Don’t Drown the Meat: Worldbuilding and Mark Lawrence

Originally posted on James D. Cormier:

Fantasy writers (and science fiction writers, to a lesser extent, since they are less often in the position of starting entirely from scratch) worry a lot about worldbuilding.  It’s really the most unique thing about writing in this genre.  In addition to crafting character, plot, theme, and all of the other various parts that make up a novel, you’re in the position of actually creating an entirely new world.

The problem lies in building your world while also preserving the quality of your story and your prose–introducing the reader to the exotic while still focusing on what’s really important: character.  In the end, the world must serve the characters, or you’re doing it wrong.  As much as we’d all like to self-indulgently nerd out over the details of our world’s history or the intricacies of our super-creative, ultra-unique new magic system, ultimately it’s all for naught if the story and the…

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New Info on ‘The Winds of Winter’ by George R.R. Martin

In a recent interview with SmarterTravel.com, George Martin described the plot of the beginning of the sixth novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter:

ST: One of the dominant themes in the first five books, in fact probably the tagline for the whole series so far, has been that winter is coming. By the end of A Dance with Dragons, winter is no longer coming, it’s finally here. What can you tell us about the book you’re writing now, The Winds of Winter?

GRRM: Well, I’ve posted a preview on my website, so you can read one chapter there, and there will be another chapter in the paperback of A Dance with Dragons when that comes out in the summer. So, you’ll get two free chapters. After that, it’s going to be awhile.

Obviously, I’m going to continue the story. There were a lot of cliffhangers at the end of A Dance with Dragons. Those will be resolved very early. I’m going to open with the two big battles that I was building up to, the battle in the ice and the battle at Meereen—the battle of Slaver’s Bay. And then take it from there.

Martin also told the interviewer a little about what he knew of certain main characters’ fates before writing the novels, and some more about what to expect in the next book:

ST: After what happened to Ned in A Game of Thrones and then Robb in A Storm of Swords, I find myself reading your books with this sort of pleasant pit of dread in my stomach.

GRRM: (Laughs)

ST: And yet, if Ned hadn’t died it becomes an entirely different series. The same with Robb. How early on did you know what was going to happen to those two characters in particular? Or were their deaths something that developed as you went along?

GRRM: I knew almost right from the beginning. I know the major beats of the story and who’s going to live and who’s going to die—the ultimate end of all the major characters. There’s a lot of fine detail that I discover along the way in the writing. For some minor characters I may make it up as I’m writing. So, if a major character is going to battle with his six friends, I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen to all six friends when I sit down to write it. But the major players and the major lives or deaths or life-changing events have all been planned from the beginning.

ST: Along those same lines, a lot of people think you killed Jon at the end of A Dance with Dragons. You do have a history of doing terrible things to the Starks, but my gut says he probably survived. Would you care to comment on that?

GRRM: (Laughs) I will not comment on that.

ST: With Jon effectively out of the picture as Lord Commander, though—even if he lives—I’m not sure I like the Wall’s chances of holding back the Others now that winter has come. Is it safe to assume that we’ll be seeing them move south of the wall in The Winds of Winter?

GRRM: Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but you’re definitely going to see more of the Others in The Winds of Winter.

‘The Dark Court’

Ashsilverlock has a great essay up on Fabulous Realms about The Dark Court, AKA the mythology of dark elves. An excerpt:

Dark Elves have actually been around in mythology almost as long as Elves themselves – Celtic folklore in particular is full of tales of the Dark or Unseelie Court, causing mischief and mayhem for both humans and their Light or Seelie Court counterparts. They are also referenced as Dokkalfar or Svart Alfar in the Norse myths. In the Eddas Dark Elves were not truly evil as such, they could mainly be distinguished from Lios Alfar (or ‘Light Elves’) by the fact that they dwelt within the earth and were mostly swarthy, while their cousins lived in Alfheim, located in heaven, and were said to be fairer than the sun to look at. There also seems to have been some overlap between Svart Alfar and Dwarves, although this is done away with by Tolkien in his legendarium, which refers to them as two different races. Tolkien’s Moriquendi seem to be the origin of Dark Elves in fantasy fiction because it is in them that the term ‘Dark’ is first given a specifically negative connotation. In Tolkien’s world, from the beginning there was a division between the Elves who desired the light of the Undying Lands versus Elves who did not wish to leave Middle Earth, implying that these ‘Dark’ Elves willingly tolerated the shadows that the Dark Lord Morgoth had put upon Middle Earth.

