Thoughts on: The Lightbringer series, by Brent Weeks

I don’t often do book reviews. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it’s mainly because I feel I get too immersed in a novel. For things like the Summer Reading List Challenge, I’ll do my best. Otherwise, I’d rather talk in more general terms than a single work.

Well, let’s do that, then. Instead of reviewing a book, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an entire series. Specifically, the Lightbringer series, written by Brent Weeks, which I just finished reading.

This fantasy novel series consists of five entries, making it as much of a trilogy as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lately, it seems that five-part series are gaining popularity, as this is the fourth I’ve really delved into in recent years. (The others, if you’re wondering: Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle; Django Wexler’s Infernal Battalions; and The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham.) I will say that I like this better than the traditional trilogy for genre fiction. It allows more room for expansion, more detail, and an overall slower pace. Some of my favorite things, in terms of reading.

The rundown

As this isn’t a book review, I won’t go into great detail about each individual novel, but it helps to know something about the story.

First off, the list:

  1. The Black Prism
  2. The Blinding Knife
  3. The Blood Mirror
  4. The Broken Eye
  5. The Burning White

Each has its own story, but they are by no means self-contained. Later installments directly continue storylines started earlier, and The Burning White begins with an author’s note that some of its events are concurrent with the conclusion of The Broken Eye. So it’s very much a series, not an anthology.

The overall story revolves around a war between the corrupt, bureaucratic Chromeria and the anarchic White King. In the first novel, those seeds are planted, and they grow throughout the series, coming to a climax in The Burning White. Along the way, we follow a small cadre of characters who play various parts on both sides. Almost all are larger than life, or else they become so. There’s magic, cloak-and-dagger politicking, lots of humor, and an incredible number of battle scenes. Something for everybody, assuming you’re into epic fantasy.

And I would call it epic. Lightbringer features world-changing magical powers, godlike entities, ancient secrets, and anything else you might look for. Weeks builds the tension and the stakes as the series progresses, so it feels natural that the farm boy grows into a hero for the ages. It’s “The One” told in a good way.

Worldbuilding

In my opinion, the absolute best part of this series is its worldbuilding. You know I love that. (If you don’t, just read, oh, anything else I write on here.) As we’re dealing with fantasy, that includes what I consider the most innovative aspect of Lightbringer: its magic system.

The whole thing is based on light and the spectrum, hence the “Chromeria” name above. Magic users in the setting are able to draw on light to activate their powers, which manifest in one of two ways: an effect or a physical substance called luxin. Different colors have different powers, though the people of the setting divide the rainbow into only five colors—indigo and violet are left out. So blue is the highest, and it covers intelligence, rationality, and general left-brained thinking. Not bad for my favorite color.

Going down the line, green is mainly for raw strength, yellow covers a nebulous sort of balance, orange works on fear and similar emotions, and red covers “passions” such as anger and lust. But here’s where the trick comes in. Some of those who can use these powers also have access to other parts of the spectrum. They can literally see into the infrared (“sub-red” in the text, to represent their lower state of advancement or something) or ultraviolet (“super-violet”) parts, even though this is physically impossible for human eyes.

Believable it is not, especially when you get into the rare magic users who have access to the forbidden “colors” of paryl (high-frequency microwaves) and chi (long-wavelength X-rays). Still, it’s fun, and there’s a lot of deep thought behind the lore. Yellow is supposed to be the balance color, for example, but it’s the most unstable when brought into material form, meaning that the spectrum is a source rather than a sink. Tetrachromats exist and are known; they’re the only ones who can properly stabilize yellow, and (this is accurate) they’re almost always women. One of the main characters is red-green colorblind, which comes into play. Infrared magic controls fire and allows one to see heat, naturally enough. Despite the fantastical parts, it’s logical, something I believe is the hallmark of a good magic system.

Downsides are necessary to explain why magic hasn’t taken over the world, and Lightbringer gives a pretty good one. People can only use a finite amount of color magic in a lifetime. They even have a visible manifestation, in the form of “halos” of the color they’ve drawn on that slowly grow to fill their irises. Once they burst through, that’s a sign that the magic has begun to take over the user’s mind. Responsible people go to a willing sacrifice. Those who don’t become “wights”, and are often hunted. And this forms the central conflict of the series.

The Burning White gives a midichlorian-like explanation for the process, but that’s not necessary. What matters is that it all comes together. Using too much magic drives you insane, says the common lore. But what if that’s wrong? What if you could reverse the process? Some people are immune, so it makes perfect sense that these would reach positions of power.


Beyond the magic system, Lightbringer offers a somewhat atypical fantasy world. There’s a mishmash of influences from Europe and the Middle East, with the primary empire called the Seven Satrapies (satrap comes from Persian). Religious and magic-related terms and names tend to be Latin or Greek. Fallen immortals all have names drawn from Near Eastern mythology, such as Abaddon and Belial. One territory is full of Irish influences; another uses Hebrew. Very little fantasy, though.

Technology is another important part of a fantasy setting. Here, Weeks bucks the traditional trend of the High Middle Ages, instead placing his world in a kind of early modern era. Gunpowder weapons are common, from cannons down to pistols. A number of mechanical devices exist. And the technological progress is deftly interwoven with the magic system: lenses, glassmaking, anything to do with light is far beyond the circa 1600 feel of the rest of the world.

Magic and religion also tend to have a curious relationship. With Lightbringer, they’re again combined in a reasonably intelligent manner. The Chromeria represents a monotheistic (and very Catholic) faith, while the enemies are often described as pagans. Cosmic beings lesser than the creator deity exist. Many of them are called “fallen”, mirroring Christian legend. Prophets abound on both sides, and some of them even have a true gift. The sacrificial ceremony for magic users who have gone too far is a sacred one. And so on. Again, smart, and a good use of existing pieces.

The culture, much like the naming, shows a number of influences. Fortunately, modern identity politics doesn’t seem to be one of them. One minor character is a confirmed lesbian (the text uses the term tribadist, another of those little details I like). The protagonist is described as having darker skin, but it seems to be closer to Mediterranean or Arab than African. But that’s about it. Races and sexes mix freely. Merit and magic are the ideals for advancement, although political connections often overshadow them. It’s refreshingly escapist.

