Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Will to Win

Some books begin with a good idea, but have flaws in the execution. Some, like Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, start with a premise that’s not too workable, but are still well-written.

Some fail on both counts, though. There’s no pleasure for the reviewer when this happens, but the purpose of reviews is not only to let the readers know whether the book is worth their time, it’s to highlight things which the writer could improve when working on the next book.

The book in question is The Will to Win, by Patrick Davy. In the summary, I read that the protagonist, Bonita Stickles, is a college senior who wants to get married and have children. But since she’s a pastor’s daughter, she’s caught between her religious upbringing and her attraction towards a man who may not be suitable for her.

This could have been the basis for a compelling story about a woman who tries to balance her desires and her beliefs. In the second sentence, though, Bonita thinks that she will be twenty-two next year. This means,

“I might not have enough time to start my career, get married and have a baby.”

This is a consistent theme. Bonita is always afraid that she will run out of time to have a baby, which would be understandable if she were near menopause. Since she’s twenty-one at the start, though, it just seems strange. Although I appreciate the writer wanting to portray motherhood as a positive goal for women, Bonita’s fixation on this was so single-mindedly desperate that it was impossible to identify with.

Her method of achieving these goals is to wear a low-cut dress and invite a male classmate to church. When he says yes, this is a sign that God has sent her the right man. The writer may have been trying to warn young women about mixed signals, but the flat, telling-not-showing style doesn’t provide any realism or conflict.

The classmate, Nick, goes out with Bonita until they find themselves in his apartment during a storm. It wasn’t clear whether they had sex because there was a literal jump cut to “forty-five minutes later”. Still, Bonita is pregnant in the next chapter. At this point I wondered about this book’s genre, since it’s not women’s fiction. It may have been meant to be inspirational, but I found the church service more rowdy than spiritual.

“Hallelujah!” Bonita shouted… Bonita screamed another hallelujah.

“Thank you Lord,” Mother Stickles shouted and Vie started dancing in the aisle and speaking in tongues.

The story established Bonita’s father as “the pacemaker-wearing father”, so I expected him to have a heart attack at any time. After that happens, Nick breaks up with her and the next chapter begins ten years later. The experience has slowed down Bonita’s husband-hunt, but she meets an army recruiter and notices he has a “chiseled chest”. Then, just as she did with Nick, she makes sure that he goes to church. This is a sign that her long search is over.

I think the second half of the book was meant to show that Bonita has held on her dream(s), but she hasn’t grown up or become any more dimensional a character. Anyway, the man proposes to her, but he’s then deployed to Iraq, where he’s seriously injured and left paralyzed. Six days later, after hearing that he can’t work on making a baby any time soon, Bonita tells his doctor that they’ll try artificial insemination instead.

At this point, her quest went from strange and obsessive to offensive.

The book is not technically competent either. The scientific details are inaccurate; I worked for a medical laboratory network, and fertility specimens can’t be collected the day before the tests, nor are HCG levels determined from a urine specimen. There are numerous grammatical and spelling errors, e.g. “the pancake and beacon scents” (page 16), and peculiar descriptions. For instance, when Bonita tells her new man that she has a son, “She glimpsed him fluttering his eyes and looking shock” (page 53).

A disclaimer makes it clear that the publisher, PublishAmerica, allowed this book to be printed without editorial support, and it shows. Most if not all of the technical errors could have been caught by a copyeditor, and an editor might have improved the plot and characterization. At it stands, though, this book has far too many problems for its 132 pages and price tag of $24.95. I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Immortality in fiction is fascinating, because it’s a way to vicariously cheat death. When I started to think of all the different ways in which a character can be immortal, the list was a long one, but the directions in which such a story could proceed were almost as numerous.

So what forms does immortality take?

Negation of aging/damage/injury

Sometimes it can be caused by the protagonist being immune to injury or disease, or simply recovering from this kind of thing very quickly. A short story that had originally been printed in Asimov’s featured a heroine whose body quickly repaired any damage it took – basically, she was a regenerator.

