8 Great Resources for Writing Medieval Fantasy

I’ve had an epic fantasy series brewing in the back of my head for over a decade now.  I’ve got about 70,000 of a first draft of the first novel written, and though I’ve put it aside temporarily, I plan on returning to it after I’ve completed a few other projects I’m working on (three current works in progress, and counting).

I originally imagined it as a fairly straightforward “medieval”-style fantasy–knights on horseback, lords and ladies, etc.  While over the years it evolved into something much more unique (or so I like to think), much of the world’s social and political dynamics are rooted in my understanding of our world’s Middle Ages.

Much of that understanding can be attributed to two distinct but related sources: my wife, who studied the Middle Ages in college, and her substantial library of books on the subject, to which we have both added over the years.

As I’ve often seen writers and aspiring writers seeking guidance online for good research materials on this subject, I thought I’d share some of my own go-to resources.  Here they are, in no particular order.

1.  European Arms & Armour, by Charles Henry Ashdown

IG29969-1New York: Brussel & Brussel, 1967.

Sadly out of print, European Arms & Armour is an excellent survey of the subject of Western armament, ranging from the prehistoric to the advent of gunpowder (and slightly beyond).  It spends most of its time, though, discussing the Middle Ages proper and the weapons and armor that served the fighting men and women of Europe during this often-tumultuous period.  The New York Times, in 1967, called the book a “magnificent volume” with “much of the charge which belongs to historical romances[.]”

I was lucky enough to come across this tome, quite well preserved, in a second-hand book shop in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  It looks and smells like it may have spent the intervening decades between its publication and now in a dry but dusty basement, before falling into the hands of the bookshop owner from whom I happily acquired it.

Ashdown’s discussion of the development of arms and armor is simply and expertly presented, giving the reader a sense of the organic evolution from leather and bronze to mail and plate.  But perhaps most useful are the hundreds of engravings and photographs (black and white, unfortunately), complete with labels and terminology, that litter almost every other page of the book.

You should be able to find it used on Amazon, or perhaps in your local independent bookstore.

2.  The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Ewart Oakeshott

910q5zw1TNSRochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2009.

Whereas Ashdown attempts to give a history of all European arms and armor, Oakeshott focuses on the most famous and pervasive of medieval weapons: the sword.

Originally published contemporarily with Ashdown in 1964, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry has found new life in digital printing and is still readily available through Amazon.

With photographs and hundreds of detailed illustrations by the author, this is the quintessential reference on the Western sword.  Indeed, Albion Swords uses Oakeshott as their primary reference guide for their functional, museum-quality recreations.  Invaluable for those who love the art of it, and want to make the sword a part of their story.

If you’re wondering what type of sword a person from a particular place and time might have used, this is the book for you.

3.  The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, by Shulamith Shahar

0415308518New York: Routledge, 1994.

A thorough and scholarly investigation into a subject much ignored in the study of the period, Shahar’s book is the first to look specifically at the role of women in medieval society.  She does so with a view toward a general and comprehensive discussion of all women, and in fact deliberately avoids discussing the ones that may spring immediately to mind: Joan of Arc, Matilda, etc.

She does so not only because, as she explains in the introduction, much has already been said of these singular and exceptional women, but because her intention was to shed light on women whose lives and positions had not been discussed.

Shahar herself is a professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Tel Aviv.  The book was translated into English by Chaya Galai.  The narrative approaches the subject rigorously, making no assumptions, and as such uncovers a wealth of contributions by, realities of, and life choices for women in the Middle Ages that is rivaled only by the insidiousness of their persecution by the Church as the centuries progressed.

An absolute must for anyone trying to write women in a medieval society (or its fantasy analog).

4.  Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting, by Nichola Fletcher

9781466864405New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Nichola Fletcher, a goldsmith, deer farmer, and food writer, bookends her history of feasting with an anecdote about Charlemagne.  He had an asbestos tablecloth, or so the story (almost certainly apocryphal) goes, which he would dramatically throw into the fire at the end of a feast.  The fire would burn off the crumbs, leaving the impervious asbestos intact, a magic trick sure to impress the majesty of the Emperor upon his guests.