The characters

An innovative magic system, a sensible cultural context, a lack of annoying modernity. The setting for Lightbringer comes closer to my preference than anything I’ve read not written by Brandon Sanderson or, well, myself. But setting does not a story make. We need good characters, too.

Well, here’s where things start to get a little hairy. Yes, this series has some great, memorable characters. The protagonist, Kip, begins The Black Prism as…not one of them. He’s an overweight loner who spends his days being bullied by neighbors, his nights abused by his mother. Beaten down, no friends, the object of mockery. Hmm. That sounds awfully familiar.

When I started reading The Black Prism in 2011, I saw a lot of myself in Kip. He quickly became one of my favorite main characters in fantasy, simply because of how real he was. This was the escape I needed: someone like me becoming better. By the time I finished The Burning White nine years later, I have to say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The character did, yet so many of the more mundane changes mirrored my own.

Specifically—and I realize I’m digressing here—Kip gets forced into a political marriage, then comes to love his new bride. She started out in the first book as just another bully he had to face, the stereotypical “mean girl” at school who sabotaged his entrance exam and made fun of him for being fat and awkward. Later, we learn that she has plenty of her own problems. She’s highly intelligent, but people consider her a bit of an airhead because she’s, well, busty. Her sister’s orientation brings her further mockery, and events conspire to bring her low at the same time Kip’s rising.

Kip thinks he’s unworthy of someone so beautiful; I think the same. His wife tells him it’s okay, that they can make things work as long as they have love and trust; my partner says the same. Some of the moments they share in The Burning White rang so true to me that I was almost brought to tears. “I have to help her help me,” Kip thinks at one point, words I needed to read at the perfect moment. “I believe in you,” she tells him at a pivotal point, “but that’s not enough for you, is it? You have to know. For you.” We’ve had that exchange almost word for word. During the final book’s climax, Kip tries to find a way out of a…predicament, and he reflects on all the things he could have done better: “If. If. If.” I wrote those exact same words in a therapy workbook last Friday.

So I’m emotionally invested in the protagonist, far more than in any other series I’ve ever read. But the rest of the main cast is strong. Karris goes beyond the “warrior princess” angle to become not just the strong, independent woman Hollywood wants, but a true leader. Teia has a winding story arc that only ends after a series of epilogues to make Peter Jackson blush; she embodies loyalty and angst and even teenage hormones in a way that leaves her endearing, if a little insane. In later novels, Kip’s soldier bodyguards grow into heroes in their own right, while the head villain of the tale is a proper megalomaniac.

That’s not to say everybody hits the right note. The secondary protagonist is Gavin Guile. The Prism, leader of the Seven Satrapies and the Chromeria, commander of the victorious forces of the civil war a generation before. He’s an interesting man, for sure. His dark side is creepy, but you can see that he tries to hide it as best he can. But Gavin is one of the main problems with the story as a whole, and here is where we enter spoiler territory, as well as my biggest problems with the Lightbringer series. If you don’t want to know the big twists, skip the next section.

The twists

Brent Weeks is a good writer. He’s a master at worldbuilding. He can describe cinematic action scenes in a way I envy. But he can also come up with some of the most ludicrous plot twists I’ve ever seen. The kind of thing even writers of fanfiction would call unbelievable. His other series, the Night Angel trilogy, became legendary for this. I’ve never read it, so I can’t say whether it’s worse than Lightbringer in that regard, but I dearly hope it’s better.

Mostly, the fault I find is that everyone is related, and the relations are downright convoluted. Kip discovers in The Black Prism that he’s Gavin’s son. Except that Gavin isn’t actually Gavin. He replaced his twin brother at the final battle of the civil war they fought twenty years ago. One brother or the other slept with a random woman from the town nearby, and thus Kip was conceived. Except that Gavin’s father claims he actually did that. Meanwhile, Gavin’s other son, Zymun, is a psychopath. Oh, and Karris is his mother. And her brother is the main bad guy.

It only gets worse from there. The real Gavin is alive, we find out in the first fifty pages of The Black Prism. He’s being held in a secret dungeon underneath the Prism’s tower. Except that the fake Gavin goes to kill him one day, only to find he was never there at all…despite a dozen or more chapters from his point of view! The whole thing is a trip, and you can’t blame it all on magic. Some of it has to be the author’s fault.

It’s as though Weeks stopped seeing the forest for the trees. The set-piece reveals are excellent. On their own, I’d eat them up and clamor for a movie version. Too bad they don’t fit into the narrative.

I could say the same for the entire climax sequence of The Burning White. All told, it takes up about a third of the book, almost 300 pages with barely a break to breathe. And it feels like a snowball that turns into an avalanche of insanity. Magic flying everywhere, a conspiracy unmasked, people on all sides looking for whatever advantage they can find. Climax, for both the novel and the series as a whole.

But Gavin’s storyline goes in a different direction. He’s been tasked by assassins with an impossible mission. I’m not making this up. He’s sent to kill God. It makes more sense if you’ve read the books, but not a lot more. Problem is, he’s fully willing to do it. He’s an avowed atheist due to the benevolence paradox, so he wouldn’t even mind succeeding. Then he meets a figment of his imagination in the form of his dead younger brother (this series has a ton of those) who causes him to have a complete change of heart and a renewal of faith. That transformation felt so forced that I almost started rooting for the bad guys. The most skeptical man in the world suddenly becomes the most zealous? The swiftness with which it happened made me think far less of both Gavin and the writer who created him.

So much else happens in that novel-within-a-novel that it’s hard to keep track, and the carefully crafted setting tends to go out the window. Just about every main character ends up going full-on Super Saiyan, none so much as Kip and Gavin. There was always an element of the mythic in the series, but this sequence ramps that up to absurd levels. It left me turning pages frantically, wondering what would happen next, yet dreading how it would be written.