Since she was tired of living, she kept putting herself into situations where she would be killed, but her physical capabilities kept rising to the occasion. I’ve forgotten the title of the story and the author’s name, but it was an excellent read – especially the end, where the heroine’s gift is finally defeated (or is it? Da da dum!).

The character’s protection from aging or sickness could also be a feature of their race – Tolkien’s elves, for instance, or vampires. Though a race where few if any individuals die naturally might well end up outcompeting any rivals and threatening its own resources or food supply.

Or such protection could be a gift only a few individuals have. The characters in Erin Hunter's YA series Warriors are cats, but only the leaders have nine lives - literally.

Another way to deal with injury or the effects of age is to pass these on to some receptacle (a la The Picture of Dorian Gray) or scapegoat. Provided this was always available to a character, they could technically stave off death for a long time.

Transfer of mind/personality

This can be a lot of fun, because there are so many ways such a transfer could take place. It can also provide a few surprises for other characters, if they don’t realize or recognize that such a transition has taken place.

In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Doro can “jump” into another person’s body, taking it over entirely; the host stops existing at that point, and Doro lives on in their body. He also does this involuntarily if he’s injured, instantly possessing the nearest human body, which means he can’t be killed or even attacked. It’s one way he keeps his (human) subjects under his control.

This might be seen as a negative – basically, a mental parasitism that ignores the needs or wishes of the host. Or it might be a positive, if that’s the only way to keep alive a brilliant scientist or a great humanitarian (I like the irony there).

On the other hand, a transfer could be made to something non-sentient or even non-living which has been developed specifically for that purpose. When I first read the Wild Cards series and made up a few new Aces for fun, one of them was Rider, who created mindless clones of herself through a mitosis-like process where these budded off. Said clones were then stashed in various long-term-care facilities over the world, and whenever Rider was killed, her consciousness would transfer itself into one of them.

In James Herbert’s Fluke, the main character slowly comes to realize that he was once a man who was murdered and whose mind is now in a dog’s body. And in John Saul’s Shadows, a child’s mind uploads itself into a computer at the end of the novel.

The character’s personality usually stays the same in such situations, but one thing I enjoy about Doctor Who is how the Doctor’s personality doesn’t get shuffled from one regeneration to another. Instead, he changes significantly each time. This probably won’t be feasible in a single story or novel, but it was one of the ways the TV series stayed fresh.

There are probably many more ways in which characters avoid going into that good night – and a near-infinite number of stories that can be told as a result.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Father's Day review

It seemed apropos to write up a review for She Still Calls Me Daddy, by Robert Wolgemuth, which I requested from Thomas Nelson as part of the Book Review Bloggers program. I didn’t expect this book would be very relevant to the family structure to which I’m now accustomed (basically, neither parent in the picture), but I thought I would give it a try.

She Still Calls Me Daddy is about how fathers can develop a new but meaningful relationship with their married daughters – basically, how things change after your little girl’s wedding. The author discusses topics such as how best to relate to one’s son-in-law, where a daughter’s priorities and loyalties should lie after marriage and what parents can do for their daughters (e.g. praying for her – good; buying furniture for her new house – not so good).

In other words, this book is 200 pages of (mostly) common sense and Biblical examples. It might be helpful if people are genuinely unaware that it’s not a good idea to go to one’s parents with marital problems, or if fathers believe that their adult children should share their views on drinking.

On the whole, though, the relationships it describes are so conservative that I can’t see this book working for anyone who is not a devout Christian. For instance, in the author’s family, children are encouraged to pray for their future spouses, and I couldn’t really relate to this. Also, a woman takes her husband’s last name after they marry, and since this amounts to discarding her daddy’s, it’s described as “throwing away her identity”.

And while it’s pleasant to read of families being affectionate with each other, the author’s relationship with his children seemed a little… enmeshed. For instance, he mentions that he and his daughters call or text each other every day, though one of his son-in-laws waited until after the wedding to tell his wife that he wasn’t comfortable with her kissing her father on the lips. Maybe it’s just that I grew up in a more reserved Asian family, though.

