Teaser Tuesday

A teaser from Bloodlust: Red Glory, my next novel.

Sadira and Gavin arrived, the smell of the sea still clinging to them, just in time to see Fiona begin. They were ushered into the private box without ceremony. Chosen Marius turned to them, eyebrow raised, but Sadira stopped before she could speak, staring down at Fiona, lost in memory.

Gavin felt a pang of sorrow from Sadira as flame-haired Fiona entered the fighting grounds, moving with the grace of a predator and the swagger of a born performer. The Chosen knew what his beloved was thinking, and would have known even without their mystic bond.

Sadira gripped the hilt of the monstrous war-cleaver at her side, knuckles going white around the hilt: adamantine wrapped in long strands of hair so much like Fiona`s. That hair had once belonged to her rival and friend, Karmal.

I wonder if it is barbaric or touching that Sadira wraps the hilt of her sword in the hair of the woman who once wielded it.

This passage, from the beginning of the book, serves as a bridge between Bloodlust: Red Glory, and Bloodlust: The Shield Maiden. The death of a Chosen serves as a catalyst for events within the Empire…


Ideologies as Villains in Fantasy

“Ideology: (plural ideologies) a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy:

  • the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual”  Oxford English Dictionary

“To err is human, to persist in error is diabolical.” Georges Canguilhem, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences

Recently I posted about how systems are an excellent villain for modern works of Fantasy. Just as systems can become corrupt and run down over time, so can the ideologies underpinning them. In fact, the two generally go hand in hand. Today’s blog post is about the idea of using an ideology as a villain in a work of fantasy.

Ideologies have a life cycle. They start as theories, usually a gathering of ideas put together in a scholarly fashion. This theory describes some important part of social, political, or economic reality in a convincing manner. If properly ideological it predicts that following certain patterns and systems prescribed by the theory will result in a great leap forward or even a grand utopia (or the reverse: staving off Armageddon!  as is popular with modern ideologies, which like to be all cool and dark). Once the theory reaches a critical point it is disseminated to society as a whole. People encounter and accept the ideology and eventually either comes to power by being  popular or appealing to an elite group. The disciples of the ideology then try to apply the ideology to reality.

With most ideologies the initial application results in an improvement in some areas (new ideologies are often adopted as old ones fail, which makes the bar for improvement very low). This encourages the disciples to apply the ideology even more diligently, often in questionable ways. The heady mix of theory and power also starts to corrupt. At this starts running into cases where it is not the best solution. Ideologies are perfect on paper, but few complex prescriptive theories survive full contact with reality: no idea is perfect. These failures frighten certain types of adherents, who seek to blame anything but their beloved ideology for the failure, often lashing out with whatever power they have. Sometimes the ideology gets modified to meet reality, but often more fanatical disciples will prevail and attempt to apply the ideology more rigorously. This doubling down only creates more failures and starts to turn people against the ideology. As the systems that based on a particular ideology distort or fail more and more the underlying ideology suffers from an identity crisis.

Truly drastic measures like The Final Solution, The Three Bitter Years, The Inquisition, and so many others are often enacted as a result of a collapsing ideology. The ends justify the means in desperate times;  people tend to be more fanatical about ideas that they have really invested in. These ideologies in winter, with the true believers desperately groping for anything that can keep their beloved theory (and the position they have gained because of it) going, make excellent villains in any story.

I will use a favoured ideology from my own work Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale to illustrate.

The Theory

Descriptive: The Reckoning was a great cataclysm caused by the fallout of a devastating war between powerful magic-users called the Gifted. The Reckoning mucked up the world pretty bad and the remaining Gifted were forced to band together with the last remaining City, Krass, just to survive. The Gifted swore an oath to protect the city in exchange for shelter. When the storms finally broke, the survivors emerged to find a world greatly altered by tainted magic, full of hostility.

Prescriptive: Because magic caused the Reckoning, magic is dangerous. Because magic is dangerous the Gifted must be controlled.