The verdict

That, I think, is an apt description of Lightbringer as a whole. It’s a flawed masterpiece. There is a great story in there. The magic system is top-notch, and the setting as a whole just clicks. I found, after years and years of searching, a character that truly felt like me, who even grew with me. A million and a half words over five books and almost a decade, it’s still what I’d call time well spent.

Yet I’m troubled, because I feel it could be so much more. Some of the red herrings were too predictable. Not all of the twists made sense. A few plot threads were left incomplete. I cringed at the prose more than I have for any other book. The whole thing is ambitious, but that ambition sometimes comes out a mess.

That said, I loved it. Flawed though it is, Lightbringer is epic fantasy, with heavy emphasis on the “epic” part. That seems to be the Brent Weeks style, which is fine. (I tend to write “lower” fantasy, and I do like to read it more, so maybe that bias is coming through in some of my criticism.) Often, I wish a series wouldn’t end. In this case, I’d gladly read ten more books in the setting. Because, no matter our preferences, we could all use an escape from time to time.

Revisiting religion in writing

(I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing a bunch of “woe is me” posts about depression, anxiety, and the like. Outside of release announcements and the Summer Reading List Challenge, that’s all PPC has been for months. Sure, 2020 sucks, but…I’m tired of wallowing in the mire. Let’s get back to worldbuilding and theory-crafting. “I do not wish to evade the world, but I will forever build my own.”)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since I wrote a post titled Faith and Fantasy. In that post, I talked about how the fundamental assumptions of “generic” fantasy (that it’s a feudal pseudo-medieval Europe, but with magic) are incompatible with the religious framework that authors insist upon. In other words, you can’t have Middle Ages Europe without Christianity. Change the faith of the people, and everything else changes, too.

All of my worldbuilding posts, that one included, come from my personal beliefs about creating a setting in any genre of speculative fiction. I have a “hardcore” worldbuilding mindset, in the vein of Tolkien and Sanderson, and I believe that the benefits of a cohesive setting far surpass the cost of research necessary to create it. I also practice what I preach, as you’ll see.

Recap

To summarize the previous post, the structures of the medieval West stem directly from Christian orthodoxy. Serfdom and the divine right of kings both come from Biblical interpretation. Other religions, if put in the same situation, would create different societies.

We see this in a few historical cases. During the same period, Islam tended to be more autocratic, for instance, without a hierarchy of kings, princes, dukes, counts, and barons. But the changes are even more subtle than that. To take one example: Islamic beliefs prohibit idolatry, which was quickly extended to any depiction of Allah or Muhammed, any engraved lettering on the Koran, and so on. Thus we find the elaborate geometric mosaics in mosques, as opposed to the crucifixes, frescoes, tapestries, and portraits in contemporary Christian houses of worship. Religion influenced art, and this was by no means confined to sacred spaces.

Likewise, the East had, at times, long periods of stability and hegemony. Chinese state religion has always been…hard to pin down, especially for those of us on other continents. Suffice to say, though, that the emperor was believed to have a divine mandate to his rule. (Except those times when he didn’t, which just so happen to coincide with periods of rebellion. But that’s a different post.) But there wasn’t the same faith behind that mandate as Rome had, so you don’t see the same results. The Chinese people didn’t have a belief system based around salvation from sin; while Buddhism, for example, does have recognizable concepts of heaven and hell, it emphasizes actions more than beliefs. Therefore, you don’t see Chinese cathedrals. They don’t go on a pilgrimage to Nanjing or Chengdu. And so on.

Out of this world

Take a fantasy setting, now, and you can see the problems arising. Even the best authors tend to “make something up” for their worlds’ faiths. In some cases, that’s because they’re trying to make a point. The Prince of Nothing series I used as an example in the previous post is intended to evoke the Crusades era, so it almost has to have analogues for Christianity and Islam. A Song of Ice and Fire has a number of religions, from the animist Old Gods of the north to the heptatheistic faith of the majority in Westeros, and their conflict ties into the overall plot.

Others don’t even bother with justification. The stereotypical D&D settings (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms) are built around polytheism. Gods are active in the world, and they’re really just beings who have a very, very high character level. Okay, but then how did they end up with a social structure that’s so close to the High Middle Ages? Clerics of Mystra aren’t going to be chaste because of the words of Christ. Call 4th Edition non-canonical if you like, but its lore has it that the Raven Queen was a witch who killed the god of death, Nerull, and took his place. If people can aspire to that in this life, they’re not going to be satisfied with a society where the greatest rewards for most will only come in the next one.

Games are games, of course, but some novels also take things that far. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, follows the RPG tropes. The former emperor ascended to become the new god of shadows. His henchman/fixer, appropriately enough, became the patron of assassins. That happened within the books’ current generation, so there isn’t enough time to show any direct social evolution, but the unnamed world of the series shows a number of similarities to Earth. You have a mercantile empire, an island where the warrior caste is all but worshipped, desert-dwellers fighting a jihad…

Fantasy religions are as varied as their creators, but few authors go to the trouble of truly analyzing the effects their made-up belief systems would have on the societies housing them. I am not always immune to the lure of the cop-out, I’ll admit.

Introspection

Ignoring those novels and shorts set in the “real” world (including paranormal stuff like “Fallen” and the Modern Minds series), my fantasy worlds have religions with varying degrees of depth.

The Hidden Hills books do fall into the polytheistic feudalism trap, I’ll admit. The people of Stada (the primary kingdom of the books) follow about twenty different gods, each overseeing a different segment of life. Despite this, they have a Europe-like system of lords—one of the main characters is the son of a viscount. I justify this in the text by not justifying it at all. That’s the way things are, and nobody really bothers to think otherwise. Speaking as the author, however, I can say that the polytheistic faith derives in-setting from a combination of ancient tribes’ animist beliefs and the guiding principles of an advanced civilization.

That’s much the same as for Otherworld. There, the primary character focus is on the Virissea, descendants of Native Americans (Paleo-Indians, technically) transplanted from Earth at the end of the Ice Age. Going to another planet didn’t entirely disrupt their beliefs—not that we know much about them—but some came to glorify, then outright worship, the creators of the mechanism which took them there. In the present day setting, the Virissea are monotheistic, but they consider those “Altea” to be of a higher level than common human beings. Not quite demigods, but even modern Christianity posits that some people have greater rewards than others. Look at St. Peter, for example.

