Tough Travels on Fantasy-Faction

At the start of every month, Fantasy-Faction will lead you (yes, YOU!) on a tour of the fantasy genre. From high to low, from classics to new releases, from epic to urban; each month, we will guide you in search of a different trope, theme or cliché. Lest we become lost, we’ll be referring to The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

However, since these tropes can appear in many guises (they are sneaky, precious, yes indeed) we’ve enlisted the help of our friends and travelling companions across the blogosphere (including Nathan Barnhart, who started it all) to help us on our way. You’ll find links to their own lists at the bottom of this post – along with the chance to submit your own!

With no more ado, this week’s topic is STRONGHOLDS.

The Tough Guide offers information on various kinds of fantasy strongholds. For example, you might be looking for castles, complete with ‘frowning battlements, slit windows and multiple defensible spiral stairways inside’ and which ‘occasionally adorn the heights for pictorial effect’. Or perhaps towers, which ‘stand alone in waste areas and almost always belong to wizards.’ Towers are often ‘several stories high, round, doorless, virtually windowless, and composed of smooth blocks of masonry that make them very hard to climb. The Rule is that there is also a strong no-entry spell, often backed up by a guardian demon.’

Gardens of the Moon (cover)MOON’S SPAWN
(Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson)

We’ve all seen wizard towers before. Right? Orthanc, Barad-Dûr – the kinds of towers that are tall, old, hilariously phallic and supposedly impregnable. Well, that’s just not good enough for Anomander Rake. The lord of the Tiste Andii has himself a floating fortress (only the best for the Son of Darkness), the devastating potential of which is shown within the very first few pages of the entire Malazan saga. What better place to unleash a sorcery enfilade in a battle than from way up above the field?

The Ninth Rain by Jen WilliamsEBORA
(The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams)

Not to be outdone by their fellow enigmatic immortals, the reclusive Eborans have their very own (and very exclusive, darling, don’t you know) city stronghold, built around the mighty Ygseril (yes, like the world tree, but more . . . sinister). The thing about isolationism, though, is that when things go wrong there’s no one there to hear you scream.

Malice (cover)DRASSIL
(The Faithful and the Fallen series by John Gwynne)

Tree! Another tree. The fortress of Drassil plays a crucial role in the mythology of Gwynne’s epic fantasy and is the site of the series’ great denouement. Built by giants, Drassil has housed all kinds of heroes and villains over the centuries – some more willingly than others.

But what happens when a very big castle gets a very big pest control problem?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. RowlingHOGWARTS
(Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling)

I was nine when the first Harry Potter book was released in 1997. Like many people, I grew up with the series, sometimes waiting months or even (agonising) years for each new instalment. Hogwarts is a safe haven for its students (even when you account for, well, EVERYTHING that happens there); it’s a safeguard for innocence, and it’s the first place in which orphan boy Harry feels at home. Naturally, the stakes are sky-high during the Battle for Hogwarts in the final book, and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that it gives me goosebumps to think about.

Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma by Brian O'SullivanRÁTH BLÁDHMA
(Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma by Brian O’Sullivan)

Celtic fantasy Fionn might not have magic, or monsters, or even very many men, but what it DOES have is huge stakes on a very small scale. The entire book (which is set in 2nd century Ireland) remains closely focused throughout on the siege of Ráth Bládhma, a ringfort which is home to a small but eclectic group of refugees, outcasts, rebels and warriors.

Sabriel (cover)ABHORSEN’S HOUSE
(Sabriel by Garth Nix)

A great many of fantasy’s best fortresses are built with a specific enemy in mind. Just as the Wall in ASOIAF is designed to repel White Walkers, so too is Abhorsen’s house adapted to defend against the dead. Perched on an island on the edge of a waterfall in the middle of a fast-flowing river, anyone inside is almost guaranteed to survive even a protracted siege by zombies. Almost.

The Desert Spear (cover)KRASIA
(The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett)

Similarly, the labyrinthine outer walls of the desert city Krasia are cleverly designed to not only repel demons but to trap and destroy them using pits and wards. Military doctrine seems to agree that the key to winning a battle is to choose your ground and to use it to your advantage. The Krasians have definitely been doing their research!

Best Served Cold (cover)FONTEZARMO
(Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie)

Choosing your ground. Using it to your advantage. What better ground (and advantage) than an impregnable fortress atop a mountain? He might be arrogant, but you could certainly forgive Duke Orso for feeling confident in his little house – especially seeing as it has only one approach (but more than one exit). But you know what they say: pride comes before a fall.

Retribution Falls (cover)RETRIBUTION FALLS
(Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding)

Speaking of falls: imagine a city of pirates; a den of iniquity, accessible only by airship through the most dangerous channels that only those in the know can safely negotiate. Welcome to Retribution Falls! Wait, what? You don’t know the password? Turn right back around, then, mate. Go on. Don’t let the floating mines hit you on your way out.

Are there any superlative strongholds we’ve forgotten about? Which ones would you choose to live in? Are there any that – shock, horror! – ignore the Guide completely? Let us know in the comments!

Bloggers – why not join us?

Next month’s topic will be books featuring DRAGONS.

The Tough Guide advises that Dragons are ‘very large scaly beings with wings and long spiky tails, capable of breathing fire through their mouths. They can be almost any colour or combination of colours, though green, red and black are preferred. They are always very old. Most of them seem to have flown to Fantasyland aeons ago across the void. This migration was almost certainly to get away from our world, where people would insist that they were dangerous monsters that had to be exterminated. Dragons, as all Fantasyland knows, are no such thing.’ Or are they?

Why not join us? Today, tomorrow, next month – there’s always room in the adventuring party for one more!

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By Laura M. Hughes

Laura lives under the grey, pigeon-filled skies of northern England, where she also writes for When she isn’t absorbed in Dragon Age, raving about the #SPFBO or working on her first novel, you’re most likely to find her trying to convince unsuspecting bystanders to read The Malazan Book of the Fallen. If you’ve any queries, or just want to talk fantasy, Laura always encourages like-minded folk to seek her out on Twitter @halfstrungharp. Anyone interested in hiring her to edit or proofread a manuscript can check out her rates, services and testimonials at

7 thoughts on “Tough Travels: Strongholds”
  1. I also picked the Abhorsen’s House! I would love to live there (preferably without the imminent threat of the zombie attack). I loved your ‘almost’ btw 🙂

  2. Great list, many of which I’d not heard of before. However I do have Hogwarts in my post too and I did consider Abhorsen’s House. You will be able to see all my choices in my post on Tuesday 🙂

  3. Dwarf Fortress 😉 Okay, they are rarely fortresses and tend to end up with ‘fun’ things happening to them anyway.

    There is also the Algar Stronghold from the Belgariad. The Algar spent centuries, maybe millennia, building it up, more as a joke than anything as they were a nomad horse culture. Except the dark god Torak and his minions couldn’t believe it was a joke and siege, what was in effect, a mountain, for years before ultimately giving up.

    And also Utumno, Morgoth’s fortress stronghold in the SIlmarillion. Given it was a mountain range, it was impossible to siege, at least by mortals.

  4. Paranor from the Shannara books, I love how its history is one of success and failure, good and evil and how it’s only as strong as the person who holds it. It’s welcoming, or forbidding, depending on the era, and like any good stronghold it has a crappy back door secret entrance 🙂

    On a side note, I do love how the crappy back door secret entrance is used as an exit at Helms Deep, clearly the tropes have been getting it wrong since it’s inception 😉

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