idea of evil actually work in their novels.
  • Evil is the purposeful promotion of ignorance: (rant warning) I despise Fox News and, to a lesser extent, the other 24 hour cable news shows. These channels purposefully promote large scale ignorance in order to simply push their ratings higher. In world of complex, fun, entertaining media from books to computer games it is really difficult to fill a channel with meaningful news 24/7  and get viewers to tune in. The truth of things is that beyond our areas of interest most of us are only interested in the news, beyond staying informed, when something important is happening. To compensate the 24 hour news channels overinflate the importance of almost everything. The worst of them purposefully obscure the facts or outright lie to get ratings. The same is true with climate change deniers funded by oil billionaires, men paying to obscure the facts so that they can continue to reap record profits. There are more examples everywhere, but the central idea here is that the people who promote great ignorance for their own ends are doing something evil. This is an idea I love seeing explored in genre fiction, because we can remove it from the hyper-politicization that characterizes modern discourse on most subjects, and examine the consequences of promotion of ignorance in an of itself.

In general, I think evil in modern Fantasy should remain on the idea level, influencing the actions of the characters. Characters who are evil personified are too simplistic for the most part, and readers who want complex characters are unsatisfied by that kind of characters, be they villain or hero.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.32

On Thursdays I hone my writing skills with a little serial, raw and uncut. Gather round, gather round, tis time to let Ragnar and his pack loose upon the city of Myrrhn!

If you want to start at the beginning click this link, and follow the links in comments to read along.

If you missed last week’s chapter, here it is.

“A trap that summons an elemental?” I said. “Who would be able to make something like that?”

“There are at least a hundred elemental craftsmen of that skill level registered in the city,” said Murith. “We try to keep close tabs on them. I don’t see a makers mark on the ring though.”

“Not a legal sale then,” said Renoit. “That tells us something.”

“Can you persuade the watch to lend you a mystic analyst Murith?” I asked.

“Well this is a murder case, but I would hate to have to explain what we were doing with Madrinpo here,” said Murith, brows furrowing. “Besides, if they have compromised the Guild and the Doxies union, who is to say they don’t have agents in the watch.”

“I can get someone to look at it,” said Sildus.

It didn’t surprise me that the Guild had that capability; the Assassins of Myrrhn are the best for a reason, after all.

“How soon?” I asked.

“Tonight?” said Sildus, almost apologetically. Murith’s eyes widened. I imagined she was thinking how many cases she could solve with that kind of swift action on the Watch’s behalf. Sadly, that is not how Myrrhn worked.

“Very well,” I said. “I will meet up with you at the Inn of the Willing Wench tonight. For now we should disperse. I will help officer Murith with her statements regarding the demise of Priest Madrinpo. The rest of you should be on your guard, just in case.”

“Do you think we will be targets now?” said Renoit, trying to sound nonchalant. I could tell he was excited, however, at the prospect of being attacked. No doubt his house had some elaborate defences or he’d learned a new move he wanted to put to the test. Renoit needed to let himself out his cage more often.

“I expect so,” I said. “It might be prudent for everyone not directly protected to try to meet up with us tonight.”

<>

Sildus was waiting at the Inn of the Willing Wench by the time I made it there. Night was blanketing the city as I entered, signaling a change in the tenor of the place. The merchants and the more respectable people of the city flowed out of the streets, into the safety of their homes or well appointed places where one could enjoy the nightlife without fear of crossbow bolts, while everyone else who was unfortunate enough to be out after dark kept an eye on the shadows.

The Inn of the Willing Wench was a safe place. The owners had fought of several assaults over the place’s long history, and only a fool would attack it now. It was well known that they paid both The Guild and the largest of the Mercenary Companies based in Myrrhn to keep the Inn neutral. A wise business policy, if well beyond the means of most. Consequently the Inn was always busy, and ours was hardly the only group of schemers in the place.

I was especially delighted to see a sinuous form draped around one of the massive spits rotating around a well-tended fire pit. Coilers, a form of enormous aquatic constrictor oft mistaken for a true sea serpent, are a common source of meat in the North, but a delicacy in Myrrhn. I helped my self to a heaping plate, smiling broadly as I greeted the waitresses and cooks.

Sildus tracked me through the room. I took my time, in case anyone was watching, before sitting down with him in a booth concealed in an alcove.

“Did you get any weapons past the doormen?” I asked.

Sildus smiled. “I didn’t need to. The room is full of weapons already. I would say that the policy of taking weapons at the door benefits me more than anyone.”