Otherworld has other races, however. And these are physiologically distinct, far more so than what we consider races. One such people has a kind of spiritual pantheism. Another follows a dualist good-versus-evil faith somewhat similar to Zoroastrianism. A third uses meditation and strict moral codes derived from what they believe to be the rational principles of nature itself. And that’s not counting the distinctions outsiders gloss over or just don’t notice; not all Asians are Buddhists, after all.

My other fantasy setting where religion plays an important role is the unreleased Occupation Trilogy. Here, the crusade is the start of the story. The Hevestine peoples follow the dictates of God’s chosen prophet, who has been slowly deified over the course of nine centuries. They have a central church, a collection of saints who are believed to have performed miracles, and a lot of other Catholic trappings. And their society reflects that, though it’s more of a post-feudal Baroque Europe.

Against them are the Ihneti. They’re…pagan, for lack of a better term. They believe in magic, don’t follow the right teachings, and they’re just all around bad people. Well, they aren’t, but they’re the target of a six-year war and decades-long occupation because, hey, that prophet said to carry the light of God to every corner of the world. And if they would just listen, they’d realize the undeniable truth, and they could be saved, too.

I’m consciously aware of the contrasts in these settings. In a way, they represent three “levels” of worldbuilding. Hidden Hills took the easy way out, as religion isn’t a fundamental part of the plot. The whole point of Otherworld is to explore the interaction of our modern American culture with one alien, but still recognizably human, so the beliefs of the natives are important, but not pivotal. And the Occupation Trilogy is meant to make you think of the Crusades and colonialism, so I emphasized the faith of the believers and how they see their foes as heathen.

Any one of these approaches can work. You don’t have to explore every nuance. There just isn’t enough time, and I know you’d rather write the story. But a little bit of extra thought when you need it, and this aspect of a fantasy society can become so much more real. Five years ago, I stated this as a hypothesis. Now, I can confirm the truth of it.

On eclipses and omens

(I’m writing this post early, as I so often do. For reference, today, from the author’s perspective, is July 17, 2017. In other words, it’s 5 weeks before the posting date. In that amount of time, a lot can happen, but I can guarantee one thing: it will be cloudy on August 21. Especially in the hours just after noon.)

Today is a grand day, a great time to be alive, for it is the day of the Great American Eclipse. I’m lucky—except for the part where the weather won’t cooperate—because I live in the path of totality. Some Americans will have to travel hundreds of miles to see this brief darkening of the sun; I only have to step outside. (And remember the welding glasses or whatever, but that’s a different story.)

Eclipses of any kind are a spectacle. I’ve seen a handful of lunar ones in my 33 years, but never a solar eclipse. Those of the moon, though, really are amazing, especially the redder ones. But treating them as a natural occurrence, as a simple astronomical event that boils down to a geometry problem, that’s a very modern view. In ages past, an eclipse could be taken as any number of things, many of them bad. For a writer, that can create some very fertile ground.

Alignment

Strictly speaking, an eclipse is nothing more unusual than any other alignment of celestial bodies. It’s just a lot more noticeable, that’s all. The new moon is always invisible, because its dark side is facing us, but our satellite’s orbital inclination means that it often goes into its new phase above or below the sun, relative to the sky. Only rarely does it cross directly in front of the solar disk from our perspective. Conversely, it’s rare—but not quite as rare—for the moon to fall squarely in the shadow created by the Earth when it’s full.

The vagaries of orbital mechanics mean that not every eclipse is the same. Some are total, like the one today, where the shadowing body completely covers the sun. For a solar eclipse, that means the moon is right between us and the sun—as viewed by certain parts of the world—and we’ll have two or three minutes of darkness along a long, narrow path. On the flip side, lunar eclipses are viewable by many more people, as we are the ones doing the shadowing.

Another possibility is the partial eclipse, where the alignment doesn’t quite work out perfectly; people outside of the path of totality today will only get a partial solar eclipse, and that track is so narrow that my aunt, who lives less than 15 miles to the south, is on its uncertain edge. Or you might get an annular solar eclipse, where the moon is at its apogee (farthest point in its orbit), so it isn’t quite big enough to cover the whole sun, instead leaving a blinding ring. And then there’s the penumbral lunar eclipse, essentially a mirrored version of the annular; in this case, the moon doesn’t go through the Earth’s full shadow, and most people barely even notice anything’s wrong.

However it happens, the eclipse is an astronomical eventuality. Our moon is big enough and close enough to cover the whole sun, so it’s only natural that we have solar eclipses. (On Mars, it wouldn’t work, because Phobos and Deimos are too tiny. Instead, you’d have transits, similar to the transit of Venus a few years ago.) Similarly, the moon is close enough to fall completely within its primary’s shadow on some occasions, so lunar eclipses were always going to happen.

These events are regular, precise. We can predict them years, even centuries in advance. Gravity and orbital mechanics give alignments a clockwork rhythm that can only change if acted upon by an outside body.

Days of old

In earlier days, some people saw a much different outside body at work in the heavens. Even once a culture reaches a level of mathematical and astronomical advancement where eclipses become predictable, that doesn’t mean the average person isn’t going to continue seeing them as portents. How many people believe in astrology today?

And let’s face it: an eclipse, if you don’t really know what’s going on, might be scary. Here’s the sun disappearing before our very eyes. Or the moon. Or, if it’s a particularly colorful lunar eclipse, then the moon isn’t vanishing, but turning red. You know, the color of blood. Somebody who doesn’t understand orbits and geometry would be well inclined to think something strange is going on.

Writers of fantasy and historical fiction can use this to great effect, because a rare event like an eclipse is a perfect catalyst for change and conflict. People might see it as an omen, a sign of impending doom. Then, seeing it, they might be moved to bring about the doom themselves. Seven minutes of darkness—the most we on Earth can get—might not be too bad, but a fantasy world with a larger moon may have solar eclipses that last for an hour or more, like our lunar eclipses today. That could be enough time to unnerve even the hardiest souls.

