Myth and Magic

My map is giving me headaches, so once again I’m subbing in something else – magic.

Fantasy stories can be successes without any magic involved – stories are about people after all, not the things they can do (or at least, they should be!). Out of the hundreds if not thousands of books I’ve read though, I truly can’t remember reading any fantasy novel in which there wasn’t at least a bit of magic, even if it was only in the background, or only used by a minor character. You know why?

Magic is a way of making things fun!

Sure, you can make a great story about the hero marshalling his troops for a great battle against evil, but how much more scary do those evil hordes of beastmen become when a handful of apocalyptically powerful villains can use magical gateways to march them straight into your castle? (Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time series)

When almost everyone in the world is just a normal person and the Assembly of Magicians have the ability and, frequently, the inclination to incinerate people at the first sign of disobedience, don’t they become a dark, terrifying force which must be confronted in an unorthodox way? (Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts, The Empire Trilogy)

I had briefly considered not including magic in my story – there was no necessity for it in the plot line – but quickly came to the conclusion that I wanted it there. I also wanted some magical creatures, though not the Tolkein-esque elves, dwarves, orcs and goblins which have become ubiquitous in fantasy. Dragons, much as I love the idea of them, are also out for this world. Instead, I’m edging more towards the lesser known Fae beings.  Those Folk not quite of this world who hold powers of illusion, bewitchment and shape-changing. The Bargeist who appears as an old man but takes the shape of a bear if slighted or attacked. The Bogie feeding on fear by taking on the appearance of the viewer’s worst nightmare (though the name has to change!).  The main culture draws heavily on India as an influence, so I’ll be weaving these in with the beings of Hindu epics: the flesh-eating Rakshasa, forest-dwelling Vanara, the nymph-like Apsara and so on.

These all have magic of their own, abilities and limitations, but it’s not in a form accessible to humans. For that, we have the elementals.

The world of Amari overlaps another reality, a realm of spiritual energy with intelligent entities of its own. Some of the Fae creatures mentioned before will be in this category. When a violent natural event occurs, such as a storm, fire, earthquake, landslide, blizzard, volcanic eruption etc., this energy leaks through and elementals are formed.  These don’t have much will, intelligence or life force of their own, and most will fade and die after a period of minutes to hours. Humans on the other hand can live for many decades, so have some to spare. If a human is present and allows the elemental to share a portion of their life force and reside in them, the two can form a relationship with benefits and drawbacks.  On the elemental side, it gets to live for longer and experience life vicariously through its human, but no longer really controls its actions, being virtually subsumed into the personality on the host. The human gains the ability to use the powers of the elemental hosted to a certain degree, but the extra drain on their life force means that their health and strength suffers and they usually have a shorter lifespan. The greater the event which formed the elemental, the more force the wielder can exert, but equally the greater toll on their health and the more energy they must expend to use their power.  Humans may also host more than one elemental if they are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to do so, and though this may bring much more power, most humans will be unable to sustain more than three or four before becoming too weak for normal activities.

Naturally, big flashy battles can result!

I haven’t worked out the mechanics of hosting yet. I want it to be possible for anyone to host an elemental rather than have it restricted to rare, special individuals, instead leaving it to the rarity of a human being both present to take one on and knowing how to do so. Practically, certain types of mind may find it easier to accept this relationship

Of course, in a world of wars and diseases, power for years is not necessarily an unattractive deal.  A farmer, for instance, might find that an elemental saps his strength too much to make a living, but a soldier may well reason that without the power he may not see the traded years anyway. Someone who has the power to call up winds or can control local water currents will be in high demand by ship captains, and those with power to manipulate earth could be very valuable in construction jobs, able to level land and form trenches much faster than teams of normal men.

As with any power, people will be drawn to it for good and bad reasons, but the rarity of it should prevent it from dominating the world in too many ways. A powerful elemental user may be in high demand by armies, but will be as susceptible to anyone else to a knife in the night. Also, culture will certainly play a part.  Some cultures will see these bonds as natural and encourage them, while others may view elementals as demons trying to latch onto a human soul and steal it.  Obviously in these lands there won’t be many people choosing to host elementals, or at least not openly using magic. Bearing in mind the cost, not all of those who get the opportunity to use elemental magic will take it.

But for the people who do…

They get to be awesome.


Cultural Bias

Well, I haven’t got around to redrawing my map, so more cultural information it is – this time, I’ll be looking at a culture which won’t be directly visited by the protagonists during my story, but will have a strong influence.

Over the last year I have watched a number of television programmes exploring a little more about other hominids, such as the Neanderthals.  I learnt a number of things I never knew about them before, which I’ll go into in a minute.  Especially interesting was the information that there were apparently surviving family groups as recently as 30,000 years ago.  Looking a little closer at the reasons for their extinction, it seems that the main reason they died out may well have been coincidence – homo sapiens’ expansion reached Europe at roughly the same time as forests started giving way to grassland, meaning our persistence/projectile focussed hunting style out competed their ambush hunting style.  It strikes me that, had the forests not receded or if species overlap had been postponed until the era of agriculture, there could well have been two species of hominids around today – or perhaps that should be sub-species, as evidence of interbreeding seems to be pointing towards them being not entirely separate from homo sapiens.  I thought they would be a pretty cool addition to my fantasy universe.