In conclusion, this book was generally inoffensive and sometimes sensible, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless I was certain that their family was similar to the author’s. It makes the Little House on the Prairie series look revolutionary in comparison.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What’s the worst thing you’ve written?

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I wrote a short scene where the hero of my story met the heroine for the first time and fell in love at first sight.

That sight, however, was like a glimpse into a kaleidoscope while on an acid trip. He looked into her eyes and saw fireworks, rainbows, butterflies, dolphins and lionesses, in that order. Each vision melted into the next and all of it was lovingly described with special attention to the colors and shapes. Looking back on it, I’m surprised he didn’t see astronomical phenomena and Jimmy Hoffa in there as well. I wish I’d saved my notebooks from that time, because they’d crack me up.

I can’t even think of any genre or type of story in which such a scene would have fitted, not even a parody, because it was so deadly serious and presented as part of the attraction he had for her. There was no salvaging that scene, in other words.

What’s the worst thing you’ve written?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Five websites for writers

1. A Seminar on Writing Prose
James Alan Gardner

Comprehensive; includes advice that both beginners and experienced writers would find useful. Lots of examples, many of them to do with speculative fiction. An excellent resource of tips, tactics and observations for writers.

2. Glossary of Linguistic Terms
Eugene E. Loos, general editor

You’ll probably never need to know 90% of these terms, but if you do, there’ll always be a resource where you can look up what a cataphora, a zero morph and an intensifier are. I had no idea English was so complex.

3. World Wide Words
Michael Quinion

Informative and fun. The origins and meanings of terms and idioms, including those that are more common in other cultures. Almost required reading if you like Ye Olde English novels such as those of Agatha Christie.

4. The Ten Mistakes
Patricia Holt

These are mistakes that aren’t as evident to writers, and for good reason; we’re all used to our own styles, so we don’t notice when we repeat certain words or throw in empty adverbs. An eye-opening article.

5. Watt-Evans’s Laws of Fantasy
Lawrence Watt-Evans

Direct and practical advice for anyone writing fantasy (or considering it). I enjoyed his realistic take on the redshirts of fantasy – palace guards and ordinary soldiers – and there are many more useful tips on the rest of the website too.

Happy browsing!

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Truth

One thing I love about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is how it realifies fantasy. Ankh-Morpork isn’t frozen in time like a miniature town in a snow globe; it’s a dynamic place that survives and adapts to the introduction of a gun and a postal service. The Truth fleshes out this city even further, introduces some unforgettable characters to the Discworld and tells a highly entertaining story.

The Truth begins when the dwarfs develop the printing press. They’re not sure how to use it most profitably, though, until they literally bump into William de Worde, who makes a modest living by writing about events in the city for a few people living abroad. William realizes that the dwarfs can print multiple copies of his news, and the dwarfs realize that these can be sold throughout the city. And thus the first newspaper is born.

Thie blessed event leads to excitement for all and problems for most. Lord Vetinari puts William in charge of the newspaper (thereby making him journalist, editor and human resources director combined) and the Watch find that they have to be careful around someone who is busily writing down whatever they say. The Guild of Engravers starts a competing tabloid, a vampire photographer offers his services and a bevy of citizens introduce William to advertising, Letters to the Editor and root vegetables shaped like body parts. Meanwhile two “facilitators” called Mr Pin and Mr Tulip are hired to deal with Vetinari…

To say anything more of the plot would be to give away spoilers, so I’ll just mention the people in this book. William is my favorite character from the Discworld. I usually don’t enjoy protagonists who are writers (unless the author is Stephen King), because this can come off as too much of a self-insert. But it was different to read about one who’s a journalist devoted to telling the truth and spelling everything correctly as he does so. It’s also rare to find sympathetic and realistic atheists in fiction, but this book is an exception.

He was all in favor of the countryside, provided that it was on the other side of a window.

A hero after my own heart.