Is Logen Ninefingers in Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Red Country’?

According to Patrick from Stomping on Yeti, the newest Gollancz catalog (Gollancz publishes’ Abercrombie’s work in the UK) features the following blurb about Joe Abercrombie’s upcoming stand-alone novel Red Country (set in his First Law universe):

“His name is Logen Ninefingers. And he’s back for one more adventure…

Joe Abercrombie is the most successful genre novelist of his generation, with a remarkable, cynical and powerful voice cutting through the clichés of the fantasy genre to create something compelling and exceptionally commercial. A Red Country is his most powerful novel yet.”

If this is true, it would make a lot of sense: Abercrombie has been very close-mouthed about Logen’s fate in every interview I’ve read.  What better reason to play it coy than that the Bloody-Nine has a major role in his forthcoming novel?  My interest in reading this book just tripled in a matter of seconds.

Joe Abercrombie Discusses His Next Trilogy

In the inaugural episode of the Fantasy Faction podcast, Fantasy Faction’s Marc Aplin and Paul Wiseall interviewed Joe Abercrombie, author of the First Law trilogy, two stand-alone novels in that same universe, and the forthcoming A Red Country, the final stand-alone volume before Abercrombie writes another trilogy, presumably a large-scale follow-up to The First Law.  Abercrombie mentions the interview himself on his blog.

Details on the trilogy have been thin, in no small part because Abercrombie himself doesn’t seem to know exactly where he’s going with the story, but the author game some details to Fantasy Faction in the podcast interview that I hadn’t heard before.

Abercrombie told Aplin and Wiseall that the new trilogy will probably feature a “next generation of characters” taking the major roles.  A Red Country apparently picks up about fifteen years after the end of The First Law, and the new trilogy will start five or ten years after A Red Country, meaning we can expect the new trilogy to begin at least 20 years after the end of The First Law.  The main characters from The First Law will therefore become the older generation, and will most likely appear as secondary characters (though Abercrombie notes that this is subject to change).  Jezal Luthar, for example, will likely remain in the background as “the old king,” probably much as he has done in Best Served Cold and The Heroes.

The main plot will probably be a “political civil war style plot based around the Union.”

Aplin and Wiseall tried to push him a little bit toward revealing how likely it was that characters from The First Law would return in major roles, and Abercrombie took the opportunity to discuss the “fine line,” as an author, “between giving people what they want and being bored.”  He seemed in general ready to move on from focusing primarily on the First Law characters, ready to take the series in a new direction.  But he was also definitely aware of fans’ desire to see a return to characters they know and love.

When discussion finally turned to the elephant in the room — the question of when we will find out what happened to Logen Ninefingers and if and when we will see the Bloody-Nine again — Abercrombie responded predictably (and understandably; it’s not as if we really want him to spoil the surprise): he said that he really “can’t ever answer that question [in an interview]” and that fans who want to find out should keep buying his books.  There’s an implicit promise there, and one thing I think we can be certain about is that, one way or another, Logen’s story isn’t finished.  Otherwise it would be cruel and unusual punishment for Mr. Abercrombie to keep playing coy.

Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Cosmere’

Casual Brandon Sanderson readers may not have picked up on this yet, but all of his adult fantasy fiction novels, regardless of their apparent differences, share the same universe: the “Cosmere.”  In his usual comprehensive manner, Adam Werthead of the Wertzone summarizes Sanderson’s planned 36 book mega-series in a helpful primer for those unfamiliar with the subject.  This announcement will no doubt seem more than a bit remedial to the folks over at the 17th Shard.

