Tag Archives: fantasy

The Nine Elements of Worldbuilding

This awesome fictional map of "Clichea," created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

This awesome fictional map of “Clichea,” created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.

The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.

When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):

  • Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
    • Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
  • Climate—what’s the weather like?
    • Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
  • Politics—how does your society run?
    • A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
  • Economics—what do people do for a living?
    • Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
  • Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
    • There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
  • Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
    • It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
  • Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
    • Are they “burning the witches”?
  • Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
    • This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
  • History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
    • A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.

I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.

Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!

Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?


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Review: The Hobbit

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Hobbit when I was in third grade (it took me the entire school year to get through The Lord of the Rings), but I haven’t reread it since. It was good to look at it fresh, with almost-new perspective (I admit, my view was slightly tainted by the Peter Jackson movies).
What I found was delightful storytelling, a really long hike, memorable characters…and sloppy or abbreviated action and a lot of out-of-nowhere problems and solutions. The deus ex machina really went wild for this book!

In case you’ve been living in a hole (hobbit or otherwise), The Hobbit is the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features hobbit Bilbo Baggins, a comfortable chap who gets roped into a burglary quest for dwarven treasure guarded by the fierce dragon Smaug. He and his 13 dwarven companions (and occasional wizard friend Gandalf) undergo many trials just to get to the Lonely Mountain, and many more trying to get the gold and secure their victory. It’s particularly important in that it describes how the One Ring comes to Bilbo Baggins’ ownership, setting his nephew Frodo Baggins on his path in the subsequent books.

I know that pointing out some weaknesses in the story seems like blasphemy for a lot of people in the fantasy realm, or even loosely on the fantasy realm, but I’m just not sure The Hobbit held up compared to my idea of what The Hobbit was. I hadn’t remembered most of the end of the book, and I think there’s a good reason: the Battle of the Five Armies is just a handful of pages with little description, there are super-magical creatures coming out of nowhere to save the heroes, and then an overly detailed recap of a walk back that doesn’t really amount to anything. I thought I remembered a story with a lot more Smaug dragon awesomeness, but was disappointed to see that much of the action with Smaug is fairly minimal: it’s a lot of the dwarves or Bilbo guessing at what the dragon is doing while they cower in a dark tunnel.

In short, I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to diverge from the source: it would have made a terrible movie (here are the dwarves, hiding in a cave. Meanwhile at Laketown, some guy you’ve never seen before is trying to be brave. Also, did you know there are talking crows?!)

It often seems like Tolkien didn’t know what he wanted to do with the story, or had written himself into a corner, so he just tossed in some other element and hoped it worked out. And it does, sort of, but when it happens again and again and again… it seems less convincing. Comparing the troll scene in the beginning of the book with the Battle of the Five Armies at the end–which ought to be much more epic and thus detailed–they are about the same descriptively. While the foundation is there, much of the major things are left entirely to the reader. (It’s odd, actually, what is described in detail and what is brushed over. War buffs need to look elsewhere for their reenactments, but if you want to know the full contents of a hobbit’s larder, you’re in the right place.) And, of course, if you’re in a tight spot, the Eagles will probably be along shortly.

Another flaw the movies tried to amend is the complete and utter lack of female characters. I think the only time women were even mentioned were in crowd scenes, mostly involving the desolation of Laketown. Oh good, they’re cowering in boats…. do women have nothing at all to contribute? I remember this bothered me even as a kid. Obviously The Hobbit was written in a different era, but it does make it a smidgeon harder to swallow as a modern reader.

I still very much enjoy this story. I miss this kind of narration style, where the author frequently interjects, speaking directly to the reader about things that have happened or will. It’s charming. Let’s bring that back. It makes it seem most like a story that needs to be read aloud over many dark nights next to a fire. Perhaps in the flickering flames, the listeners can better imagine the gold reflecting off a dragon’s hoard, or relate to the anxiety caused by a long trip far from home. Maybe those listeners will be able to feel more fond of this fantasy classic, unclouded with concerns about the structural issues.

Still, I don’t regret heading there and back again.

