Thoughts on Setting: Industrial Age Creative Anachronism

Recently, I started playing Valkyria Chronicles on my laptop. The game, which I may review later, is a perfect example of fantasy moving from the feudal period, which was characterized by an agricultural, land oriented society to an economy increasingly dominated by factories, mass production, and capital. Set in a made up Fantasy World, Valkyria Chronicles is clearly leaning on World War II as both a point of familiarity for the player and as inspiration for the story. As the plot progresses, it becomes more and more fantastic.

I believe, that as the information age begins and societies move away from economies dominated by industry and cities, we seek to mythologize that past in our entertainment and fiction in the same way we once did with the feudal age and agriculture. It merits more thought than I can give it as to why this occurs and how it relates to other genre phenomena.

There are a host of other examples, in games and literature, of the industrial age becoming fodder for Fantasy Fiction. Steampunk would be the obvious example, an entire genre based around clockwork magic with strong urban and imperial age themes. Brian McLellan’s superb Flintlock Fantasy, promise of blood is another obvious example. But one could argue that Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series is post feudal, influenced more by Dickens then Mallory and Tolkien, or that much of the modern sensibility in other authors like Joe Abercrombie come from a grittier feel that can be attributed to industrial age themes as much as gritty realism.

(George R.R. Martin is certainly a notable exception here, but he very deliberately deconstructs modern notions, especially the rational hero, to take us back to a fully realized feudal setting, albeit without the pastoral sensibilities that often mark feudal fantasy.)

I can think of five main points of difference between Feudal and Industrial Age Fantasy

  1. The Setting or The Kingdom versus the City and The World: Feudal Fantasy, no matter how epic, usually focuses on a single Kingdom. Other lands are often visited or involved in the story, but we are generally not meant to care about what happens to them. There is a definite feeling of home in Feudal Fantasy, which is usually based around a rural area or a castle. We are meant to care about this place, which is often presented as awesome before the conflict begins. In Martin this is a clever metaphor for Childhood, similar to TH Whites Arthurian series. Industrial age Fantasy is based around a more ambivalent setting. Cities are presented as wondrous, but also dirty and full of a host of new problems. Industrial age fantasies are often more cosmopolitan as well, since the city is a meeting place for strangers from all over the world.
  2. The Role of Technology or Swords versus Swords, Guns, and Machines: The gear used in Feudalistic Fantasy is pretty set. The Sword is the anachronistic weapon of choice for our protagonists. Interestingly Industrial Age Fantasy des not replace swords, shields, and plate armour with guns, cannon, and so on, but rather adds them to the mix. Technology takes on an interesting role in industrial fantasy, as both enemy and solution, and frequently gets blended with magic.
  3. The Lower Class or The Street Urchin versus the Idealistic Farmboy: In Feudal Age Fantasy the protagonist is a noble, a scholar, or a humble farmboy. The lower class upbringing, the Farmboy is often shown as a kind of pure upbringing that gifts the hero with the strength and moral fibre needed to confront the world (superman and batman strike me as Feudal heroes moving into the city, one is the Feudal Farmboy and the other is the Feudal Noble). In the Industrial Age fantasies, the lower classes of the city suffer and are subject to positively Dickensian treatment at every turn. Interestingly this toughens them up and teaches them the harsh lessons needed to survive which leads right to my next point.
  4. The Resolution of Conflicts or Strength and Moral Fibre versus Reason and Cunning: Traditional Feudal heroes are physically fit, often superior in some way. Blood, noble or otherwise, often figures into their source of power. They overcome conflict through physical prowess and direct means more often than not. Other tests are met with strength of character which can best be described as moral fibre or purity of spirit, This can be subverted in more complex narratives, but usually by placing blood and role above moral purity. In Industrial age Fantasy the protagonist is usually the smart one, be that street smart or book smart. Reason become more of a heroic quality than moral fibre, which allows even sympathetic characters to be deeply flawed.
  5. The Source of Conflicts or the Existential Scourge versus The Ideological Enemy and the Broken System:  In Feudal Age Fantasy the wilderness and the lands beyond the borders of the kingdom or civilization are teeming with enemies. The Others in Martin’s works are a perfect example of this, as are Tolkien’s orcs, or any number of evil forces that threaten the existence of the kingdom, village, or shire. Industrial Age conflicts however are often characterized by enemies that are different only in nationality or creed, or sometimes even just other character who is very similar but just happens to be on the other side. In the Industrial age change systems and institutions can be the source of conflicts as old ways, such as the monarchy and slavery, are overthrown while Feudal Fantasy is often about the return of the kingdom to its pristine original form.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs (2.2)