“True, I suppose,” I said between mouthfuls of serpent. The sauce, blueberry and blue cheese, was excellent. I generally prefer my meat unadorned, but this was a glorious addition.

“Are you interested in what I learned?” asked Sildus.

“I am,” I said. “But I figured that you aren’t the type who likes repeating himself. Murith is on her way, and I expect Git and perhaps Renoit will join us as well.”

“Yes. I did not want to be rude earlier, but is he… that… Renoit?” asked Sildus.

“Probably,” I said.

“You have interesting friends, Nordan,” said Sildus.

Just then Murith appeared at our table. She looked upset. Git and Renoit were with her.

Before I could even invite her to sit down, Murith said, “Ragnar, we have a problem.”

On Recommending Fantasy Books.

Recommendations?

Recommendations?

It used to be that Fantasy was a much narrower, and smaller, Genre. I could get away with recommending my personal favourite fantasy novels and not have to worry about leaving someone out. If someone didn’t like one of Tolkien, Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Ursula K. Le Guin, or whatever you might be reading at the time, they probably would not be spending much time with the genre.

Since I started reading, fantasy has exploded as a genre, forming distinct sub-genres, mating with others genres, and branching out beyond medieval and classical world backgrounds. What this means is that people have far more to choose from, and I feel that I can no longer safely recommend just what I enjoy.

Fandom is a strange beast. A true fan often feels so passionately about their favourite obsession, that they will recommend it to everyone. As an author this works to my benefit, since word of mouth drives sales, and more importantly it refreshes me when I talk to people really enjoy my work. However, not every work is for every person. This is a difficult lesson to learn for some. When I was young, I simply assumed that people who did not like what I liked were lacking in some fashion. I liken it to pop culture in high school: people who have not developed their own personal sense of taste enough tend to gravitate toward the popular. This later acts a springboard into more specific likes. One might start with Justin Bieber or Britney Spears and end at Mozart, Led Zeppelin, and/or Sinatra. Not a perfect view of the process, but you get the idea.

True fans often forget that others do not have the same tastes as they do. You might absolutely love and understand every little bit about The Gardens of the Moon, or The Name of The Wind and defend them to the hilt, but they are not for everyone. People who don’t like what I like are not (necessarily) deficient: they simply have their own tastes. Fantasy is now diverse enough as a genre to accommodate a diverse readership, some with very different tastes. So how does one go about recommending a book without being boorish? Here are a few suggestions.

Simple Suggestions:

  • Recommend my book: I had to try.
  • Recommend your favourites, but qualify: If you are really enthusiastic about a book, by all means recommend it. Just don’t force it on someone. Don’t tell them they have to read it if they like the genre. Instead tell them why you like the book. Don’t go into too much detail, but try to capture the essence of what you think makes the book good. Are the characters interesting? is the plot engaging? is the World-Building especially good? that sort of stuff. While you are discussing the book, the listener will pick up on clues and keywords on their own and see if your description matches with their tastes.
  • Dot not attack their tastes: Often I see people putting down books, games, and other media that they dislike in order to promote what they like. This is a sales technique, and a fairly tacky one as far as I am concerned. If you are recommending to someone, and you care about being polite, don’t slap them down by saying your tastes are better than yours. Try to make your recommendation in a positive fashion.

Complex Method (step by step):

  1. Find out what books they enjoy: This is my preferred method of recommendation. These days fantasy is such a rich genre than you can usually recommend books based on similarity to other books. Even if those books are outside the genre, I can often recommend based on similarity to sub-genres of fantasy. For example fans of thrillers are more likely to enjoy the Dresden Files than Tolkien, at least to start.
  2. Delve deeper: Find out what the person likes about their favourite works. Do they enjoy strong, upright, moral characters, or do they favour assassins and bastards? Do they like a particular historical time period? are they looking for action or intrigue? Do they want a book with Dragons or Zombies?
  3. Find out what got them interested in Fantasy: Some people may not have book interests that can be easily related to fantasy, for these you have to discover what sparked their interest in the genre. Some will come from games, while others might have watched Game of Thrones on TV. Once you have established this you can go through steps 1 and 2 again.
  4. Remember that you live in the information age: There are plenty of helpful sites and lists out there that will help you find the right book for someone. Amazon has an also-bought recommendation section, Good reads has listopia, and so on. These can spark  your imagination if your are having difficulty.
  5. If they are new and nervous, start with something simple: Don’t throw Gormenghast at people new to the genre,, who are just looking to test the waters, it will only discourage them.