Systems arising from the Theory

  • The Chosen: The strongest of the Gifted who survived the reckoning were called the Chosen. They were allowed to keep their magic, but had to swear an Oath to Protect the City and Upholds its laws. This was considered an imperfect solution at the time, but beat out mutual destruction. The Chosen were powerful to begin with, but the power of those who survived only grew. The oath still binds them, however.
  • The Deliberative: The Deliberative is a body that oversees and polices magic in the Domains. Among other things they administer a test to all children, to see if they will develop magic. Those that will are taken away to be trained. They can choose to become Vassals or Gladiators.
  • The Vassals: Gifted who are sundered from the destructive and dangerous aspects of their magic are called Vassals. They generally serve the State, the Chosen, or the Deliberative for a certain period before they are granted full citizenship in the Domains. This period of service is seen as recompense for their kind causing the Reckoning.
  • The Gladiators: Some Gifted don’t want to go through the sundering. Early on these were sworn to the legions or as the bodyguards of Chosen at war. Chosen frequently fell in battle and pragmatism dictated replacements were required. Duels were fought over who replaced a Chosen when they fell. These grew into the Gladiatorial games, which were seen as a way to train Gifted to use magic in combat, weed out the weak, and familiarize the people of the Domains with potential new Chosen.

Failures of the Theory

  • The Chosen are too Powerful: While the Oath binds the Chosen, it is open to interpretation, and creates an odd dynamic among them. The arena system eliminates potential rivals, ensuring the Chosen remain in power. Many Chosen attempt to manipulate the game in order to ensure that their favoured candidates win. The Chosen don’t grow old, so the only way to get rid of them is through violence. Their main rivals are other Chosen, the political institutions that they are sworn to uphold,  and outside enemies.
  • Segregation is bad: Separating the Gifted from the populace keeps them from understanding each other.
  • Waste of Useful Gifted: The early games were more lethal. The people hated the Gifted. The Chosen were harsher. Few Gladiators survived, which robbed the armies and agencies of the Domains of potential assets.
  • Heretics: Any Gifted who does not adhere to the ideas of the Domains regarding magic is branded a heretic. The Domains have historically Chosen to shoot first and ask questions later with Heretics. This was not much of a problem in the early, expansionist days of the Empire, but now creates problems when diplomacy is a better solution.
  • Family problems: Separating Gifted children from their families creates problems. In the days when the Reckoning was still memory and not legend, people saw the need. Now it is seen as cruel, and many rebel hiding their Gifted Children. This creates heretics within the Domains. Since the penalties for this are harsh, these people all become rebels.
  • Great Games: The Gladiatorial games have taken on a life of their own. Imagine if popular professional sports were to intermingle with politics and tradition. It is now the system that dominates all others in the Domains.

Ideology as an enemy in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale

Magic is power. Magic must be controlled. The Gift is now a curse of sorts. While the ideology of controlling the Gifted has made the Domains a safer place, the Gifted see it as unfair. The Great Games have become an obsession and have grown to such a stature that they drive the politics and the economy of the Domains in many ways. This is ugly for the Gifted who become Gladiators, but worse for the enemies of the Domains who become fodder for the tests and trials of of the arena. Vested interests make it hard to change the Great Games, and thus hard to re-integrate the Gifted with the people. The Chosen use the games for social control and to battle for influence.

This ideology is a villain in Bloodlust because it forces Gavin down the path of the Gladiator so that he can keep his magic. It prevents him from seeking knowledge and exploring  the wider world because he is seen as a danger: a living weapon of mass-destruction and not a human being.

Logistics in Strange Worlds

“Lembas. Elvish waybread. One small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man.” – J R R Tolkien.

My sister works in the Canadian North, a defence attorney on circuit around the vast, rugged territory of Nunavut, which encompasses some of the coldest, roughest, and most remote places in our land. This week, as she ventured out on a new circuit for the first time, she ran into a cascading series of travel issues that resulted in her being late to court, missing baggage and clothes, and then stranded in a the small community of Gjoa Haven. While she was there she reflected on how different the inconveniences of travel made life in the North, especially for permanent residents. Here is an excerpt from her ruminations:

“In the South (In this case she is referring to southern Canada, Ontario to be exact), we have so much choice. So much cheap and abundant choice about just about everything, from where we shop to who we have as our dentists to how we wish to travel; plane train, or automobile. When I lived in Ontario, I lived in a small town called Shedden, west of London Ontario and more than 200 km from Crieff, where my parents live. To get home, I turned right on the 401 and then right again on Hwy 6 South. It took me about an hour and a half on good day, less on a really good day. I could pursue my profession where I wanted and still see my parents and grandparents regularly, all thanks to the ease and low cost of travel in the South.” – Deanna Harris.