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Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This classic fantasy novel, written in 1967 by one of the world’s top sci-fi/fantasy authors… just didn’t grab me. It’s well-composed, with a nicely fleshed-out world and an interesting power structure for the wizards and some cultural details, but the story of the Sparrowhawk’s beginnings left me wondering, “so why should I care?”
I think I’m ruined for this book by the Harry Potter era. It’s just hard to get attached to a boy wizard in this style, after I’ve gotten accustomed to the very feelings, friendships, and trials of a different, more relatable wizard. The whole “true name” thing may have been a cool storytelling concept, but it just serves as one more layer between the reader and the character–what’s his name again? (The main character has no less than three different names throughout the book!). It’s also told in a rather detached third-person; we only vaguely get a sense of Sparrowhawk/Ged’s feelings at any given time, and we are invited not to feel with him but to watch as he fumbles around. Throw in the jumpy time setting (following not a calendar but whenever the action seems likely to hit) and you’ve got a story I just never felt comfortable in.
I finished the book for the lessons of the craft I could learn, not from any deep affinity for it. In fact, I found the author’s afterward far, far more compelling and approachable than the rest of the story–I’d have rated THAT 5-stars!
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s just that this book had its heyday in a different time, in a very different genre fiction landscape. It’s certainly not LeGuin’s fault; she’s a beautiful, if impassive, author who has my utmost respect. But I’m not sure I’ll bother picking up the rest of the series.

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Review: Ship of Destiny

Ship of Destiny (Liveship Traders, #3)Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been waiting to read this book for something like 15 years. Robin Hobb‘s Liveship Traders series was the first to make me desperate for the next book…but it wasn’t written yet. But I also didn’t have much patience, so when I couldn’t get my hands on the book for a month, I gave up, moved on to other things, and forgot about it.

Until I saw Ship of Destiny in a used bookstore! Despite the long wait, Ship of Destiny did not disappoint!
Ship of Destiny is an epic fantasy that features stunning dragons, angsty/crazy talking ships, a horrible pirate, a fierce and bold woman, and desperate policitians. It’s fantastic. Robin Hobb’s knowledge of wooden galleys is incredible and makes it feel like you’re really there, feeling the sway of the swell and lash of the wind. Though the story is incredibly complex–following many paths simultaneously–it is easy to follow and all comes together beautifully.

It is one of those books that you’re both eager finish and sad to put down. It’s an epic conclusion to a great series, and I’m glad to finally have closure on it.

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Fisherman Jack

My grandfather recently passed away, quite suddenly and unexpectedly. I’ve had trouble expressing my feelings about it. But I did write this, in honor of him.


Fisherman Jack

There once was a man who liked to fish. He’d sit on the pier with a rod and a reel and coax silvery fish up out of the water. He’d stand hip-deep in frothy streams and fool whiskered, muddy fish with clever lures and intricate flicks of the wrist. By boat, he explored dark wallows and mysterious shadowed rivers. Jack was a man who liked to fish.

He took his sons out with him to the water and taught them the ways, the lines and the tricks. With his first son he traveled in a small dingy, the water rocking them along the river’s rocky bottom, so close beneath them. Jack taught his eldest son to sit quietly, to watch for the dark shadows. They baited hooks with writhing worms pulled from rich-smelling dirt and brought in crappie, bass, and brown trout. As they carried home their haul, Jack smiled and said, “That sure was a good day’s fishing, but I think there may be better.”

Later Jack took his second son out. Together they waded deep into chilly mountain waters. They arched their lines out overhead, landing lures lightly on the water’s shining surface. Jack showed his second son how to move the line, skipping like a fly. After a long day’s contest, they brought home their trout, walleye, and salmon, proud as could be. With a smile, Jack said, “That was a good day’s fishing, but I’ve heard there is better yet.”

With his third son, Jack took out the trawler loaded with gizmos, all the latest. He let the lad steer and showed him how the equipment found the fish in their shadowed depths. Together they drew the fish out of the murky dark and into the clear light of their shining, wonderful boat. Laden with fish, Jack smiled and said, “That was a good day’s catch, but I hear there’s one better. I’ll fish it, one day.”

The years wore on, and still Jack fished. He explored raging rivers and clear still waters; he plucked giants from backwood streams and sunk his line in ocean swells. He tried the great Mississippi and hiked through Yosemite. He stood under the big skies in Montana and on the muddy banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Everywhere he fished, he smiled and said, “There’s better yet to come.”

Jack’s visits to the water slowed as time ticked by. He taught his grandchildren how to bait his hooks and cast the reel; he was as pleased to scoop a minnow as a meal. He’d smile and say, “There’s yet one more I’ve yet to fish. The time is coming soon that I’ll try it.”

