Maps and fantasy

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Monday musings on fantasy writing

By Scott Bury

A map is a necessary feature of any fantasy novel.

Tolkien’s map from The Hobbit

Ever since Tolkien and Lewis, and maybe before, every fantasy novel has a map at the beginning or the end of the book.

It’s not necessary, but I find a map often helps. I also think a good map would help with any historical fiction as well as some others, to show the reader the relationships between settings in any story, to give an idea of how close or far apart key locations are. 

The trouble is, with a lot of fantasy novels, the map is childish looking. Totally unsatisfying for anyone who knows the first thing about maps.

It seems that every fantasy writer thinks that Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of the maps in The Hobbit, set the rules of cartography. 

But they’re not as good at drawing maps as Baynes. As a result, their maps are not detailed, nor realistic nor, more importantly, believable.

One good example is the map of the fantasy world in the bestselling Eragon by David Paolini. Obviously inspired by the maps drawn by Tolkien and Baynes, it’s particularly unsatisfying and child-like. It displays a lack of understanding how geography and geology work. 

This is not the only example. All the writers of fantasy seem to think mountains look like individual little cones, sometimes topped with a charming snowy peak. Rivers conveniently go through cities, which always have a hill for a castle with four towers in it. 

Coastlines are remarkably smooth, and borders between kingdoms are regular, rather than the tortuous, twisting and contentious messes you can see in virtually every part of the word, shaped by centuries of warfare and politics. 

Likewise, the societies were always limited and simplistic. There is a good kingdom and an evil kingdom. Their allies are also either good or bad, but less extreme. Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett, Turtledove and most others follow this trope. George Martin is the one author who comes close to reflecting the complexity of international relations and dynastic politics in his Song of Ice and Fire series. But even that is not as complex, nor as far-reaching as the real ancient world was.

The sophistication of ancient societies

The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, knew about China (which they variously called “Qin” or “Seres.”) Rome traded with India, and with far-off places like Abyssinia and Axum. Roman writers listed far-flung tribes in Scandinavia and what is now Russia, as well as in Africa. Their geography extended far beyond the maps of most fantasy writers. 

Maps and direction

Dissatisfaction with maps was part of the inspiration behind my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. When I began writing it, many years ago, my children were quite young and seemed to like stories about dragons. So we got a few movies and books, but somehow, they all seemed to follow a few well-worn tropes. The dragons were all friendly, or at least amenable to human direction. 

But that’s not what dragons meant to me. A little reading about the mythology involving dragons reveals them to be immensely powerful creatures, as well as very intelligent. While European stories generally depict dragons as antagonistic. Leave them alone on their giant piles of gold and jewels, or they’ll burn down your town and eat you alive, is the moral.

Asian dragons, on the other hand, are often said to have taught humans agriculture and other wisdom. They’re still not friendly, though. Certainly they are not suitable as pets.

Inspiration

All of this inspired me to do something different.

I guess it started with the map. “How can I make a map look more realistic?” I wondered. Eventually, I found the obvious solution: use a real map.

Which then led me to the next decision: set the fantasy story in a real place. And what is more fantastic than the Dark Age?

Current thinking dismisses the concept of the Dark Age of history. There are plenty of records from the time following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In fact, the idea is highly western-European-centric and ignores the splendid civilizations that persisted through the years 476 to 800 CE: the Sassanid Persian Empire, China, Japan, powerful and sophisticated civilizations in India and Africa and the Americas. 

But it’s still a powerful, romantic idea, a great place for stories.

So that’s what led me to set a fantasy series in the Eastern Roman Empire around the turn of the seventh century CE. 

And it has an awesome map, and I’ll use it in my upcoming sequel, The Children of the Seventh Son.

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A Constantinopolitan wedding

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A Thursday throwback teaser from The Bones of the Earth

By Scott Bury

Ancient Constantinople in its day. Image source: History.com

This week’s teaser is from the novel set in the late sixth century CE, in the capital of the Roman Empire.

Javor wandered around the wedding hall, looking at the mosaics on the walls, nibbling on cakes and drinking wine. It was becoming decidedly hot.

The music changed, and people started moving about quickly with a sense of purpose. One of the entertainers, a thin man with a long, emaciated face and a crimson robe, stood in the middle of the floor and began chanting. The wedding guests formed two concentric circles around the chanting crimson man, women on the inside circle, men on the outside.

Javor watched them, bemused and sipping wine, until a giggling Xenia skipped up from behind him, grabbed his robe and tugged him toward the outer circle. Javor resisted until two burly young men at Xenia’s bidding hooked his elbows in theirs and pulled him into the men’s circle.

Javor did his best to keep up with the circles as they danced one way, then the other, but he couldn’t match the footsteps. They danced around the women, first left, then right, then left again, in time with the musicians and the chanting of the crimson-robed man in the centre, who clapped his hands in time to the music. The women danced in the opposite direction to the men, their skirts swaying.