What this book does quite well, with a joyful, engaged tone, is describe the food and festivities involved in history’s most extravagant and legendary meals.  The “golden age” of feasting, as she calls it, is of course the Middle Ages, and Fletcher’s description of dishes and entertainments from this age would make even George R. R. Martin blush.  Great fodder for descriptive passages and general scene setting.

5.  The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars, by Stephen O’Shea

314653New York: Walker & Company, 2000.

The history of the Middle Ages is, in many ways, a history of Christian heresies, the greatest of which was the Cathar heresy, which led to a series of crusades called by Pope Innocent III.

The Cathars were an ascetic heretical sect most active in Northern Italy and Southern France.  They were dualists and Gnostic revivalists, believing in a binary godhead with good and evil gods.  The good god, the god of the New Testament, created the spiritual realm, while the evil god of the Old Testament created the physical.  Hence, physical was bad.  Hence ascetism.  The Catholic Church didn’t like this, so much, particularly the part about the evil force–who they interpreted as Satan–being equal in power to God.  You can guess where this is going.

O’Shea makes it riveting, however, and by focusing on this central conflict within Christendom, identifies a defining theme of the Middle Ages: dogmatic strife.

6.  The First Crusade: A New History, by Thomas Asbridge

81YzsRePgnLNew York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

No conflict–perhaps no event–encapsulates the medieval mind so well as the First Crusade.  Those who took up the cross, a diverse and only tentatively allied force led by five great princes, did so in response to a call by Urban II that stood in the face of a thousand years of Christian dogma: to launch an unprovoked war to reclaim the Holy Land by blood.

The First Crusade has always been the most interesting to me, and I particularly enjoy Asbridge’s discussion of the philosophies and cultural and religious values that led to what amounted to a craze among the nobility of Europe: to take penitent vows and seek their fortune in the foreign east.

Combining a loose interpretation of Augustine’s Just War theory and the incitement of racial and religious hatred of Muslims who held the Holy City of Jerusalem in their “unclean” hands, Urban ushered in an era of Church-sanctified violence that would not end for centuries.  This book is a fascinating exploration of medieval thought and the desperation with which the Latins pursued their salvation–both physical and spiritual.

7.  The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham

a1eobexixl-_sl1500_New York: Viking Penguin, 2009.

The subtitle says it all: illuminating the dark ages.

Referring to the years between the fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne as the “dark ages” has long been frowned upon by medieval scholars, and Wickham’s thesis runs with that idea.  Rather than a long period of barbarity and intellectual darkness, the early middle ages were “critical to the formation of the European identity.”

This one is a particularly relevant read for fantasy authors, I think, because it deals with the real world history behind one of the more common fantasy tropes: life in the aftermath of empire; people living in the ruins, physical and societal, of a greater, more accomplished civilization.

Wickham’s thesis goes a long way toward demonstrating that rather than the abrupt, dramatic cataclysm that exists in the public imagination, the fall of the Western Empire and the underrated survival of Byzantium were in fact part of a more gradual shift from a purely Roman identity to the beginnings of what would eventually become modern Europe.

8.  The Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman

9780816030217-usNew York: Fall River Press, 2007.

This is a fun one: a glossary of words of medieval origin and/or importance.  Etymology nerds won’t be pleased by the lack of sources or derivation, but given that Ms. Cosman was a professor and director of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College of New York, I think we can trust her.

I’ve found this one useful for general inspiration and worldbuilding.  A great coffee table book just to pick up and read at random, the subjects range from the quotidian to the serious to the downright lascivious.

Here are a few favorites (with cross-references in small caps):

Lewd tales depicting ebullient philanderers, bed-hopping with exuberance.  Stock characters in dramatic situations include the senex amans (old lover) cuckolded by his lusty young wife and her sexually athletic lover; the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) whose boasting undoes him; lascivious clerical lovers with willing women congregants; and bold bawdy wives of sexually senescent men. fabliaux women oppose the idealized domna of the eva-ave antithesis.