In a shining example of lifestyle synergy, I have been watching the History Channel’s Vikings series before posting my Shadow Wolf serial these last couple of weeks.

Shadow Wolf is my weekly serial. The first series, Shadow Wold Sagas: Blade Breaker is collected here, and will be published later this year, when the wolftime comes.

The first post of Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fang, which is also last week’s post can be found here if you want a refresher.

<>

“She was hung upside down, her throat was slit, and she was drained of blood,” said Murith.

I sputtered a moment trying to come up with a suitable oath. It seemed so odd that lively little Delilah was lying dead at my feet, bloodless. “Gods… Why?”

Murith shrugged. Over a decade on the city watch had given her a hard exterior, but I knew that it was not lack of compassion but rather a kind of fatigue. Myrrhn, the City of Shadows, the City of Assassins, was not a kind place. I knew Murith’s answer, or the direction it would blow at least, before it left her mouth.

“To sell, of course,” said Murith. “Delilah was a nice, young, clean girl. Blood like hers fetches a premium in the under-city markets. Vampires, Blood Mages, even alchemists buy it. We get a dozen of these a month, although this one is especially brazen. Usually the victims are the vulnerable; the poor, drunks, and newcomers mostly. You can make a lot of money off fresh blood, especially if the source is pure.”

I felt like hitting something. Just smashing the wall or my hand. It all seemed so pointless at that moment. I liked Delilah. She didn’t seem like the type who would become a victim, not now, but that had been wishful thinking on my part. We always want to think that the brighter lights will burn longest.

I realized Murith was staring at me expectantly. I looked at her. She raised a brow.

“–so it had to be someone she knew, then,” I said.

“You’re learning, Nordan,” said Murith. It might seem inappropriate to a casual observer to jest at a moment of tragedy, but  Murith and I had shared many such moments and we knew how to push the other along, to help get past the grey thoughts that can follow loss. “This section of the watch has already reported and filed.  We have no clue who killed her beyond conjecture and no idea where they did the deed. They won’t investigate beyond that. You knew Delilah…”

“Right,” I said. “I’ll start with her former associates.”

<>

I went home to get my gear. Prowling the streets of Myrrhn can be very dangerous, even during the day in some places. In Delilah’s former haunts, gangs shortened many lives. Of course if you are born into poverty and despair, what other choices do you have? The City could be cruel.

The Whore’s War was still underway. There was a massive Ogress standing guard at our door. I nodded to her and headed in. The Twins were holding council, so I crept around, nodding to another pair of heavily armed bodyguards as I went in search of my weapons.

I decided to wear my Kingsmail. The favoured armour of wealthy Karl’s in the north, Kingsmail consists of a masterfully crafted suit of chain whose rings were reinforced with a crosspiece, with additional protection in vital areas. My hammer and my axe found a place in my belt. I was wondering if I should wear a cloak when I saw Vipra looking at me in the mirror.

“Going out Ragnar?”

“I am.”

“Don’t forget there is a price on your head. They want to hurt us, love.”

“I know. I wouldn’t do this unless I had to.”

Vipra smiled. She looked tired. The Whore’s War was two months old. “I’m afraid to ask.”

“Delilah was killed today. Bad business. The last person she was seen with was her brother.”

Thoughts on Setting: Fantasy in the Renaissance and Beyond, an Example.