This got me to thinking. Travel is something we take for granted in modern day, but often serves as a plot device and an integral part of world-building in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Magical and mundane methods of travel that differ from our can drastically alter the feel of a setting. If a science fiction setting does not include some method of faster-than-light travel then it will limit the size of any Galactic empires. Here are a few logistical considerations that I think are key in world-building.

1) Speed — How far can a person travel in an hour/day/month/year? This is perhaps the most important travel question in any setting. Towns and inns will often be set up along major routes at intervals based on a day’s travel by the dominant method of travel (or the dominant method of travel when they were founded) and where major routes cross. If you have instantaneous travel like warp-gates or planar portals you can bet your bottom dollar that the dominant powers will build some form of post to control travel there, if only to prevent their enemies from catching them by surprise. Even road quality can make a difference: the Roman Legions were able to exert control over such a large area partly because travel within the Empire was made easier and faster by their roads. These roads also encouraged trade because they were safe and faster than dirt paths. The legions were also disciplined enough to march for long periods which allows them to cover a much greater distance during the day than most armies at the time. Speed is essential to any narrative involves a lot of travel. If travel is slower it means that rare resources from distant places command even higher prices from those who need them. Slower travel also means greater regional variation between dialects, languages, and culture. It makes central education and control harder as well.

2) Cargo — A ship might be slower than a horse, and even have to take an indirect route to get to a particular destination, but it can carry a hell of a lot more. This obviously matters a great deal for trade. Extensive trade systems involve moving massive quantities of goods. In areas where ships are impossible it might mean a need for massive caravans. Caravans carrying precious cargo attract raids and need guards and so on. In the Terminator, the titular character is unable to bring anything back into the past when he travels, which means he has to search for weapons and clothing immediately. Lack of cargo capacity can make a big difference in construction: it is hard to build a palace out of imported marble if you can’t bring it in by ship or some other form of bulk transport.

3) Fuel/Limitations — Gas stations are a ubiquitous sight in modern day. Expect something similar for whatever fuel is required by your dominant modes of transportation. Helium and Hydrogen stations for Dirigibles. Fueling stations for certain kinds of space ships. Fuel, as we can see with oil and gas, can become a plot point in an of itself in narratives with large scale conflicts. This is true even of muscle-powered travel where food is fuel. Fuel can limit travel on extended trips, especially into areas where provisions are hard to come by; even foot travelers will have to carry more food while vehicles rapidly become useless if no fuel is available. Cargo can make a big difference in this case, as can means variation. Brandon Sanderson does away with conventional logistics of large medieval armies in the Way of Kings, with certain types of mage being able to conjure food if they have an uncommon, but easily portable type of resource in the gem-hearts. Other limitations, like a need for a landing strip for a plane or the difficulty of a magic ritual can alter a method of travel, and how it changes the world, significantly. A steamship has different limitations than a sailing ship, and so on.

4) Knowledge/Exploration — It helps to know where you are going. In some cases a map or special can be more important than a method of travel in a story. Treasure maps, knowledge of where the next oasis is in the desert, and even hints of what exists where you are going can really effect logistics. Language barriers also effect travel and while their effects on world-building may be obvious on other levels, it is not often taken into account with travel and trade. Knowledge is something we take for granted in the modern day, even in our well-mapped fantasies, but it posed a real challenge to people moving beyond the thresholds of their homelands in the ancient worlds.

5) Means Variation — Different people have access to different methods of travel. If one group has access to a form of travel that others cannot match it can give them a tremendous advantage. This advantage can create Empires: think of British Sea power, Druids traveling between stone circles, or Dragon riders: their mobility is as much or more of an advantage than brute force because it allows them to leverage their assets over a much wider territory. Those with access to special forms of mobility will almost always be in the dominant classes, either because they can afford that rarer form of travel or because they can use it to gain power or wealth. Just think of the advantages that a man with access to a horse or cart-oxen would have in the old days over someone who did not. The navigators in Dune have tremendous power because they control much of the means of travel (though not the fuel)