A fishpond, bath, spa, or whorehouse.  “The Stews” was a name for fourteenth-century London’s red light district, coexisting with the title cock’s lane.

A mythic heraldic beast, gracing the coat of arms of England and many a bestiary.  An animal the size of a horse with an elephant’s tail and a boar’s jowls, each of the yale’s extravagantly long horns can adjust as battle requires; at need, one horn can point forward, the other behind.

These are only a few of the books my wife and I have on our Middle Ages shelves, and for everyone I selected to talk about here there were three I considered in its stead.  But these eight are books that have proved helpful and enlightening to me.  I hope you find them so.

TDS New 3My current novel, The Doktor’s Spyglass, is a fantasy noir adventure being serialized for free on Wattpad.  Check it out and vote if you like what you read!

The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan

The-Dark-DefilesReading a Richard Morgan novel is like trying to find your way through a delightfully twisted hedge maze in the dark–if that hedge maze were the haunted remains of a long-dead race of demonic overlords jury-rigged into use as the headquarters of a robotic brothel and the dark was composed of the ectoplasmic innards of human history.  It’s not your average piece of fiction, and the experience of reading it isn’t your average walk through your mother’s manicured garden.  And let’s face it–if that’s what you were looking for, it’s unlikely you would ever have picked up a Richard Morgan novel in the first place.

If it’s not obvious from the paragraph above (and, in true Richard Morgan style, I like to think, it may not be), I’m a Richard Morgan fan.  I haven’t read through his entire catalog (yet), but when I heard the author of Altered Carbon was trying his hand at epic fantasy, I happily started waving money in his general direction.  He didn’t disappoint.

Continue reading

Words of Radiance

I wanted so much to love Words of Radiance; I wanted it to be the rebirth of classic epic fantasy that we’d all been waiting for (i.e., non-grimdark), a doorstopper tome that not only justified its size and its existence but that reawakened a passion in me lit by the likes of Tolkien and Tad Williams and early Robert Jordan.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  Maybe I’m simply at a different place in my life.  But as much as I liked the novel, the second installment in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, I found that I could not love it.  Not unconditionally; not the way I love some others.

It’s hard to write about Brandon Sanderson without writing about epic fantasy as a genre, as he has taken Robert Jordan’s place at its forefront: his are the novels that fans wait for, the ones that hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, the ones that form the backbone of the genre.  If there’s a fantasy mainstream, Brandon Sanderson is it.  Bestsellers of this type are rarely examples of the literary avant garde–especially when it comes to epic fantasy–but the older I get, the less patience I have with bloated series that prioritize world-building over character and story.

Words of Radiance is an exercise in excess, even more than its predecessor, The Way of Kings, and its overwhelmingly positive reception is a perfect example of the growing tendency (among fantasy book bloggers, mostly) to excuse bloated, clumsy story-telling simply because epic fantasy is supposed to be that way.  Is there an argument to be made that you shouldn’t complain about epic fantasy being too long, because epic fantasy has always been too long?  That complaining about length in a ten-book series of thousand-page novels is silly?  Yes.  But that argument ultimately ignores the fact that we have accepted this gluttonous, kitchen-sink version of epic fantasy more due to a lack of other options than because it’s what we really want.

Which is not to say that there aren’t people who want what Sanderson’s dishing out: The Stormlight Archive is fantasy that rewards the true nerd, the one who reads the wikis and follows the rumors and has theories on every possible unresolved plot point.  Much like The Wheel of Time before it, The Stormlight Archive presents world-building so complex that only the most die-hard fan is truly rewarded, the one willing to reread it until things make sense, the one willing to comb through forum posts until each and every secondary and tertiary character is analyzed and discussed, every artifact catalogued, every magic system codified and cross-referenced.  Simply put, you need a Ph.D in Sanderson to truly understand Sanderson.

