Posts Tagged ‘Worldbuilding’

On the Disruptive Technology of Magic


When I began writing the Night Angel trilogy, I deliberately started with a world in which there were few magic users, and most people would rarely encounter one during their lives. I mentally compared them to professional athletes in our world–if you have a normal job, you might glimpse a seven-foot tall basketball player walking through the airport someday, and be awed. On the other hand, if your job is an athletic trainer or referee, you might see professional athletes every day, so as the Night Angel trilogy progressed and the characters grew, we saw more and more magic.

In Lightbringer, I wanted to go high magic. After all, why not? I soon found out. Mo’ magic, mo’ problems.

Having lots of magic makes for lots of narrative problems. First, the main problem for any secondary world fantasy is setting the stage, defining the rules, the institutions, the time period, the religious and cultural beliefs and all the other expectation-setting that we’ve come to call world building. In Night Angel, I’d given myself a low bar to clear: at least at first, the world is straight-forwardly quasi-medieval European. You’ve been there before, you can make good guesses about how things work. In Lightbringer, we’re in a different place and time entirely: this is a Renaissance era quasi-Mediterranean setting. Not only is there a huge number of real cultures to draw from, but it was already a time of rapid technological and social change.

Take one small example: up until 1480, sailors aimed their cannons by resting them on the gunnel (the gun-wale), literally the side of the boat. You propped it up, moved it closer or farther to adjust elevation, and boom. But if the other ship got too close, you couldn’t hit their decks anymore. Then someone had a bright idea: you put the gun belowdecks and made little doors to open when you wanted to fire. Thus the boat could still be relatively watertight, and you could shoot at the hull of the other ship for as long as you could still shoot.

Within twenty years, the idea of portholes had spread throughout the entirety of the Mediterranean basin. No one was shooting from the gunwale any more.

But no one treats magic like this. In secondary world fantasy, usually the only person to do anything new or game-changing with magic is the protagonist. Entire towers full of magicians do research for hundreds of years, and they never learn anything new.


How to Build a Fantasy World: The Greatest Fantasy Cities

There’s something about cities in science fiction and fantasy. I mean I love the countryside myself, born a country girl, but anyone can write it – there’s only so much you can do without it coming across as odd or unbelievable (unless you’re a genius, obviously).

But where people, or aliens, get involved, anything can and does happen. In real life, and in fantasy. So, I love fantasy cities, towns, places that people have made, because they reflect the people who live there and, crucially, how they think.

So, a few favourites . . .

The Fellowship of The Ring by  J. R. R. Tolkien, in a piece on fantasy worldbuilding by Francis Knight, author of Fade to Black Tolkien has his flaws but being unable to build believable yet fantastical cities is not one of them. I’d would love, I mean give an arm or something, to walk the ways of Rivendell, to see the Mallorn in Lothlorien, behold the golden hall of Meduseld in Edoras, wind the twisting streets of Minas Tirith. They are clearly fantasy posing as historical (okay, except the elves) but they feel so . . . real. Like they really do exist somewhere, I just haven’t found them yet.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, in a piece on fantasy worldbuilding by Francis Knight, author of Fade to BlackOther cities come near to that status in my mind (hey, you never forget your first love). Camorr, from Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamorawith its waterways, its dark and grubby underbelly, its Renaissance feel. A city that works, even though I know its fictional.

London Below, of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a London that feels almost, just not quite, the real one. As though if I scratched the surface on say Bakers Street, I’d find the Marquis, and all the rest, just waiting for me.Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, in a piece on fantasy worldbuilding by Francis Knight, author of Fade to Black

Discworld’s Ankh-Morpork, which is so real to me I can smell the river when I open the pages of the book. Or maybe it just stinks that much! The little nooks and crannies that are a hallmark of an old, old city, the weird ways that seem normal to inhabitants but make outsiders wonder what drugs they must be on.

The thing that, I think, connects all these cities is their internal consistency. They work, such as they do, because thought has gone into working out how they work and why, factoring in how odd people tend to be. And each little factor just adds to the realness of the city.  Of course Ankh-Morpork has a thieves guild. Because it’s a city of moneymakers, and that’s a perfect example of taking what is there and squeezing it till gold coins fall out. The Elder Glass of Camorr shows us a city where things are not always as they seem, that even the city itself has two faces.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, in a piece on fantasy worldbuilding by Francis Knight, author of Fade to Black Minas Tirith and Edoras reflect the men and women who live there – on constant guard, where skill at arms isn’t just posturing, it’s necessary, and so are the defences and the oaths and honour the people who live there take so very seriously, and for good reason – oaths and honour are perhaps all that have kept them alive all this time against what lies to the East. Hobbiton, by contrast, reflects the hobbits – laid back, little thought to anything much except is it pleasing, to eye or stomach?

Fade to Black, book one of the Rojan Dizon fantasy book series by Francis Knight - in a post talking abotu the worldbuilding of Tolkien, Scott Lynch and Terry PratchettSo when I started ‘building’ Mahala for Fade to Black, I tried to make sure the city informed the people, and the other way around. My main character Rojan Dizon is who he is – a sardonic, womanising bounty hunter – at least in part, because of where he lives. I doubt he’d be such a cynic if he lived in Hobbiton. The very fact of the way the city is run, the geography of it, the politics of it, and how that affects him, has helped turn him into who he is. Anywhere else, Rojan’s brother Perak might have just been some amateur daydreamer who likes playing with things (and would have probably long ago blown himself up!), but due to Mahala’s reliance on alchemy, he’s given everything he needs and is told to go and invent things. Which he duly does, and then changes the city forever when he invents the gun.

That’s what makes a fictional city work or fail for me – it works, in context, with the people who inhabit it, they showcase each other. They just fit.



Francis Knight’s debut novel FADE TO BLACK (UK | US | ANZ), book one of the Rojan Dizon novels, is out now. Book two, BEFORE THE FALL (UK | US | ANZ), releases on 18th June this year. The third and final novel, LAST TO RISE, releases in November 2013.

Fade to Black, book one of the Rojan Dizon fantasy book series by Francis Knight - in a post talking abotu the worldbuilding of Tolkien, Scott Lynch and Terry PratchettBefore the Fall, book two of the Rojan Dizon fantasy book series, following Fade to Black, by Francis Knight - in a post talking about the worldbuilding of Tolkien, Scott Lynch and Terry PratchettLast to Rise, the third and Final Rojan Dizon fantasy novel by Francis Knight, following FADE TO BLACK and BEFORE THE FALL