This will be a quick post since WordPress has decided to saddle me with an unfamiliar interface and I have not figured out how to switch back to the classic interface. Updating for the sake of updating is not a good thing!

A few Sundays ago I wrote this post, about how fantasy is expanding into time periods other than the classical and the medieval. I promised an example, so here we go.

Let’s start with an important historical event. This is just a starting point, of course, but it does help to keep in mind the importance of the original event in order to address the themes that excite you about that event.

Taking an easy example, lets go with the American Revolution as our base event.

  • Square bullets (why WordPress, why did you change my interface?)
  • We need a mature colony with a impressive population
  • We need a distant monarchy that places heavy demands on their rich, established colony, but does not give it enough respect. Remember the slogan of the Boston Tea Party was not “screw taxes!” it was no taxation without representation, meaning that the colonists wanted seats in parliament and saw it as a right since they were contributing greatly to the Empire.
  • We need allies.
  • The themes of the American Revolution that interest me are the movement away from the monarchy, the trend toward religious freedom, and the setting of the stage for the revolutions that followed in Europe.

The Colony, Wesfoundland

  • Westfoundland is an enormous landmass best known for its farms, timbre, and an abundance of natural resources.
  • The People of Westfoundland are a varied group, many of whom fled conflicts in the old world to settle here and live in peace.
  • The colonies have a mixed reputation with the natives, many of whom they have driven from their lands.

The Empire, Engildom

  • Engildom is an Empire than has grown rich off trade.
  • It is ruled by a Queen and a parliament.
  • Engildom is constantly engaged in conflicts all over the world to maintain its Empire. These conflicts are expensive and the burden of that cost often falls on rich colonies like Westfoundland.

The Allies

  • Engildom is allied with the rest of its colonies, a native people called the Wolf Clan, and various trade partners.
  • Westfoundland is allied with the smaller Bear Clan, and has support from enemies of Engildom like Valdaran,

That is a basic, functional structure for a conflict that could drive a number of narratives.

Now lets add fantasy elements and mix them with our themes.

Moving away from the Monarchy

  • In history, the power of the nobility was tied to hereditary control of the land.
  • In our example we decide to mess with the feudal system a little bit. The nobility have all inherited ancient, powerful magical items that are tied to their bloodline. This is the source of their power, ownership and control of land is incidental in this system.

Religious Freedom

  • Lets avoid real world religions.
  • The orthodox religion implies that magic comes from the gods.
  • The new religion proclaims that magic comes from men.

Later Revolutions

  • What happens if Valdaran and Westfoundland have such close ties that the Westfoundlanders become embroiled in the Valdaran revolution, which would be the equivalent of Americans joining up with the French in the Napoleonic age.

So far, so good. But can we create a compelling narrative from this outline that will be of interest to fantasy readers?

The example continues next Sunday!

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs ( 2.1)

Tis Thursday, and time for some Shadow Wolf.

I have decided that the X.Y stands for Volume/Post #, this is thus the first post of the second volume.

Here is the first Shadow Wolf Serial, Blade Breaker, collected in full

“Ready for another round, Nordan?” she asked, eyes sparkling.

“Always, love,” I answered. “Brighthall Mead this time methinks.”

I remember so little of that day, considering how important it turned out to be. There was a lull in the Whore’s War, which meant the Twins were winning. I think it was raining, but in Myrrhn it rains so often that it seems to spill over into all my memories of the place, accurate or not. Just as well, though, since I think the city looks quite ugly in the full light of the sun.

Delilah, my server at the famed Inn of the Willing Wench, gifted me with another smile and glided away. I watched her go, weaving through the crowded common room with a nimble grace that none of the other servers, even the Elven girls, could match. It was a pleasure to watch her move, like an acrobat or a master swordswoman.

She returned to my table with a flagon of mead in each hand. Delilah was small, petite as they say in Loragons, and the glasses looked enormous in her hands. She held them as steady as a man twice her size though, and weaved through the crowd just as deftly with her burden.