Science fiction can get into the act here, too, as in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. If a culture only sees an eclipse once every thousand years or so, then even the memory of the event might be forgotten by the next time it comes around. And then what happens? In the same vein, the eclipse of Pitch Black releases the horrors of that story; working that out provides a good mystery to be solved, while the partial phase offers a practical method of building tension.

Beyond the psychological effects and theological implications of an eclipse, they work well in any case where astronomy and the predictive power of science play a role. Recall, if you will, the famous story of Columbus using a known upcoming eclipse as a way to scare an indigenous culture that lacked the knowledge of its arrival. Someone who has that knowledge can very easily lord it over those who do not, which sets up potential conflicts—or provides a way out of them. “Release me, or I will take away the sun” works as a threat, if the people you’re threatening can’t be sure the sun won’t come back.

In fantasy, eclipses can even fit into the backstory. The titular character of my novel Nocturne was born during a solar eclipse (I wrote the book because of the one today, in fact), and that special quality, combined with the peculiar magic system of the setting, provides most of the forward movement of the story. On a more epic level, if fantasy gods wander the land, one of them might have the power to make his own eclipses. A good way of keeping the peasants and worshippers in line, wouldn’t you say?

However you do it, treating an eclipse as something amiss in the heavens works a lot better for a story than assuming it’s a normal celestial occurrence. Yes, they happen. Yes, they’re regular. But if they’re unexpected, then they can be so much more useful. But that’s true of science in general, at least when you start melding it with fantasy. The whole purpose of science is to explain the world in a rational manner, but fantasy is almost the antithesis of rationality. So, by keeping eclipses mysterious, momentous, portentous occasions, we let them stay in the realm of fantasy. For today, I think that’s a good thing.

On fantasy stasis

In fantasy literature, the medieval era is the most common setting. Sure, you get the “flintlock fantasy” that moves things forward a bit, and then there’s the whole subgenre of urban fantasy, but most of the popular works of the past century center on the High Middle Ages.

It’s not hard to see why. That era has a lot going for it. It’s so far back that it’s well beyond living memory, so there’s nobody who can say, “It’s not really like that!” Records are spotty enough that there’s a lot of room for “hidden” discoveries and alternate histories. You get all the knights and chivalry and nobility as a builtin part of the setting, but you don’t have to worry about gunpowder weapons if you don’t want to, or oceanic exploration, or some of the more complex scientific matters discovered in the Renaissance.

For a fantasy world, of course, medieval times give you mostly the same advantages, but also a few more. It’s less you have to do, obviously, as you don’t have the explosion of technology and discovery starting circa 1500. Medieval times were simpler, in a way, and simple makes worldbuilding easy. Magic fits neatly in the gaps of medieval knowledge. The world map can have the blank spaces needed to hide a dragon or a wizard’s lair.

Times are (not) changing

But this presents a problem, because another thing fantasy authors really, really want is a long history, yet they don’t want the usual pattern of advancement that comes with those long ages. Just to take examples from some of my personal favorites, let’s see what we’ve got.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. You’ll probably know this better as Game of Thrones, the TV show, but the books go into far greater depth concerning the world history. The Others (White Walkers, in the show, for reasons I’ve never clearly understood) last came around some 8,000 years ago. About the only thing that’s changed since is the introduction of iron weaponry.

  • Lord of the Rings; J.R.R. Tolkien. Everybody knows this one, but how many know Middle Earth’s “internal” history? The Third Age lasts over 3,000 years with no notable technological progress, and that’s on top of the 3,500 years of the Second Age and a First Age (from The Silmarillion) that tacks on another 600 or so. Indeed, most technology in Middle Earth comes from the great enemies, Sauron and Morgoth and Saruman. That’s certainly no coincidence.

  • Mistborn; Brandon Sanderson. Here’s a case where technology actually regressed over the course of 1,000 years. The tyrannical Lord Ruler suppressed the knowledge of gunpowder (he preferred his ranged fighters to have skill) and turned society from seemingly generic fantasy feudalism into a brutal serfdom. (The newer trilogy, interestingly, upends this trope entirely; the world has gone from essentially zero—because of events at the end of Book 3—to Victorian Era in something like 500 years.)

  • Malazan Book of the Fallen; Steven Erikson. This series already has more timeline errors than I can count, so many that fans have turned the whole thing into a meme, and even the author himself lampooned it in the story. But Erikson takes the “fantasy stasis” to a whole new level. The “old” races are over 100,000 years old, there was an ice age somewhere in there, and the best anyone’s done is oceangoing ships and magical explosives, both within the last century or so.

Back in time

It’s a conundrum. Let’s look at our own Western history to see why. A thousand years ago was the Middle Ages, the time when your average fantasy takes place. It’s the time of William the Conqueror, of the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades and, later, the Black Death. Cathedrals were being built, the first universities founded, and so on. But it was nothing like today. It was truly a whole different world.

Add another thousand years, and you’re in Roman times. You’ve got Caesar, Pliny the Elder, Vesuvius, Jesus. Here, you’re in a world of antiquity, but you have to remember that it’s not really any further back from medieval times than they are from us. If we in 2017 are at the destruction of the One Ring, the founding of the Shire was not long after all this, about at the fall of the Roman Empire.

Another millennium takes you to ancient Greece, to the Bronze Age. That’s “Bronze Age” as in “ironworking hasn’t been invented yet”, by the way. Well, it had been, but it was only used in limited circumstances. Three thousand years ago is about the time of the later Old Testament or Homer. Compared to us, it’s totally unrecognizable, but it’s about the same length of time between the first time the One Ring was worn by someone other than Sauron and the moment Frodo and Sam walked up to Mount Doom.

Let’s try 8,000, like in Westeros. Where does that put us in Earth history? Well, it would be 6000 BC, so before Egypt, Sumeria, Babylon, the Minoans…even the Chinese. The biggest city in the world might have a few thousand people in it—Jericho and Çatalhöyük are about that old. Domestication of animals and plants is still in its infancy at this point in time; you’re closer to the first crops than to the first computers. Bran the Builder would have to have magic to make the Wall. The technology sure wasn’t there yet.