Anyway, let’s see what they were like.

Far from being stupid, as the caveman stereotype goes, Neanderthals actually had a brain case fractionally larger on average than our own.  According to one of the experts used by the BBC, one of the areas which was larger was the occipital lobe, an area involved in the processing of vision.  Of course, this could mean a number of things.  They might have had better resolution (making out smaller things at a longer distance), better night vision, better colour distinguishment, increased number of frames per second – I doubt we’ll ever know.  All interesting possibilities for a fantasy writer though.  They had modern-looking hyoid bones and the same version of FOXP2, a gene closely linked to language, as modern humans, which strongly suggests they had language.  How complex this was is debatable – our necks are held more vertical than theirs, which I understand allows more effective production of glottal stops, the sound indicated by the hyphen in ‘uh-oh’ as well as in many other words.    Additionally, the tools they produced were just as effective as those by early man.  The implication is that they were just as intelligent as modern humans, merely different.

The real differences lie in the body make-up.  Though populations varied as in modern humans, it appears that Neanderthals were of roughly similar height to early man at about 5’5″-5’7″ – on average they were an inch or so shorter, but with a greater sexual dimorphism, so males were perhaps a bit taller while females were shorter.  Today, human population averages range between 5’2″-6’1″ for men and 4’10”-5’7″ for women.  (Also interesting is that Homo heidelbergensis, a common ancestor, stood around 6′ tall on average – equal to some of the tallest populations in the world today – with some populations even standing ~7′ tall!  Talk about intimidating!)  Neanderthal skeletons reveal what was both their biggest advantage and disadvantage over us: they were stacked.  Big barrel chests, huge muscle insertion points on dense bones, the longer ones bowed by the forces they had to support.  I’m not saying these guys were chimpanzee strong, but the suggestion is that they had up to twice as much muscle mass of normal humans, or about 30% extra weight – perhaps the equivalent of human wrestlers or body builders.  Their bones show healed injuries that match those see in rodeo professionals, suggesting they tackled large, angry animals on a regular basis.  There also may be some evidence that their power was of a more explosive type as opposed to sustained effort

Of course, all this muscle mass was also their biggest disadvantage – they needed twice as much food to support all this extra tissue.  They lived in smaller groups, more widely dispersed, and would probably have been hit harder by the lean years.

So, to the culture.

With the onset of agriculture, they would have been able to form larger communities, though the population density would still have to have been less than us at a corresponding level of development – I’m thinking a land with fewer cities and more village/hamlet-sized developments to reduce the amount of food which needs to be moved around.

With the difficulties forming complex words, the language may become more monosyllabic, perhaps with tonal changes to meaning to make up for the short words such as in Chinese.  An oriental base for their culture to go with the language would help to reinforce the idea that these people have an ancient culture but not a primitive one.  Chinese and especially Japanese styles are well represented in fantasy and I want this book to avoid as many of the normal cultures as possible, so I’ll look into Thai culture as a base, with some Nepalese for the mountain areas.  Just to mix things up a little, I’ll mix in some Mayan too, though not the obvious human sacrifice element – that would compromise the aim of making them just as civilised as other humans.

In recent times there would surely have been armed clashes with humans.  There has always been mistrust between different races in real life, so how much more would humans have for these physically imposing, coarse featured people who may recall folklore monsters, or the Neanderthals have for these skinny, leggy people who move into an area and breed like rabbits, taking up all the natural resources?  On martial styles, I suspect their build would lend more to wrestling and throws, and with long, powerful arms and shorter legs I see strikes seeing more use than kicks.  Powerful hands could lend themselves to some quite nasty gripping and tearing techniques that recall a more savage side, too.  While physically much more powerful, they would almost certainly be outnumbered by humans, facing a foe who would be more inclined to sit at a distance and fire arrows than engage in close combat.  On the plus side, fewer warriors means each one could have better equipment.  At range, their massive  upper body strength and better eyesight lend themselves well to using much larger bows than were ever common on the battlefields of Earth.  To counter their disadvantages in speed over distance, cavalry may play a larger part – also easier with fewer warriors to provide horses for.  For when they did get close, they would probably want a shield to protect themselves from arrows, spears and javelins, and some kind of weapon that could both be used quickly and take advantage of their raw strength.  Axes and maces were the traditional way to deliver powerful blows, but they could also be slower than other weapons, and axes in particular could have the (slightly nasty) disadvantage of sticking in the person you’ve just killed – not what you want when you’re outnumbered and his mate is right next to him.  I suspect something like the Chinese dao/war sword would work well, giving the ability to make quick slashes as well as massive cleaving strikes:

Wouldn't like to see that coming at me...

Huh, I’m well over 1000 words again and I only just got started on the actual culture part.  Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get around to putting more up soon.  In the meantime, I really need to get on and do a bit on my map so I can do a post about that…