Well, mixed feelings, but I’d love to write a “setting book” or something. Here’s my current idea for a vanilla fantasy setting:

There is a massive empire of elves. It is very old, terrifyingly powerful and deeply corrupt. At its core it is a purely elven society, but the empire has accumulated a variety of human client states and principalities. On the periphery of the empire, these tend toward a common model — cities full of educated elites, elven governors and their administrators, wealthy human advisors and merchants who aspire to an elvish way of life, contrasted with a vast countryside full of hardscrabble illiterate peasants, steeped in their own religion similar enough to the elvish ways to be tolerated, always on the edge of rebellion, kept in check by draconian laws and mercenary human armies. These mercenaries have centuries of precedent and are a privileged caste within elven society. Some say they are powerful enough now to threaten the Emperor himself. He certainly cannot rule without them.

The northern-most principality became an elvish frontier 200 years ago, after a century of bitter war. It shares borders with small but energetic human kingdoms as well as the vast, forbidding and bellicose realm of the dwarves. None of the northern neighbors get along with the elves — men and dwarves share a common faith, and the human kingdoms constantly foment rebellion and smuggle weapons across the borders. The dwarves see themselves as spiritual kin and religious protectors of the humans under the elvish boot in the protectorates, and await a chance to push the empire of the elves back. And that chance is coming — the elves have discovered a vast source of silver far to the west, and the influx of this precious metal is slowly destroying their economy. Inflation is out of control, peasants are leaving their land for banditry, and the mercenaries who stand as a bulwark against total chaos see greater opportunities in establishing brutal fiefdoms than in service to their sworn master so far away. Still — for the moment — the old order prevails. Peasant uprisings are brutally crushed, priest and pig farmer alike are beheaded, and across the frontier, the dwarves begin to stir.

Yep, I’m reading Misha Glenny’s The Balkans – Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, and that poor principality above is Serbia in 1800 as the Ottoman Empire begins to unravel. The Dwarves are Russia, the human kingdom is Austria. The silver glut happened much earlier (1590’s) but it’s too cool to leave out.

I Heart Fantasy

4 thoughts on “I Heart Fantasy

  • February 5, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Jason, it’s posts like this that make me want to be half as cool as you when I grow up.

  • February 8, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Mapping Orcs and Elves and such onto real-world history is a fun way to re-think vanilla fantasy. At the beginning of this I totally thought you were going Elves as Romans, Humans as Germanic “Barbarians” in the late stages of the Roman empire. That’s a fun way to go as well. Then you can have Orcs as either Central Asian tribes, or Persians (or both).

    I guess the thing to be careful about is that it can all get a little racist. It kind of makes clear how essentialising fantasy races are, how they’re a fantasy about race. I’d be really uncomfortable mapping fantasy races onto real world “races”.

  • February 8, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Absolutely, Simon! The thing that struck me in reading Glenny’s book was how very removed the Islamic millet (Ottoman religion-based “nation”) was from the other people of the book, in terms of privilege and power – as a Christian, it was categorically impossible for you to move up beyond a certain point,a nd you’d always have to dismount when a Muslim rode by, and never carry a weapon unless you’d been taken as a child and made into a Jannissary. Of course you can’t convert to elf. Unless you *could*, which would be scary and cool.

  • February 8, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Yeah right. Done correctly, it’s a really interesting way of reconceptualizing power relationships and cultural differences. Done wrong, it’s a way of essentializing culture, “othering” differences, and so on. I think the most interesting ways of doing this would be having the normally “other” culture be the human equivalent. For example, reconquista Spain, with savage Orcs coming over the walls, and a rebellious population of half-orcs, Elves, and so on. Or you could make the Muslims the Elves, keep the Christians as Orcs, and have humans be the barely-tolerated Jewish minority.

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