It’s not just that this is a big, long series; Mr. Sanderson has spent most of his professional career linking all of his adult fiction together into the overarching world of the Cosmere, the universe in which all of his books take place.  And it’s here that we really see the complexity of The Stormlight Archive, as much of the content references or at least relates to other characters and other books.  This series is to be something of a keystone for the Cosmere, and more so than any of the series that preceded it, it requires a working knowledge of Sanderson’s larger oeuvre. Can you read The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance without having read any of Sanderson’s other novels?  Sure.  But a lot of it won’t make sense to you.  The world of Roshar is vast and complicated enough to be overwhelming to those who have read the other, connected series; Sanderson neophytes have little hope of understanding the deeper, central conflicts that the books often refer to.  Some of the interludes and all of the chapter epigraphs will be almost nonsensical, and arguably the main antagonists of these two books are quite vague and poorly defined in the absence of external knowledge.  I’d imagine the experience would be similar to watching the film adaptations of The Hobbit without having read either The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit itself, or seen the Peter Jackson Rings movies.  You could enjoy the story, enjoy the action, but the foreshadowing and allusion and most importantly the central meaning of it all would be a bit over your head.

Despite these complaints, I did enjoy many parts of this book.  The world-building is creative and self-indulgent in a way that only an experienced reader of epic fantasy could appreciate, the action is gripping, and the climax is exciting. The pacing, however, needed a lot of work.  It’s almost a cliche to say this at this point, but boy, did this book need some cutthroat editing.  The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance might have a great fantasy story inside them, but in order to get at it you’d have to combine them into one novel and cut around two-thirds of the word count like Friday afternoon math class.

A big part of the problem is geographic: the characters are all still in exactly the same place as they were in the first thousand-page novel of this series.  There’s very little physical progression.  Instead we get a lot of will-he or won’t-he waffling as Kaladin, one of three main viewpoint characters in this book, struggles with a destiny that was obvious on page one of book one, and chapters of self-indulgent, meandering thinking from Shallan.  Both are bad habits he seems to have picked up from Robert Jordan: a lot of the supposed dramatic tension in these books is very reminiscent of that of Mr. Jordan’s later Wheel of Time novels.  Otherwise serviceable plot and character arcs–such as a hero struggling with his destiny, or a character investigating a lost, ancient secret–are treated as far more mysterious than they actually are and drawn out to the point of absurdity. Remember Rand al’Thor’s internal struggle about whether he should be “hard” or try to find some humanity and laugh again?  Remember how drawn out that was, how endless and stupid it became?  This isn’t quite that bad, but it’s in the ballpark.

In the same way, Sanderson’s Kaladin takes so long to become the Knight Radiant that he obviously is (around two thousand pages and roughly 800,000 words, by my count), that the pay-off, however gripping and dramatic, was always destined to be anticlimactic.  Words of Radiance and its predecessor are essentially two thousand pages of getting a few characters into a position where they have some idea of who their enemy is and what their capabilities are. Shallan Davar, on the other hand, is essentially a lens character, one whose “investigation” in the lost city of Urithiru allows the author to infodump about the world and its backstory without it seeming like that’s what he’s doing–except when it does.

Shallan’s main purpose in The Stormlight Archive so far seems to be that she has an idea of where this city is; to that end, we are treated to hundreds of pages of Shallan bathing, and talking to her familiar-like spren, Pattern; Shallan drawing, and talking to Pattern; Shallan thinking, and talking to Pattern; and Shallan ordering people around, and talking to Pattern.  Occasionally, she gets to be precocious and do something like get trapped in a chasm or active an ancient device. Her backstory, which takes up the flashback chapters of this novel (another indulgence that only adds to the word count), is another example of drawn out scenery-chewing that William Shatner would envy.  For two books now we’ve been reading about the shocking, mysterious event that occurred behind closed doors in Shallan’s family home, the one that resulted in her desperate situation in the first book.  In Words of Radiance, you find out what it is.  Be prepared to meh. And that’s just this book.  There’s eight more of these, guys.