Breaking the ice

And that’s really the problem with so many of these great epic fantasy sagas. Yes, we get to see the grand sweep of history in the background, but it’s only grand because it’s been stretched. In the real world, centuries of stasis simply don’t exist in the eras of these stories. Even the Dark Ages saw substantial progress in some areas, and that’s not counting the massive advancement happening in, say, the Islamic world.

To have this stasis and make it work (assuming it’s not just ancient tales recast in modern terms) requires something supernatural, something beyond what we know. That can be magic or otherworldly beings or even a “caretaker” ruler, but it has to be something. Left to their own devices, people will invent their way out of the Fantasy Dark Age.

Maybe magic replaces technology. That’s an interesting thought, and one that fits in with some of my other writings here. It’s certainly plausible that a high level of magical talent could retard technological development. Magic is often described as far easier than invention, and far more practical now.

Supernatural beings can also put a damper on tech levels, but they may also have the opposite effect. If the mighty dragon kills everything that comes within 100 yards, then a gun that can shoot straight at twice that would be invaluable. Frodo’s quest would have been a piece of cake if he’d had even a World War I airplane, and you don’t even have to bring the Eagles into that one! Again, people are smart. They’ll figure these things out, given enough time. Thousands of years is definitely enough time.

Call this a rant if you like. Maybe that’s what it really is. Now, I’m not saying I hate stories that assume hundreds or thousands of years of stagnation. I don’t; some of my favorite books hinge on that very assumption. But worldbuilding can do better. That’s what I’m after. If that means I’ll never write a true work of epic fantasy, then so be it. There’s plenty of wonder out there.

Dragons in fantasy

If there is one thing, one creature, one being that we can point to as the symbol of the fantasy genre, it has to be the dragon. They’re everywhere in fantasy literature. The Hobbit, of course, is an old fantasy story that has come back into vogue in the last few years. More recent books involve dragons as major characters (Steven Erikson’s Malazan series) or as plot points (Daniel Abraham’s appropriately-titled The Dragon’s Path). Movies go through cycles, and dragons are sometimes the “in” subject (the movies based on The Hobbit, but also less recent films like Reign of Fire). Television likes dragons, too, when it has the budget to do them (Game of Thrones, of course). And we can also find these magnificent creatures represented in video games (Drakengard, Skyrim), tabletop RPGs (Dungeons & Dragons—it’s even in the name!), and music (DragonForce).

So what makes dragons so…interesting? It’s not a recent phenomenon; dragon legends go back centuries. They feature in Arthurian legend, Chinese mythology, and Greek epics. They’re everywhere, all throughout history. Something about them fires the imagination, so what is it?

The birth of the dragon

Every ancient culture, it seems, has a mythology involving giant beasts of a kind unknown to modern science. We think of the Greek myths of the Hydra, of course, but it’s only one of many. Even in the Bible, monsters are found: the leviathan and behemoth found in the book of Job, for example. But something like a dragon seems to be found in almost every mythos.

How did this happen? For things like this, there are usually a few possible explanations. One, it could be a borrowing, something that arose in one culture, then spread to its neighbors. That seems plausible, except that New World peoples also have dragon-like supernatural beings, and they had them before Columbus. Another possibility is that the first idea of the dragon was invented in the deep past, before humanity spread to every corner of the globe. But that’s a bit far-fetched. You’d then have to explain how something like that stuck around for 30,000 or so years with so little change, using only art and oral transmission for most of that time.

The third option is, in my opinion, the most reasonable: the idea of dragons arose in a few different places independently, in something like convergent evolution. Each “region” would have its own dragon mythology, where the concept of “dragon” is about the same, while different regions might have wildly different ideas of what they should be.

I would also say that the same should be true for other fantastical creatures—giants, for instance—that pop up around the world. And, in my mind, there’s a perfectly good reason why these same tropes appear everywhere: fossils. We know that there used to be huge animals roaming the earth. Dinosaurs could be enormous, and you could imagine a Bronze Age hunter stumbling upon the fossilized bones of one of them and jumping to conclusions.

Even in recent geological time, it was only the Ice Age that wiped out the mammoths and so many other “megafauna”. (Today’s environmental movement tends to want to blame humans for everything bad, including this, but the evidence can be twisted just about any way you like.) In these cases, we can see the possibility that early human bands did meet these true giants, and they would have told stories about them. In time, those stories, as such stories tend to do, could have become legendary. For dragons, this one doesn’t matter too much, but it’s a point in favor of the idea that ancient peoples saw giant creatures—or their remains—and mythologized them into dragons and giants and everything else.

The nature of the beast

Moving far forward in time, we can see that the modern era’s literature has taken the time-honored myth of the dragon and given it new direction. At some point in the last few decades, authors seem to have decided that dragons must make sense. Sure, that’s completely silly from a mythological point of view, but that’s how it is.

Even in older stories, though, dragons had a purpose. That purpose was different for different stories, as it is today. For many of them, the dragon is a nemesis, an enemy. Sometimes, it’s essentially a force of nature, if not a god in its own right. In a few, dragons are good guys, protectors. Christian cultures in medieval times liked to use the slaying dragon as a symbol for the defeat of paganism. But it’s only relatively recently that the idea of dragons as “people” has become popular. Nowadays, we can find fiction where dragons are represented as magicians, sages, and oracles. A few settings even turn them into another sapient race, with their own civilization, culture, religion, and so on.

The form of dragons also depends a lot on the which mythos we’re talking about. The modern perception of a dragon as a winged, bipedal serpent who breathes fire and hoards gold (in other words, more like the wyvern) is just one possibility. Plenty of cultures have wingless dragons, and most of the “true” dragons have no legs; they’re more like giant snakes. Still, there’s an awful lot of variation, and there’s no single, definitive version of a dragon.

Your own dragon

Dragons in a work of fiction, whether novel or film or game, need to be there for a reason, if you want a coherent story. You don’t have to work out a whole ecological treatise on them, showing their diets, sleep patterns, and reproductive habits—Tolkien’s dragons, for example, were supernatural creations, so they didn’t have to make scientific sense—but you should know why a dragon appears.