The fact that all of Sanderson’s fantasy series share a universe is based on the existence of common characters, concepts, and statements by the author himself.  Sanderson’s meticulous planning combined with the fact that his planned legendarium is far from finished has created a lot of fodder for the theorists.

If you’re a Sanderson devout and want to know more about the Cosmere, the Shardworlds, or the more esoteric shards, check out the Coppermind, the Sanderson wiki.

As much as I want to (finally) found out how the Wheel of Time ends, I’m more excited to see where Sanderson goes with his own work.  He’s unmatched in secondary worldbuilding and the development of magic systems, and The Way of Kings was a good read.

Brett Finds Balance in Debut ‘The Warded Man’

Published in the US in 2009, Peter V. Brett’s debut novel The Warded Man (titled The Painted Man in the UK and elsewhere) was released to broad acclaim, considered one of the best debut novels in years.  I’ve become somewhat cautious about epic fantasy in recent years.  I have less time to read than I once did and I fear, perhaps irrationally, getting bogged down in a mediocre series that the completist in me will feel obligated to finish.  I often find myself waiting until the hubbub dies down before reading a well-received book.  It avoids the possibility of being caught up in fan fervor (which I am vulnerable to when it comes to fantasy), and I find I am able to keep a more level head that way.

When I finally picked up The Warded Man, I had no preconceptions of it, which meant I had accomplished my goal of avoiding hype.  What I found was a strong, if flawed debut novel that strikes a refreshing balance between the classic elements of fantasy and the newer, darker trend the subgenre is currently riding.

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‘A Memory of Light’ Official Release Date Set

Tor announced today that the 14th and final volume in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light, will be released on January 8, 2013.  That is all.

The Top Ten Coolest Magic Systems in Fantasy

Let’s put aside literary integrity, writing quality, and originality for a moment and just focus on the superficial.  When it comes to reading fantasy, a cool magic system is often enough to hook a reader despite a cliched story, or save a book filled with one-dimensional characters.  Magic is just cool, and sometimes you’ve got to give credit where credit is due, even when a magic system is more creative than the story in which you discover it.  With that in mind, here are the top ten coolest magic systems in fantasy, by series title.

10.  The Dying Earth Series by Jack Vance

Vance created the Dying Earth subgenre with his eponymous 1950 short story collection.  In so doing, he also introduced a memorable (pun intended) system of magic.  In the far future world of the Dying Earth, magicians use spells, but only 100 spells remain to human knowledge.  These spells are complex and very difficult to commit to memory, so a magic user can only carry so many around in his memory at one time, and they are immediately forgotten upon use.  Wizards like Turjan of Miir and Mazirian the Magician, therefore, face the interesting challenge of having to predict what obstacles they might face on any given adventure and memorize the appropriate spells accordingly — and when they use up the ones they’ve remembered for each trip out into the wilderness of the dying earth, they’re out of luck, which makes for entertaining dilemmas.

9.  The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks

There’s nothing terribly original about the magic system Brooks uses in his Shannara novels: it’s elemental, a natural feature of the world that is workable primarily by those with some Elven blood in them.  I include it mostly because the Shannara series is one of the classic epic fantasies that features magical items.  Unlike some other series which treat magic as an entirely organic energy, something that inhabits only living things, in Brooks’s series the characters often seek out artifacts that are magical in and of themselves.  This is hardly unique to Shannara, but magical artifacts in this series are particularly memorable: the Sword of Shannara, the blue “seeker” elfstones, the black elfstone, the Loden, the Stiehl, and more.  Brooks also gets points for sheer showmanship: there’s something satisfying about black-cloaked druids launching streams of blue fire from their fingertips.  It’s like watching a summer blockbuster: it may not be high art, but it’s entertaining.  This series also has  a measure of sentimental value for me personally, as it was the first epic fantasy I read following my discovery of Tolkien, and I whiled away not a few sunny afternoons running around my backyard in a homemade cloak, blasting my friends with “druid fire.”