6) Local Variation — Local variations in travel will change the way a specific place feels. A crossroads town that sees a lot of traffic will be more worldly than a mining town. A port will pick up some of the customs of the sea and attract faraway travelers.  You are unlikely to find a cosmopolitan place that is hard to travel to. Variation often depend on local resources. Terrain itself is the most important local variation. A desert is hard to traverse because of lack of food and water, as well as the difficulty of travelling on sand. Thus there are few cities in deep deserts. Mountains and swamps pose entirely different problems. In Science Fiction this often represented as planets/places that have access to space travel and those that do not. In Fantasy magic can make a difference as well, with magical barriers isolating communities or strange riding beasts that only live in one area. I was particularly enamoured of the Stiltwalkers in Morrowind, huge creatures that could traverse the island very quickly.

Other issues of logistics are equally important as the travel question, Middle-Earth or Westeros may be cool but we’d probably miss indoor plumbing after a while (Among other things). Crossing a desert or a mountain pass are rarely arduous in modern day, but can easily be the focal point of an entire book in a medieval fantasy setting.

1) Communications — is communication faster than travel? Instantaneous communication is still changing the modern world. The impact of being able to share information across vast distances is staggering when you think about it. If communications aren’t faster than travel methods it makes detecting invading armies more difficult, which leads to things like castles and stronghold to keep a permanent foothold in important territory. There are plenty of unusual methods of communication in fantasy and sci-fi each with their own quirks which influence the setting. Astropaths in 40k are living beacons that help guide ships and communicate over vast distances, but their rarity and the danger inherent in their powers inform the setting, making it isolated and grim.

2) Food and Weather — even if food is not the primary means of fuel, it is still a necessity in long distance travel. Water is an important consideration as well. Almost no cities were built away from convenient sources of food and water outside the modern era. Ease of travel has alleviated this, somewhat. Weather is another consideration for travel and local custom. In Europe, warfare was nearly impossible in the winter months, and “General Winter” is still credited with many victories even as recently as WWII.

In Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale the Chosen have access to many unusual methods of transportation. Steamships, magically enhanced horses, and even airships make an appearance. These methods of travel, combined with sophisticated communications, allow the Chosen to rule over a vast Empire. Gladiators are forbidden from using most of these methods of travel and communication because of lessons learned in past rebellions, which means they often have to travel by foot. The fact that the Gladiators have to travel with Grey-Robes also serves as a limitation. The Gladiators often feel out of sync and isolated from the rest of their world, and the limitations on their communications and travel are as isolating as the walls around the Gladiator’s quarters which separate them from the rest of the Domains.

The same is true for individual Domains in some cases. Chosen Eudora prefers to keep her Domain wild, which makes it very different than the rest of the Empire, and far less inhabited. Chosen Moltar’s Domain is isolated by cultural barriers and laws as well as mountains, very easy for men and women to travel to, but sometimes hard to leave. Because of their mystical prowess many of the Chosen are able to build and maintain structures in places that others could not, such as Brightsand Halls, raised on stone pillars,  Chosen Giselle’s garden fortress in the desert.

Overall the citizens of the Domains have an easier time getting from one place to another. The roads are excellent, and winter only limits travel for normal people in a very few places. Magical roads, steamships, and well organized trade routes make travel within the Empire much easier than in the world outside. Trade is very important within the Domains, and regional variations are such that goods are moved about with great frequency. I’d rank it as close to 19th century real world, but with much closer to the classical age in terms of contact with the outside lands and cultures outside the Empire. Other factors that influence travel are the dangers of the taint and frequency of attacks in any border area. One of the flaws of the first Bloodlust book is that I should have had an ambush or attack to demonstrate the occasional dangers of travel off the beaten path. Next book I guess.

In the timeline I am writing about the Domains are slowly adopting new technologies as the magic of artifice becomes more and more available. The Chosen are long-lived, which I have decided acts as a general hindrance to adopting new technology. However, they are now on the cusp of a revolution in travel with Steamships and trains and so on becoming not only possible for individual Domains but adopted by the people of Krass. The main effect of this will be to make it easier for the Empire to expand. New methods of travel make for better ways of bringing power to bear at distant borders. Of course, a new Chosen will need to carve out their own territory…

Edit: I have no idea why I originally wrote Brian instead of Brandon… oops.