Above all, remember that the genre is big and growing, and with that diversity it is more and more likely that you will find something suitable and maybe even discover a new book that you might like along the way.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.31

Once again, tis time to visit the cobbled streets and dark alleys of Myrrhn, following the adventures of Ragnar Grimfang, Twiceborn exile.

This is a serial, if you are new to it, start here and follow the links in the comment section of the post.

If you missed last week’s episode, I am happy to link it to you!

The Priest looked at me, wide eyed, then back to Sildus. If he were a true Devout,  I expected that he would have attacked immediately, regardless of the obvious outcome; the Devout were a powerful force, but ultimately brought down by their reliance of brute force and attack, even when it was ill advised. Priest Madrinpo looked frightened: he obviously knew something, but he was not one of them. What then, was the connection?

The sound of the water cascading from the fountains soothed me, banishing the images of Sapphire, Bjorn, and Crimson Wind for the moment. Priest Madrinpo was obviously already terrified of Sildus; I needed to give him the impression that I was willing to cut a deal with him, that I was the reasonable one. Perhaps not the best role for me to play, but we were improvising. I took my hands off my weapons and sat down on the bench opposite Madrinpo. With Git and Murith standing guard, the isolated area between the fountains may as well have been an alcove in the Obsidian Tower. I was confident that we would not be overheard by passersby.

“I saw the look in your eyes when I mentioned Sapphire and Crimson Wind Madrinpo,” I said. “I saw you at your funeral. I know about the Devout. Tell me how you are involved in all of this and perhaps I will let you walk away.”

“They will kill me Northman,” said Madrinpo. “They will kill us all.”

“If you don’t talk, I am going to teach my friend here the throat screw,” I said, referring to a gruesome method of execution used in Sirutiran lands. “He is Sapphire’s former lover, you know? We might die, but you will die screaming, assuming you can draw breath past all the blood.”

If there is one part of deception I am skilled at, it is threats. Besides, I think Sildus was seriously considering the idea. The assassin’s eyes were bright and hard, like a hawk before the kill. Madrinpo’s eyes went wider as he looked between us. He didn’t seem as brave as I expected a Sirutiran Priest would be. After a moment, he looked down.

“The Devout are here, in the city,” said Madrinpo. “They are posing as followers of Kamesin Greeneyes as cover. They were trying to recruit Sapphire to get to her sister and her clients. They recruited Crimson Wind to get to Madame Glorianna. They want to start a war in the city. They have found something under the city, something–“

Water rose like a tidal wave crashing down on Madrinpo and Sildus before I could clear my chair. The assassin reacted with characteristic swiftness, hurling three little blades as he moved, but his attacks merely passed through the water. As I stood the liquid began to force itself down their throats. Madrinpo’s eyes bulged.

“ELEMENTAL!” I shouted, pushing my hand into the water, reaching for Madrinpo and Sildus.

Renoit leapt over the fountain behind the elemental, his rapier slashing through the water. I stood my ground, growling, as a glistening pseudopod of solid water slammed into my head, reaching into the water. One would think that being smashed by a watery limb wouldn’t hurt, but it felt like a blow from a solid oak branch. Murith ran forward, grabbing my belt to brace me. I felt her strength added to mine as my fingers contacted something in the slippery depths.

“Ragnar, I can kill it!” said Git, excitedly, pulling a  charge of powder from his belt. “You need to get them out!”

“I’m trying…” I said, grunting. Then, just as I felt a strong grip clasp my hand, the Pseudopod’s shadow fell over me again.

“No so fast, villain!” said Renoit. leaping over the elemental, slashing the Pseudopod with is Rapier. It was enough to distract the beast and I heaved, muttering a little prayer to Magni for strength.

“Now Git!” shouted Murith, hauling me back, inch my inch.

Git tore open the powder charge and tossed the contents into the elemental. I roared and shouted, pulling with all my might. I was quacking with strain and fighting for inches when suddenly resistance ceased and I fell to the ground.

The elemental wavered, turning a weird shade of green, then brown. It moved toward’s git, who stood his ground, fumbling for another charge. Then with a shudder, the elemental simply collapsed into a puddle of foul smelling brown goo.

“Good word Git,” I said.

Murith was helping Sildus, who was on his hands and knees, spitting up water and blood. Madrinpo was dead. Judging from the blood and grey matter leaking from his nose and mouth, the elemental had done more than try to drown him. His face was frozen in terror. I shivered at the thought.

“I don’t see anyone nearby,” said Renoit. “I don’t think more than a dozen people even noticed we were being attacked. I saw no sign of any assailant.”