The antagonists, Mr Pin and Mr Tulip, are superbly written too. Mr Pin is calculating and vicious and richly deserves his fate, while Mr Tulip is crude but equally vicious - except towards antique works of art, on which he is an authority. I like the kind of brawny muscleman who has an unexpected refined streak, and in Mr Tulip’s case, that serves as a great contrast to his swearing and his habit of sniffing any chemicals he can find (baking soda, epsom salts, etc). There’s even a Pulp Fiction reference involving these two.

The Truth is my second favorite Discworld novel (the first being Feet of Clay). I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

When reset buttons work

I hate reset buttons.

I didn’t have any strong feelings about them until I watched Star Trek: Voyager, where they were a weekly occurrence. The ship would be half destroyed in a battle, but by the next week it would be as though the damage never happened. Or someone would die/turn into a salamander/make some other major change, only to be restored/rehumanified/returned to wherever they’d been before the change. On the whole, this struck me as a cheap way to wring sentiment from the readers while not disturbing the status quo.

And some time after that I read the anti-reset button, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, which further cemented my belief that when characters suffer (or die), they shouldn’t be miraculously healed or resurrected in a hurry. In other words, no reset buttons.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to enjoy a book with a reset-button plot – especially to the point where it made me want to write something similar. And it made me want to analyze why that worked.

The book is question is a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel titled Fallen Heroes, by Dafydd ab Hugh. In it, two characters are involuntarily sent forward in time by a few days, and they find everyone else murdered. They have to get back to their own time and prevent the murders.

So, why did this work for me?

The story made me want the button to be pressed.

A lot of reset buttons change a bad situation. They don’t change a situation so unbearable that the reader will want any way out of it, any way at all.

In the Star Trek universe, of course, the writer didn’t have a choice – the main characters couldn’t have died (and certainly not en masse). But the cleverness of the story was to make the readers grieve for their deaths – flashbacks showed how they went down fighting – and want this to be undone.

If a character is mutilated by the villain, as in David Farland’s The Runelords, I don’t want them to be magically healed (so I stopped reading the series when that happened). If just one character dies nobly, the readers might resign themselves to the character staying dead. But all of them, down to the kids? That’s too much to take. Anything would be better, including the reset button.

The story made the characters committed to pressing it.

If the plot is focused on something other than the reset button, activating this plot device will feel like a cheat. Say the hero is trying to find the mystical jewel of Lumpit (so he can give it to a wizard to use against an invading army), and during his quest he loses an arm. Or two, or three. But when he finds it, the jewel magically restores him to full health. Readers will feel justified in hurling the book at the wall. Or in my case, placing it on the floor and jumping up and down on it.

Fallen Heroes, on the other hand, worked because it acknowledged the reset button from the start, rather than trying to slip it in as a happy coincidence or after-effect of some other event or object. The restoration of the status quo didn’t seem like something bestowed on the characters by an author who was too fond of them to let anything permanently bad happen to them. It was a goal the characters struggled towards and finally reached. And when they did, I was happy for them.

No matter how much I dislike some plot device, there’s always an exception – when the author is good enough to make it work.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

David vs. Goliath

Better a couple of hundred sweaty warriors than two masses of 50,000 men marching toward one another across a sea of special effects.

I was writing a battle scene recently, and it went something like this.

Subscene 1: Protagonist fights lots of enemies, wins against great odds.
Subscene 2: Flashback to explain how protagonist learned a certain skill, to flesh out his character and to provide a breather before the next bout of action.
Subscene 3: Protagonist fights lots of enemies, wins against great odds.
Chapter ends

While this wasn’t exactly bad, I felt vaguely dissatisfied, and after thinking about it for a while I realized what the problem was. Subscenes 1 and 3 are the same thing. Oh sure, my hero would have been fighting different types of enemies – goblins vs. orcs, for instance – but it would still have been the same thing. He would have, for the second time that chapter, been hacking his way through a mass of largely nameless enemies. And worse, using the same tactics.