5th-7th century Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire fashion
Source: Pinterest

They unlinked arms, turned around and re-linked their elbows so that they faced the men, their backs to the chanter, and danced back and forth. Javor looked for Xenia and found her beaming back at him. She smiled in that way that only beautiful young women can smile at susceptible young men and skipped away with her circle, and then all the women turned around again so that they faced into the centre of the circle, their backs to the men again.

Javor realized all the men were turning, too. He stumbled and did a few steps left, then right, bumping and jostling Xenia’s friends—cousins? bodyguards?—as he tried to follow them, but he couldn’t predict when they would change direction.

They turned again to face inside the circle, and the women’s backs. The women turned again. Javor felt disappointed that could not see Xenia’s face before the men turned around one more time, their backs to the women. After that, all he could do was try to follow along with dancing left and right, turning into and then out of the circle.

Finally, the music reached a climax, the chanter cried out one last time, and the dancers stopped, men facing the women. They bowed to each other. Xenia was almost a quarter of the way around the circle from Javor, and she didn’t seem to be looking his way until just before the music started up again, when she smiled at him.

The music started again, a little slower, and Javor followed along to the left and right the best he could. There was no turning back and forth this time, but a lot of stately, formal steps. Javor started to feel a little proud of his ability to mimic the others when the music stopped.

He was out of breath and sweaty as the groom. He unlinked from the burly brothers and stumbled to the buffet table for a drink of wine, then to the open door where a cool breeze was blowing in.

A small group of men stood on the outside steps, holding drinks and chatting good-naturedly. Briefly, Javor wondered if they were laughing at him. He took deep breaths, trying to cool down and wondered where his friends were. He couldn’t see anything in the hall but the dark, scowling face of a young man with a wispy black beard. His hair was black and curly, his eyebrows thick and black and bunched together, and the top of his head came up to Javor’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong, barbarian, don’t you like our dancing?” His words were slightly slurred and he seemed to waver back and forth in front of Javor. Is that because of him or me?

 “I just came out to cool off. It’s hot in there.”

Byzantine nobles

“So we’re too hot for you, is that it?” The dark man stepped closer. Javor felt his amulet stir.

“No, I just want to cool off,” he replied, looking down into the strange man’s eyes. “Maybe you should, too.”

“I saw you liked Xenia.”

This must be Vlassis. “She seems very nice.”

“She’s taken.” Javor noticed what seemed to be tiny bubbles of foam at the corner of Vlassis’ mouth.The amulet started to vibrate softly. Javor turned slightly to see two other young men in dark tunics trying to move unseen behind him. They had removed their dressy robes and dalmatics. They lunged forward, each trying to grab one of Javor’s arms. Before they could, Javor stepped ahead and grabbed Vlassis, wrapping one arm around his neck and twirling him around so that the shorter man became a shield between Javor and the attackers. They collided with each other. One fell, tangled in the other’s legs, and brought his partner down on top of him with an “oof!” Other men on the steps chuckled at their antics.

“Let me go, you barbarian!” Vlassis yelled, choking. He cursed. Javor pulled the small man’s arm up behind his back. “Get your filthy paws off me, you stinking barbarian!” Vlassis cried out again.

The Bones of the Earth

The Dark Age, eastern Europe: the earth has decided to rid itself of humanity with earthquakes, volcanoes and new plagues. Civilizations, even the mighty Roman Empire, crumble under the pressure of barbarian waves that are fleeing worse terrors.

Rejected by his own people, pursued by a dragon, young Javor heads for Constantinople, the centre of civilization, looking for answers to the puzzle of his great-grandfather’s dagger and the murder of his family.

Author Scott Bury has just completed writing the sequel to The Bones of the Earth: The Children of the Seventh Son. In anticipation, he has released this vignette of life in Constantinople, the greatest city of its time.

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.

He has several mysteries and thrillers, including Torn RootsPalm Trees & Snowflakes and Wildfire.

Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

He has two mighty sons, two pesky cats and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Learn more about Scott on his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

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Boxing Day teaser: The Bones of the Earth

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Photo by Tanya Prodan on Unsplash

Today is bestselling author Scott Bury’s birthday, so for this Teaserday we offer a sample of his first-published book, The Bones of the Earth. This is the opening of Chapter 2.

Look down. Two young men, boys really, walk across the meadows and forests on the southern slopes of mountains that rise gently, then heave up suddenly to angry grey crags occasionally topped by snow. One of the boys is very tall, with long yellow-gold hair. His long legs propel him swiftly across a meadow thick with yellow and purple flowers. He pays no attention to flies buzzing around him, to crickets and rabbits that leap out of his way.