“Two?” I said. “That’s thinking ahead, I suppose.”

Delilah lay put the flagons on the table in front of me. Of all the things I remember about that girl, other than grace and quick fingers, her smile was the one that hurt. It was bright and beautiful… and sly. Where Delilah grew up, people rarely smiled openly or honestly, and she never quite perfected it.

As I watched that smile grew into a fiendish grin, and she took one of the flagons and moved it across the table from me, claiming it as her own as she sat.

“I’m on break,” said Delilah. “I put the drink on your tab, old wolf. I know you don’t mind.”

I hoisted my flagon in salute and she followed suit.

“Do you remember how we met Ragnar?” she asked, meeting my eyes.

“You ask me that every time we drink together,” I said.

“I like hearing the story,” said Delilah. “It will be the beginning of my legend, I think. Go on.”

I laughed. “You picked an old man’s pocket, what sort of heroic deed is that?”

“I pilfered the sporin of a twiceborn!” said Delilah, making what I assume was her Ragnar face. “An exile from the north. A slayer of beasts and men, fearsome and deadly. I faced him without fear–“

“Stealing his coins?” I finished.

“Damn right,” said Delilah. “That gold was wasted on you, Northman. Only I didn’t count on you being able to track me down.”

“You’re lucky I found you using the money to help your little gang,” I said.

Delilah smiled. “I’m lucky that you found me. After all, you brought me here, and working in this place is better than being on the streets as an older girl.”

We touched our glasses and played at cards for the rest of Delilah’s break. She was a deft cheat and won every hand. When her break was over she flashed me a smile as she wove through the crowd again. It was the last time I remember seeing her.

<>

All of this flashed through my mind as I knelt over a small body in a ruined cellar. Delilah had been missing for more than a week. I went out looking for her, but it was Sargent of the watch Murith Stouthand who found her first.

“Watchman Grigz found her this morning,” said Murith. “Dawn patrol. The body is fresh. When I saw the description I matched it to your girl. I’m sorry Ragnar.”

“Thank you Murith,” I said.

Memory is a tricky thing. As I stood there looking down at the broken body of a friend the images of her death seeped into those scenes. As she sat across me, raising a glass and thanking me for helping her, in a roundabout way of course, her throat was a crimson ruin. I shook it off.

“There’s more, Ragnar,” said Murith. “Notice how she does not have any blood in her.”

I focused on the details. There was a little blood on the jagged wound on Delilah’s  throat, but remarkably little on the rest of her body.

“Loot at her ankles,” Murith continued.

I saw bruises there. I recognized shackle marks. A low growl escaped my throat.

“What is this Murith?” I asked. “What is happening here?”

The Dissenter, A Heroic Archetype for the Modern Age

Like many Canadians, I spent the weekend protesting C-51, in the real world and online. The act, which the conservative government calls the “anti-terror bill” gives an array of troubling powers to spy agencies. While I was standing outside in the rain and cold, I often wondered about how to turn this relatively banal (so far) situation into Fantasy Fiction.

What I came up with the idea of the dissenter as a hero. Now, this is not my idea, and I am sure than any reader of Fantasy can think of several heroes and villains who are primarily motivated by their disagreement with the system. I just think it is a timely archetype, especially since we are living an time of increasing inequality, which creates increasing dissatisfaction with the machinery of our society. Everybody who is not in power, or served by society, has some gripe with the system. We all think that our particular brand of dissent is a special snowflake, but even the most diametrically opposed factions often have gripes about the system, legitimate or not. This makes the dissenter a very figure that everyone can relate to on some level.

Some time ago I wrote a post about how a corrupt, or unthinking system can be the perfect villain in modern fantasy (link). Looking through my posts I can see that it is a bit of a running theme actually, including my review of Django unchained (link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5). The gist of the idea is that the system is the monolithic, monstrous villain that Fantasy often tends towards, but put into a context that the modern reader can instantly relate to.