Not very interesting for the reader. Not very interesting to write about either, if my niggling feeling of displeasure was any clue.

So I rewrote it, and in the revised version the protagonist faced down a single, hugely powerful enemy, mano a mano. David vs. Goliath, Achilles vs. Boagrius, Fingolfin vs. Morgoth, Prince Oberyn Martell vs. Ser Gregor the Mountain. Well, maybe not the last two, but you get my drift. That worked, because he had to use a different method to beat that single opponent, who was also much easier to visualize and personalize.

And of course, if this opponent is much, much stronger, that sets up an imbalance that will have most readers on the edges of their seats, because they’re really hoping the underdog will win – they’re just not sure how he’ll do so.

How to use this in the average battle scene, though? I didn’t want mine to come off like those B-movies where the various opponents of the hero considerately attack him one at a time. Fortunately, during subscene 1, his opponents realized that he outmatched them, and therefore they were better off staying back and allowing the Goliath of their side to take him on in subscene 3 (and they had plenty of reason to believe the Goliath could crush him like an eggshell).

This could be an option, if you’re hoping to isolate the protagonist with a single enemy before, during or after a battle. Or the protagonist could hack his way through those enemies to get to the bosses.

For instance, in the House of Blue Leaves scene in Kill Bill, the Bride takes on six swordsmen before facing off against the last remaining bodyguard, the meteor-hammer-wielding Gogo Yubari. Then dozens more swordsmen burst in and she takes them on more or less en masse before finally confronting their mistress, O-Ren. There’s variation, in other words, a rise and fall of the tides that come against our hero(ine).

In Troy, the form of the duel seems to be respected even in a battle, since the Greek and Trojan forces stop fighting to surround Patrocles and Hector as they duke it out. This didn’t come off as entirely realistic in the film, though, and it may not do so in a story either.

On the other hand, I once read about a spell suggested for just such a society; on activation, this spell takes the protagonist and one person of his choosing to some isolated place where they can duel. Since there are a limited number of copies of the spell (on scrolls which self-destruct after use), this tactic can’t be used indefinitely to pick off weaker members of the other army one by one.

There are probably other ways to isolate the protagonist’s counterpart and vary the flow of battle. I’m pretty happy with how my scene finally turned out, though. :)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fantasy RPGs and what I learned from them

A recent post on New Adventures in Fantasy Fiction made me think about fantasy role-playing games. They didn’t start my interest in fantasy – that’s due to The Lord of the Rings - but they made me realize just how far the boundaries of fantasy can be stretched. So this post is dedicated to three of my favorite such games or gamebooks (and to all the gamers out there!).

Fighting Fantasy

The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, were wildly popular in their day. Most of the books in this series are set in the cityports, forests, deserts and mountains of Allansia, but a few take place on futuristic or alien worlds. My favorite, House of Hell, is set right here on Earth, and the player starts the book driving to a job interview through a fierce storm. One car wreck later, the only building nearby is a large decrepit mansion.

What’s in the mansion is all the more horrifying compared to the normalcy at the start. Many of the other gamebooks have fascinating elements too, and because there’s no plot to get in the way, such elements always jump out at me and inspire me when I read the books to get ideas for my own work. Dinosaurs rub shoulders with druids, ant symbiotes lie in wait for compassionate travelers and secrets are hidden in mazes (and pretty much everywhere else). Some of the FF books have been reprinted, and I’d recommend them for anyone who wants an introduction to fantasy at its easiest to grasp.

Blood Sword

The Blood Sword books, by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, were written to accommodate multiple gamers, but for me their major appeal was their ability to translate real-world places and concepts, such as the Middle East and Christianity, into the fantasy world of Legend. I’d love to do something similar in my own work.

And the Blood Sword world has its own bestiary of fantastic creatures –skiapyrs, dirges, greedy and spiteful faltyns. If you’d like to check out the books, a PDF of the first one, The Battlepits of Krarth, is here.