“Good,” I said, looking down at Madrinpo.

All ascended can sense a little magic. Looking closely I saw that one of his rings was active. I picked it up and handed it to Git. The goblin turned it over in his fingers for a moment.

“Its a trap,” said Git. “It looks like it was enchanted to summon an elemental nearby when he spoke or was about to speak a certain keyword. Whoever he was dealing with did not want him to talk.”

Classic Villains: Jack the Ripper.

A Political Cartoon about the Ripper, circa 1888

A Political Cartoon about the Ripper, circa 1888

I am not a huge fan of fantasy murder mysteries, unless the murder works alongside/into a larger plot. I feel that this is because much of the focus of more modern mysteries is on the procedure and police-work, which would not work well with medieval notions of justice. Part of the true brilliance of Game of Thrones is in how a certain Stark follows a path very similar to the modern police/rational detective stories but is violently derailed by the notions of medieval justice and a very medieval crime; it is Mr Martins way of driving home, very effectively, that modern notions of justice, fairness, and law do not apply in his world.

Meanwhile it is hard to find a killer that holds up well to the scale of fantasy, or the magic. What are mere criminals compared to the likes of Smaug, Elric, The Bloody Nine, Conan, or Arya Stark? Only a few killers seem worthy of a fantasy stage, which usually deals with a grander scale and more spectacular action scenes.

One real world killer who fits the bill is Jack the Ripper who holds still inspires a macabre fascination, even over a hundred twenty years after his crimes. Just today I was shown an article about how they finally, potentially, sort of, may have “solved” the mystery with DNA evidence (link). The Ripper murders make for very compelling modern fantasy fare, and the Ripper himself would make an excellent villain in a fantasy novel with little allowance. Here are a few reasons why:

1) The Ripper is Bloody: Modern fantasy tends to be fairly violent, and the Ripper murders fit right in with this trend. Grisly evisceration, performed with surgical precision in some cases, was the hallmark of the Ripper. The Ripper was, above all, brutal, which makes for a good villain in any genre.

2) The Ripper preyed on Prostitutes: Modern fantasy, at times, seems obsessed with prostitutes, particularly those who work the streets and who lead troubled lives. As a villain you could do far worse a person who preys upon unfortunate women who are forced to sell themselves to survive. The connection between poverty and street prostitution is pretty clear, and a villain who preys on the poor hits home in days of growing inequality. Score that for the Ripper as a good villain.

  • Interestingly enough the cartoon that I included at the beginning of this post comes from a period piece trying how Jack the Ripper was symbolic of the “social neglect” problems surrounding places like Whitechapel. Some feel the Ripper murders helped galvanize support for early social justice movements. They certainly shone a light on the seedy underbelly of they city.

3) The Supernatural Element: The Ripper was never caught, and over time, his abilities and prowess became exaggerated to the point that supernatural traits and great skill were attributed to the killer. Partly this is because forensics at the time were still iffy — many of the coroners and investigators could not agree on the man’s surgical skills or which victims were his. The list of suspects was also enormous, all with varied skills and reason. Eventually all of this got packed in and blended into a legendary character who grew larger than life. A legendary murderer makes for an excellent fantasy villain, one that may require epic means to track down and confront.

4) The Taunting Letters: A letter, with part of a Kidney was sent to the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The letter is often assumed to be a hoax in modern times, but became a canonical part of the Ripper’s character. Taunting the police is a frequent trope in serial killer stories, and certainly would not go amiss in in a fantasy novel. However, it would be much better to add an interesting twist, such as a duel of wits a la Moriarty, or perhaps something magical like a necromantic Ripper animating his victims and sending them to carry the letters to the watch (I may do this for my next Shadow Wolf saga).

5) The Missing Organs: Several of the Ripper’s victims were missing organs. At the time this fact led to both scientific theories, and occult theories. The occult view lends itself well to Fantasy. What if the Ripper is a powerful sorcerer out harvesting ingredients for a particularly nasty spell?

6) Politics: Several of the Ripper theories have taken the view that the murderer was never caught because of his political connections. Some even point to a Royal connection. This is perfect fodder for a Fantasy villain, of course. Imagine, the Queen’s son, a Necromancer, stalking the downtrodden, with royal agents covering his tracks to prevent embarrassment…

The Ripper character fits so well as a modern fantasy villain that I am surprised that he is not mined for inspiration for more often. Of course it may also be that mainstream fantasy is currently dominated by books where the hero is essentially a Jack the Ripper type, a cloaked figure with strange powers who kills with impunity from the shadows.