8.  The Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams

If I’m being honest, I’m probably including this one because it’s one of my all-time favorite epic fantasies.  What struck me when I first read this book was the relative restraint Williams had when it came to magic, particularly compared to his contemporaries.  “The Art,” as it’s called in Osten Ard, is a secretive, scientific ability the use of which is limited to a very select, very educated few — and using it generally causes more problems than it solves.  The story of magic in this trilogy is a cautionary tale, the story of a powerful tool that is too dangerous for any but the most disciplined to study.  And when those who for one reason or another have lost self-control abuse its power, bad things happen that affect not only themselves but the world at large.

7.  The Belgariad and The Malloreon by David Eddings

It’s been a long time since I read Eddings.  In these days of edgy, creative fantasy, his books are often relegated to the dusty back bin of genre cliches.  But the magic system of his most popular ten-book saga (broken into two five-book series, the Belgariad and the Malloreon) sticks in my mind.  The Will and the Word is a gift of the gods.  It’s an innate ability — you either have it or you don’t — and using it couldn’t be simpler.  You gather the will to do something, and you speak a word to carry that will into action.  Sorcerors in Eddings’ work can create objects out of thin air, change the world around them, and do pretty much anything else they can think of.  The one thing they can’t do (or rather, that which they’re not allowed to do by their deity) is to cause something not to exist.  This produces bad results for the caster, in the form of instant vaporization by a higher power.  This is magic as wish fulfillment: think of something, anything, want it bad enough, say a word, and make it appear.  Simple but powerful: the stuff of childhood dreams.

6.  The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter needs no introduction.  Rowling reintroduced the masses to magic.  Her books had children and adults alike swishing and flicking from Boston to Bangladesh.  They deserve inclusion on a list like this for that alone, but there’s more to Harry Potter than mere popularity.  The bildungsroman structure of the books allows the reader to learn magic as Harry learns it, and the rules of magic in Rowling’s novels represent a perfect balance of knowledge and mystery.  She also managed to make wands cool again, which is no mean feat.  And despite the importance of magic to the story, it never becomes a crutch or provides an easy solution.  The main characters suffer what trials they face because of magic rather than in spite of it, and their own youth and relative inexperience force them to rely more on their wit and character than magical ability.

5.  Star Wars

Star Wars is fantasy, as far as I’m concerned, and the Force is just another magic system.  But it’s also one of the coolest.  Despite the fact that at the end of the day, the Force is really just a combination of telekinetic ability and prophetic foresight, it somehow manages to become more than the sum of its parts: the Jedi order manage to seem more mystical and powerful in the Star Wars fan’s imagination than any three lesser fantasy wizards.  Maybe it’s because it plays to a collective unconscious, but somehow the Force just hits close to home.  Humans have believed in telekinesis and telepathy and fortune telling for ages, and the Force is simply a distillation of all that, a powerfully simple idea.  Or maybe it’s the lightsabers.  But either way, there’s something that feels real about the Force, like it’s something we should be able to tap into but can’t.  Everyone has at one point or another (every geek, at least) sat at their desk or on their couch, arm raised, fingers spread, muscles tensed, willing that pen or soda bottle to fly across the room and into their waiting palm.  It’s the kind of fantasy that is so ingrained in us that we probably wouldn’t be very surprised if, one day, it actually worked.

4.  The Earthsea Series by Ursula K. LeGuin

The magic system in the Earthsea series might be one of the most ripped-off ideas in fantasy.  In Earthsea, everyone and everything has two names: an everyday, descriptive name, and a true name, in the Old Speech, the ancient language of dragons, which, if revealed, provides skilled wizards the ability to control the person or thing so named.  To protect oneself against magic, one must conceal one’s true name at all costs; consequently, divulging your true name to another is the sincerest sign of trust.  The idea that names have power is as old as language, but LeGuin was arguably the first to introduce it to popular fiction.  She was not the last, however.  Christopher Paolini purloined the Earthsea magic system wholesale for his Inheritance series.  Like in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, LeGuin’s classic series places a lot of emphasis on the relationship between power and responsibility.