I stumbled into the Land of Mists through the netbooks maintained on the Kargatane’s website. This is no longer being updated, but it gave me an unforgettable glimpse into a dark world, a place with few if any happy endings. It’s the perfect combination of fantasy and horror. Madness and misery, technology and terror, cabals and cannibalism, Ravenloft has it all. If you’re looking for the tried-and-true monsters like werewolves along with newer grotesques like Broken Ones and Caleb Wicks, you’ll find it here.

Ravenloft borrows shamelessly and well from both fictional and real-life sources to weave its fantastic patchwork of domains and creatures. I haven’t read any of the novels set in this grim, elegant world, but if I get the chance I won’t pass it up.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions

Thomas Nelson sent me this reference guide as part of the Book Review Bloggers Program. I’ve always been interested in religions – the variety of them in the world, their founders and claims and skeletons in the closet. So although I was probably, as they say, interrogating the text from a different perspective from the author’s, I found this an interesting read on the whole.

The front cover of Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions says it is “A comprehensive guide to the religions of the world”, and that’s quite accurate. This book covers all the religions I’ve heard of and dozens I haven’t – splinter groups, sects and cults of every kind, from Scientology to Buddhism to the Heaven’s Gate cult. The histories of such faiths, their core tenets and problems caused by their precepts are laid out in an easy-to-grasp format, with plenty of illustrations as well.

All this is presented from an evangelical Christian point of view, so there’s a short section in each chapter where each faith is stacked up against Christianity (and is found wanting to a greater or lesser extent). I think the author attempts to present other beliefs, or at least the people who follow such beliefs, in as reasonable a light as he can. So for instance, he makes it clear that Wiccans are not Satanists and that Satanists don’t sacrifice babies, though the introduction alone contained a line that would have discouraged me from buying this book.

No harm exists in seeing God’s common grace at work in the religions and peoples of the world. Thus, atheists can love their children.

Yes, it is within the realm of possibility that atheists might love their children (as opposed to abandoning said children near the gingerbread house in the forest). The other statement which gave me pause was a claim that Jack Chick had published “many fine tracts and comics that present the basis of the gospel”. That these tracts present heaven, hell, original sin and John 3:16 isn’t in doubt, but the fineness of them is more open to debate.

To summarize, this book would probably be a worthwhile addition to the libraries of Christians, but I’d advise non-Christians to balance the objective and the subjective in the guide before deciding whether or not to acquire a copy.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Five uses for spiders in fantasy

The first spider I encountered in fantasy was Shelob the Great, “last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world”. Ungoliant, of course, was even more horrifying, being able to threaten Morgoth to the point where he had to call for help from the Balrogs.

After that I discovered R. A. Salvatore’s Homeland, which describes Drizzt Do’Urden’s early life in the underground drow city of Menzoberranzan, where the Spider Queen Lloth is worshipped. Needless to say, that doesn’t portray spiders in too positive a light either. In Colin Wilson’s Spider World, humans live in tunnels and burrows, hunted by spiders with psychic abilities, and I’ll never forget the cover of my copy of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which shows a giant black widow rearing over the tiny protagonist (I recommend this as a great read).

So far I’ve only come across one book which portrays a spider as something at all positive, Ray Bradbury’s From the Dust Returned, but in a way that led to me becoming even more fascinated with spiders. They seem to be pretty misunderstood in fiction, considering that in reality, many species take care of their young, share food, cooperate in hunting and live in communal webs. I decided to come up with some uses for them rather than predators and (minor) antagonists, and here are five of those roles.

1. As thieves

I saw a picture of a spiderweb the other day and thought it would be even more attractive if tiny diamante drops were attached to the intersection of each strand. Maybe spiders in fantasy would do that to attract insects (or humans, depending on the sizes of the spiders) with the glitter and flash, meaning they would have to steal the stones from somewhere.

But with their ability to crawl down surfaces and spin webs that allow them to bridge gaps, they’d be good thieves. Perhaps large trapdoor spiders could keep their collections of such stolen objects at the bottoms of the pits they excavate.