If there’s only one of them, there’s probably a reason why. Maybe it’s a demon, or a creation of the gods, or an avatar of chaos. Maybe it’s the sole survivor of its kind, frozen in time for millennia (that’s a big spoiler, but I’m not going to tell you for what). Whatever you come up with, you should be able to justify it with something more than “because it’s there”. The more dragons you have, the more this problem can grow. In the extreme, if they’re everywhere, why aren’t they running things?

More than their reason for existing in the first place, you need to think about their story role. Are they enemies? Are they good or evil? Can they talk? What are they like? Smaug was greedy and haughty, for instance, and it’s a conceit of D&D that dragons are complex beings that are completely misunderstood by us lesser mortals simply because we can’t understand their true motives.

Are there different kinds of dragons? Again we can look at D&D, which has a bewildering assortment even before we include wyverns, lesser drakes, and the like. Of course, a game will need a different notion of role than a novel, and gamers like variation in their enemies, but only the most jaded player would think of a dragon as anything less than a major boss character.

Another thing that’s popular is the idea that dragons can change their form to look human. This might be derived from RPGs, or they might have taken it from an earlier source. However it worked out, a lot of people like the idea of a shapeshifting dragon. (Half the characters in the aforementioned Malazan series seem to be like this, and that’s not the only example in fantasy.) Shapechanging, of course, is an important part of a lot of fantasy, and I might do a post on it later on. It is another interesting possibility, though, if you can get it right.

In a very big way, dragons-as-people is a similar problem as other fantasy races, as well as sci-fi aliens. The challenge here is to make something that feels different, something that isn’t quite human, while still making it believable for the story at hand. If dragons live for 500 years, for example, they will have a different outlook on life and history than we would. If they lay eggs—and who doesn’t like dragon eggs?—they won’t understand the pain and danger of live childbirth, among other things. The ways in which a dragon isn’t like a human are breeding grounds for conflict, both internal and external. All you have to do is follow the notion towards its logical conclusion. You know, just like everything else.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I do like dragons, when they’re done right. They can be these imposing, alien presences beyond reason or understanding, and that is something I find interesting. But in the wrong hands, they turn into little more than pets or mounts, giant versions of dogs and horses that happen to have scales. Dragons don’t need to be noble or evil, but they should have an impact when you meet one. I mean, you’d feel amazed if you met one in real life, wouldn’t you?

Faith and fantasy

Religion is one of those things that, as an author or game designer, you have to treat very carefully. The risk of offense is too great, especially in the politically-correct, offense-first world of today. It’s easy to fall into a trap of pigeonholing real-world religions. “Evil, Arabian-looking bad guys that act like Muslims” is practically a genre trope at this point; two examples that I’ve read include the Fanim of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Krasians of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. “Evil, hierarchical church that looks Roman Catholic” isn’t exactly uncommon, either.

But that’s not really the subject of this post. Sure, the popular religions in the world are the way they are, and they’re easy to relate to, easy to understand, because we see them every day. But different cultures, especially in different worlds than our own, are going to have different ways of looking at religion, faith, philosophy, and the supernatural. And their beliefs will shape their society, just as ours, historically, have shaped our own.

Of God and gods

In the West, there are three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In addition, there are a number of others that have significantly less popular appeal. The East, conversely, gives us the trio of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto, along with a host of minor faiths. (And by “minor”, I mean they have fewer followers, not that they’re less important or less valuable.) And, of course, we also have the “non-religions” of atheism and agnosticism, as well as a number of systems of belief that might better be grouped under “philosophy”.

Even the largest of religions is not monolithic, however. Christianity has a whole spectrum of sects (“denominations”), and many Americans have become familiar with the major divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shia). Some can even spot the difference between some of the different sects of modern Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, etc.). We know comparatively far less about the other side of the world, though; most people in the US probably think of all Buddhists as Zen, for example.

In fantasy literature, religion—when it is mentioned at all—usually only gets a passing nod. There might be the occasional oath, prayer, or swear, but a story where the beliefs of the people are not the focus often ignores those beliefs. And that’s fine. If it’s not an important worldbuilding detail, then there’s probably not much reason to put it in.

Conversely, games, especially tabletop role-playing games, make religion an integral part of the story. D&D (and its offshoots, like Pathfinder) has lists of deities, each with their own domain, and these almost always function like the pantheons of old, except with added benefits for certain believers. (In D&D, for example, clerics and paladins usually must follow a deity, and they receive divine blessings and spells in return.) In a way, despite there being a very detailed summary of religion, it’s abstracted away into a game mechanic.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Players shouldn’t be forced to study theology just to play a game. But fantasy, both literature and gaming, has a problem understanding the link between religion and society, and that link was a very real, very important part of the period of history favored by fantasy.

One to many

We all know the “origin stories” of the major Western religions, whether creation, crucifixion, or revelation. But all of these, as well as those less-familiar faiths of the world, had a major impact on the development of society. The Middle Ages, that favorite era of fantasy literature and games alike, was shaped by religion. In many ways, you could even say it was defined by religion.

When fantasy posits a pantheon (like D&D), that actually breaks the world for their other main assumption: the feudal monarchy. Feudalism, serfdom, the divine right of kings, knighthood, and all those other conceits of medieval Europe are based on a thousand years of Christianity.

“The end is coming soon, so get ready,” goes the common Christian refrain, and that’s largely been true since the 30s. No, not the 1930s, but the 30s, as in 30 AD. Christianity has always had a strain of the apocalyptic—the last book of the Bible is, after all, supposed to be a vision of the End of Days—though it has waxed and waned through the ages. In the medieval period, it was mostly waxing. Plague, famine, pestilence, and war were facts of life, especially for the lower classes, and there wasn’t much they could do about it. “The meek shall inherit the earth” was the closest thing to hope for the future that many people had.