In the same way the person who stands up and demands that the system be fixed, or at least points out the flaws in a system, can make an interesting hero. Think about some of the great dissenter of past ages, and the interesting lives they led. Martin Luther was not an action hero, and yet his act of defiance sparked a massive sectarian shift that humbled the greatest power in his world.

Here are a few reasons why I think that the Dissenter is a mighty heroic archetype for Modern Fantasy, the counterpoint to the system as a villain.

  • Knowledge is a Weapon: Modern readers prefer a hero who is smart in some fashion, be it simple brilliance or grimdark streetwise. The primary armament of the dissenter is knowledge. The dissenter knows the flaws of the system that they hate. Often they are a victim of that system and have learned as much as they could about it in order to oppose it.
  • Challenging the Dragon: Systems are immense, complex, and can become truly monstrous over time. The same is true of corrupt institutions. Often, in real life, people find speaking out against these entities incredibly intimidating.  Thus, the dissenter shows courage simply by confronting the problem.
  • A Grim Task: History is not kind to those who dissent. People in power, and those who benefit from corruption, have many options in quashing dissent. The sheer viciousness that those who benefit from a broken system will engage in to prevent that system from changing cannot be underestimated.
  • Reform or Revolution: The ultimate goal of any dissenter is either to reform the system, or topple it altogether. Both have their own merits as story points.

The dissenter can easily turn out to be a villain as well, going to extremes to attack the system that they oppose. An anti-capitalist who publishes papers and advocated non-violent protests against the excesses of wall street is a good kind of dissenter, while an anti-capitalist who blows up factories indiscriminately is most definitely villainous. Interestingly from the perspective of those who inhabit the system being challenged, these two are almost indistinguishable, which makes crackdowns the perfect starting point for a dissenting hero.

Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker Post Mortem & Link Collection

Last week I finished my first Shadow Wolf Story. At the end of this post you can find a link to each and every post, in order, if you have not read the entire piece.

Here are a few of my thoughts on my second serial, which ended after a year of weekly episodes. I’m mostly collecting them for personal use later, but feel free to add your own comments/ask questions.

  • First Person: In my Domains of the Chosen series, I tend to hop from character to character. I do this to cover the entire scope of particularly important events, such as battles. Writing in First person is tricky for me, because I always feel compelled to show as much as possible. I think that learning the discipline of keeping to a narrow, limited viewpoint will be helpful. I also found it interesting trying to bring Ragnar to life by considering how he would view the world. In first person narratives the reader has a more intimate connection to the main character, almost as if they are sitting inside their head watching their thoughts pass by. But Ragnar isn’t a silly little man writing on a laptop at 2AM in Canada, he is Nordan Warrior who has lived, loved, died and been reborn. Much of his thoughts are alien to us, and it was interesting to drop little hints to this throughout the story.
  • Draft/Editing: My draft skills could use a lot of work still. The Shadow Wolf stuff goes up without editing, or much planning to be honest, because I am trying to raise my craft to the level where I can write a really first draft.
  • Pacing: While the Domains of the Chosen series is about politics, Blade Breaker is about a mystery unfolding into a larger plot. I am fairly pleased with the pacing, although it was hard to break up the scenes to fit into blog post sized chunks.
  • Old World/Old Problems: As I’ve said before the world I set the Shadow Wolf Sagas in is an old game world, which I use for my Fantachronica RPG. Some of those old idea need a little reworking before being recycled into stories. I should have changed the name of The Devout, not because I care about offending anyone, but rather because the name is misleading in some ways. Most people would think of religion when I name a group the Devout, when they are actually fanatical followers of an ideology based on the rule of the strong.