2. As guardians

One thing I love to do with fantasy is to flip familiar concepts on their heads, so why shouldn’t giant predatory spiders be trained to defend humans? We do it with dogs, after all. Wolf spiders might patrol the perimeters of property, while web-spinners could extend sticky defensive nets over such buildings to deal with anyone who might drop in from above.

3. As pets

Timothy, the human child raised by the Family in Bradbury’s From the Dust Returned has a normally-sized spider as a pet. Such pets could be potentially useful, too – I’ve read of domesticated tarantulas which rid apartments of cockroaches, which I personally find much more scary and disgusting than spiders.

Or maybe they’re status symbols. Ordinary people keep ordinary spiders, but those who can afford them buy spiders with certain abilities such as camouflage (some spiders IRL have body types which mimic those of their prey, or have intriguing patterns such as that of the Hawaiian happy-face spider).

4. As livestock

Large enough spiders could produce trade goods. In Sharon Baker’s Quarreling, they met the dragon, silk is spun from the secretions of spiders, but spiders could also be raised for their poison or skins. Tarantulas have barbed hairs, so gloves made from the skins of such spiders could inflict abrasive or irritating wounds in defense. And that’s before they’re fitted with poison reservoirs…

5. As resurrectors

In Native American religions, the Spider Grandmother created the world. Bringing a human back to life would be much smaller a feat. I’m imagining the spider wrapping the corpse with silk, like a pupa, and perhaps certain other rites or rituals being carried out before the revived human breaks open the shroud and emerges. Though they might have suffered a sea-change, and not into something rich and strange…

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

National borders in fantasy

In medieval fantasies – both for the people writing them and those living in them – it’s probably not going to be as easy to define national borders as it is in modern times. But it’ll be a lot more fun.

Natural borders

Rivers and mountain ranges make natural borders, easy to distinguish and providing some physical separation between different lands. Other geographical features might prove problematic, though – for instance, if a forest lies between two lands, how much of it belongs to each land, and how are hunters or poachers from either land prevented from trespassing?

If a desert separates two countries, is the desert a no-man’s-land where anyone can venture – if they dare? Or is the desert divided, in case it’s later found to contain oil reserves or archeological treasures? In which case, how are the lines in the sand drawn?

Constructed borders

The solidity of this construction depends on the specific purpose of the border. In my land of Iternum, the border is marked simply by stakes driven into the ground, sharp-pointed but widely spaced. Any Iternan can cross that border, but once that happens, the Iternan become a hunted fugitive. So the intention behind the stakes is to mark the border, not to deter crossing in and of themselves.

On the other hand, the Great Wall of China was built as a defence against nomadic tribes, made in large part from stone and brick and constructed with watchtowers and signal forts. A similar but even stronger wall is the one in the north of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, which marks the end of the civilized land and keeps out wildlings.

That Wall is built from ice, and any fantasy world with powerful enough magic could construct walls from something similar – for instance, obsidian, shards of unbreakable glass, the bones and tusks and claws of any creatures which have attacked it in the past.

Larger borders could be constructed as well. In Holly Lisle’s world of Matrin, magic has caused circular rings of mountains to spring up randomly over the world, some of these enclosing seas and others more or less open.

Magical borders

One thing I love about the Ravenloft RPG is the magical border of each domain, each different and each controlled by the lord of the domain. When the lord wishes to close the borders, they spring up or manifest themselves as walls of swirling sand, barriers of thorns and so on.

There’s a lot of potential here. For instance, lands could have magical borders permanently in place, like a much larger version of those pet restriction methods that produce an electric shock if your dog strays past a certain point.

Or the borders could be assigned an arbitrary access method. In Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena”, the barrier between human and “Roller” can be crossed by any creature which is unconscious or dead. Perhaps other such borders can be crossed only by people who are blind or maimed, giving a medieval society a good reason to shelter and feed – or even produce – such people.

I'd also love to see magical borders which functioned like Moebius strips or M. C. Escher drawings, sending anyone foolish enough to cross them in circles which led nowhere.