If you replace the strict belief in God (whose eternal good was countered by the increasing influence of the Devil) with a nebulous—if effectual—pantheon, then things change dramatically. Get rid of the Church, the Pope, and all the other trappings of medieval Christianity, and all of society will develop differently.

Changing the game

In medieval Europe, the Church had supreme power, and all of it was centered on the Pope. He could make kings (or break them), crown emperors, canonize martyrs, or call crusades. His announcements of doctrine, the papal bulls, were regarded as nothing less than official interpretations of scripture. And he had one ultimate, terrifying weapon: excommunication.

All that it did was ban a person or group of people from Communion, effectively ostracizing them from the Church. But in a world where the eternal soul was seen as infinitely more important than its mortal frame, this was enough to turn even the most hardened of hearts. Rebels, heretics, willful kings, and political enemies all faced the threat of excommunication, and almost every one of them quailed in the face of such a punishment. Rebellions could end entirely once word came from Rome that their leaders had been cast out of the Church, no longer able to receive the blessings of Christ and thus condemned to Hell for all eternity. Even whole cities (such as Florence) were put under that threat simply to scare their rulers into complying with the Church’s wishes or dogma.

Besides the Church’s chief weapon (I’ll spare you the Monty Python jokes) and its total control of doctrine, it also changed Europe by bringing in its own social structure. Monasteries, hermitages, nunneries, convents, and abbeys all had their roles to play, and they were all part of the Church. And these weren’t always what you’d think from movies. Monks could be rich, nuns literate, and hermits not always loners living in caves. One of them even got elected as pope: Celestine V, who quit after a few months. (Every other pope from 1294 onwards ruled until he died or was cast out, until Benedict XVI not long ago.)

The Christian church and faith was the single largest influence on the development of the Middle Ages. Because of it, the Black Death was asserted as a sign of coming Armageddon, as was the famine that preceded it, and the Mongol horde that may have brought it. Without the church, the culture of monasticism wouldn’t have been so prevalent, nor would the orders of crusading knighthood, such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Order exist.

Indeed, even the period’s systems of economy and government are indebted to Christianity. Feudalism lasted as long as it did mostly because people were taught that it was the natural order of things. Serfs were born to be serfs, and nobles to be nobles, and there were shelves full of books explaining all the ways you could see how that was true. Nobles, for instance, were taller, heavier, and healthier. Nobody bothered to note that this was because of nutrition and the often harsh working conditions of the peasantry. Rather, it was taken as part of the divine plan.

The realm of fiction

Fantasy likes to take the feudal society of Europe (especially the later, post-plague society where feudalism began to falter) and make it its own, without taking along the religious aspect that made it possible. In essence, you could say that medieval, feudal Europe came about because of Constantine, the emperor of Rome who converted himself and then his empire to Christianity.

Without a strong, central Church, you lose most of the foundations of the setting. If every city or nation can make its own doctrine, then you have very little world unity and shared culture. With more than one deity to worship, with no fixed scripture proclaiming the end of the world and the promise of a utopic afterlife, then there is no motivation for serfdom, for the glory of crusade.

Even technology is affected by the change in faith. Cathedrals, the defining monument of the Middle Ages, were built because of religion. Sure, a polytheistic culture might build great temples, and they would likely come to many of the same discoveries about building, but would they have the same styles? Likely not. They certainly wouldn’t be laid out in the shape of a cross, like the European cathedrals.

Some areas might become more advanced if you lift the strictures of Christianity. Machinery that could aid in work was often overlooked, simply because there were always more laborers to throw at a problem. The science of astronomy was held back by the belief that the stars were the realm of God, thus unknowable to man. And how would banking develop if the Christian constraints on usury didn’t exist to create a niche (and a stereotype) filled by Jews?

Magic, of course, is an obvious addition to any fantasy world, but it also existed (not really, but in people’s minds) in the Middle Ages. It’s something that was well-known, but totally forbidden. Fireball-wielding mages would have to be fit into the religious world-view, and where would they go? The sorcerers of the aforementioned Prince of Nothing series are excommunicated by default, but it’s easy to imagine a setting where the wizards are seen as messengers or even avatars of God or the gods.

Like so many other topics in worldbuilding, a few decisions change the outcome completely. Monotheism, logically speaking, probably leads to one of the same outcomes as it did in our world. Polytheism is reflected in ancient Rome and even modern India, as well as most fantasy. A lot of other ideas require more thought. If God is everywhere, in everything, then who needs temples or churches? If the world is full of spirits that inhabit every living thing, how can you eat and still live with yourself? (Yes, that means an animist world could have even stricter dietary laws than Islam. Think of Hinduism’s sacred cows.)

The length of time that a religion has existed will also play a role in a society’s development. The older something is, the more likely it is to change. Faiths fracture, sectarianism grows, especially if there is no central authority. A polytheistic culture is prone to develop “local” gods; Athena, patron of Athens, is a good example. New religions exist in a state of flux, as everyone vies for the right to be considered orthodox, often with disastrous consequences for those that lose. (How many Gnostics do you know?)

Rituals, prayers, and even the calendar can also be affected. The word “holiday” literally means “holy day”, and that’s where the oldest of them come from. Christmas and Easter are the ones everybody knows, although few know that they’re replacements for “pagan” holidays celebrating the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. But Lent and Ash Wednesday were far more important in the Middle Ages. All Saints’ Day, another pagan substitution, has become so marginalized that we celebrate the night before it instead: Halloween. Different religions, though, will have their own holy times: Ramadan, Hanukkah, and so on. As for prayers, who do you pray to when you have a hundred gods to choose from? Who is the one to memorize all the appropriate rituals?

End of this day

As always, there’s a lot to think about, and your choice is one of how deep to go. Obviously, if religion isn’t a major part of your world, then there’s not too much you have to do. But religion might be a significant part of your characters’ world, and it might show in the way they act, think, talk.

Faith and logic don’t always have a lot in common, it’s true. This is one place where the latter makes the former possible. It’s not your faith you’re worried about. Presumably, you’ve already decided that, and it shouldn’t have any bearing on your created world. Logically working out the beliefs of your world and their effects, though, can make for a deeper immersion into your story. It might even make some people think.