There are some things to love about Words of Radiance: timeless moral struggles, brave knights, honor, gripping duels, indulgent magic, conversations with gods, an admittedly thrilling last act.  But they don’t make up for the novel’s flaws. And that, unfortunately, is how I’ll continue to think of this book and this series, until and unless things get a lot more interesting from here on in: as an epic fantasy great in concept, but flawed in execution, one that could have been truly legendary but for its tendency to drown in its own excess. It kills me to say that, because I think ten years ago my opinion might have been different.  But that was before I was a writer myself. I know I’m in the minority here, both from the book’s sales and from having talked to people who have read and loved it.

The whole process of reading it and thinking about it have made me think a lot about my own relationship with fantasy.  Have I gotten too old, too jaded, too snobbish for mainstream fantasy?  Would I think some of these same things about my favorite epic fantasies if I read them for the first time at this age–if I were divorced from the warm glow of nostalgia that comes from re-reading them?  I don’t know.  I hope not. To those for whom The Stormlight Archive is that life-changing favorite book, my sincerest apologies.  But it doesn’t matter what I think.  All that matters, when it comes to fantasy, is that sense of wonder, that sense of awe.  I felt glimpses of it in Words of Radiance, and because of that I intend to read the rest of the series.  I hope it will shine through brighter there.  If you’re already seeing it, don’t let me stop you.  Shine on.

What ‘Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn’ Means to Me

whelan_medium_the_dragonbone_chair_cropped_tad_williams 2

It’s been said that there are certain books you have to read at the right time in your life in order to understand them completely, novels that speak to particular age groups or circumstances.  The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace come to mind, for example; maybe The Sun Also Rises.  All great works of fiction at any age, but particularly powerful when read as an adolescent (the Salinger and Knowles novels) and as a young man (the Hemingway).  This seems axiomatic to me, and no work of fiction proves it more strongly than The Dragonbone Chair.

SF-Signal’s Larry Ketchersid recently wrote an article entitled “The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams and Its Place in the History of Epic Fantasy,” a timely retrospective on the 1988 fantasy classic written in anticipation of the forthcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard.  Reading it made me want to talk about what The Dragonbone Chair and its sequels mean to me, as their impact on my life has been significant.  Spoilers abound.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the trilogy of which The Dragonbone Chair is the opening volume, is one of the seminal works of modern fantasy, and Tad Williams, its author, has become a household name for those interested in speculative fiction.  But when I first laid eyes on a Tad Williams novel, I was 12 or 13, just about the same age as the protagonist of the trilogy, Simon, and just as lost in the world.  It was in a bookstore in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and the book in question was the paperback version of To Green Angel Tower, Part 1.  I bought it based on the cover art and blurb, under the mistaken impression that it was the first book in the trilogy.  Suffice it to say I was surprised and disappointed to learn, a few pages in, that there was a reason I didn’t have any idea what was going on.  What can I say, I was 12.  I didn’t pay too much attention to front matter.  I was even more disappointed to find out I was not going to get a second ride to the bookstore that night.  I was still fascinated by what appeared to be a very interesting story, though, and if I remember correctly, when I went back to the bookstore they didn’t have The Dragonbone Chair in stock, and had to order it.  I waited impatiently for several days, and then after school one day I finally had it.  In the car on the ride home, I entered a world that has stayed with me ever since (I am 32 now), a world that not only proved a source of personal joy and adventure but was integral to my own growing dream of becoming a writer.

Fantasy was a welcome escape, at the time: I was a chubby, unpopular kid whose parents were in the end stages of a difficult divorce.  I had just moved to a new neighborhood where friends were few and far between, to the extent I wanted them anyway.  I had discovered Tolkien a few years before, in the fourth grade, and had devoured every other bit of fantasy I could get my hands on since, mainly books with the names Brooks and Eddings on the covers.  I was in between worlds when I found To Green Angel Tower, exploring the Science Fiction/Fantasy section at the bookstore in that glassy-eyed trance that is both frustrating and exciting–frustrating because you haven’t found that next favorite book yet, exciting because you might be about to.


