‘I actually started worldbuilding…’ by Sam Sykes
Today we are delighted to welcome one of our favourite authors Sam Sykes (also known as Samus Sykesimus on the Roman Gladiator circuit) to Fantasy-Faction. I don’t really need to tell you too much more about the author and his works, because he’s about to do it for me… enjoy!
It’s called The Mortal Tally, the second book in the Bring Down Heaven series. You might have read the first book, The City Stained Red. This fine site did a review on it. They seemed to like it a lot.
You might also have read my books from a previous series, The Aeons’ Gate. If so, you might remember a few things about them: the story of brave (and not so brave) adventurers on a quest through weird and wild landscapes filled to the brim with savage humanoids and strange, alien monsters, also you might remember my occasionally writing long, screaming tweets about people who said I wasn’t good at worldbuilding.
I see what they meant, of course: The Aeons’ Gate took place far from the aspects we usually define quality worldbuilding by. There were no civilizations whose social nuances we could navigate. There were no economic impact studies we could formulate. There were no poems or prophecies to sift through. It was just six desperate adventurers trying to make a few coins while also trying not to die.
For a long time, I thought this was enough. I railed and scoffed against worldbuilding as something too typical for me to spend much time on…
…and then I actually started worldbuilding and I found it was actually a lot of fun.
There’s a lot of embedded tropes and practices in fantasy, as a genre, that don’t necessarily add a whole lot, but they’re so established that readers feel a little disappointed if they’re not there. Hence, for The City Stained Red, I was both curious and excited to flesh out parts of the story that readers had previously thought were lacking and it was fun. I got to add new races, new social mores, new stuff and I loved it.
I had thought I made my peace with worldbuilding, until I started The Mortal Tally.
At the end of The City Stained Red, Lenk and friends divided up as the city of Cier’Djaal was consumed in civil war. Much of The Mortal Tally still takes place in the city, but a lot of it takes place in the wilds of the desert, atop the back of a giant creature plying its way through a dangerous river toward a forbidden jungle.
On the surface, this all sounds really neat: horrible creatures, forbidden areas, strange landscapes. These are things we built fantasy on the backs of. So I do wonder why we don’t always consider it to be “real” worldbuilding.
We tend to like the stuff that is measurable, definable. We like to know how the system of government works and who’s in line to rule it next. We like to know how the economy works and how it can be exploited. We like to know how trade works and how the cities are situated and what languages they speak. But we like these things to be established in the story prior to us reading them.
We don’t have as much of a tolerance for the unknown: for discovering forgotten cities, for fighting ferocious monsters, for learning strange secrets alongside our heroes. We don’t call that worldbuilding.
We call it “adventure.”
And I wonder when the two started being so distinct from each other.
In a lot of ways, the deeply embedded desire for worldbuilding might have robbed us of the desire for wonder, for mystery, for adventure. We’re less interested in the things that aren’t measurable because we have a harder time seeing how they interact with the heroes.
There’s some argument there. A conflict consisting of social machinations between two warring religious factions (which happens in The Mortal Tally) is arguably a meatier conflict than, say, a man fighting a giant monkey with a sword (which also happens in The Mortal Tally). It’s not like the monkey can provide much motivation or opposing perspective to the hero that will make him question himself and grow. But on the other hand, it is a fight with a giant monkey and you don’t really walk away from that unchanged.
Which is where I think worldbuilding and adventure find a sort of harmony. They both provide different sets of circumstances for the characters to struggle against and grow under.
Ultimately, for as cool as the economics of your world might be, we’re not really interested in them if they’re not making life harder for our hero (a la Kvothe). And for as radical as the monster fights of your world might be, we’re not hugely interested in them if they don’t provide a stressful framework that challenges your character’s motivations and desires (a la Drizzt).
Ultimately, what I strived to do in The Mortal Tally is what I want to see in more books: worldbuilding with more mystery, adventure with more structure, a happy harmony of order and magic, wonder and the knowable, that I might forge together a happy hammer and use to beat the hell out of the heroes.
The heart of civilization bleeds.
Cier’Djaal, once the crowning glory of the civilized world, has gone from a city to a battlefield and a battlefield to a graveyard. Foreign armies clash relentlessly on streets laden with the bodies of innocents caught in the crossfire. Cultists and thieves wage shadow wars, tribal armies foment outside the city’s walls, and haughty aristocrats watch the world burn from on high.
As his companions struggle to keep the city from destroying itself, Lenk travels to the Forbidden East in search of the demon who caused it all. But even as he pursues Khoth-Kapira, dark whispers plague his thoughts. Khoth-Kapira promises him a world free of war where Lenk can put down his sword at last. And Lenk finds it hard not to listen.
When gods are deaf, demons will speak.