He hugged his dear wife and said goodbye to his sons as he packed his rod and reel. With a smile, Jack said, “I’m goin’ fishing, oh Lord. I know the way now.” He leaned back and let fly his hook, up up into that great big blue above. The hook caught, and Jack wound the reel. He fought as best he could, making it a fair challenge, pulling down against the upward tug, but knew this was his big catch. Up he went, caught by the Fisher of men, reeled just like those fish he’d caught through the years.

But Jack was not troubled. Elated, he grinned as he went up, pulled gently along. “Hallelujah,” he said, “I’m the best catch of all!”


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Review: Dragonsong

Dragonsong (Harper Hall, #1)Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dragonsong is a quick light read that brings dragons big and small to life. This book would make a great transition for the How to Train Your Dragon lovers out there.

Despite this book having “Volume One” predominantly on the cover, I have no idea if this is the first book in the series or not: it reads like the first book in a variant series off an original, but I had the hardest time figuring out where to start. Since this one claimed to be a volume one, I jumped in here. But I may have guessed wrong.

Interestingly, it claims to be “science fiction,” but aside from the foreward, which tells the reader this takes place in an alternate Earth and mentions some sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, Dragonsong entirely reads like a YA fantasy novel. (In fact, the foreward mostly makes it seem like someone dared author Anne McCaffrey that should couldn’t sell fantasy as sci-fi. I guess she managed it…sorta?)

And that’s not at all a bad thing–particularly because it was written before “young adult” was even a genre.

The story focuses on the awkward and gangly Menolly, a girl from the Sea-Hold, a grim and rough sort of place. She is disparaged for having a talent in music and her parents–the leaders of her Hold–forbid it, for fear of disgracing the hold. After she badly cuts her hand, it seems music is out of the question anyway. In frustration and a fit of teenaged pique, Menolly leaves her home and stumbles into a nest of the secretive and mysterious fire lizards–pocket dragons, essentially. With her clever tunes and kind heart, Menolly wins the trust and adoration of the fire lizards, particularly nine, who follow her and are bonded to her. When she ultimately has to return to civilization out of necessity, she finds people respect and admire her for her skill with the fire lizards, and her music is appreciated rather than castigated.

This is the kind of story that I wish I’d written. I enjoy the storyline very much, but compared to modern similar stories, it’s barely sketched out, there’s not any closure or explanation (why did her father think it was wrong for girls to sing, but later other people think it’s more than ok?), and it just sort of mentions pivotal moments. It feels incomplete or hurried. I wish we could see a much longer version of this, with a great deal of backstory, richness, and detail. I want to know more about the dragons! I want to know why it’s so peculiar that she could impress nine! I want to know why some places are so closed-off but others are super-casual.

I may be in luck: McCaffrey has written a lot about the dragons of Pern, so maybe there is more for me to find out. As an introduction, this book was pleasant, easy, and… relatively insubstantial, more of an appetizer than a meal.

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Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress: Nine TalesStone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood’s collection of nine short stories retains her incredible ability with the written language. The writing cannot be faulted, but the collection is awash in quiet tragedy. Furthermore, when the first several stories are not stand-alone but overlapping narratives, but all the following are utterly separate the book feels… well, like half a book pasted together with a bunch of random stories.

I hesitate to say I didn’t like Stone Mattress–with such memorable and haunting prose, how couldn’t I?–but this maybe wasn’t the right time for me to read a book so sad.

Whether intentional or not, all the stories in this collection are threaded through with the slow tragedies and indignities of old age. And there are many: lost memories, lost sex drives, lost eyesight, lost independence, lost purpose, lost spouses… The losses weigh heavily.

Even the stories supposedly not at all about old age, such as “Lucus Naturae,” could be read as being about old age and its unstoppable reach, as insidious as fear of the different and the strange. And just as final in the end.

As I said, it’s not a bad time for me to read about old people being attacked by the young, their homes burned to make room for the younger, bitter generation. It’s not a good time to read about an old writer who has become unhinged from reality, choosing instead of let herself be dissolved into the fantasy land she spent her life creating. But then, is there ever a good time?

My grandfather passed away suddenly recently, and I finally got to visit my other grandfather, who is suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and could not remember who I am or why I was there. Between these two experiences, Stone Mattress is a very raw and close collection for me. It’s too much like the real tragedies I noticed in both situations.

There aren’t many books that tackle the hoary edges of time. We often assume, as a culture, that old age is the end of the line, that all stories must be told past-tense. For that reason, that bravery, Stone Mattress is a welcome treatise…even if I’m not ready to think on its meanings and significance. When you’re in a suitably contemplative mood, muster your strength and try this collection.

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