3.  The Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham

Probably the most original of all the magical systems in this list, in Daniel Abraham’s vaguely Asian-inspired tetralogy, “Poets” can snare gods with verse.  The Poets are sorcerors who, through magical poetic description, can bind to themselves godlike powers called andat.  One, called Seedless, is the personification of a natural force controlling the destruction or removal of that which makes things grow — and as such has the power to cause abortions, or, more usefully, to remove the seeds from cotton with absolutely no labor, allowing it to be sold at a much more competitive price and consequently greatly increasing the economic and political power of Saraykeht, its influential host city-state.

2.  The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

When it comes to magic systems, Brandon Sanderson is undeniably a resident master.  His work can be polarizing, but even his critics agree that his creativity with magic does his work credit.  Although all of Sanderson’s books feature innovative magic systems, Mistborn is undoubtedly the best and most memorable.  It has not one magic system, but three: allomancy, the magical ability to “burn” ingested metals, granting the allomancer a variety of abilities; feruchemy, the ability to enhance one’s natural abilities with “metalminds”; and hemalurgy, the ability to steal allomantic powers by driving metal through the body of another.  These systems are easily the most complicated I’ve ever encountered, and as such I’ve provided Wikipedia links rather than try to describe them fully herein.  Mistborn is a good example of a flawed series that was buoyed by an incredible magic system.  The story, while full of potential, was obtuse and suffered from problems of execution, but the allomancy kept the pages turning.  The three books of the Mistborn trilogy contain some of the most entertaining magical fight scenes I’ve ever read.

1.  The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

Try to forget the latter half of the series for a minute and think about the first time you read about the Aes Sedai, the One Power, the taint on saidin, the Age of Legends, and the Dragon Reborn.  Think about Callandor, balefire, Traveling, and the Choedan Kal.  Think about the ter’angreal in Rhuidean, and the red doorways to the lands of the Snakes and Foxes.  Think about that incredible prologue, when Ishamael gave his old friend a brief moment of tortuous clarity before Lews Therin broke the world.  Think about knife-wielding images crawling out of playing cards and eyeless Myrdraal.  Think about Rand fighting Ishamael in the sky above Falme.  Now try to tell me with a straight face that the Wheel of Time isn’t one of the most influential sagas in modern fantasy.  And all of those things are part of Robert Jordan’s enormous, creative magic system.  There’s a whole host of modern fantasy authors whose work wouldn’t exist without Robert Jordan, the aforementioned Mr. Sanderson first among them.  When people talk about genre cliches, they’re talking about the Wheel of Time, and that, albeit in a negative way, proves the power of this series.  The care and time that Jordan spent in crafting the One Power, the methods of its use, the artifacts that aid and control its use, and the history of its use are unparalleled.  Love or hate the books, this is the magic system by which all others in epic fantasy are measured.  Jordan managed to combine sheer massiveness with intuitive structure: not only is the magic system big, but it works, and it works in a logical way, and you’re never confused by it (unless he wants you to be).  The One Power is so well-crafted a system of magic that the reader doesn’t even think of it as magic.  Jordan managed to create a magic system that took the place of real world physics, and became as natural to the reader as it was to the characters that wielded it.  And for that, WoT deserves the #1 spot.

These are my top ten.  What are yours?  What did I miss?  What shouldn’t be on here, and why not?

‘The Mark of the Beast’

Ash Silverlock posted a well-written, interesting essay on her blog Fabulous Realms on the mythic tradition of shape-shifting titled The Mark of the Beast.

…[A]t his core every man and woman is an animal and every beast is an echo of the human soul. This may not seem so apparent now but perhaps there was once a time in the dim mists of history when the division between man and beast was so blurred that it was non-existent and all beings shifted easily between forms that were both humanoid and animalistic. Even today, the signs of the beast within are everywhere, if you look carefully at your friends and neighbours. Spot that cat-like gleam in your lover’s eye? The bullish tilt of a rival’s head? The feathered shadows cast behind that homeless person in the park? Did you, perhaps, even see them in the mirror that one time?

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