That excitement was nothing compared to what I felt when I started reading.  The trend in fantasy these days is to start in media res; the prologues and long first acts of more traditional fantasy are often deemed old-fashioned and unnecessary.  But I’ve always loved epic fantasy that comes to a slow boil; I’m one of those odd people who loves the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the way it takes its time meandering through the world of the Shire and building tension.  By the time Frodo actually sets out, Tolkien has cemented the reader’s relationship with this odd little fellow, and you start seeing the world of Middle Earth from a distinctly hobbitish point of view, which is no doubt precisely what the master intended.

The Dragonbone Chair shares a similar pace during its first act.  We meet the aptly named Simon Mooncalf chasing bugs, and from that unassuming and distinctly boyish introduction to his exciting escape from the Hayholt, the seriousness and tension slowly builds until the kettle’s ready to scream–a good two or three hundred pages later.

Simon, or Seoman, is, I think, one of those protagonists who means more to you if you happened to read him at the right age.  I’m not saying he can’t be appreciated by an adult–quite the contrary–but it’s sort of like a good Pixar movie: kids see one movie, parents see another one entirely, and both come away satisfied.  As a troubled, pubescent child, Simon just made sense to me: his day-dreamy absentmindedness, his self-absorption, his raging hormones–and, of course, his well-developed sense of self-pity.  Simon’s a good person at heart, as he shows at various points, but he’s still a kid, and an immature one at that.  His quest is a coming of age that neither pulls its punches nor exaggerates the abilities or the learning curve of a 14 year old boy raised in a kitchen.

Simon doesn’t strike out on his own to find himself capable and independent, he narrowly escapes death time and time again due to a string of friends and mentor figures who take pity on his incompetence.  He survives the debacle at the Hayholt because of his benefactor Doctor Morgenes’ wit and self-sacrifice, and even then almost manages to kill himself escaping.  The reader discovers along with Simon that it’s not nearly as easy to survive on one’s own–whether you’re in a primeval forest or middle school–as it appears to be.  The adventure stories lied.  You don’t suddenly turn into Robin Hood just because you spend a few days in the woods.

The realism of Simon’s character arc was unprecedented: rather than the farmboy-cum-superhero who learns the sword overnight and discovers grand wizardly powers that save his skin, Simon discovers that he knows far less about the world than he thought he did, and survives only because of the charity and skill of others.  Even the Bagginses had the benefit of maturity and experience, however slim and narrow, by the time they set out on their respective quests; Simon, on the other hand, truly is a sheep among the wolves.  The fact of his parentage, when revealed, really only becomes relevant when Simon has proven able to endure to the end; if he’s learned anything by the end of the trilogy, it’s that keeping your wits about you, having a conscience, and listening to those wiser than yourself is more kingly and useful than any amount of gallantry or skill.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was ahead of its time in many ways.  The realism of its characters and its world presaged the gritty, grimdark imaginings of writers like Abercrombie and Martin, the latter of whom has stated publicly that the trilogy influenced the creation of A Song of Ice and Fire.  The world of Osten Ard might not be quite as bleak as Logen Ninefingers’ homeland or the Seven Kingdoms, but the politics and history are decidedly darker than the black and white conceptions of Williams’ contemporaries.  Yes, roughly speaking, it’s a quest story starring a boy who would be king, but it’s one in which neither kingdom nor quest turn out to be quite what was promised.  Erkynland, the supposed apple of Osten Ard, turns out to be more than a little rotten, built on a legacy of greed and its own in-world version of white privilege and racism, and the quest itself–for the eponymous trio of magic swords, believed by the heroes to be the key to defeating the trilogy’s big bad, the evil Storm King–turns out to be the greatest ruse of all time.  The Storm King’s rage, if not his methods, becomes increasingly understandable as the true history of the land becomes clear.

Williams’ facility, too, with taking the tropes of traditional fantasy and twisting them to his own ends foreshadows the postmodern era of fantasy we seem to be going through now.  Seeing as how Tad Williams was also responsible, with this selfsame work, for helping establish many of these tropes, it’s rather astounding that he was this far ahead of his time.  In an introduction to a new edition of the book in 2004, Williams commented on his intentions when he set out to write it:

I had wanted to write these books, this story, in part because I was so irked by all the pseudo-Tolkienalia floating around (and guess what–it’s still going on to this day!)  So why would I want to do the same thing as everyone else?