In all I am pretty happy with Blade Breaker. In the fall I will be gathering the chapters, editing them, and publishing them (after I publish book 5 of the Domains series). Until then enjoy the archive of The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker

1.1

1.2

1.3

1.4

1.5 apparently this is a ghost post… hmmm, found it

1.6

1.7

1.8

1.9

1.10

1.11

1.12

1.13

1.14

1.15

1.16

1.17

1.18

1.19

1.20

1.21

1.22

1.23

1.24

1.25

1.26

1.27

1.28

1.29

1.30

1.31

1.32

1.33

1.34

1.35

1.36

1.37

1.38

1.39

1.40

1.41

1.42

1.43

1.44

1.45

1.46

1.47

1.48

1.49

1.50

1.51

1.52

1.53

1.54

1.55

1.56

The Guide

A Post About The Devout

Thoughts on Setting: Fantasy in the Renaissance and Beyond — Primer

It is very late and I am tackling an interesting subject with very little (cogent) time left in my day.

Recently I have been thinking quite a bit about how Fantasy is expanding beyond the feudalistic, medieval setting that dominated the genre after Tolkien. Many of the fantasy novels that I have enjoyed of late have a diverged from the traditional, pastoral fantasy in more than just tone. Prominent examples would be Brian McLellan’s Promise of Blood, dubbed Flintlock Fantasy, which is can be placed around the French revolution in time and Chine Mieville’s Bas Lag series which is more Victorian. My own Domains of the Chosen series has Steampunk elements and some very Renaissance influences mixed in with the Roman sensibilities. There are, of course, plenty of other examples, but it is late.

Here are a few of the post medieval time periods, and how they differ.

  • Rennaissance: The Rennaissance denotes the period of time when scholars “rediscovered” the ancients, and regained interest in philosophy and civic society. It is an urban movement, beginning in Italy. During this time concrete is rediscovered (interestingly enough we are just unlocking the full secrets of Roman concrete now) and the printing press comes into full use in western society. On the war side, cannon become increasingly important in this period.
    • Columbus’s voyages occur in this period, and European imperialism gradually becomes more and more important over all these periods.
    • Cortez and other Explorers plunder the “new world.” Faiths clash, diseases are spread, and Empires fall.
  • Reformation: The Reformation is a period of sectarian strife that begins with Martin Luther and end with the Thirty Years War. It is notable for the serious challenge to traditional religious authority, and how that is spread through new techniques. The thirty years war sees firearm tactics developed and used in a bloody religious war.
    • The three musketeers is set in this period.
    • The period leading up to the Tokugawa Shogunate, which shows up in a lot of games and movies, occurs in this time period.
    • Religious strife drives many out of Europe into the new world.
    • Conflicts with indigenous cultures continues.
    • The Inquisition and witch trials reach their height in this time.
  • The Enlightenment: The Enlightenment challenges the very structures of Feudalism, leading up to the Declaration of independence and the French Revolution. This period sees a turning away from traditional authorities in favour of reason. The law of men replaces the law of the Church. Mozart, Newton, and Napoleon are famed products of this period, which also sees a transition toward a more modern professional/national army over the warrior nobility of the feudal age.
    • In the Enlightenment there is finally a sense in Europe that they have surpassed the classical age.
    • The importance of art, and the humanities, and the growing field of science make this a tumultuous time. Ideas clash often.
    • Despite all of this some of histories ugliest practices increase in this period. Slavery and genocide spring to mind. These clash with the thoughts on the rights of man, but continue into later periods.
    • Universal Law, courts of justice, and the rights of man are argued over and systematized during this period.

Industrialization and urbanization are on the rise all throughout this time. Nationalism becomes increasingly important, and the state eclipses the power of both the Church, and the Aristocracy. People think and write about everything from the perfect prisons to why prisms work the way they do. Music is systematized and math reaches new heights. Thinking men become sexy and war becomes increasingly strategic and grander in scale until the ancients are also surpassed in that regard.

Meeting with new cultures and exploration are also themes of this time. Although many if these relationships eventually became exploitative as the great empires sought new resources to fuel their wars and expansion, many of these meetings were initially friendly and trade flourished.

These are rich settings for Fantasy. The intellectual conflicts, the clash of cultures, the high ideals and the lows of utter exploitation are the fodder of what I hope is a new expansion of the genre that dovetails nicely with geek chic and a renewed interest in the intellectual.

Specific examples next Sunday!