His companion is smaller with tangled, long black hair. Blotches of soft black fuzz swirl around his chin and down his neck. He scurries to keep up with the blonde’s strides and is out of breath. They have been walking fast, nearly running, for hours. It is the solstice, some time past the year’s highest noon. Birds are quiet in the hottest part of the day, but insects chirp and hum and trill. Leaves on the trees are still a light green, not yet burned dark by the summer. The air is warm, not hot, not yet.

The dark one gets more anxious with every step. But all morning, the blonde boy has ignored him. The dark boy recognizes this trait in his friend: his ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else, for hours at a time. In their village, he was called “the dreamer,” or worse. Even in normal circumstances, you had to call him by name two or three times to get his attention. But now, he is following the trail of horsemen, mounted raiders, and no matter how many times the dark boy calls “Javor,” no matter how futile the quest, he cannot be pulled away.

Sometimes, it is easy to see the trampled grass or broken twigs and bushes, or a torn bit of cloth on a branch. Often, the light-haired boy seems to follow signs that his dark companion cannot see, and every time the dark boy doubts his friend and thinks they have lost the trail, he sees another sign—horse droppings, the surest of all, or once, a girl’s colourfully embroidered apron.

The dark boy begins touching every oak and birch tree they pass to pray to their spirits for protection, help, sanity for his friend. “You know, we keep going east. East is bad luck, Javor,” he puffs as they start up a slope.

Javor ignores that, too. At the crest of a ridge, he looks around, sees something that his friend cannot, continues at his same obsessive pace.

“You realize,” his friend says, trying hard to keep up, “that we fall farther behind them with every step we take. They’re on horses.” Still no response, so he reaches out and grabs Javor’s arm, forcing him to stop.

The blonde turns and looks at his friend without recognizing him. “Javor, we’re chasing mounted warriors,” the dark boy repeats. “We’ll never catch up.”

Javor blinks and looks uncomfortable. He seems to realize where he is, comes out of the trance he can put himself into.

“We’ve been chasing them for hours, and we have no more hope now of ever catching up to them than we ever did. Let’s go back home.”

“Home?” Javor says it like he has never heard the word before. “No. We have to get the girls back, Hrech.”

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.

He has several mysteries and thrillers, including Torn RootsPalm Trees & Snowflakes and Wildfire.

Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

He has two mighty sons, two pesky cats and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Learn more about Scott on his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

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It’s science fiction and fantasy season

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Fantasy season begins for BestSelling Reads

Fantasy, science-fiction and occult horror books are some of readers’ favorite genres. The great news is that BestSelling Reads members have plenty of titles to offer you.

Here are some of the best fantasy, science fiction and horror books you’ll find, available from your favorite bestselling authors.

Samreen Ahsan

  • The Stolen series—historical fantasy
    • Once Upon a Stolen Time
    • Once Upon a Fallen Time
  • The Prayer series—romantic fantasy
    • A Silent Prayer
    • A Prayer Heeded

Frederick Lee Brooke

The Drone Wars dystopian science fiction series

  • Saving Raine
  • Inferno
  • The Drone Wars

Scott Bury

  • The Bones of the Earth—epic historical fantasy
  • Dark Clouds—urban fantasy

David C. Cassidy

  • Never Too Late —horror
  • HauGHnt—horror
  • The Dark—horror
  • Velvet Rain—science fiction
  • Fosgate’s Game—horror

M.L. Doyle

  • The Bonding Blade—urban fantasy
  • The Bonding Spell—urban fantasy

DelSheree Gladden

  • The Ghost Host series—romantic fantasy
  • The Aerling Series—urban fantasy
    • Invisible
    • Intangible
    • Invincible
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes series—urban fantasy
    • Wicked Hunger
    • Wicked Power
    • Wicked Glory
    • Wicked Revenge
  • Life & Being—paranormal romance

Seb Kirby

  • Double Bind—science fiction

Toby Neal

  • Island Fire—dystopian science fiction
  • The Scorch series—dystopian future

Corinne O’Flynn

  • Death Comes Ashore: Witch Island Mysteries Book One—paranormal suspense NEW
  • Midnight Coven Collections—paranormal romance
    • Forever Still
    • Immortal Oath
  • The Expatriates series—fantasy adventure
    • Song of the Sending
    • Promise of the Scholar
  • Ghosts of Witches Past—paranormal suspense
  • The Aumahnee Prophecy series—urban fantasy
    • Marigold’s Tale
    • Watchers of the Veil (with Lisa Manifold)
    • Defenders of the Realm (with Lisa Manifold)

Raine Thomas

  • The Ascendant series: science-fiction Romance 2014
    • Return of the Ascendant
    • Rout of the Dem-Shyr
    • Rise of the Faire-Amanti
  • The Firstborn Trilogy—young adult urban fantasy 2013
    • Defy
    • Shift
    • Elder
  • The Estilorian series
    • Deceive
    • The Prophecy (short story)
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