For all its ingenuity, the characters shine through warm and pure and real; there’s a simple beauty to them, even in their flaws.  The fact that the novels preserve a familiar archetypal framework makes them all the more powerful when the story strays outside of it, and allows it to serve as an excellent bridge between Tolkien and his copycats and the legion of innovators writing today.  But the reason it’s important to me is because at its core, it’s a morality play, a fairy story in the truest, most laudable sense; a celebration of choosing the right even when your choices are black and gray.  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn taught me that the question of whether or not the world is a benevolent one is less important than choosing to have faith in the idea that it ought to be.  That friendship, love, and hope can prevail over conflict, hate, and despair if we believe they can.  That life is a journey, and it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important.  It’s a story that is confident enough in its own merits to have a happy ending, a rarity these days.  Call me trite, but I think these are the things that call to us most clearly and weather the test of time the easiest.


It comes as no surprise to me that experts now say that the Harry Potter books might be teaching kids empathy: I learned about loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, and courage from Tad Williams as assuredly as millions of millennials learned it from J.K. Rowling.  The Dragonbone ChairThe Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower form a tale for the ages, a story that will always welcome you home, no matter how long you’ve been abroad.  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is like a favorite chair, cushioned with eiderdown: ever comfortable, but apt to poke you in sensitive places with the sharp quills of wisdom and adventure before you drift off.

Coming to the very end of the tale, we hear the author’s voice, just audible beneath Simon’s, inviting us to come again:

“Simon gently took his arm. “Now come, please. Come and join us. Up the corridor you have a room full of friends, Eolair—some of them you don’t even know yet!”
He led the count toward the dining hall. Firelight and the sound of laughing voices reached out to welcome them.”

Alternate Historical Accuracy

Writing a post over on Evil Toad Press about historical accuracy in genre fiction got me thinking: when it comes to historical accuracy in my own writing, I tend to research what’s accurate in any relevant, given time or society for the sole purpose of deviating from it.  I find this practice somewhat curious.  Why make things harder?  Why pull apart the guts of something if you don’t have to?  I suppose the answer is, because it turns me on.

By way of example, I’ve got an epic fantasy series on the back burner.  I’ve written about 70,000 words of the first book.  In planning out the world and its people, I did a lot of thinking about the nature of technology, how it emerges, how it evolves, and how it affects society.  The world of Children of the Taking is approximately equivalent in terms of general technology level to the Renaissance in general and the 15th Century in particular, with one major exception: this world has not, as of yet, discovered gunpowder.  Unlike so many other fantasy authors, however, who eschew firearms for their perceived inapplicability to the common reader’s notion of what constitutes a “medieval” or “high fantasy” setting, the people of my world don’t lack gunpowder because it’s stylistically inconvenient.  They lack gunpowder because the components of gunpowder simply don’t exist on their world.  What does exist is an element of equivalent or greater power that they are only beginning to discover how to use as a weapon when the series opens, a weapon that will change their world for better or worse.

The consequences of that are potentially enormous, and thinking through the logic of it has been difficult.  It involves a lot of storytelling and worldbuilding–why haven’t they discovered it yet?  Who made the discovery, and how?  How is it used, how is it monetized, and how does its introduction affect the warfare and economies of the nations of the world?  Some of my answers to these questions are shortcuts, I’ll admit: they haven’t discovered it because the age they characters live in is essentially postapocalyptic.  Their ancestors knew of it, though their use of it was different; only now, after a long dark age of intellectual stagnation, have a few luminaries started tinkering again.

So maybe it’s more accurate to say I’m interested in the bones of history, the dynamics of it, more than the actual account of history itself.  As fascinating as the real world history of firearms in combat is to research, for some reason it’s more fun for me to take the concept and play with it in my own sandbox.  Which is just another way of saying: making everything a lot harder for myself than it has to be.  Which is kind of the story of my life.  But that’s another story.